When you’ve spent the majority of your adult life single, sometimes the last thing you want to do is read yet another book with a traditional happy ending—or write one, for that matter. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still be a romance novel.
Linda Holmes’ endearing new book Flying Solo, to be published June 14, upends many conventional beliefs about relationships. Laurie Sassalyn just called off her wedding and is about to turn 40 when her great aunt Dot dies, so she jumps on a plane back home to coastal Maine to clean out Dot’s estate. While there, Laurie discovers a mysterious wooden duck decoy and—determined to honor the life of a beloved, adventurous woman who never married and didn’t have any children—embarks on a lively quest to figure out its origins.
Along the way, Laurie reconnects with old friends, including her high school boyfriend. And she begins to come to terms with what happiness might look like for her as someone who doesn’t want to share a bed or a closet or probably even a house with another person. The novel is a refreshing—and validating—reminder that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all relationship, and that wanting a life full of love doesn’t mean needing to meet other people’s expectations for what that looks like.
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Holmes, an NPR correspondent who hosts the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, broke out as an author with her 2019 debut novel, Evvie Drake Starts Over, about a recently widowed woman who falls for a professional baseball player who’s struggling with the yips. The novel, set in the same Maine town as Flying Solo, was a New York Times bestseller and Read With Jenna book club selection.
Holmes spoke to TIME about writing the book she’d like to read, the unique pressures that accompany a second novel, and how she got interested in duck decoys.
The protagonist in Flying Solo, Laurie, isn’t sure she wants to share her space or ever get married. Why was she an important character for you to develop?
As a person who has been mostly single as an adult, I really felt like—especially when I got to be in my late 30s—if I met a really awesome person right now, I don’t know if I’d actually want to live with them. Because I was very attached to how I lived. I would think to myself, I wonder if it’s realistic to have commitment and support and love, and yet maintain a different place. There are models for that—queer people tend to be a little more familiar with different relationships because you don’t grow up with that one enforced model the way that some straight people do.
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The issue for Laurie is that she came from a very traditional family that worked the way most romance books would lead you to believe is the happy ending. But at the same time, she also knew women who lived alone and maintained this sense of independence. She’s trying to figure out what kind of life she wants.
Laurie also has an interesting relationship with her hometown: she’s fond of it, but she has no desire to move back.
It’s different from what you often see in a hometown story—part of the arc will be that you’re following a woman who’s figuring out that she doesn’t want what she thought she wanted. Like, I went off and made this life for myself, but really what I want is to go back to my hometown and live with my old boyfriend. That’s a very common trope, and I wanted to be able to recognize that you can love and embrace your past, the community where you grew up, and the people who loved you when you were young, and still say, But I also love the life that I made for myself.
You briefly mention in the book that Laurie is a size 18, but it’s not a plot point. That feels intentional. Was it?
One of the things that people noticed about my first book was I’m not really big on physical description of characters, and part of the reason is that I like to believe the person could look a number of different ways. The person could have a lot of different bodies and a lot of different hair. It just never felt important to me.
So this is a little bit more physical description of Laurie. I don’t really have a specific reason, except that I’m always trying to write the book that I haven’t read. And I wanted to acknowledge some places in which it affected her life, but it’s not a big story point. It’s not something she dwells on.
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The wooden duck in the book is so fun. Have you always been interested in decoys?
During the pandemic, I was watching a lot of Antiques Roadshow, and I got interested in the idea of beloved objects, and objects with great stories. I started to throw around this idea of a special object that’s left behind and discovered, and then somebody trying to investigate the history of it. And I actually have a friend who is an antiques guy and goes to flea markets and knows a lot about collectibles. I described what kind of object I was looking for to him, and I said, “I don’t want jewelry, I don’t want art. I want a real functional thing that would also be beautiful, and not something people have read 400 books about.” And he said duck decoys.
Flying Solo is based in a coastal Maine town. Is that a special area for you?
My family vacationed right in the part of Maine where the book is set in the summers when I was probably about 10 to 14. And then when I was an adult, and my sister had little kids, my whole extended family went up there again for a couple summers and stayed in the same cabin we had rented when I was a kid. We were able to rediscover it—and that was 20 years ago, but that was the visit where I thought, Hey, I would love to write something set here someday.
Your first book, the romance novel Evvie Drake Starts Over, was a summer sensation when it was published in 2019. Did that create extra pressure as you worked on the new novel?
Second books have a reputation for being really hard, and I think that’s because they are really hard. When I was writing the first book, there were no stakes—I didn’t have any reason to think I was necessarily even going to finish it, let alone publish it. It was a very slow, laid back, ‘just see what happens’ kind of experience.
The second book was absolutely different. There’s a part of you that thinks the first book did well, so I don’t want the second book to not do well. Even in figuring out what the second book would be, you go through a little bit of, Do I want it to be similar to the first book, because I’ve had success doing that? Do I want it to be different, because I don’t want to pigeonhole myself? That was definitely a hard thing.
Is it strange to be a pop-culture critic putting yourself out there for criticism? How does the experience of writing fiction differ from your journalism?
Fiction is very personal. So in some ways, I feel I do have more personal investment in a book than I do in any one piece of criticism. But you know, it’s the same idea, which is you have to learn what you can from whatever feedback you get without internalizing it too much. Because you also still want to be doing what you think is right.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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