There's a Word for That


By Sloane Tanen

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An Elin Hilderbrand Book Club Selection

An "engrossing, hilarious, and tender" chronicle of a wildly flawed family that comes togetherin rehab, of all placeseven as each member is on the verge of falling apart (Gretchen Rubin, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project).
Winner of the 2019 NCIBA Golden Poppy Book Award for Fiction

Introducing the Kesslers: Marty, a retired LA film producer whose self-worth has been eroded by age and a late-in-life passion for opioids; his daughter Janine, former child star suffering the aftereffects of a life in the public eye; and granddaughter Hailey, the "less-than" twin sister, whose inferiority complex takes a most unexpected turn.

Nearly six thousand miles away, in London, celebrated author Bunny Small, Marty's long-forgotten first wife, has her own problems: a "preposterous" case of writer's block, a monstrous drinking habit, and a son who has fled halfway around the world to escape her.

When Marty's pill-popping gets out of hand and Bunny's boozing reaches crisis proportions, a perfect storm of dysfunction brings them all together at Directions, Malibu's most exclusive and absurd rehab center.

But for all their failings, the members of this estranged — and strange — family love each other. Rich with warmth, humor, and deep insight, There's a Word for That is a comic ode to surviving the people closest to us, navigating the perils of success, and taking one last look in the rearview mirror before mapping out the road ahead.


Part One

Verschlimmbessern (verb): To make matters worse in the process of trying to improve them


New York

Janine was lost. The smell of bleach and sweat followed her through the empty halls. She could hear a woman arguing with someone somewhere on the floor above. Or was it below? What floor was she on, anyway? She pushed her weight against a door and found herself standing in an identical corridor.

That it all seemed familiar struck her as ironic, as she'd never gone to high school, let alone college. Maybe she was confusing the building with a hospital, with its similar organizational system based on numbers and letters that seemed foreign until they became so customary it was hard to believe they had ever held any mystery. The first time she'd been sent to McLean, she'd been a teenager. But this wasn't a hospital, she reminded herself, envying the sense of ownership the real students enrolled here must feel. She wondered if they were sad when it was time to leave it all behind. She hated endings almost as much as beginnings. Almost.

She found the classroom and took a deep breath. Her stomach cramped with anxiety. She was taking a cartooning class but could barely draw. How like her to pursue a dream for which she had only half the aptitude. Like being a blind bus driver, she thought. Having a good sense of direction probably wasn't enough.

Two men, sitting on opposite sides of a long table, were already inside the classroom with their portfolios in front of them. Neither of them acknowledged her when she entered.

The younger man had on a shirt with the name Segun embroidered on the pocket. The other man was middle-aged with a beard and a long, graying ponytail. He was wearing an oversize Batman shirt under an unbuttoned flannel. How could a man live in Manhattan and dress like that? she wondered, trying to imagine what kind of job he had. Subway maintenance? Toll collector? Only transportation would accept such sartorial negligence. She took a seat equidistant from the two men and quietly opened her portfolio.

The silence was broken when three twenty-somethings spilled into the room, looking like they'd fallen off an Abercrombie and Fitch billboard. Janine was undone by the unexpected presence of beautiful young people. Wasn't there a separate room for them? They positioned themselves on the table and chairs, reminiscing about some party or art event they'd been to the night before.

She felt the space around her expand as her heart began pounding. She tried to recall some of the tools she'd learned in therapy and on the internet. AWARE, she said to herself, grasping for the acronym like a drowning child for a floatie. A: Acknowledge that I am afraid but not in real danger. W: Wait and watch. A: Actions to make myself more comfortable. R…she forgot what R stood for. E: End. What the fuck did any of that mean? Maybe R stood for Run? She wasn't ready for this. Watching the performance of this coterie of hipsters was quickly exhausting her reserve of sanity.

She looked over at Big Foot, as she'd taken to thinking of the bearded guy with the ponytail. Did he feel as old and irrelevant as she did? He was sketching, seemingly oblivious to the noise around him.

The conversation stilled and she felt someone looking at her. She white-knuckled her pencil. If she had a full-blown panic attack now, she'd never come back. She stared at her portfolio and breathed in and out the way she'd been taught.

"Hi," a girl said.

Janine looked up, then glanced around to confirm the girl was actually talking to her.

"I'm Kayla," she said with genuine affability.

"Janine," Janine said, envious that simply being kind was enough to make a pretty girl like Kayla seem generous. She remembered how easy it had been for her to impress people when she was young and pretty. Being famous had helped too.

"This is Corey and Anya," Kayla started but she was interrupted by the hurried arrival of a little woman with spiky red hair and matching red glasses.

"I'm Joon Louie. I'll be teaching this course. Please open your portfolios and introduce yourselves." She put down her bag and picked up a clipboard. "And tell us a little about why you're here," she said, looking at Big Foot.

"I'm Mike Hemingway," he said. "No relation. I work as a production editor at First Second and I've always been into graphic novels. I love to draw. I want to publish a graphic novel before I croak."

There was courteous laughter as Mike pulled out a few sheets from his portfolio. It was no surprise that he was into graphic novels, Janine thought. She could picture his collection of action figures tidily lined up on a bookshelf. What was surprising was that his drawings were mind-blowingly good. There was a collective sound of appreciation from the class. "My problem is keeping the characters looking consistent from different angles," he continued. "That's what's been holding me up."

"That's a common problem and certainly one we will address here," Ms. Louie said with a brisk smile. "Thanks very much, Mike. Next."

"I'm Janine. I'm—"

"Last name, please," Ms. Louie said, looking at her clipboard.

Janine hesitated briefly. "Kessler."

"I knew you looked familiar!" the boy who'd come in with Kayla said, slamming both palms on the table. "You were, like, totally famous. You were mad-hot on that show."

Janine felt a rush of dread and looked down at her feet. Penny loafers? Was she kidding? In what possible universe did penny loafers represent the beginning of good things? They were meant to be ironic, of course. As if a forty-one-year-old woman taking an extension class should be expressing irony through her footwear.

"God, that show totally defined my childhood," the other girl said. She was staring at Janine like she wanted to lick her. What was it about fame that made people want to touch it, even after it had expired?

"Jenny Bailey," the boy said, then he made a whooping sound and pointed at Janine. His head was shaved and covered in tattoos. "I'm sitting next to Jenny frickin' Bailey from Family Happens! The crap we had growing up was so not as good as the old stuff on TV Land."

His friends nodded in silent agreement as Janine considered the words old stuff.

"My brother was way into you," he continued. "He had a poster of you on his closet door. You look different but it's so you. He's gonna freak." He examined her from head to toe. "You're like a hundred times smaller in person than you looked on TV."

The room was lit with the glow of glamour. People aged; fame never did.

"Class," Ms. Louie called.

"Whatever happened to you?" he asked, a faint look of distaste and curiosity on his face. "Why'd you cut your hair so short?"

"Um…" Janine started. She reached for the back of her neck, wondering again if the haircut had been a mistake. Being less recognizable was a bonus, but she'd begun to suspect resembling the latest Pokémon character might not be.

"God, Corey," Kayla said with a pout, jabbing him in the neck with the eraser end of her pencil. "Don't ask her that."

"Class," Ms. Louie said again.

"For real," Kayla whispered, turning to Janine. "I think he's starstruck. Your hair's savage."

Again with the goodness to spare, Janine thought. It was insufferable. Janine's looks had been enough to sell lunch boxes and posters back when dissecting celebrity faces wasn't a public sport. She was painfully aware of her current shortcomings and understood that people were troubled by her not being eternally fifteen. If she acknowledged what a disappointment it was that she'd had the gall to grow up, made a joke about it, maybe it would leave her audience without anything to say behind her back.

"Can we please continue?" Ms. Louie said. She looked at Janine with impatience. "Ms. Kessler, your portfolio, please."

Everyone was staring at Janine. This was not how the class was supposed to go. Every time she tried anything new, it was the same. She was the "Remember that girl" person, the "You'll never guess who I met today" woman. She was nothing but five minutes of conversation at whatever party or dinner everybody else was attending that night.

Her hands were trembling as she considered the options in her portfolio. She tried to shield the drawings from the others. Each page displayed some uncertain pencil lines with a joke written boldly underneath. They were jokes in search of an artist, the New Yorker's caption contest in reverse. She heard the click of a camera and saw Corey snapping a photo of her from the phone in his lap under the table.

"Seriously?" Janine asked him. She hoped she wouldn't look like she had a double chin from that angle.

"Don't be such a dick," Kayla said, grabbing the phone out of his hands.

He shrugged as a kind of apology.

Janine tried to focus on how best to show her work. Nobody said anything as she silently flipped through her papers, looking for something presentable, struggling to keep her hands steady. She pulled out what she thought was the best picture, a clumsily drawn couple sitting on a sofa with a basset hound between them and a child in front of them. The mother was speaking to the child: Look, honey, it's not that your father and I love the dog more than you. It's just that we love the dog more than you.

Everyone laughed and leaned in closer. Too close. Janine tried to arch back without being offensive.

"Have you had much experience with drawing?" Ms. Louie asked with a frown.

"No." She bit the inside of her lip until she tasted blood.

"Sometimes a life-drawing class is the best place to start. You see, once we are cartooning, we are exaggerating the familiar, so we need to be able to actually capture reality before we can successfully distort or exaggerate it. Do you understand?"

"Mm," Janine said, trying not to cry. "I thought if I could develop a style then I could work around my inexperience."

Ms. Louie's laugh was patronizing. "It's not that simple, Ms. Kessler. Maybe in the movies, having a style is enough, but in the world of cartooning, you must know how to draw."

Big Foot was nodding.

"You must have some instinct for the form," Ms. Louie went on.

Janine wanted to disappear. Being a somebody made everyone else a nobody. But being a nobody who used to be a somebody? The only thing more humiliating than that, she thought, was being a nobody who used to be somebody taking an extension class in cartooning at Hunter College. She could imagine more respectability in a drug overdose.

She felt the itching start around her ankles as she considered her options. She should probably pick up her things and leave the room before the rash kicked in. But she'd promised herself she would do this. Her new therapist had driven home the importance of Janine's finally sticking with something, had clarified just how many years she had lost doing nothing. She'd become so good at protecting her privacy that she'd failed to create a life. And the problem was that once she'd grown accustomed to hiding, it was hard to live any other way. Janine looked at Ms. Louie and blocked out the other students.

"I came here to learn. It's a level-one class. If drawing skills were a prerequisite, it should have said so in the course description."

"It was implied."

"It wasn't."

"Ms. Kessler—"

"Raw talent isn't everything, right? You can't teach someone to be funny, but you can teach someone to draw," she heard herself say, echoing her father.

"That's very true, Ms. Kessler. But you must be able to express your humor in visual terms if this is what you want to do, so some natural ability is an advantage and if it's not there, well…"

"But a unique worldview is most important," Segun said, coming to her rescue. "Look at John Callahan. He wasn't a trained artist but he was very successful."

"I'm not sure Ms. Kessler shares Callahan's colorful personal history but I do appreciate the point."

Absurdly, Janine raised her hand. "I'm an aging former child actress who's about three minutes away from being a complete shut-in. I've got two decades of therapy behind me, I subsist on a steady diet of pharmaceuticals, and I have a stint at a mental facility under my belt. My history is colorful."

There was nervous laughter; nobody knew if she was joking.

Janine thought of tossing in her mother's suicide too but she'd always disliked watching that shock register. The compulsion to voice the matter pragmatically, effectively punishing people for asking too many questions, wasn't worth the trouble of having to assure them afterward that she was "fine." Anyway, it was obvious she wasn't fine. She'd never been fine after the show. Her father had been right.

"Is there anyone other than Ms. Kessler interested in text comics?"

"I am," Kayla said, smiling at Janine.

"Let's see what you've got, then," Ms. Louie said.

Janine made herself look beyond Kayla's well-sketched drawing to the joke below. It was forced and unoriginal. "You can't teach funny," she heard her dad say again. Nobody was looking at her anymore. They had moved on to Corey, who was talking about his interest in storyboarding for short films. Her secrets were out. She was an unhinged former child star and an aspiring cartoonist who couldn't draw. What could be worse?


Calling her dad to ask for the money to pay for the class—that could be worse, Janine realized the next morning. She'd been up half the night worrying about the overdue credit card bill sitting on her kitchen counter since before Christmas. She'd put the six hundred dollars for the cartooning class on the card in November, figuring she'd deal with it later. Now it was later. She'd have to ask her father to send her the money. She could see no way around it.

Even with the monthly allowance her father sent her and her royalty payments, she had to live frugally. And there were times, like now, when cat-sitting for people in her building and teaching English as a second language didn't cover expenses. She'd initially thought about using her father's Visa to pay for the class, but it seemed that Gail, his girlfriend, was now combing through his credit card statements and highlighting anything she considered excessive. Gail had called Janine just last month wanting to know what MTA stood for after Janine had used his Visa to buy a twenty-dollar subway card. Janine had been mortified. Her father had always been happy to help in the past. His mantra had been "I'm your father. Tell me what you need." But Janine wasn't able to escape the shame that came with taking his money at her age. Whenever she called to apologize for having used his card, he'd stop her and say, "That's what it's there for. If I didn't want you to use it, I wouldn't have given it to you." With Gail, all that was changing.

"Fuck it," she said to herself. She grabbed the phone and dialed her dad.

Gail picked up. She'd taken to answering Marty's phone lately, making sure he was never available when Janine called. "He's sleeping, sweetie. You're up early."

"Busy day."

"Really?" Gail asked with an astute incredulity that made Janine hot with anger. "What's on the schedule?"

"Just stuff." She knew that swimming laps, going to therapy, and buying Col-Erase pencils for the cartooning class wouldn't constitute busy by most people's standards. Not that Gail was in any position to judge her. "Is it that hard to imagine I have things to do?" Janine laughed, failing to sound invulnerable.

"Of course not. I was just curious about what you were up to."

Janine knew exactly what Gail was curious about. She was curious about why her boyfriend's middle-aged daughter didn't have a job or at least a husband and maybe children who could justify her unemployment. It was a reasonable question but the answer was complicated and Janine wasn't about to get into it. However, she did need the six hundred dollars, and apparently she'd have to ask Gail.

"Mmm. Do you know how to type?" Gail asked once Janine had explained the situation.

"Type?" Janine laughed. "I'm gonna be a secretary?"

"You can be a personal assistant," she suggested. "There's always a demand for that kind of work."

"I'm forty-one years old and not exactly equipped to take care of someone else's business affairs." You go be someone's secretary, you mercenary bitch, she thought.

Janine had initially imagined that Gail might be good for her dad. She was a longtime family friend, almost age-appropriate, smarter than she was attractive, and comfortably well-off following the death of her second husband, Bob Engler, a few years earlier. Only once Gail and her father had become an item did Janine realize that Gail had married Bob Engler after his first round of chemotherapy and had, as she told anyone who'd listen, "taken care of him for years" when "nobody else" (meaning his son) was available. "It's not like Bob had dementia," she would explain when forced to confront the raised eyebrows at her having inherited so much after a relatively short marriage.

"Cartooning just seems so…specific," Gail continued.

"I guess."

"What about nursing or teaching?"

The conversation was like the lowest points in therapy, a humiliating analysis of Janine's limitations that made her want to evaporate. It would take her eight years to get her teaching credentials or qualify for a nursing degree. She'd be in her fifties before anyone would even let her change a colostomy bag.

At least she wasn't like so many of her friends from the studio days. Seraphina was on Celebrity Fit Club. Both Tom and Noel had been on Celebrity Rehab and Survivor. The rest had overdosed or gotten multiple DUIs or become porn stars; a few had done all three. She'd rather be dead than humiliate her father like that. Once she'd tried to get a job selling makeup at Bergdorf Goodman but the flamboyant queen with the bad eyelift behind the counter had flipped out when he saw her name on the application. He'd made such a scene that Janine stayed home for five days afterward.

"There's always real estate," Gail suggested.

"I don't want to be a real estate agent," Janine snapped. She started crying, hating herself for letting Gail burrow under her skin.

"Janine," Gail said. "What did I say? I'm so sorry, honey. I didn't mean to upset you."

Janine didn't think anything Gail did was accidental. The woman scheduled her dinner parties based on the post-op recovery time from her sundry plastic surgeries.

"Let me talk to your father," Gail whispered in a conspiratorial tone. As if Janine needed Gail to ask her father for permission. As if Janine couldn't speak to her dad directly. As if Gail were the new sentry.

The next day Gail left a message on Janine's machine. "It's all taken care of, honey. The money was wired over this morning with a little bit extra. Go buy yourself something nice from us."

"Us?" Janine said out loud, even though she was alone. She deleted the message and looked out the window. Fuck, Gail was the new sentry.


Los Angeles

"I'll just go in," Marty said, smiling graciously at the receptionist as he walked past her and down the long hall of partners' offices. Marty Kessler was the only client who just walked into Ed Rothstein's office. Not even Tom Hanks did that. Ed Rothstein was a hotshot attorney now. His law firm represented everybody, but it was Marty who'd given Ed his legs. Ed had been green in 1975 but Marty had liked him immediately. Marty's career success was based almost exclusively on instinct and intuition, so why shouldn't he take a gamble on his attorney? It had been a smart bet. Ed was a good lawyer, an honest lawyer—something Marty had always thought was an oxymoron. And back in the day, when Marty was an executive on the rise and then, quickly thereafter, one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, everybody wanted to use Marty Kessler's people. He couldn't entirely take credit for Ed's success, but a thank-you from him every now and then would have been nice.

Now Ed was in the power seat and Marty was a useless old fossil. But he'd be damned if he'd let Ed push him around. Ed had been trying for months to get Marty to come in for a discussion about the sad state of his finances and the importance of scaling back on expenses. Marty didn't want to talk about that. He'd had so much money once. How was it even possible there was so little left? Marty walked into Ed's office and reluctantly took a seat.

Despite Ed's success, his office hadn't changed much over the decades. The room was humorless and stodgy, dark and lined with books. It still had the same Persian rug, the same leather tub chairs, and the same mahogany partners' desk. It even had the same executive paralegal who'd always worked there, Lynn. She must be over eighty, Marty thought. He knew the most expensive object in the office was the Tiffany Nautilus desk lamp he had given Ed on his fiftieth birthday. He admired the patinaed base, trying to remember how much he'd spent on it. Seven thousand dollars? Ten thousand?

Lynn walked in with a cup of coffee for him. She put it on the desk, and he stood to give her a hug and a compliment about her new hairstyle. She blushed and scurried out of the room.

"About your portfolio," Ed began.

Marty tried to reach for the coffee. His hands were too shaky. Why the hell had he skipped his morning bump, he wondered, looking at Ed and folding his hands in his lap. He'd try again in a few minutes. "I don't want to talk about my goddamn portfolio," he said, clenching his jaw.

"Will you just hear me out?" Ed asked. "You've got to promise me something. With all due respect, and I know you and Gail are getting serious, you cannot get married again." Ed tapped Marty's unopened file. "These divorces are cleaning you out. Not to mention the aftershocks." They both knew Ed was alluding to Marty's multiple stints in rehab following his most recent divorce, from Elise, seven years ago.

By the time Marty had realized that Elise was a serious drug addict, so was he. She'd been right about the efficacy of even a little heroin for his back pain when the Percocet stopped working, but how the hell had a man of his stature and supposed intelligence ever agreed to that first roll? What the fuck had he been thinking? Elise had been a complete catastrophe, the greatest blow being that he'd given her nearly twenty million dollars of his fortune when the marriage fell apart. Elise was long gone. The cravings were not. Heroin was a motherfucker.

"I'm never getting married again," Marty told Ed, hoping his hands were now steady enough for him to pick up the coffee. "So that takes care of that conversation." He successfully seized the cup and took a sip. It needed more sugar.

"I've heard that before, Marty. Three times," Ed said, holding up three fingers. "You've told me you're never getting married again three times."

"I was single for six years between Pamela and Karen. Nineteen years between Karen and Elise. That's a hell of a decent run."

"Single?" Ed laughed as he ticked off the names of the many women who had populated the years between Marty's official pairings. "Virginia, Ginger, Heather T., Whitney, Kelly, Heather B."

"I didn't marry them," Marty said, irritated. "They were friends."

"Expensive friends."

"Cheaper than inexpensive wives."

Ed smiled, ceding Marty's point.

Marty had been officially married four times, although most people didn't know about his first wife. Ed was one of the few people left in Marty's life who knew he'd been married before Pamela, way back when Bunny Small wasn't a household name and a perennial fixture on bestseller lists worldwide. That marriage hadn't lasted a year.

"Anyway," Marty continued, "since this isn't about my getting married—"

"I'm talking about girlfriends too," Ed interrupted. Marty knew Ed was referring to Gail—his latest and, hopefully, his last—and he didn't like it.

"You can't keep paying these women like they're on salary. You're still making Heather Bruckner's car payments and giving a monthly allowance to a woman I don't think you'd even recognize if she walked in here and gave you a hug."

"Of course I'd recognize her."

"What's her name?"


"Whitney," Ed said. "Her name is Whitney."

"That's what I meant, for Christ's sake."

"I'm just saying, Marty. Please, no more payouts. No more wives, no more damsel-in-distress girlfriends. You cannot afford it."

"If Gail's a damsel in distress," Marty said, nodding his head, "Oprah's shy."


  • "Engrossing, hilarious, and tender, this novel tells the story of how a family breaks apart and comes together despite years of mistakes and mishaps. I couldn't put it down."—Gretchen Rubin, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project
  • "Hilarious and touching."—Wendy Goodman, New York Magazine
  • "Readers who miss The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg and the Lamberts from Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections will welcome the Kesslers. With equal parts humor and empathy, There's a Word for That employs multiple narrators and a skillfully drawn cross-generational family to examine how relatives impact one another."—Tracy Babiasz, Booklist
  • "Often uproariously funny. Tanen's skill is that you don't laugh at the characters. They know how messed up they are. All you, and they, can do is laugh at the straits they find themselves in and soldier on."—Arlene McKanic, BookPage
  • "A big juicy beach read full of family dysfunction and Southern California sunshine, There's a Word for That joyously knits together the most frayed characters into a story you won't want to put down, even after the last page. Sloane Tanen is a witty, wonderful writer who really knows how to twist a plot as she redefines what it means to have a happy ending."—Amy Scheibe, author of A Fireproof Home for the Bride
  • "Full of intelligence and charm...Though Tanten's delightful sense of humor infuses the plot and dialogue with sparkle..., along with the farcical situations come moments of real emotion and insight...As the characters weather tough times and deal with hurts old and new, love and humor light the way."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • "Tanen's memorable wry humor and sharp dialogue will leave readers fully invested in the rebuilding of relationships despite years of distance, trauma and pain. Tanen's refreshing tale of a nontraditional family legacy will appeal to fans of tightly plotted dramas in the vein of Maggie Shipstead's work."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A joy. This is the novel for anyone who has ever had family. Oh, wait---that means everyone. Sloane Tanen deliciously skewers us all while she romps through the connections we make and trample in our attempt to stay related to one another. Hilarious, wondrous, and fun."—Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project
  • "A high-stakes, hilarious novel thatshows us how, with time, even the most intractable relationships can soften and surprise us. Sloane Tanen has a sharp eye for irony and wields an even sharper pen. I laughed loudly, and often."—Lucy Tan, author of What We Were Promised
  • "That rare mix of funny and gutting, a page-turner coupled with deep emotional resonance. The characters are so richly drawn and their journeys so absorbing that by the end of the book, it felt a real loss to let them go. A funny, moving, gem of a novel."—Melanie Abrams, author of Playing

On Sale
Apr 21, 2020
Page Count
384 pages
Back Bay Books

Sloane Tanen

About the Author

Sloane Tanen is the author of nine illustrated and YA books, including the bestseller Bitter With Baggage Seeks Same: The Life and Time of Some Chickens and Hatched: The Big Push from Pregnancy to Motherhood. There’s a Word for That is her first adult novel. Tanen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and holds Master’s degrees from both NYU and Columbia University. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, the writer Gary Taubes, and their two sons.

Learn more about this author