Constant Reader Book of The Month September 2023: Most Likely By Sarah Watson
You’ve Loved Her TV Series. Now (Please) Read Her Literary Debut
As someone who loves television nearly as much as he loves books, I am often fascinated by those writers who work for a while in the former and then try to succeed in the latter. By that I don’t mean those such as Richard Price or George Pelecanos or any of the many authors who have been part of the stable of David Simon’s HBO series since The Wire but the rarer breed of those who start out in television and move into literature.
The most famous of these in recent years is George R.R. Martin who spent much of the 1980s writing for television, most notably the 1980s versions of Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast before he moved into sci-fi and fantasy, finally changing his residence to Westeros. Stephen Cannell spent most of the 20th century helping write and create many series, some of them classics (The Rockford Files, The A-Team) some formula (Hunter) and some genuinely ahead of their time (Wiseguy). In the new century he began his own series of novels, centering around LAPD Sergeant Shane Scully and had written eleven books in the series before his untimely death in 2010. Most recently among these is Noah Hawley, the creator of Fargo, one of the best series of the last decade and the sporadic but occasionally brilliant Legion who last year wrote his fifth novel Anthem.
So two years when I was in the library and I found Most Likely I was drawn to it not because of the subject but because the author was Sarah Watson. The publishers no doubt were capitalizing on her celebrity by making sure we knew she had created The Bold Type.
Since it is unlikely you know who Watson is unless you have a very good memory of television, allow me to enlighten you. Sarah Watson has been writing for television for quite some time. Most of her early work was for tween series, such as That’s So Raven, Monarch Cove and Beyond The Break. Her real break came when she became a staff writer on one of the best and most underrated series of the last decade Parenthood, a series that was in a sense fortunate that it aired during a period when NBC was at death’s door. There’s no other period in its history that this heartfelt, loving show would have lasted one season, much less six.
When it ended Watson created her first series Pure Genius, a medical drama at CBS that was co-created by Jason Katims, one of the most beloved showrunners in TV history. It was dead by the end of the spring of 2017 — which was the best thing that could have happened to her. By the time it was cancelled she had landed a deal with Freeform to create The Bold Type, one of the most beloved cable series of the last five years, certainly by me. The series deals with the lives of three besties at a women’s magazine called Scarlet: Jane, Sutton and Kat. They’ve clearly been friends from the moment the series begins and they will be friends until the moment it ends.
The Bold Type frankly is everything a female-centric series should be. Yes, the characters spend a lot of time discussing both sex and fashion but a fair amount of that conversation is work related. Each one will always run to the other two (usually together, but they’ll take one if that’s all they can get) to discuss their deepest problems and fears. They have arguments occasionally, to be sure, and their careers will sometimes move them in opposing directions, but they will always come back to each other first. There are no fights over men (granted early in Season 1, one of them realizes she’s a lesbian) and while they occasionally make judgments over their romantic partners, they are all as supportive of every choice they make. There’s a decent argument that after this series aired, any show involving women going forward should have to pass ‘The Watson Test’ because I’ve rarely seen any series that deals with female friendship this well.
All of which was enough of a reason to take this book out of hand. I didn’t expect that Most Likely would be nearly as superb as it was, though I probably should have known better.
The novel has the kind of hook that would make for a TV series — maybe because it has. In 2004, near the end of the WB’s existence the series Jack & Bobby debuted. The series featured the McCallister brothers in 2005 and made it very clear that in thirty five years one of them would become President of the United States. (You might want to search that one out on Amazon, considering among its cast it had Logan Lerman, Christine Lahti, John Slattery, Jessica Pare and a young Bradley Cooper and Kate Mara end of plug.) Similarly Most Likely lists prominently on the inside cover that the story is about four lifelong best friends, one of whom when the novel begins is about to be sworn in as the first female President. The novel opens in 2049 and one of them is reminiscing about it with her husband. We don’t know which one she is but part of her is still incredulous about it.
Now Watson spends much of the novel hinting about what’s going to happen, but by the time we realize who it is, you don’t care any more because she had gone to such great lengths to make all four leads so compelling and fascinating, their individual stores and the ones they share, the realizations that they make about themselves and the ones that they have about their families, that by the end of the novel, it’s almost anticlimactic. It really doesn’t matter which one of this is President at the end of the novel; you know just by having read the book that America would be a richer place no matter which one.
The four friends are Ava, CJ, Jordan and Martha (the first line of Chapter Two says they always list their names alphabetically out of fairness) Their friendship has an unremarkable origin story: they all met at the same park in the small Ohio town when they were five years old. They were all nervous so they started talking and they are all relieved that they all get placed in the same kindergarten class. One of them says it fate, and they all agree “though two of them didn’t know what that word meant’. As the novel opens it’s the start of their senior year in 2019 (obviously Watson wrote this novel well before anyone had heard of Covid) and they are making the plans all seniors do: trying to figure out what colleges they’ll go to, what their careers might be, and certain other things.
All of them have their own problems, which like for everybody in high school is both utterly life-or-death and somewhat meaningless at the same time. Ava is an artist, who loves her work but can’t convince her mother to take it seriously. CJ is trying to get into her dream college of Northwestern but her SAT scores seem to hurt the ideas of being a scholarship. Jordan is the group’s resident journalist and in a sense the most ambitious. Martha works at a movie theater to makes ends meet and is struggling with her sexuality.
The one clue we might have as to who becomes President seems to be dropped early. At the opening of the novel, we are told that she is married to a man named Diffenderfer. We are told that they got together in the senior year of high school and the first character we meet in Chapter One is Logan Diffenderfer. This doesn’t tell us anything, however, because at the start of the novel all four woman hate him of issues no one (certainly not Logan) is aware of. Jordan dated him briefly; CJ and he were rivals when they were on cross country and Ava will end up being partnered with him in art class even though she has the biggest grudge. Throughout the novel, at least two characters will have reasons to be pulled towards him for educational purposes and one more for a personal one.
However Watson makes this fundamentally secondary because the major story of the novel involves a moment that they are all looking forward too. It is a senior tradition to gather at the park where they met to carve their names in the jungle gym. When they get there to do so, however, the park has a gate and is being monitored and it looks like its about to be torn down. Now the park is in a neighborhood that has become increasingly rundown as they have grown up but it is ‘their park’ so they decide to fight for it.
Jordan takes the most direct approach determined to get an interview with the councilman who voting about ‘revitalizing the neighborhood.” All three friends get onboard, though Martha is not sold because her family was a victim of the recession and creating jobs isn’t necessarily something she resents. CJ is the shiest of the bunch and is fine because she doesn’t want to do anything active (she’s fine with researching) Ava is more than willing to do an artistic campaign.
All of them are still trying to deal with their life problems. CJ is desperate to come up with extracurriculars for her transcript so she ends up volunteer at an athletic event for young boys — and is not particularly happy to learn that she was hired because the person who hired her thought she was one. (Her full name is Clarke Jacobson.) Ava is trying to deal with the conflict between her desire to be an artist and the fact that her high-powered attorney mother thinks her love is ‘a hobby’. She also knows that she’s been adopted and knows nothing about her birth mother. Martha is trying to find financial aid for college and is now flummoxed by the new British girl who has started working at the movie theater she has her job at Jordan eventually gets into see the councilman’s aide — who is actually a college intern.
Now I have given you the bare setup for the novel and I don’t think I’ll tell you any more about the plot. What I know for certain is that Most Likely has all the humor and heart that I came to love about The Bold Type when it was on the air. These girls (none of them will turn eighteen until the novel is nearly over) are clearly as ride-or-die for each other as the heroines of The Bold Type. All four of them have the knowledge of your friends that they intend to stick to no matter what. One of which they will never talk trash about any member behind their back, something that is always easier said then done. They also have the same level of naivete many of us do in high school: when one of them is entrusted to bring something sharp to carve their names into the gym at the start of the novel, they have to break it to her that you don’t just a thousand dollar chef’s knife for the job. Fortunately one of her friends has a back-up knife because that’s what you do.
All of them have a more solemn vow to put their friendship before their romantic issues. They’ve decided uniformly to all hate Logan, no matter how awkward this is and even if it is a misunderstanding. They are also savvy enough to know that even when you have an argument about something that hurts your feeling, it doesn’t leave scars. At one point in the novel, Jordan does something that seems to be a betrayal of Martha. This fight goes on for several pages, but while this makes car rides and events uncomfortable, neither one wants this to get in the way of the larger friendship. Jordan still picks everyone up in a carpool for school, when everyone is struggling and tells them they have ten minutes until the first bell “so they have to triage. Second girl gets pushed to lunch.” Twenty pages later, another crisis shows up involving Ava and the three girls arrive at her house. Martha and Jordan are sheepish for a moment and then start hugging frantically and apologizing to the other.
And they are all aware of each other’s deepest problems. At one point we learn that Ava has been suffering most of her life with clinical depression. They learn how sad she is and they’re determined to help her no matter how much of a wall she puts up. Jordan tells us about the night they broke into her bedroom, surround her and tell her they love her. They also say she doesn’t need to say it back; she just needs to squeeze their hand twice. They use this exact method in the present in a problem that is not nearly as dark but just as important to Ava and they are determined to help her even if it means making personal sacrifices.
And because they are teenagers they are always trying to deal with the obvious things that most of us try to ignore. At a certain point CJ finds that a new friend’s mother has channeled all of her energy in to making vases which all resemble penises — something everyone seems to recognize but her. They make the same mistakes on texting that we all do (including once typing out MAJOR DUCKING PROBLEM with one of them realizing autocorrect is in effect). And they all struggle with their parents because that’s what children and their parents do. All of them are doing the best they can — and in quite a few cases, many of them are afraid they have done nearly enough. And as the novel goes on, they begin to realize how big the problems they will be facing are about to become and whether they’re equipped for them.
I don’t think its much of a spoiler that the three friends in this novel who don’t become the first President of the United States all end up making their own paths and in their own ways becoming nearly as successful as whoever does. And of course all three of them are front row center at her swearing in. She makes it clear she had to bump a few important members of Congress out of position to make sure they were there, but it’s worth pissing them off to make sure her friends are this close. And that assures you she’ll be a great President, because she’s never forgotten who her friends are or where she’s come from.
Ever since The Bold Type ended Sarah Watson has not worked. That is hardly unusual: after a successful project, most showrunners take a break while they decide on what their next work will be. I don’t know if she’d ever consider turning Most Likely into a television series — for all the brilliant material that’s here, she might not want to touch her own work. But if she — or anyone else did — I know I’d be the first one to tune in.