Weddings are, in short, quite a lot. There’s the guest list (do you have to invite that one aunt?), the venue that could very well cost more than a down payment on a house, the cake, the flowers, and, at minimum, about 48,000 other things to be considered.
This is even before you find your fiancé and best friend literally in bed together — a moment seared into memory that quite instantly ruins your life. This is Willa Callister’s reality when readers meet the ex-blogger and miserable children’s birthday party performer in The Wedding Ringer, by Kerry Rea.
Clearly, things are not going well for Willa. The high point of her days consists of a bottle of wine waiting for her at her sister’s house, where she is staying in an attempt to simultaneously hide from and rebuild her world.
On a day when Willa actually tries to venture outside of the house for an ill-advised date at a coffee shop, she meets a very frazzled bride named Maisie who begs her to pretend to be her friend, even offering to pay her for doing so. Willa thinks Maisie is ridiculous but goes along with it when Maisie’s fiancé arrives. Things get even weirder when Maisie, who seems like she’d have plenty of friends, pleads with Willa to take a paid job as one of her bridesmaids. Even so, it becomes a lucrative opportunity for Willa that could help her start a life somewhere far from children’s birthday parties and the horrific betray from the two people she loved the most. With such an outlandish start to a fake-friendship, Willa never anticipates the real joy, loyalty, and love that comes out of getting to know Maisie. The Wedding Ringer is not your average romcom, but an exploration into mental health, loneliness, and those who help us put ourselves back together.
Shondaland caught up with Rea to chat about her new book, crafting a main character who has hit rock bottom, friend breakups, a wedding culture that places immense pressure on women, and more.
KATIE TAMOLA: The idea of someone having to cancel their wedding because they catch their fiancé in bed with their best friend is beyond heartbreaking. How did you decide you wanted to start here?
KERRY REA: I wanted to write a character who had hit rock bottom. In Willa’s case, that meant losing her partner and best friend in one fell swoop. I was interested in exploring the topic of a broken friendship, and having Willa experience betrayal from her lifelong best friend let me do that. We see romantic breakups in books and TV all the time, but friendship breakups are a less common trope — even though they can be just as devastating, if not more so. Willa’s disillusionment with friendship and romance at the start of the book is heartbreaking, but it also gives her room to grow, and that gave me a lot of space to work with creatively. Plus, it highlights the stark differences between Willa and Maisie. Willa’s sworn off dating and friendship while Maisie can’t wait to marry the love of her life. It was a joy to write characters who are at such different places in their lives and still find a way to forge a meaningful connection.
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KT: Our culture is somewhat wedding-obsessed. There is a ton of pressure to have the perfect day and the perfect everything — whatever that even means. What inspired you to write a book about someone who literally pays another person to be their bridesmaid? Were you looking to comment on/explore our wedding-crazed culture?
KR: When I started drafting the manuscript in my head, I didn’t know I was going to set it against the backdrop of a wedding. I just knew I wanted to write a story that honored female friendship, and I was drawn to the idea of a character whose whole world has been turned upside down, like Willa’s is at the start of the book. I was around 30 then, at a period in my life when it felt like everyone I knew was getting married. At a friend’s wedding reception, a table mate commented on the bridesmaids’ dresses — she had strong opinions about the neckline — and remarked that if she got married, she’d have trouble picking bridesmaids because she would inevitably offend the people she didn’t select. That sparked a question in my mind: what if someone had the opposite problem and lacked the close friends or family to form the bridal party she envisioned? Would she hire someone? This led me to research the concept of a professional bridesmaid, and I realized that it would make a fun concept for a novel. Plus, weddings feature lots of love and a little bit of drama and chaos, and those are all elements that make a book fun to write.
I also wanted to explore the unique pressures that our wedding-obsessed culture places on women. We expect women to dream of their big day from the time they’re little girls, but at the same time, we’re quick to slap a “bridezilla” label on any bride we deem too demanding. Women can’t win — and don’t get me started on the fact that nobody refers to men as “groomzillas.” In the book, Maisie’s hyper-focused on planning a storybook wedding because she sees it as her chance to win over her in-laws and kickstart the happy-ever-after she so desperately wants. I think the pressure to be the perfect bride is something many women can relate to, and Maisie’s experience was a useful avenue for me to explore that.
KT: The writing is so clever, the characters are so well-rounded. Willa, for one, is sarcastic and guarded, but also has so much heart to her. How do you pen characters like this? What inspires you?
KR: I’m drawn to characters who are flawed but genuinely trying their best. I love protagonists who screw up but keep going and make a sincere effort to navigate the world with whatever broken tools life hands them. I read a quote from Jason Katims, producer of Friday Night Lights, where he said that stories are most interesting when they feature people who face conflict but still try to put their best foot forward. That stuck with me because those are the kinds of characters I find most relatable. Everyone you meet has baggage and heartbreak and complex hopes and dreams, and fictional characters shouldn’t be any different.
I’m inspired by characters who mean well, even if they don’t always get it right —especially if they don’t always get it right, because perfection is boring. I can’t get enough of protagonists like Ted Lasso, Leslie Knope, or the main characters in Jasmine Guillory’s books. When I’m writing my own characters, I ask myself: Is this somebody I’d want to meet in real life? Would I root for her? Willa makes mistakes as she tries to find her way back to herself, but her intentions are sincere, and that’s what made her so enjoyable to write. That’s what made her feel real to me.
I found a lot of meaning in navigating how these two women, with their very different visions for their lives and their individual secrets and problems, learn to trust each other in ways they never thought possible.
KT: This is a funny, entertaining book that has a romcom subplot, but I think at its core, this may be a novel about loneliness. Willa (and even Maisie) seems to be constantly running from creeping feelings of loneliness.
KR: Loneliness is an interesting topic to write about because it’s both a deeply personal and a universal struggle. Most of us haven’t found our fiancé and best friend in bed together like Willa has (at least I hope not!), but we’ve all been left out of a girls’ trip or dumped by someone we loved or spent a Saturday night alone on the couch wishing we had company. We all experience a pressing need to belong, and people will do almost anything to fulfill that need — like hire a professional bridesmaid! I think a lot of millennials have discovered how difficult it is to make friends as an adult and feel really isolated as a result, and Maisie and Willa illustrate that in different ways.
Willa’s experience of loneliness is unique from Maisie’s in that it’s a new feeling for her. She’s gone her whole life with her best friend by her side, but when that friendship suddenly ends, she feels like she’s navigating her new world with a piece of her soul missing. We’ve all had moments where we think, “I’m the only person in the world struggling like this,” or felt totally alone even when surrounded by people, and I wanted to use Willa’s character to tap into how agonizing that is. I also wanted to explore how letting yourself be vulnerable can ease that pain. Throughout the book, Willa and Maisie recognize a loneliness in one another and slowly form a bond that helps to heal their heartache. One of my favorite lines from Ted Lasso is, “There is something worse out there than being sad. And that is being alone and being sad.” And I think Maisie and Willa come to that realization together.
KT: Despite Willa’s best efforts, she develops deep feelings of friendship for Maisie and truly cares about her. I thought your novel was a beautiful comment on how meaningful friendships can sometimes sprout unexpectedly and quickly. Would you also say your novel is about friendship?
KR: Yes, absolutely. I wanted the book to be a celebration of friendship and the transformative power of the bonds women share. At the start of the book, Willa is grieving a broken engagement, but it’s the loss of her best friend that truly devastates her. That friendship was a central part of her life, and without it, she’s forced to question her whole identity and her place in the world. She walls herself off from other people and vows to never let anyone get close to her again, but then Maisie barges into Willa’s life with all her earnestness and unrelenting optimism. I found a lot of meaning in navigating how these two women, with their very different visions for their lives and their individual secrets and problems, learn to trust each other in ways they never thought possible. At the start, Willa and Maisie have contrasting outlooks on life; Maisie’s a glass half-full person, and Willa’s going through a “who needs a glass when I can chug straight from the bottle?” phase. I loved figuring out how they could learn from each other and develop a meaningful bond.
In my opinion, the friendship between Willa and Maisie is the true love story of the book. I had so much fun writing the romance between Willa and Liam, but to me, Willa and Maisie’s connection is the real heart of the plot.
KT: With Willa beyond down on her luck and Maisie having to deal with a difficult future mother-in-law, I thought you captured the millennial experience well. What was one thing you aimed to do in writing this book?
KR: One thing I aimed to do was make readers laugh and remember that even the hardest of times won’t last forever. One theme of the millennial experience — and one that rings true for Willa and Maisie — is that nothing has turned out like we imagined it would. Willa never expected to find her best friend and fiancé in bed together, and none of us imagined that the world as we knew it would change dramatically in March of 2020. The bad things in life, whether they’re as small as a ruined birthday cake or as devastating as a pandemic, usually catch us off guard. We’re suddenly left reeling, trying to put the pieces of our lives back together again in whatever makeshift fashion we can. But just like Willa meets Maisie and Liam and finds her way to happiness again, there are better things on the horizon for all of us. I truly believe that, and I hope the book reminds people to find comfort in the small things — a lemon muffin, a hug from a friend, a road trip with the windows down and the Spice Girls blaring — until the big things sort themselves out.
Because that’s how we get through the hard times: together, and hopefully armed with a serious supply of baked goods. And whether your current life phase skews more tacky ball gown or classy bridesmaid’s dress, I hope The Wedding Ringer reminds readers that joy really is right around the corner.
KT: Which friendship or love stories do you think may have inspired you in writing this novel?
KR: Since I was a little girl devouring every Baby-Sitters Club book I could get my hands on, I’ve loved stories about friendship. Now, I love Jasmine Guillory’s and Kerry Winfrey’s books because they feature swoon-worthy romance as well as female characters who truly support and want the best for each other. In love stories, I can’t get enough of the enemies-to-lovers trope; some of my favorites include Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, Rachel Lynn Solomon’s The Ex Talk, Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last, and Sonali Dev’s Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. When writing The Wedding Ringer, I couldn’t resist the urge to take inspiration from those stories and make Willa’s initial interaction with Liam less than friendly.