Novels That Thrive on Financial Conflict

Sarah Pekkanen’s books often contain hidden money lessons, for those who are looking.

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Sarah Pekkanen
Sarah Pekkanen

Sarah Pekkanen writes about women’s relationships. But her novels frequently explore financial themes, as well. “I always look for conflicts. As a writer of fiction, it’s our bread and butter, and money is an area that can provide great conflict,” Pekkanen explains.

Her books, which fall solidly in the women’s fiction (also known as “chick lit”) genre, follow characters as they experience extreme wealth, interact with friends from very different income levels and struggle to get by in a big city on a young professional’s salary. They don’t dwell on finances, but money is an inescapable aspect of characters’ lives, just as it is in real life. (One of her books, “Skipping a Beat,” even inspired this reporter to purchase more life insurance.)

Pekkanen, a former reporter at the Baltimore Sun turned full-time novelist, says she doesn’t purposely focus on money issues. In fact, readers seldom, if ever, ask her about the financial themes. Instead, she says writing about what’s on women’s minds simply includes an awareness of the role that money can play in their lives. U.S. News spoke with Pekkanen about the financial themes in her novels and what readers can take away from them. Her responses have been edited:

[Read: How to Manage Your Money — and Your Man.]

Why do your books delve into so many financial issues?

Money can create a lot of stress. In my debut novel, “The Opposite of Me,” a young woman is trying to make it on her own and trying to advance, and money is a significant theme. When she got a big raise, it was a sign that she had made it.

In “The Best of Us,” a group of friends from college go on vacation together, and money also plays a role, in part because it shows the differences in the couples. Everyone started on even footing in college, and then when they united for a 35th birthday party, everyone had gone in wildly different directions. One has four kids, another is struggling with infertility, one is wildly successful and there are lots of opportunities for conflict.

Does financial tension provide useful fuel for you as a novelist?

It’s not just financial but what money brings. It can bring a sense of identity to people, along with types of jobs. It can also add to the feelings they have about themselves. A lot of people identify themselves by profession, even when they meet somebody. Especially in the Washington, D.C., area, where I’m from.

It’s been interesting for me, personally, to have gone from being an investigative reporter, to a feature writer, to a stay-at-home mom, to a novelist. People react differently to me depending on what I’ve done at different phases of my life. As a novelist, people are really interested to hear about my job. As a stay-at-home mom, I was disappointed to find out that they were not as much interested in what I was doing. I’m the same person, but people respond differently.

[Read: Getting 'Financially Naked' in Relationships.]

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How do you get your ideas for the financial issues that come up in your books?

Being in D.C., you see great poverty juxtaposed with terrific wealth. When I go to Union Station, I’ll see someone well-dressed with a cellphone to their ear next to a homeless person begging for change. It’s very visible in the D.C. area.

In “Skipping a Beat,” I wanted extremes in the book. I didn’t want the book to float along. I found a profile of a guy who started the Honest Tea company and I interviewed him to get some basic facts to use on background. The book is not at all based on him. I was interested in how you could create a company and become really wealthy. I wanted a character to have nothing, and then everything and then nothing again.

In both “Skipping a Beat” and “The Best of Us,” characters experience extremes of wealth. What about that interests you?

I think any extreme experience interests me. As a journalist, I often wrote about really ordinary people who found themselves in extraordinary situations. I covered the Columbine shootings. I found a young man who had been the class clown and hadn’t applied to college and was really struggling. But he put on a brave face the day of the shootings and really transformed and protected a lot of kids. In that moment, when people are faced with something really extraordinary, what that reveals about them is really interesting to me.

[Read: The Best Summer Money Books for Adults.]

In “The Best of Us,” friends who come from different financial backgrounds go on vacation together – do you think readers related to some of the awkwardness that creates?

Definitely. There are a lot of differences and contrasts that create that awkwardness and tension, and finances is one of the big ones. You can hide the fact that maybe your marriage is struggling, but if you’re living in a huge mansion and your friend is living in a tiny apartment, it’s very visible.

Do you think you’ll continue to explore financial themes in your books?

I wouldn’t think of myself as an author who explores financial themes, but it’s something people care about and worry about. People need money to live, so it’s something that’s vitally important, along with other things in life, and we all have different attitudes about money.

Pekkanen’s next novel, “Catching Air,” which follows two sisters-in-law as they start a bed-and-breakfast in Vermont, comes out in May.