A Millennial-era Little Women that follows three sisters from 1989 to the present. Library Journal Self-e Selection, with five stars from Foreword Clarion Reviews: "This first volume is deeply satisfying."
The Biographies of Ordinary People is the story of the Gruber family: Rosemary and Jack, and their daughters Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie. The two-volume series begins in July 1989, on Rosemary's thirty-fifth birthday; it ends in November 2016, on Meredith's thirty-fifth birthday.
When the Grubers move to a small Midwestern town so Jack can teach music at a local college, each family member has an idea of who they might become. Jack wants to foster intellectual curiosity in his students. Rosemary wants to be "the most important person in her own life for the length of an afternoon." Meredith wants to model herself after the girls she's read about in books: Betsy Ray, Pauline Fossil, Jo March. Natalie wants to figure out how she's different from her sisters—and Jackie, the youngest, wants to sing.
Set against the past thirty years of social and cultural changes, this story of family, friendship, and artistic ambition takes us into intimately familiar experiences: putting on a play, falling out with a best friend, getting dial-up internet for the first time. Drinking sparkling wine out of a paper cup on December 31, 1999 and wondering what will happen next.
"The Biographies of Ordinary People contains artful writing and delicately drawn characters who navigate through the universal tragedies and triumphs of everyday life. This first volume is deeply satisfying." - Foreword Clarion Reviews (five stars)
"...Dieker excels at depicting how real people think and act. When she writes from a child’s perspective, she successfully portrays the state of knowing but not quite understanding." - Kirkus Reviews
"Dieker writes with unrepentant honesty about the human condition, crafting the story of the Gruber family with subtle narrative tension and the central claim that every life is worthy of a biography." - The BookLife Prize
Nicole Dieker is a writer, teacher, and musician. She began her writing career as a full-time freelancer with a focus on personal finance and habit formation; she launched her fiction career with The Biographies of Ordinary People, a definitely-not-autobiographical novel that follows three sisters from 1989 to 2016.
Currently, Dieker writes the Larkin Day mystery series and the perzine WHAT IT IS and WHAT TO DO NEXT. She also maintains an active freelance career; her work has appeared in Vox, Morning Brew, Lifehacker, Bankrate, Haven Life, Popular Science, and more. Dieker spent five years as writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money.
Dieker lives in Quincy, Illinois with the great love of her life, his piano, and their garden.
In her guest post published on my blog a few months ago, Nicole talked about her inspiration for her book and her reason for focussing on the lives of just one family. She illustrated this with a quote from volume two in which Meredith asks:
“There are all these biographies of famous people and how they lived their lives, but most of us aren’t going to be famous. It’s like we’ve gotten these models for life that aren’t applicable...We’ve learned about all of these well-known artists and how they did their work, but we don’t ever study how the rest of us do it. Where are the biographies of ordinary people?”
The Biographies of Ordinary People has been described as, ‘a millennial-era Little Women’ but don’t think that this means it is at all sentimental, preachy or twee (not that I’m suggesting Little Women deserves those descriptions either). I saw a one-star review that said (summarising) “not much happens” and feel that the reviewer missed the point of this book really. Yes, there are no dramatic events like murders, violent deaths, family break-ups, etc but then those things are not a feature of normal family life for most of us, unless you’re really unlucky.
Things do happen in The Biographies of Ordinary People but they’re the things that make up everyday domestic life and reflect the experience of most of us growing up: making up games for entertainment on car journeys, starting school, forming new friendships, moving to a new town, going to the swimming pool, visiting the video store, attending your first prom. In the case of the Gruber girls, their experiences also reflect the period covered by the book so it’s videos not DVDs or streaming, video games not apps on your phone and the wonder of the first look at the Internet. There are also the sad events that unfortunately occur in any family over time.
Meredith is the character that resonated most strongly with me. She’s clever, thoughtful, bookish, protective towards her younger sisters, competitive but perhaps over-absorbed by the desire to get things right and, in this respect, comes across as mature beyond her years. At one point she muses, “I wonder if I am good at anything that I haven’t practiced”. Meredith seems absolutely real as a character with the good points and flaws that make up all humans and I think this is the author’s chief accomplishment that, in this book, she has created truly realistic characters that you feel you could meet in the street or the local shop.
I found the Gruber parents – Rosemary and Jack – really interesting although not altogether likeable. They seem so careful and controlled in their parenting and in bringing up their girls so that this carefulness becomes ingrained in Meredith, in particular. In fact, at the town’s annual Easter Egg Hunt, Rosemary does seem to recognise this. ‘Rosemary often didn’t know how to feel about her daughter; certainly there was a sense of pride and love and accomplishment in the idea that she had raised a child who would hold back, whose sharp, smart eyes would case the room for eggs and then help her younger sisters find them. But she also felt a little sad, watching this, because she saw her daughter growing up and doing exactly what she and Jack had taught her, think before you speak and before you act – and she worried that Meredith thought too much.’
I really liked the contrast made with the arrangements in the household of Meredith’s best friend, Alex. ‘[Meredith] had never known anyone like Alex, who walked down the sidewalks saying hello to everyone, who climbed up on a library stepstool without asking, who ran towards her father every evening shouting “Daddy, daddy, daddy!” Mike MacAllister was big and red-headed and he would lift Alex off the ground or tousle her tangled hair. When Meredith went back to her own home she said “Hello” and whichever parent was in the living room said “Hello” and asked how her visit had been...’
‘That was one of the reasons Meredith and Alex were best friends. They talked, in Alex’s bedroom, about the Gruber way and the MacAllister way.’
I received a review copy courtesy of the author in return for an honest and unbiased review. I really enjoyed the first volume of The Biographies of Ordinary People and I’m looking forward to reading the second volume covering the years 2004 to 2016 and seeing what life has in store for Meredith, her siblings and friends. It’s due for publication some time in 2018.
I did quite like this - I tore through it, but I also often felt a little frustrated with how pat the characters were. Everyone felt a little too self-satisfied, which is perhaps not very fair. I think this quality is what part of what I loved so much about Little House, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, etc, but maybe that's an obviousness that I needed and loved while reading at a younger age, but perhaps not so much now. I think part of my frustration too was that everything in the book was a little *too* familiar (I'm the oldest of three sisters, all of our personalities kind of shake out along these lines, our parents were also similarly more strict than our friends' parents, etc.) and at many points I felt like I just didn't need to keep reading because I had already lived this part out and it was making me anxious to relive especially those parts that are so frustrating about being a child with no independence.
All that said, my annoyance with this book almost disappeared when I read the teaser chapter for Volume 2 and Meredith's discussion of wanting to read about non-famous artists. I don't know how this could have been integrated into the text more in Volume 1, but it made things click into place. I read the ebook, so maybe if this had been a physical book and on the back cover text that would have helped? I don't know.
And all my rambling thoughts aside, I did enjoy the experience of reading. I was definitely sucked in and finished it in about a day, and just kept wanting to read it instead of doing other stuff around the house. I'm interested to read Volume 2.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that there are things that don’t happen in The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1. There is no adultery or divorce. There are no surprise love children or long-buried family secrets coming to light. There are some tough financial times, but no bankruptcy or ruin. There is death, but no murder.
I think I was nearly done reading the book before I realized that I was still half-holding my breath and waiting for any of the above things to happen. A sweeping family saga that tells the story from multiple characters’ perspectives must, at the very least, involve one or two extramarital affairs—right?
That’s what I’ve been conditioned to believe, but The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1 upended my expectations in the most pleasant of ways. Nicole Dieker (who, full disclosure, has edited my articles for The Billfold at times) has written an engrossing story without falling back on any bombshell plot moves. She has accomplished a daunting task: produced a novel about a completely normal family that is nevertheless compelling, the kind of book that I stay up too late to read, telling myself “One more chapter” (they’re short!) so many times that I wind up finishing it without even planning to.
Part of the reason that I was so drawn in to The Biographies of Ordinary People is that I’m the same age as Meredith, the oldest of the three Gruber girls, and Dieker captures so many little details that I had half-forgotten from my childhood. Learning math from Square One on PBS, the drama of selecting an American Girl doll, the introduction of cappuccinos into mainstream American culture, life before the internet. Reading this book was a wonderful walk down memory lane. (I, too, had to go to the video store and pick something from the “regular” dollar rentals, bypassing all the movies I really wanted to see because they were in the more expensive “New Releases” section!).
The Grubers are just ordinary people living ordinary lives, and although you might not expect that to make for an absorbing novel, it totally works. I got completely invested in seeing how things turn out for Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie, as well as Rosemary and Jack and the townspeople of Kirkland. I was so disappointed as my remaining page count dwindled, because I wanted more. There will be a Volume 2, but I wish I didn’t have to wait until 2018 to get it! I can’t wait to see how the Gruber story continues.
I thoroughly enjoyed this slow-paced, stately novel about growing up in 1990s rural Missouri, and I definitely can't wait for Volume II, which comes out next year. Certainly reminiscent of Little Women, the novel follows the Gruber family: parents Jack and Rosemary, and daughters Meredith, Natalie and Jackie through a period of some twelve years as they attend school, go to work, join band, and (especially for the children) grow into themselves. I have to say that the characters I was most intrigued by were Rosemary and Meredith, who certainly seemed most well-developed and most similar in the sense of being related by blood - Dieker suggests their repression and their determination are one and the same, although it made me feel sad when that repression made them unable to access things or emotions that otherwise could have been theirs (I did find it particularly jarring when Rosemary's mother passed away and Rosemary noted very little emotion, but a sense of things done and things to do, to come). Wonderfully understated.
Oh...how I loved this book. Nicole Dieker has managed to capture a very specific time in the not to distant past. The three Gruber sisters are so familiar to me, as the younger sister of three older sisters and the older sister of one younger sister and a niece who felt like just as close.
Reading Meredith's thoughts and feelings felt like a glimpse of my own diary from ages 7 and up. The buzzy feeling of excitement, the joy of a best friend and the curious thoughts of something other than the life I was already living.
The style of the writing may not be enjoyable to some. It's kind of old fashioned...in the same way that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or the Little House series is old fashioned, and that's probably why I liked it so much. I love those books and I loved reading those book.
I'm AMPED UP for volume 2 of this series. Who have these people become now?
Thanks to NetGalley, Nicole Dieker and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this book.
I've been a fan of Nicole Dieker's writing on The Billfold for a long time, and this book doesn't disappoint. If you ever read her series "How Wizards Do Money" (https://www.thebillfold.com/2017/06/h...), this book reminds me of that in the best way possible. It's honest about the joys and sorrows of small town life. It's honest about money and how our relationship with it and our parent's relationship with it impacts us in big and small ways. And, I think most importantly for me, it's honest about the ways that art, literature, and friendship all play into how we see each other and how we see the world. I enjoyed spending time with the Grubers in this book, and I can't wait to get the next one when it comes out!
I thought this was extraordinarily well written. The characters were well developed and had clear and distinct voices. I loved all of them and this story. I enjoyed immensely being reminded of that particular small town bookworm game of finding every moment and person in a book you've read. Looking forward to the sequel.
This is a quietly elegant book - Dieker does a fantastic job of creating interest and empathy in a cast of ordinary characters. We meet the Gruber family - father, mother and 3 daughters, who move to midwest small town USA. The characters are exceptionally well written and the vignette chapter styles are perfect. I related to so much that happened, because they are just ordinary people. I also particularly enjoyed the time period the book was written in, and it brought back so many memories for me, from John Thompson piano books to Pretty Woman. The relationships amongst family and friends are beautifully developed and nuanced as the characters age. This is a gem of a book, not to be missed.
Thank you to the author and Netgalley for the ARC in exchange for a review.
Thank you Nicole Dieker and Netgalley for an ARC of this book in return for my honest review.
This is the story of the three Gruber sisters and their family following their lives from 1989 to 2000. This was an enjoyable read on a wet afternoon, that kept me interested and keen to read more. I look forward to following the sisters through their next years in volume 2.
I love how much the story is of its time - I recall knowing people like this and *being* people like this as I lived through the same years as these characters. The frustration of realizing you've already learned most of what school was planning to teach you this year and yet you've still got to sit through it. The joys of finding a bigger library or discovering the internet; the troubles of navigating resource and social constraints. I love little offbeat details hinted at in passing, like Jackie being a lucid dreamer or Meredith not realizing she is a terrible cook.
The characters are distinct and sympathetic and time goes by maybe a *teensy* bit too fast - I felt like there must be some good stories being given short shrift in the interest of keeping it moving. Telling the lives of a half-dozen characters over a ~30 year timespan is pretty ambitious - maybe Dieker can go back and tell some of those smaller stories in future novels after she finishes painting the big picture. Anyway, this is an excellent start and I eagerly await hearing more about the Gruber family when Volume II ships!
This is an impressive novel. Doubly so that this is the author's debut novel. The prose is clear and straightforward. The characters (the Gruber family and their friends and associates) are fully-drawn and believable. The setting (a small Missouri college town in the 1990s) is adroitly described with choice details. The story hums right along. This is a page-turner. I would sit down thinking that I'd only read a chapter or two and wind up reading seven chapters.
The Grubers are a musical family, so music is featured in the story. I am not a musician, so there was a danger that the passages describing music and music-making could have been impenetrable, but the author skillfully rendered them so that the experience of listening to and performing music became understandable.
I recommend this book. If you enjoyed Little Women, you will enjoy this. Other works that this book brought to mind: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers, the Harry Potter books (but without wizardry or anybody being orphaned), the Little House books, and perhaps Tom Brown's School Days (just guessing, I haven't read it!).
This aptly titled novel offers a glimpse into the lives of a few interconnected families in a small community, tracing the evolution of their relationships and lives through chapter-length vignettes. Readers who share a background with the daughters in the story (born in the early '80s, growing up in the US Midwest--like, for example, myself) will appreciate the way the narrative activates their own memories, but the novel's charm goes beyond recognition and nostalgia, and the adults are part of the picture too. While there's a broad array of protagonists, each character feels fully realized, and I found myself becoming increasingly invested in their development as the story progressed. Both a time capsule of a specific era and an engaging account of how people grow and change over time, this book was a joy to read. I'm glad there's a forthcoming second installment.
This is a quiet yet compelling book, following the lives of the Gruber family as the three daughters grow from toddlers to high schoolers in a small midwestern town. Told in vignettes in varying perspectives (sometimes one of the daughters, sometimes one of the parents), we watch these "ordinary" lives unfold in a series of "ordinary" events (moving, school, work, friends, illness, etc.). While nothing really dramatic happens here, the story is absorbing nonetheless - maybe because it feels like reading a biography of people you know (or people you were). I'm one of those people that's always curious about others, that reads the obituaries just to see what people did with their lives, so this book was right up my alley.
*Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC, provided by the author and/or the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
This book captures so many poignant, ordinary moments with simplicity and grace. The points of view and relationships between the characters are very detailed and realistic, and I loved seeing them grow and change over time. I also loved this novel because I identified so strongly with Meredith-I'm amazed someone else can understand and articulate how she lives in her own head and observes/analyzes/self-edits like I did as a child (and still do). The prom scene and the scenes with Jackie and Priya stand out as two that are especially powerful, but overall the novel illustrates the passage of time and the episodic nature of memory beautifully. I can't wait to read the second volume!
I'm about ten years younger than the main characters, but their growing up felt so true to my growing up experience. This book had one of the most authentic descriptions of sisters I've read. The only part I disliked was how preternatural some of the childhood dialogue and cognitions were. The characters at points seemed more precocious than even John Green characters and I say this as someone who was very verbal and literary as a kid. However, the story and the rich descriptions made me not want to put this book down except to send a text recommending it to my sisters.
Dieker has written the kind of novel only she could. Her voice is present on every page, as is her passion for the stories of these characters.
Is there a bombastic plot? No. Is the novel quieter and more introspective than some would like? Perhaps. But I enjoyed it thoroughly because it succeeded at what it was trying to do. Roger Ebert judged movies that way, so that’s the way I judge books.
To me, it felt like a novel in stories, a series of linked short fictions—a collage. Each story of the Grubers and their friends layered on top of one another to create a unified vision that was more than the sum of its parts.
Unusually I wrote this review while I was in the process of reading the book. There were some things that I liked. Its influences were clear. The book is poignant; it is built exclusively around a sense of nostalgia for a certain white, Christian, small-town kind of childhood. (This perspective is gently challenged by occasional POV snippets from Daniel, whose family is Indian, but the story is primarily about the Grubers' white Christian experience.) And you do get that palpable nostalgia: Sundays feel like Sundays, Christmas feels like Christmas.
But for me, the book doesn't function quite as a novel. As a series of character vignettes, it’s pretty good! But there isn’t a strong sense of plot, nor is there a strong sense of thematic unity beyond “nostalgia.” This handicapped the book’s first half significantly, but the second half began to grow beyond these limitations.
This book wants to be Little Women, which it namedrops early, often, and tellingly. Dieker writes about small-town Midwestern life perhaps in a way meant to invoke how her influences write about the prairie. But in contrast to its influences, the setting was not prominent enough to provide a strong sense of environmental narrative to the story. We could have been anywhere—perhaps the point is that it is so ordinary as to be largely unremarkable. Some rendered elements of childhood in the midwest are amusing and do propel the reader to continue: comments about how everyone is quite casual and insular, how things are discussed. But little small-town snippets like these are few and effectively the limits of the setting’s depth.
The lack of thematic strength (beyond “nostalgia”) also made this book feel not much like a novel. “It’s about a family in the midwest” is neither a plot nor an especially strong narrative. Similarly, the unifying thread of nostalgia is expressed so ardently that there is often not much subtlety to be found beyond it. Nostalgia is what brings these vignettes together, even when it’s being troubled; it is both text and subtext. Nostalgia takes the place of plot and setting, and it sometimes cloys character growth (especially in the first half)—it becomes the narrative in its entirety.
Accordingly, nostalgia also becomes the book’s only source of structure—to a fault. I much enjoyed the book's second half, after the time jump... but I can't tell why that time jump was there. Why did she choose there? Did she have fewer vignettes from these years? What storytelling purpose did it serve to put the time jump precisely there? The answer, it seems to me, is to preserve the sense of nostalgia again. It's nostalgia for two things: early childhood and then the act of outgrowing the town, but nostalgia can't dictate a book's structure.
Dieker opens and closes the book with a note that this is not from her life—but it may be of her life, and that is abundantly apparent. In the first half of the book, scenes are prolonged which have no overarching point except to accentuate this nostalgia: a scene that reminds us what it felt like to go swimming as a child builds toward nothing else. It’s very poignant, but ultimately pointless; a loose thread of nostalgic reflection. I had this impression often. In frustration, I began skimming a scene where the girls are playing with paper dolls because I could not understand what it was doing there. Another scene followed it where a list of movies and their importance to Meredith is described. Each scene is carefully crafted to contribute only to nostalgia—neither to place nor to plot, and not apparently to structure.
I suspect a lot of the tonal similarity between characters is partly to evoke this nostalgia for a certain experience of childhood/adolescence as well: consistency in tone, like childhood often has. While possibly intentional—much of what I’ve perceived as shortcomings seem possibly intentional—this tonal similarity is also one of the book’s weaker elements to me. “___ likes” is a common sentence opener for both children and adults; in fact, 80% of sentence begin with a name or a pronoun. The lack of variety becomes very obvious about halfway through. In making the voices so indistinguishable in all of word choice, cadence, and subject matter, all of the characters become the nostalgia rather than fully-formed, distinct personae. The author emphasizes interiority to a fault, and with not enough variety, at the expense of strong character engagement with the setting—and in some cases at the expense of independent development of characters in general.
But, I’ll admit: the sense of nostalgia is maintained. All this may be intentional to this end, which would mean I’ve simply not appreciated the point of the book. As a set of character arcs meant to invoke a certain feeling and harken to biographic styles of writing, it does succeed, and I reiterate that I became more engaged with the book again after the time jump, when the girls are teenagers.
I rounded to 3 stars because respect Dieker’s self-publishing effort, and I respect the dedication and nostalgic unity of the book. A stronger lede, theme, plot, structure, and/or narrative might have given the impression of a more complete novel. The writing is competent and I’m glad I read it, but the book needed depth in the setting, a subtext for the reader to really sink into, and more variety in sentence cadence to rise above.
The simple existence of a family does not quite a novel make. But this book does speak to the existence of a family, so maybe that's mission accomplished.
This was a really quick read, and quite enjoyable. I particularly liked that I started to recognize things form my own childhood, though I think I was a couple of years older than the oldest sister. I struggled to get into it at first, because nothing much was happening, but I pretty quickly grew interested in the women (three sisters and mom - there's a dad, too, but he's more of a peripheral figure) and from there things sailed along. Looking forward to the next installment.
I anticipated an interesting read about "ordinary" people. What I got was a dry, plain novel telling the story of a family much like my own. As appealing as this sounds, I found myself quite bored many times. It's not a terrible novel, but just not my taste. Perhaps if you're looking for a read that doesn't require much brain power this could be for you.
I very much appreciated this book as a quiet, thoughtful portrait of growing up at a time that wasn't so long ago, but that already feels so much gentler and more innocent than the world we live in now.
The author does an excellent job of capturing the emotions and thoughts of each character. I am disappointed that Daniel and Meredith did not ever get together even for a short lived romance. I think that would have added a lot to the story. Meredith needed some love in her life.
You know the books you loved so much as a kid that you just started reading them again the moment you finished? "Biographies" is one of those, all grown up.
The writing is precise, yet it feels effortless, laying bare in a few sentences deep truths that can take us years to understand in our own lives. The setting is quietly and deeply realized, creating an intense sense of inhabiting a particular time, and what it meant, then, to be modern, to grow up, to raise children, to weigh the small and the great choices of your life. The alternating focus on different characters is smoothly managed, knitting together their "ordinary" experiences over years, and building up a deep understanding of each person's loneliness and connection to their friends and family.
The result of all this is a novel that feels both familiar and revelatory at the same time. It's the type of fiction that allows you to both meet new characters who become part of your psyche, and to see yourself and others in a new way through them. It can be difficult to see and to contextualize what come to seem small, everyday challenges and victories in our own lives (encounters with unfamiliar customs, friendships that might be romantic, changing relationships to parents, dreams you can't afford to pursue), but Dieker perfectly captures their beauty and their strangeness in the lives of the Gruber family, which in turn allows us to calibrate the mirror we hold to our own.
The Biographies of Ordinary People draws you in and brings you home (whether your own home was like the Grubers in any way or not). It's a beautifully written exploration of the small (and large) heartbreaks and healings we all face daily, it's the satisfying story of a close-knit family, and it's a celebration of the beauty and the difficulty and the worth of ordinary lives.
I found this book in my daughter’s apartment, and I decided to read it. We both had read and enjoyed Little Women, and this book sounded like it had the same format. I did enjoy it, and I do intend to read the sequel. I enjoyed meeting the characters and following their lives. The only thing about the book was that it was set in my lifetime. I did not enjoy it as much as Little Women because Little Women was so different. It was set in a different time, and it almost seemed exotic. Biographies of Ordinary People seemed like my life. I knew the people and their situations. It was ordinary, but I read it because it was cozy.
I anticipated an interesting read about "ordinary" people. What I got was a dry, plain novel telling the story of a family much like my own. As appealing as this sounds, I found myself quite bored many times. It's not a terrible novel, but just not my taste. Perhaps if you're looking for a read that doesn't require much brain power this is for you.