Fifty-three-year-old Avis lies in bed next to her husband of 29 years, contemplating how long it’s been since they’ve had sex. “There was a year of no desire,” she admits, though she doesn’t know why she had no desire. One friend told her it was because she was depressed. Another told her it was because of “the change.” That one made Avis laugh.
She now imagines herself slipping into her black lace corset and kneeling over her husband Jim, and her heart skips a beat. At that, Avis decides she’s not going to let her marriage die the way she’s let her sex life die. She eases out of bed and stands in front of her naughty underwear drawer—the one filled with sequined bras and crotchless panties. She pulls open the drawer and gasps.
Nestled between her corset and red-sequined panties is a gun that Jim had given her years before for protection, protection she didn’t want. The last time she saw the gun, it was hidden on the third shelf of her closet. She wonders how long it’s been in her drawer and if Jim placed it there to make the point that she hadn’t looked in the drawer for years. If so, he’s apparently forgotten the gun is there, because at that moment he chooses to tell Avis that he’s in love with another woman.
“It was like the gun had gone off,” Avis says. “There I was, naked, having just wagged my fifty-three year old ass, and there he was, somewhere behind me, knowing what I had been about to do, confessing to an affair with a woman in his office who was almost young enough to be our daughter.”
Over the next nine pages of Laura McBride’s debut novel, We Are Called to Rise, readers learn that at seven years old, Avis, her brother, mother, and mother’s boyfriend were living in a car stuffed with cash that the boyfriend had stolen from a Las Vegas casino (the book is set in Vegas); at 21 years old, Avis met Jim when he was a tourist and she worked at the Golden Nugget; when she was 25, their very young daughter died from meningitis; and now Avis and Jim’s adult son Nate, an Iraq war veteran, is suffering PTSD.
It’s a bang of a start for a novel. And it’s a bang of a start for McBride, a community college English professor old enough to be a member of AARP. We Are Called to Rise, which McBride wrote in a mere three and a half months, is a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, an ABA Indies Introduce Debut Authors pick, and the number one pick for IndieBound Indie Next List. It’s also been blurbed by New York Times bestselling authors Sarah Blake (The Postmistress) and Eleanor Brown (The Weird Sister).
Though this is McBride’s first published book, she’s been spinning stories in her mind for 30 years as she’s commuted to work, listening to the radio, and creating tales inspired by bits of news items. Six or seven years ago, McBride was devastated by a short news story about a mid-day traffic stop in a suburban Las Vegas neighborhood, not far from where she lives. After the stop, a police officer, who was also an Iraq war vet, shot and killed an immigrant mother in front of her children. “I knew instantly who the woman was,” McBride says. The woman’s family owned an ice cream truck and had sold treats to McBride at Little League games.
In January 2012, still haunted by the story, still trying to figure out why it happened and wondering why one can’t take back such mistaken acts, McBride took the kernel of the shooting and wrote it into We Are Called to Rise. “In my mind, I said this is a really sad kernel that I chose, and I don’t know if I want to put out a really sad book, because I’m 50, because life can be really hard, because if it’s what I’m doing with my life, I don’t necessarily want to make someone’s day worse,” she says.
“At the same time, I’m the opposite of a Pollyanna. I’m incredibly cynical and negative at times. And I thought, ‘I don’t want to write some treacly story,’ so I always kind of sat on what I thought of as kind of a creative razor’s edge,” she acknowledges. “How do I take this sad story and at the end of it a reader still wants to wake up in the morning, but have it be something that I can accept as honest.”
But that’s what she did as she delved into the souls of a white suburban housewife, a want-to-save-the-world CASA volunteer, an eight-year-old son of struggling Albanian immigrants and a tormented Hispanic soldier recovering from a suicide attempt—all told in first person in a way that squeezes readers’ hearts, while breaking the “rules” of story. Indeed, if a reader wants a book that neatly ties up with a cliché happily ever after ending, that’s not what they’ll get in We Are Called to Rise.
“I felt that if I wrapped up everybody’s story, it would really be treacly, and that that just wasn’t enough like life,” McBride explains.
Suzy Spencer is the author of the New York Times best-selling true-crime book Wasted and the memoir Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality.