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  • Written by Katherine Center
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  • The Bright Side of Disaster
  • Written by Katherine Center
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780345502483
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The Bright Side of Disaster

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A Novel

Written by Katherine CenterAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Katherine Center


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: June 26, 2007
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-345-50248-3
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
The Bright Side of Disaster Cover

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“Offers credible descriptions of first-time motherhood, affecting characters and situations and low-key charm.”–Kirkus Reviews

“Stellar . . . Center paints an accurate and humorous view of motherhood.”–Booklist

Jenny Harris always expected that she’d fall in love, get married, and have a baby–in that order. Now, very pregnant and not quite married, she actually doesn’t mind that she and her live-in fiancé, Dean, accidentally started their family a little earlier than planned; she’s happy to have so much to look forward to. But Dean–whom Jenny loves enough to overlook his bad facial hair, his smoking habit, and his total commitment to a cheesy cover band–is acting distant, and not in a pre-wedding-jitters kind of way. The night he runs out for cigarettes and just doesn’t come back, he demotes himself from future husband to sperm donor.

And the very next day, Jenny goes into labor.

In the months that follow, Jenny plunges into a life she never anticipated: single motherhood. At least with the sleep deprivation, sore boobs, and fits of crying (both hers and the baby’s), there’s not much time to dwell on her broken heart. And things start looking up. She learns how to do everything one-handed, makes friends in a mommy group, and even manages to give dating tips to her sweet, clueless father–who’s trying to court her sassy mother again, fifteen years after their divorce. She also gets to know a handsome, helpful neighbor–with a knack for soothing babies–who invites her out dancing. But Dean is never far from Jenny’s thoughts or, it turns out, her doorstep, and in the end Jenny must choose between the old life she thought she wanted and the new life she’s been lucky to find.

A spirited debut novel with a terrifically appealing voice, a fantastic sense of humor, and a lot of heart, The Bright Side of Disaster reminds us that sometimes it takes the worst-case scenario to show us the best in everything.

From the Hardcover edition.



The end began with a plane crash. Just before midnight on a Tuesday in February. A girl I’d never met or even heard of died, along with her miniature dachshund (under the seat) and a planeload of passengers in the kind of commuter plane I’ll never fly in again. I’ve pictured it a hundred times now: the quiet hum of the motor, the sleeping passengers, the sudden jolt, the cabin steward thrown sideways before he could finish his instructions. In my mind, it always looks like a movie, because I have nothing else to go on.

That night, I was asleep, safe on the ground, miles away in Texas in my hand-me-down bed, nestled under a patchwork quilt made out of ties from the seventies.

Since getting pregnant, I fell asleep before the double digits. It was something my not-quite-yet-husband, Dean, teased me about. He was a night owl. And I had been one, too. These days, a month before my due date, I was in bed with my swollen ankles up on pillows as soon as the dishes were done. He was out in the living room with his headphones on, likely playing air guitar.

In a slightly different situation, I would have heard about the crash on the news and thought no more about it. I am sure that girl meant many things to many people. And though I didn’t know it at the time, and I would not have recognized her if she’d knocked on my door, she meant a lot to me as well—in a roundabout kind of way.

The day Dean came home from the office with the news, I’d been out in the garage for hours pricing things with little orange stickers. I’d quit my job at a fancy antiques store a few weeks back at the urging of the owner. She knew I was planning to quit after the baby came, but she decided it didn’t make sense to wait. She took me aside one morning and said that I was, simply, too big. “When you can knock over a piece of Stickley with your belly,” she said, “it’s time to call it a day.” She gave me some coupons for a mani-pedi, promised she’d always give me her dealer discount, and nudged me out the door.

So I was home. And planning our upcoming garage sale with checklists, spreadsheets, and a color-coded map of my yard. At thirty-six weeks and counting, what else was I going to do with myself?

When Dean walked in with a pizza, I was slumped over the aqua dinette in our kitchen, drinking orange juice and trying for an end-of-the- day rally. He popped open a beer and swigged down about half of it. His tie was wrinkled. Really wrinkled, like it’d been on the floor of his car for days before he’d discovered it. I wondered if it would be my job to see to such things when we were married.

He pulled two plates out of the cupboard, and just as I was thinking how much I loved it when Dean brought me pizza, they slid right out of his grip and shattered on the floor.

“Fuck!” he shouted. “Fuck!” He turned and slammed his palm against the cabinet.

I didn’t say anything. After five years with him, I knew to lay low. My best friend, Meredith, and I called these moments “occasional eruptions of inappropriate rage.” They were, you might say, a part of his charm.

He pressed his head against the cabinets, and I set about picking up. I had to bend over my belly to reach the shards, which made great clanks as they hit the metal bottom of the garbage can. When I went for the broom, he moved to his chair and sat down. Then he said, “A girl from work died last night.”

“Died?” I said. “How?”

“Plane crash.”

“Big plane or little plane?” I asked.

“Puddle jumper,” he said.

I finished sweeping and leaned the broom against the counter. “Who was it?” I asked, sitting down.

“Just a girl. She worked in graphics.” He lifted a slice of pizza and took a tentative bite, as if it might not go down well.

“Was she somebody you knew?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, mouth full. “I definitely knew her.” Her cubicle was around the corner from his, and she—her name was Tara—used to stop in and say hi. She had worked there for a year. She had been planning to come see his band.

We chewed for a while. Then, not sure what else to say, I shook my head and said, “I thought plane crashes only happened to people on the news.”

“Well,” he said. “She’s on the news now.”

After dinner, we sat out on the porch swing, as we did many nights. Our house was in one of the few historic neighborhoods in Houston that hadn’t been bulldozed for townhomes or mini-malls. By some mystery, folks in our neighborhood were restoring their houses instead of replacing them. Living here was like living in another place in time.

On good nights, we’d go on talking after dinner. But tonight he kept quiet, nursing beer number three. He was holding the memo they’d passed out at work with details about the funeral and where to send donations. It had this girl Tara’s picture on it.

She was Asian, with shiny straight hair and kissy lips. The picture was from her company ID photo, but even so, she was smiling as if the guy who’d taken the photo had been flirting with her. She certainly seemed very alive. And she was the kind of pretty that wasn’t up for discussion.

“She’s pretty,” I said, looking over his arm.

“You think so?”

“Dean,” I said, giving him a look that said, Come on. At the time, a little lie like that seemed sweet to me. I assumed he was trying to be a good fiancé by pretending not to know she was pretty. Like he only had eyes for me. “Yes,” I said. “She’s pretty.”

“Was,” he said.


I tried to start up some other conversation after that. I told him that Meredith had bought a leash for her cat. I told him about a report I’d heard on a hurricane in the Gulf. I told him I’d heard a woman singing a version of “Hush Little Baby” on the gospel radio station that afternoon, and the sound had brought tears to my eyes. But the words came out of my mouth and fizzled like sparks before they hit the ground.

Some nights were like this, when Dean just couldn’t rise to the conversational challenge. Meredith said he was moody, which was true. But we all had our shortcomings. Still, if we weren’t going to talk, I wished he would rub my neck, or hold my hand. But he didn’t.

Dean wanted to take a shower, so I followed him inside. I put on my don’t mess with texas maternity nightshirt before I headed into the kitchen to clean up, and when I got there, I noticed the girl’s picture was on the fridge. Dean had put it up with butterfly magnets, one placed in each corner. Very few things on our overloaded fridge merited more than one magnet. Not our list of frequently called numbers, not the picture of us at a wildflower garden on our road trip to Austin, not the liner notes for Dean’s band’s only album. But there she was, securely placed and there to stay. I wasn’t sure I wanted her there, and I thought about taking her down and sticking her in a drawer with the take-out menus.

But I left her. She had the kind of eyes that followed you around the room. I’d thought that happened only with paintings in museums, but here she was, in my kitchen, watching me. While I did the dishes. While I took my prenatal vitamin. While I did a final sweep for pieces of broken plate. She even watched the door for my return while I took the pizza box outside to the trash. Back inside, I turned the dead bolt, started the dishwasher, and stood with my hand on the light switch. We held each other’s gaze for a few minutes, and then I left her in the dark.

From the Hardcover edition.
Katherine Center|Author Q&A

About Katherine Center

Katherine Center - The Bright Side of Disaster

Photo © Brett Chisholm

Katherine Center graduated from Vassar College, where she won the Vassar College Fiction Prize, and received an MA in fiction from the University of Houston. She served as fiction co-editor for the literary magazine Gulf Coast, and her graduate thesis, Peepshow, a collection of stories, was a finalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. A former freelancer and teacher, she lives in Houston with her husband and two young children.

Author Q&A

An Interview with Katherine Center

Question:Your account of your character Jenny Harris’s pregnancy and its aftermath is about equal parts harrowing and hilarious. I kept thinking, I hope to God that this is one first novel that’s not highly autobiographical!

Katherine Center: Not autobiographical! At least, I was not dumped on the night before I had a baby. Quite the opposite. I am married to a mind-bogglingly helpful man who is a kick-ass father. But there is an autobiographical component to the story. Because even with a great husband to help me, I was still completely overwhelmed by those first months of parenting when I had my own daughter. I could barely keep my head above water. And I found myself wondering over and over how single mothers did it. It seemed like the most impossible thing in the world. And I wanted to explore that a little bit.

Question:Did you always want to be a writer? How long did you work on The Bright Side of Disaster, and what was your path to publication?

KC:I always wanted to be a writer. Though I had my periods when I was discouraged about writing and decided to want to be something else. But as often as I thought about landscape architecture or family therapy or graphic design, I kept boomeranging back to writing — even though those other jobs seemed like they’d involve a lot less heartbreak.

I started writing The Bright Side of Disaster on a dare. I was staying home with my toddler at the time, and I was kvetching on the phone with my sister that I wasn’t doing any writing and I felt kind of lost, and she interrupted me and said, “Write a novel about being a mom. How hard can that be?” Those were the right words and the right time, and I sat down the next night and started writing. I had the idea for the story and a vague sense of where I wanted to go, and once I started, the story took off and I was running to catch it. There were nights when I literally could not type as fast as the story was coming into my head. I spent all day with my daughter, watching her toddle around at the park and ruminating on the story, and then, the minute she went to bed, I’d race to the computer and start typing. I wrote every single night obsessively. At the end of six weeks, I had a very rough draft. Then I spent the next year polishing and revising.

After I finished it, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I literally had on my To Do list: “find agent,” and “sell novel.” But I had no idea how to go about it. I got pregnant again, then had the baby unexpectedly early, and then was catapulted back into babyville. The manuscript sat in a drawer for about a year. I had almost forgotten about it when I met, by chance, a novelist named Vanessa Del Fabbro at the park with my kids. She offered to read the manuscript, and then she passed it along to her agent, who agreed to represent me. Before I knew it, Random House had bought the book. I was very lucky.

Question:Getting a first novel published is impressive enough. But doing so while being a mother of two young children is downright awe-inspiring. How do you juggle the demands of motherhood and writing?

KC:You know what? It’s really hard to find time to write! Both jobs — raising kids and writing — take a kind of obsessive dedication and attention to detail that requires a lot of time. I had no appreciation for the luxurious amounts of free time I had before the kids. That said, I am wiser about life in a million ways since they came into my life. They’ve made me a vastly better writer. And it’s a great life. I’m as grateful as can be.

Question:Do you write every day? Tell us about your daily routine.

KC:I write every day when I have a project. When I’m working on something, I’m totally obsessed and can write for many hours at a stretch. But I also have down periods when I’m thinking and taking notes, but not actually working to construct a story. For me that early, loose period when anything can still happen in the story is very important because I don’t always know where the story’s going to go when I start. And then I have other down periods when I’m just living and recharging. Those are important, too.

Question:I think a lot of women readers are going to be very curious as to whether the character of Gardner is based on a real person… and if so, whether you can give out his phone number!

KC:I think a great thing about Gardner is that he’s had his heart broken — his wife left him for her dentist — and he has used that sadness in his life to get smarter about people and how to treat them. There’s that joke that if a woman gets dumped, she thinks, “What’s wrong with me?” but if a man gets dumped, he thinks “What’s wrong with her?” I love that Gardner defied that stereotype and really did some thinking about how he could have done a better job with his wife. As for whether or not he’s based on a real person, I confess that at the beginning I based a fair bit of Gardner on my husband, who is helpful and nurturing like that, and frighteningly good with babies and children — and also very, very funny. Though, in the end, as always happens, Gardner is his own person.

Question:Do you usually base your characters on real people, at least initially?

KC:I usually try hard not to. Though writing, for me anyway, is like making a collage. I use pieces of many different real people and glue them together with things I’ve made up. You know: one person’s eyes, another’s nose, another’s fear of heights. If I find myself using too many pieces of the same person, I’ll usually make a conscious decision to go another way. And then, once I have the basics down, that character — in some mysterious way that even I don’t understand — starts to come to life and say things and do things all on his or her own. It’s amazing to witness.

Question:What about Dean? For all the horrible stuff he does in the course of the book, I couldn’t’ help feeling sorry for him.

KC:Yeah, Dean’s not a total villain. He’s just self-centered. And immature. And undependable. In some ways, he’s a lot like Jenny’s dad, who is not a bad guy. Jenny’s dad has made some mistakes, sure. And he can’t seem to sustain a relationship. But he wants to do the right thing. Maybe Dean will mature into somebody who tries harder. Or, more likely, maybe not.

Question:What advice would you give to aspiring writers? I know that you have a M.A. in fiction writing — what are the benefits of pursing a degree? Are there any down sides to it?

KC:What I know about writing, I really learned from reading writers that I like. And from writing — writing all the time: letters, e-mails, stories, screenplays, essays, poems, journal entries. Ideally, a writing program could give you a chance to focus on reading and the craft of writing. But the truth is, if you are a real writer, you’re going to do that anyway. And the stories that you write would be far better served by your spending a year on a boat, say, or in a Central American town, or working as a skit instructor. Your writing would be better served by racking up life experiences that you can use later than by sitting in a room looking and Xeroxes of other people’s short stories. What I mean to say is, the one thing writers can’t really write about is characters who are in graduate school for writing. So best to do other things.

Question:Are you working on a new novel?

KC:You bet! I will have a second novel coming out Summer of 2008. I have a first draft for that story already and will spend the summer polishing it up. Its working title is Everyone is Beautiful.

From the Hardcover edition.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Why on earth would Jenny Harris want to marry a guy like Dean? Do you know good women who fall in love with bad men? Or is Dean not as bad as he seems? Why do women stay with men like Dean, anyway?

2. Jenny has three men in her life: Dean, Gardner, and her dad. In
what ways are these guys alike or not alike? Do they echo one another
in particular ways? Do you find that the men in your life resemble
one another in important ways?

3. What do you think of Meredith’s actions after the baby is born?
Have you ever lost a friendship because of a monumental change in
your life?

4. Jenny’s birth plan turns out to be pretty worthless—in more ways
than one. Giving birth and becoming a mom were nothing like she
expected them to be. If you’re a mom, was that true for you? What
was the biggest surprise about motherhood? If you’re not a mom,
has there been something in your life that was nothing at all like
what you’d expected?

5. Were you rooting for Jenny’s dad as he pursued her mom? He certainly
left her in a horrible way all those years before. Do you think
he’s changed now and become a better man? Has he become a better

6. Does becoming a mom help Jenny herself grow up? In what ways
does motherhood enrich women’s lives? In what ways does it hold
women back?

7. Jenny starts an antiques business within a year of Maxie’s birth.
Do you think Jenny would have opened up her shop if Dean hadn’t
left—if everything in her life had gone as planned?

8. Jenny’s mom is a sassy lady. Should she have tried to talk some
sense into Jenny about Dean earlier? Was it harsh of Jenny’s mother
to stay away after Dean came back? Was her tough-love policy too

9. One Bright Side reader commented that “all new mothers are single
moms in a way.” Do you agree?

10. Jenny likes Gardner, but she sets him up on a date with Meredith,
anyway—or tries to, at least. Have you ever tried to do the right
thing and given up something—or someone—that you really wanted
for yourself ?

11. Jenny is not at her best for much of the book, to put it mildly.
She’s not taking care of herself at all—and she looks terrible by her
own admission. What does it say about Gardner that he’s drawn to
her anyway?

12. Gardner’s wife left him in a pretty brutal fashion. What kind of
impact did his divorce have on him?

13. Jenny is both lucky and unlucky that she has people willing to
help support her financially after Dean walks out. What are the pros
and cons of taking help from Dean’s mother? Is staying home all it’s
cracked up to be? Why do you think Jenny’s dad offers to help her
out, even though he believes people should pull themselves up by
their own bootstraps?

14. Who is your favorite character? Why?

15. How would you categorize this book? Is it chick lit? How do
you define that term?

16. Have you ever had a disaster that turned out to be a good thing
in the end?

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