Simona Zaretsky spoke with Hannah Orenstein about the influences and inspirations behind her latest novel Meant to Be Mine—a story of Jewish New York City, navigating familial pressures, and living with romantic uncertainty.
Simona Zaretsky: New York City is so vividly and lovingly portrayed. Could you speak to the integral role of setting in the novel?
Hannah Orenstein: This is such a compliment, thank you. My favorite books feel immersive, like I’m on vacation somewhere, and so setting is always important to me when I write. I began writing this book during the first few weeks of the pandemic. Because it was such a bleak time, I wanted to create something that felt vibrant and bursting with glamor. Edie is a romantic; she sees life through rose-colored glasses, and she’s creative and stylish. It makes sense for her narration to pick up on the details of her surroundings. It’s also no coincidence that Edie lives in my own neighborhood, Williamsburg, and frequents all my favorite spots!
SZ: The Meyers’ family lore is woven throughout the story and helps Edie to situate herself in the larger world. Even while Edie struggles with her feelings for Theo, she is bolstered by her family’s love. Can you speak on the family’s impact here?
HO: Edie grew up in a close-knit family helmed by her grandmother Gloria, the matriarch. Gloria has a gift: she’s accurately predicted the date that each member of the family will meet the love of their life. Her prophecies have shaped three generations of the Meyer family, and each member reacts to her predictions in their own way. Some — like Edie’s mom, Laurie — initially rejected the prophecy, only to wind up meeting their soulmate exactly when Gloria predicted. Others — like Edie — cling tightly to Gloria’s word. This completely shapes how Edie understands relationships. She believes that happily-ever-afters really exist (at least, for her family). Ultimately, as Edie faces challenges, her love for her family forces her to explore how she can honor beloved old traditions while still staying true to herself.
SZ: Gloria in particular is a huge force in Edie’s life, looming larger even than her mother at times. Can you speak on their relationship?
HO: Gloria is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written. She leapt onto the page and spoke so clearly to me right from the beginning. She’s a glamorous, eccentric, strong-willed woman with a bit of a sharp tongue and a fierce love for her family. She likes martinis and Shalimar and the New York City Ballet. In many ways, she’s inspired by my paternal grandmother, Rose Orenstein.
With Gloria and Edie’s relationship, I was interested in a few things: Grandmother-granddaughter relationships can sometimes be smoother than mother-daughter relationships. Daughters can chafe against their mothers, who in turn chafe against their mothers, leaving the youngest and oldest generation with a better chance of finding common ground. Edie strives to be just like Gloria — cosmopolitan, solidly in love, family-oriented, not so much of a housewife but just traditional enough to make a knockout matzo ball soup — and so there’s a lot of affection between them. You also see her romanticize her grandparents’ relationship and the era they came of age in.
Finally, I wanted their relationship to showcase how special it is to be an adult with a healthy, living grandparent. It’s a different kind of dynamic than the one you have as a kid, when you might take your grandparents’ existence for granted. I wrote this with my own maternal grandparents in mind, who lived into my late twenties. As I was finishing the first draft, they died less than a month apart. They had been together for sixty-five years. Losing them — especially during a pandemic — ultimately shaped this book in a few different ways.
SZ: The idea of choosing romantic love is inextricably linked with the possibility of loss, yet Gloria’s gift of prediction removes this uncertainty. Could you discuss this interesting dynamic, and how the known here actually creates tension and unease for Edie?
HO: Edie views Gloria’s prophecy as a gift, even as it brings pressure and new kinds of loss into her life. Six months prior to the events of this novel, she breaks up with her boyfriend because she knows he isn’t The One, even though she truly loves him. And when she does meet The One, things don’t go quite as perfectly as she hoped they would, which leads to plenty of stress.
When I was planning this book in April 2020, we were surrounded by terrible uncertainty, and so the idea of being very certain about one aspect of your life felt very appealing to me. I thought that if I were in Edie’s shoes, I’d want to know exactly when I’d meet my soulmate. But as I dug into writing her story, I realized how complicated and difficult it would be. Now, I wouldn’t want to know. Would you?
When I was planning this book in April 2020, we were surrounded by terrible uncertainty, and so the idea of being very certain about one aspect of your life felt very appealing to me.
SZ: Edie’s twin sister, Rae, is vivacious and seems to be gloriously in love, at times acting as a foil to Edie and her own search for love. What was it like constructing their relationship?
HO: I wanted them to share some common values while still having distinct personalities — partly because, as twins, they had to find ways to differentiate themselves and maintain their sense of individuality. In families, we often fall into certain roles in relationship to each other, and that’s certainly the case here with Edie and Rae. Edie is introspective and creative; Rae is boisterous and practical. Rae probably would’ve appreciated more time reveling in single life before settling down, but she met her match at just eighteen, whereas Edie was twenty-nine. So, while Edie has a rosy view of the prophecy, Rae struggled with it, even as she was falling deeply in love.
SZ: Edie’s connection to Judaism and Jewish identity is rendered through intimate Rosh Hashanah dinners, Mahjong games, and other small moments of ritual and conversation with family members. How did the characters’ Jewish background inform the story and the texture of who they are?
HO: I wanted the Meyer family to reflect my own. They aren’t very religious, but Jewish culture shines through so many aspects of their life. There’s a sprinkling of Yiddish throughout the book; Gloria’s talk about soulmates echoes the Jewish concept of bashert; the matzo ball soup recipe (printed at the back of the book!) is a direct copy of my own family’s recipe.
My previous books have had Jewish protagonists, too, but their Jewish identity was much less present on the page. This time around, I wanted the book to feel explicitly Jewish. I wondered if that might put off readers from other backgrounds, but truthfully, every culture is centered around family and cares a lot about tradition and food. We have more in common than we might think.
SZ: Creativity is such an integral part of Edie’s life and work as a stylist. What was it like to write about fashion and what drew you to it?
HO: I’ve always been interested in fashion — I once interned for a womenswear designer and have written about fashion as a journalist. I decided Edie would be a stylist simply because I was sick of wearing sweatpants and wanted an excuse to write about a glamorous industry. (And yet, I probably wrote eighty percent of this novel while voluntarily wearing sweatpants.) I interviewed Audree Kate López, a stylist in New York City, and her insight was invaluable when it came to crafting Edie’s career.
SZ: What’s the dating advice you wish you received?
HO: My aunt married and divorced in her twenties. She didn’t remarry for another decade. During that time, she lived with her best friend, she traveled the world, she found success in her career. I thought she had the most glamorous life. I remember her telling me to really enjoy being single. That got somewhat drowned out by other sources over the years — who else remembers taking those “Does he like me back?” quizzes in Seventeen? — but now, I appreciate it very much.
SZ: What are you currently reading and writing?
HO: I’m reading Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn and really enjoying it. The last book I read and loved by a Jewish author was The Matchmaker’s Gift by Lynda Cohen-Loigman, which comes out in September. I’m writing my next book and, while I can’t say too much about it, I will say there’s another unique Jewish family at the center of it.
Simona is the Jewish Book Council’s managing editor of digital content and marketing. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a concentration in English and History and studied abroad in India and England. Prior to the JBC she worked at Oxford University Press. Her writing has been featured in Lilith, The Normal School, Digging through the Fat, and other publications. She holds an MFA in fiction from The New School.