Brookline-raised author Andrew Ridker is revisiting his roots with his latest novel “Hope,” a story that explores the fictional Greenspan family and their life in Brookline in 2013. When Scott, a physician in Boston, gets caught falsifying blood samples at work, he sets into motion a series of life-altering events that affect his seemingly exceptional family.
Ridker’s debut novel, “The Altruists,” was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and won the Friends of American Writers Award. He spoke with GBH News about “Hope,” which is out July 11. Lightly edited excerpts from the interview are below, and you can listen to the full interview.
Haley Lerner: Where did the inspiration for this book strike from?
Andrew Ridker: I was writing a different book for a while and, as it just sometimes happens, you hit a wall, you realize this isn't working. But there were some secondary characters in the book who are in this family, the Greenspans. And I thought, maybe out of the wreckage of this aborted manuscript, I could pull out these characters and start something new.
But it happened that COVID struck around that time. I found myself back in Brookline, back in my childhood home, thinking about the place that shaped me, but also how we got here. Here I am, hunkering down in this apocalyptic plague and thinking back to my time growing up in Brookline and feeling like that had been such a hopeful, optimistic time.
Lerner: How did it feel to be so close to the material you were writing and embed your characters in a setting you know so well?
Ridker: I don't think I could have written this any sooner than I did. It was an absolute blast to write, to revisit things. I read some really interesting books. This one by Dr. Lily Geismar called “Don't Blame Us” that's all about the sort of sociological and political forces that shaped the Boston suburbs.
It was really fun to approach the subject I knew intimately from an almost scholarly standpoint, trying to figure out why were the schools this way? Why was public transit this way? Why is the demographic breakdown of the town this way?
I also think like many people, growing up in Brookline, I didn't think it was all that remarkable. It was only after living in St. Louis, in England, Iowa and New York that I started to see it for what it was as: this really interesting place built on a lot of interesting contradictions. But I needed that space and time to be away before I could sort of go back and understand it from that perspective.
Lerner: This book is a sort of period piece. Why did you decide to set the book in 2013?
Ridker: I wanted to go back to that time period with almost this sense of hindsight. Back in the Obama era, things felt very hopeful, very optimistic. And during COVID, they didn’t. I was trying to examine, “Okay, so what did we get wrong? Where did things go astray?” And it was actually fun treating this like a work of historical fiction. I would go online and look up old news articles, but even thinking about pop culture at the time: it was “Lean In,” “Parks & Rec,” “Hamilton,” Upworthy, the Ice Bucket Challenge — all these things that felt culturally dated when I was writing the book because the national mood was just not there.
I sort of figured that, that way, Trump, the #MeToo movement, COVID, the confirmation process of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanauagh — all of these upheavals and things that had happened since the Obama era — would hang over the book like this kind of ghostly epilogue, where readers know where the characters and where the country are headed. But I didn’t really have to tackle it head on, either.
Lerner: This book also explores Jewish-American culture, including the son Gideon’s Birthright trip and the many aspects of Brookline Jewish life. How did you decide to include certain elements and how did you use Jewish themes in your storytelling and in your characters?
Ridker: I was really interested in exploring: How does Jewish history and culture impose itself on an otherwise secular, modern, all-American family? How does Jewish culture manifest today in a world where many of us don't go to synagogue, don't marry within the faith, but nonetheless carry a real beautiful weight around that is our Jewishness? How does that manifest when you're not when you're not praying on Shabbat every Friday?
Lerner: The title of this book is “Hope,” and it’s a running theme throughout the book. What led you to land on that as the title of the book?
Ridker: Of course, on the sort of more obvious level, it situates the book in its historical context. It's set in 2013. It's at this moment when the optimism that has sort of propelled Obama into office is beginning to wane.
But also, what happens to us when our hopes don't pan out? Every member of this family has something they're reaching for that's a little out of their grasp. And when they don't get it, they often self-destruct in sort of chronic ways. But they hope, but they change their hopes and their hopes sort of hold out hope for each other, even when they've given up hope on themselves.
Andrew Ridker will be at Brookline Booksmith on July 12 at 7 p.m. to celebrate the release of “Hope.” More information can be found here.