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The Celebrants


The Celebrants

Steven Rowley, the bestselling and fan-favorite author of THE GUNCLE and LILY AND THE OCTOPUS, returns with THE CELEBRANTS, a darkly humorous, big-hearted chronicle of five friends and their pact to celebrate one another while they can…with a series of living funerals.

When they met at Berkeley, Jordan, Jordy, Naomi, Craig, Marielle and Alec were just kids trying to reset their bad first-year experiences. As transfer students, they held a unique role on campus. Neither the bright-eyed, hope-filled freshmen nor the jaded, bored seniors, they often found themselves apart from their peers…until they found each other. Although they were all different in a relatable, almost Breakfast Club-like way --- Jordy, the athlete; Naomi, the rocker; Alec, the party boy --- they bonded almost immediately, settling into one another’s lives, stories, rooms and bodies as easily as children. Then, only two weeks before graduation, Alec was found dead of an apparent overdose, and their lives were forever changed.

"THE CELEBRANTS is a slow-burn novel more about its characters and emotions than a central plot, yet Rowley dishes out his big reveals at the perfect times to propel the narrative forward and make you realize what’s really at stake for everyone."

With the emotions behind Alec’s passing murky --- was he simply partying too hard, or did he not care about his life and what he did with it? --- the gang heads to the home of Naomi’s extraordinarily wealthy parents in Big Sur to grieve. Alec’s is the first unexpected death that any of them has ever experienced, and the grief absolutely levels each of them.

Over wine, marijuana, hot tub soaks and unexplored feelings, Marielle --- the most sensitive and empathetic of the bunch --- proposes a pact: each of them will have a living funeral in which their best friends say all the things they love about them while they are still alive to hear it. Each member of the group will get exactly one funeral, to be held whenever he or she needs it most. The pact is zany, and everyone is largely skeptical. But it’s not as if Marielle will ever hold them to it, right? So they agree. And 18 years later, they gather for the first living funeral: Marielle’s.

In alternating parts, Rowley chronicles the funerals of Marielle, crumbling after a bitter divorce and her daughter’s impending departure for college; Naomi, reeling after the deaths of her distant and unaccepting parents; Craig, about to head to prison for art fraud; and, finally, Jordan. In writing about their lives and deaths, however, Rowley reveals something much deeper and more everlasting: their friendships, which, even though they rarely keep in touch between funerals, resume their same power, closeness and acceptance that they held in college --- only now between adults with full lives and histories. Rowley does not get into the nitty-gritty of the years between or the minutiae of their lives. But because we see them all at such pivotal moments, the passage of time is even starker and heavier, balanced perfectly by the celebratory rebirths that occur at each of the funerals.

When the novel begins, 28 years have passed since the pact was made, and the gang is reuniting once again at Naomi’s (now deceased) parents’ house in Big Sur for Jordan’s funeral. There’s just one catch: Jordan is actually dying of cancer, so this is a precursor to the real thing. Unlike Alec, his death will not be a shock, but it does come with its own complications: Jordan is now married to Jordy, with whom he runs a successful PR business, and his death will leave yet another hole in this friend group, the pact and their shared history. With one of their members set to leave for good, they begin to confront long-held secrets, betrayals and admissions, though it is Jordan who holds the biggest secret of all.

“To think about life is to contemplate death --- it’s what makes living so valuable,” writes Rowley. “You only live once. That was the truth of it. But if you do it right…once is more than enough.” It sounds impossible to say that in a book almost entirely about death and mortality, he manages to infuse every chapter, page and line with this same sense of peace and fulfillment. But it’s Steven Rowley, so naturally he does. Writing with the same big heart and compassionate gaze he has developed over the course of his last three books, Rowley takes a fun, believable camaraderie --- the kind that, let’s face it, can almost only be formed in college --- and sets it on its head by pushing it against years of growth, friends drifting apart, earth-shattering tragedies and painful reunions.

THE CELEBRANTS is a slow-burn novel that is more about its characters and emotions than a central plot, yet Rowley dishes out his big reveals at the perfect times to propel the narrative forward and make you realize what’s really at stake for everyone. The result is a celebratory, graceful, and exceedingly patient and kind meditation on the importance of finding the people who not only see you for yourself but remind you of who you really are when you need it most.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 10, 2023

The Celebrants
by Steven Rowley

  • Publication Date: May 30, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • ISBN-10: 0593540425
  • ISBN-13: 9780593540428