“F.A.Q.s”
by Allegra Goodman
from the September 11, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

For some reason it feels like Allegra Goodman has shown up in The New Yorker quite often lately, so I was surprised to find that she’s been published there only twice since I started this site, once in 2010 (“La Vita Nuova”) and once in 2014 (“Apple Cake”). I was a big fan of each, and in general I’m a fan of her work, my admiration going back to when it showed up in the magazine somewhat more frequently (between 1991 and 2005, she published seven stories in The New Yorker).

So, since her work has been more rare over the last decade, it’s great to see another story! In this one, we go back to the Rubenstein family we met in “Apple Cake,” which focused on the grandmother Jeanne. Here the central character is a minor character who showed up at the end of “Apple Cake,” Jeanne’s granddaughter Pheobe, now a college student returning home after breaking up with her boyfriend.

I’m excited to see how folks like Goodman’s return to these characters. Please leave your comments below!

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By | 2017-09-11T13:28:32+00:00 September 4th, 2017|Categories: Allegra Goodman, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. David September 5, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    I read the story and thought it was fine: nothing wrong with it, but nothing special either. Stories of parents who worry about what their young adult children are going to do with their lives resulting in tension between them are not new and for the most part this story does not have much new to say about that. Then I read “Apple Cake”. It is a story about the same family, so I was curious what Goodman had done with these characters before how the stories were connected. I liked “Apple Cake” a great deal more than “F.A.Q.s”, but I also found that by reading it I appreciated “F.A.Q.s” more than I had initially. Learning about the grandmother whose life was music and who gave the violin to Phoebe changed the way I saw her decision to start playing it again and how her parents react when they find out. The information that this is how she got it is in “F.A.Q.s”, but it did not really resonate as being as significant as it was before I read “Apple Cake”. I would recommend that people who have not already read “Apple Cake” should do so. It is a better story than “F.A.Q.s” anyway, but it also does inform the reading of this story.

  2. Paul September 7, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    I’m much more enthusiastic than David’s lukewarm response. (BTW, is this previous sentence ok? It seems technically incorrect because it sounds like I’m comparing myself with a response which is a nonsensical comparison. But what I mean is “I’m much more enthusiastic than David is, if his lukewarm response reflects the level of his enthusiasm” but that seems unnecessarily verbose.)
    A major theme is surely the redemptive and transformative power of music. I think this theme has been reflected by Adam Lively who is both a writer and musician. It’s an excellent story, in my opinion.

    The problem is that the story is overwritten, and constantly and intrusively insults the reader by overemphasising rather obvious points that have been told when they should have been shown. Examples: “Dan was always blaming Phoebe’s ex.” and “Melanie was always looking for a diagnosis; Dan had to find someone to blame.” I’m not sure whether “overwritten” means what I just intended it to mean. I googled the definition and it apparently means ornate/ elaborate which is not what I meant at all. I meant that it includes unnecessary explanation which are jarring and lazy writing.

    Paul

  3. Eric September 9, 2017 at 11:03 am

    This is the first story I’ve read with a protagonist from “iGen” (one name for the generation born from 1995 to 2012). As the father of two iGenners myself, I was quite interested in it for that reason alone, and very much enjoyed it. Phoebe and her parents are caricatures, of course, or at least outliers, but I found them to be well-realized and representative enough to keep me reading, and I was altenately amused and moved by their foibles. I’m not even going to pretend to be able to judge this “objectively” (are my wife and I really like that? Yikes.) But, if Goodman writes more Phoebe stories, or even a Phoebe novel, then I will definitely want to read that.

  4. Diana September 10, 2017 at 11:13 am

    Eric you have a good point. I too would read a novel about Phoebe. That got me thinking that actually this short story actually reads like a chapter in a novel about Phoebe. Here, she tentatively starts moving back into the stream of life. But I don’t understand what you call the “iGen” “very well and am curious as to what the evolving definition of a meaningful life looks like to her/this generation. The short story alone gives very little information regarding Phoebe’s character or how her aspirations might develop, but I found the 3 characters charming and entertaining enough to want to find out.

  5. William September 11, 2017 at 4:33 pm

    I found this story to be slight but easy to read. It’s not so much a story as a long shaggy dog joke. The business with her parents worrying about her is the setup. Then comes the punch line — she is actually taking care of them. OK. But, as confused as I was by Judy Miranda’s story, I prefer that kind of risky writing to this kind of schtick.

  6. David September 11, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    William, maybe I missed something, but I took the comment at the end about Phoebe taking care of her parents was not meant to tell us that this is how things are, but just that this is how she sees things. So at the end we see that with all the conflict between them, both her parents think they are looking out for her and she thinks she is taking care of them. The truth probably is that none of them need someone to take care of them, but the fact that they are all so motivated is a commentary about the strength of their family bonds.

  7. William September 11, 2017 at 10:59 pm

    David — Thanks for keeping me honest. I was lazy and wrote ” she is actually taking care of them.” I should have writen “she believes that she is actually taking care of them.” A typical co-dependent family.

  8. Eric September 12, 2017 at 2:05 am

    For those who would like to read more about the “iGeneration”, I would highly recommend this recent Atlantic cover piece, notwithstanding the clickbaity (and misleading) title: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/ .

  9. Diana September 12, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    Eric thank you for that link. (Wow!)

  10. Ken September 14, 2017 at 4:23 am

    After the more ambitious stories by Miranda July and Lauren Groff, this was somewhat obvious at times–per the comments of Paul–but it was emotionally engaging and entertaining and Goodman is great with the occasional punch line to end a section, plus the one that ends the whole story. I found the back story a bit clumsily inserted also. Nevertheless, there is a nice warmth and pleasantness to the piece.

  11. Esther Smoller September 17, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    Completely cliched. And boring.why would anyone think it interesting?

  12. David September 17, 2017 at 1:22 pm

    Esther, at least five different people who commented before you did offered reasons to find the story interesting. You might want to read them as they answer your question.

  13. Greg September 17, 2017 at 4:44 pm

    Eric – Thanks for getting me pumped for that ATLANTIC article….it has been sitting on my kitchen table…but it won’t be for much longer!

    David – Thank you for making the ending crystal clear to me.

    Ken – I enjoyed your post, especially this part: “…it was emotionally engaging and entertaining and Goodman is great with the occasional punch line to end a section, plus the one that ends the whole story.”

    Lastly, I loved this piece of writing in the story:

    “She had read that, nutritionally, doughnuts had no redeeming value; that they were literally nothing, just empty calories, but as sugar melted on her tongue the pillowy doughnut filled her. She had eaten real food for so long, she had forgotten how good nothing tasted.”

  14. Ken September 17, 2017 at 5:58 pm

    I just posted a negative comment about this week’s story by Danticat and even though i find Goodman more earthbound than the poetic/quirky flights of Lauren Groff or Miranda July, still the last passage quoted by Greg about the donuts gives me more pleasure than the entire story by Danticate which, to me, lacked any interesting turns of phrase and was basically artless.

  15. William September 18, 2017 at 6:10 pm

    David —

    You wrote to Esther:

    “at least five different people who commented before you did offered reasons to find the story interesting.”

    I went back though the comments and found 3.

    Paul:
    “A major theme is surely the redemptive and transformative power of music”.

    That may have been a reason for Paul to like the story, but I didn’t see that at all. Perhaps Esther didn’t either. Anyway, Paul then wrote:
    “The problem is that the story is overwritten, and constantly and intrusively insults the reader by overemphasising rather obvious points that have been told when they should have been shown.”

    Eric liked that it was about iGen and he has kids in that age bracket.:
    “I was quite interested in it for that reason alone, and very much enjoyed it.”

    Surely a very limited kind of interest.

    Ken said that the story “was somewhat obvious at times.” However, he added: “it was emotionally engaging and entertaining ” But he didn’t say why he found it entertaining and engaging.

    None of these is an answer to Esther.

  16. David September 18, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    William, it is surprising you think there was no answer to Esther’s question even after you went looking for it. Do I really have to list the answers? I guess so. Ok. But let us first remind everyone what the question was. Esther asked: “why would anyone think it interesting?” Here are the five answers from five different people:
    .
    1. Me. I indicated that after I read “Apple Cake” I appreciated “F.A.Q.s” more than I did on my initial reading. So my comment shows that someone might think the story is interesting as a follow up to and extension of the story of “Apple Cake”.
    .
    2. Paul commented that he was “more enthusiastic” about the story than I was and identified the theme of “the redemptive and transformative power of music” as something he found of interest in the story. That you fail to see that as a theme in the story does not mean that no one will. In fact, you already know that Paul did, thus it answers the question why someone (namely, Paul) would think it interesting, which was what she asked.
    .
    3. Eric mentioned iGen, which you seem to have noticed. He also said, “I was quite interested in it for that reason alone, and very much enjoyed it”. If you are still wondering how Eric could possibly have been interested in the story, then you didn’t read his comment very carefully. He made it quite clear.
    .
    4. Diana, who you ignored, said “I too would read a novel about Phoebe” and “I found the 3 characters charming and entertaining enough to want to find out.” That pretty clearly indicates what she found interesting in the story: The characters.
    .
    5. Ken mentioned that he thought “it was emotionally engaging and entertaining and Goodman is great with the occasional punch line to end a section” and said “there is a nice warmth and pleasantness to the piece.” These are reasons he found the story to be interesting.
    .
    So there you have it. There really were five people who mentioned five different reasons they have for finding the story interesting. The question was answered five times over even before it was asked. William, you seem to be confusing disagreeing with someone’s reasons for liking the story with not being able to comprehend that someone might even have reasons for liking it. You don’t have to agree with someone’s reasons to acknowledge that they have them. If someone says “I was quite interested in it for that reason” it seems (at best) silly to claim you do not know why anyone would be interested. He just told you his reason.
    .
    You complain that Ken “didn’t say why he found it entertaining and engaging” yet you don’t seem to troubled that Esther, in her ten-word comment, offered no reason for her comments that the story is cliched, boring, and it’s impossible to believe anyone could find it interesting. Finally, I don’t think you know what “co-dependent” means. It does not mean a situation where two or more people depend on each other. That’s “mutual dependence”. Co-dependence is a very different thing, and not at all illustrated by the relationship of the characters in this story.

  17. mehbe September 26, 2017 at 9:02 am

    As an amateur classical musician for more than six decades now, this story had a particular resonance for me. Phoebe’s “return to life” via practicing violin in a noisy subway station, a fairly strange activity that evolves into busking, is both interesting and beautiful. The moment when she realizes she performing for real rather than merely practicing is handled very well, and it is the turning point of the entire story. It is an excellent device to demonstrate Phoebe’s internal shift from a benumbed existence of going through the motions, towards a lively autonomy.

  18. William September 26, 2017 at 11:15 am

    mehbe —

    good insight.

  19. madwomanintheattic October 4, 2017 at 10:22 am

    Is it ok just to like a story because for once, it has an upbeat ending? Well, never mind. I liked the story because it so clearly showed the bafflement and good will of all the people involved, the conflicts not just between two people but among several. The story was (want to underline) homely, in the best sense. The doughnut moment may have made it for some people; for me, it was the uncle bringing his wedge-shaped pillow. And the very short take of the two cousins steadying each other in the house buzzing with tension. I like stories with emotional content to which I can relate: it’s been years since I dealt with the baffling mysteries of a home-coming college student, but the authenticity here brings it all back.

  20. William October 4, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    madwoman —

    It’s ok to like any story for any reason. Many people would agree with you:

    ” I like stories with emotional content to which I can relate:”

    You may like Cathleen Schine’s novels, such as “They May Not Mean To, But They Do”.

  21. Dennis Lang October 5, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    Enjoying the conversation here. Also very much enjoyed the story. A special thanks to Eric for the link to the fascinating essay in “The Atlantic”. The profound impact the digital age simply has on the way people relate to each other. The paradox that social media, in providing access to an infinite community of others contributes to loneliness, isolation, issues of social adjustment and mental health.

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