Harvard Alum Pens Fun First Novel

These days it’s hard to find serious writers who are willing to write simple and downright funny stories and stick to what they know—the stuff of their own lives.

But Francesca B. Delbanco ’95 has opted against the swarm of dark bitter novels of late and written a light and uplifting debut, Ask Me Anything.

The novel centers on Rosalie Preston, herself a twenty-six year old Harvard alum, who lives in Manhattan and works as an advice columnist at a teen magazine called GirlTalk. Rosalie’s real passion, though, is acting. And while she enjoys advising young teens on the tribulations of their first menstrual cycles, the cutthroat world of theater in New York City demands most of her energy.

Much of the book is based on Delbanco’s own life, including her post-graduation experiences and her work as a writer for Seventeen magazine. But she says her choice of subject matter was also based on the fact that she would “have to stay interested in it for years.” She started the novel in graduate school at the University of Michigan and finished it four years later.

“I’m a slow writer, unfortunately,” she says. But the process of writing was prolonged when she became dissatisfied with her first draft then, after two years of work, “threw it away and wrote the book again.”

Delbanco says the story is not entirely autobiographical, though she drew upon much of her experiences in creating her characters.

“It was in fact my story,” she says. “Not the details, but the general sort of ‘Wow we all did these creative things in college and it would be a shame to now have these totally adult, corporate careers.’”

In the novel, the protagonist Rosalie’s circle of friends have formed the “First Born,” an acting troupe of friends and lovers who live in or around the East Village. Together these struggling actors watch as their friendships on and off stage adapt to the crises and successes of their careers.

Delbanco’s characters are detailed, familiar figures. Bella Starker, the troupe’s producer, is a rich Manhattan socialite whose Gramercy Park brownstone is “decked out like a James Bond stronghold.” The incest of the First Borns is evident with Jake and Grace, two friends who are already scandalously inseparable at the book’s onset. Then there is peppy and fresh-faced Cam, Rosalie’s friend for years, whose relationship she describes as “old pals with conveniently complementary body parts.”

Delbanco’s style focuses on humor and Rosalie is wryly aware of all the events in her life, both tragic and comic. The novel focuses on everyday issues—employment, love, friendships, urban life—but Delbanco makes a point of creating a strong voices among her characters to keep the readers interest.

When Rosalie becomes involved with Berglan Starker, the multimillionaire father of her friend Bella, she realizes both the difficulty of an illicit affair as well as the emotional snafus liable to arise. When he visits her to help cook dinner, she worries that his presence in her apartment will make her associate it with him in the future.

“Every time I opened one of those drawers or used one of those knives,” Delbanco writes, “I would remember the time he’d done it, and how happy it had made me.”

The novel, which is divided by snippets of sample advice columns Rosalie pours over daily, is not all airy puff about relationships. The real concerns of twenty-somethings, their ideas about careers, love and happiness, are what occupies Delbanco, whose work is thoroughly grounded in observation.

When asked if she had always wanted to be a writer, and whether her decision to pursue a career in it was affected by her father, the novelist Nicholas Delbanco, she answers in the negative.

“I’ve been around writers all my life,” she explains, “I grew up thinking it was really normal to be a writer.”

Yet she did not begin writing until late in her college career. “I was reluctant to start writing in college because it was my dad’s thing,” she explains, adding that his style “is very different than mine.”