Emily Giffin's latest novel is inspired by JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette's whirlwind '90s romance
Emily Giffin's hugely popular novels often star women caught in relationship gray areas: Her best-known book, Something Borrowed, was made into a 2011 rom-com centering on best friends Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Darcy (Kate Hudson) — and what happens when Rachel falls for Darcy's fiancé. And while the protagonists of her latest, Meant to Be, aren't quite as morally conflicted, there's still plenty juicy in Giffin's latest tale.
Inspired by John F. Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette's ill-fated romance and set in '90s New York City, Meant to Be follows cool, blonde, model-turned-fashion stylist Cate Cooper and hunky Joe Kingsley, scion of the Kingsley family, and as close to American royalty as you can get. The pair have a glamorous, passionate romance, tailed by the ever-present paparazzi. (Sound familiar?)
Giffin spoke to EW about Meant to Be, modern icons, and how the '90s "feels like the last decade of innocence."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The story is loosely inspired by John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette's romance. Anyone who follows you on social media knows how much you love those two. How did you go from personal admiration to basing a novel on them?
EMILY GIFFIN: Ever since I was a little girl, I've been fascinated by the Kennedy family — and when I moved to New York City in the '90s to practice law, I became especially enchanted by JFK Jr. and his beautiful bride, Carolyn. Fair or not, I think a lot of people, myself included, pinned a lot of our hopes on the two of them. Of course, as we all know, their story ended just as tragically as his father's. And it was that unfulfilled promise and those questions of "What if?" that really inspired this book.
What kind of research did you do? Was there anything you learned that you didn't know about them before?
I've read dozens of books about the Kennedys over the years — so there wasn't much new research I had to do, especially given that this is fiction and Joe and Cate's story is just inspired by JFK Jr. and Carolyn. But I did reread some of my favorites: What Remains, America's Reluctant Prince, Come to the Edge, The Good Son, Fairy Tale Interrupted.
You lived in New York during the heyday of their relationship. How did your experience then inform the book? How is it different?
Many of my personal memories and experiences are infused into this story — including restaurants, bars, and other spots I frequented in the '90s. I really wanted this book to capture the feel of New York during that time as I so clearly remember the media frenzy surrounding John and Carolyn then, and how they made fringe neighborhoods like Tribeca and the Meatpacking District the trendiest areas in town. Likewise, I can remember what it was like trying to coordinate after-work drinks with friends without cell phones, listening to music on a Discman while riding the subway, running in Central Park and thinking you might spot John at any moment. Those are experiences that feel so universal to anyone who lived in New York back then, and I wanted to do my best to honor those details as accurately as possible in the book. Incidentally, I just read a story yesterday that the last two standing public phone booths in New York City were removed this past week… talk about the end of an era!
What do you think it is about the '90s that seems to be resurging in pop culture now?
In some ways, the '90s feels like the last decade of innocence, before the advent of social media, partisan politics, Columbine, and of course, 9/11 changed everything about life as we know it. Because of that, I think there's this great sense of nostalgia surrounding the era, compelling a lot of people to revisit it for comfort — especially coming off the craziness of the past few years. I think it's also important to remember, though, that we've made a lot of progress as a country since then (think #MeToo and BLM) and the '90s weren't, in reality, such a glowing time for large segments of the population.
How were you able to reimagine their story? Was there some wish fulfillment involved?
I think anytime you're drawing details from real-life people, especially two who were so firmly in the public eye, it's a delicate balance between being respectful to their memories and feeling like you have the creative freedom to write the characters as you see fit. The beauty of writing fiction, though, is that you do have creative license and can let your imagination dictate the details of the story.
Who do you see as modern icons today?
This is probably a more complicated question today than it was 25 years ago, because social media and reality TV has, in a sense, democratized fame, making it more accessible than ever before. The only couple I can think of who are as iconic as JFK Jr. and Carolyn are the Cambridges — which is fitting since the Kennedys are the closest thing America has to royals.
Do you think it's possible to be icons now in the way John and Carolyn were?
I do. It's just harder to rise above the noise when seemingly everyone is trying to be an influencer or viral star these days.
How is fame different now than it was in the time Meant to Be is set?
As I mentioned, fame has really been democratized today because of the onset of social media and the proliferation of reality TV, not to mention viral videos on YouTube and TikTok and the like. You can now be famous just for being famous, or for doing outlandish, crass stunts, or even for simply being a horrible person — which, I guess, isn't necessarily unique to today, but just feels like it is. At the same time, that fame is usually short-lived, probably due to some combination of our collective attention spans being reduced to nothing and our insatiable public appetite for celebrity gossip. There are also so many more outlets today than there used to be, so fame is spread a bit thinner.
What's next for you? Anything going on in the film adaptation world?
Yes! We are currently working on adaptations for four of my previous books: Baby Proof, All We Ever Wanted, The Lies That Bind, and Something Blue. I'm also hopeful that we'll see Meant to Be on the big (or small) screen. I can't wait to hear your casting ideas for Cate and Joe!
Read an excerpt from Meant to Be, out now. Order the full book here.
In the spring of 1995, I was in the Hamptons on yet another Obsession shoot. It was miserable. To be honest, beach shoots were always miserable, the sand blowing in your eyes and chafing your skin, to say nothing of the freezing water. That day was actually sunny and sixty, but the wind still made it feel like winter.
While the art directors, fashion designers, and photographers wore puffy down coats and boots, I faux frolicked in the ice-cold surf wearing nothing but a bikini and a sheer white linen blouse. Between takes, the team did their best to warm me up, though that had more to do with not wanting my skin to look blue in the photos than with my actual comfort. During one of those breaks, as I sat under a heat lamp, sipping green tea, from a thermos I spotted him walking toward us with his dog. The one and only Joe Kingsley.
Curtis, my favorite makeup artist and close friend, saw him at the same time. "Holy shit, girl! Is that who I think it is?" he whisper-shouted, grabbing my arm. "It sure is," I said, marveling at seeing Joe Kingsley in person but also wondering why I was so surprised when sightings of him were quite commonplace in the city and in the Hamptons. In fact, almost everyone I knew had encountered him at some point.
But this was my first time, and apparently the same was true for Curtis, because he sighed and said, "He's even hotter in person. Look at those legs. I can't handle it."
"I know," I said, squinting into the sun, then shielding my eyes to get a better look. He was wearing black athletic shorts, a gray sweatshirt, and a rainbow-striped beanie, complete with a big red pom-pom. It was equal parts adorable and absurd.
"And I love Thursday," Curtis said.
"His dog. That's the name of his dog."
"Oh," I said, nodding, thinking that there was no bit of celebrity trivia that Curtis didn't know.
We kept staring as Joe flung a Frisbee toward the ocean and Thursday bounded after it. He leaped into the air, narrowly missing before frantically paddling into the surf as Joe clapped, either caught up in the moment or aware that he had an audience. The latter seemed more likely.
"Mercy," Curtis breathed. "That's the sexiest man to ever walk the Earth. Dead or alive."
"Dead men can't walk," I said, blowing my nose. I was starting to catch a cold.
Curtis pushed my hand away from my face, then blended the makeup around my nose with an egg-shaped sponge before turning back to gawk at Joe.
"I wonder if he's still with Margaret Braswell — "
"Margaret Braswell?" I said, remembering the petite brunette Joe had dated when he was at Harvard. I hadn't heard her name in years. "I thought he was dating Phoebe Mills?"
"God, girl. Keep up. He got back together with Margaret ages ago."
"Oh. I didn't know," I said, memories returning of my Joe Kingsley stalking days. How much those pictures of him had brought me comfort, especially that one of him on the beach with the shark's tooth necklace. I smiled to myself, thinking how incredible it was that we were both here now, in the Hamptons. My thirteen-year-old self wouldn't have believed it.
Suddenly, Joe turned and tossed the Frisbee again, this time away from the shoreline, in our direction. It sailed through the air, landing just feet away from us.
"Oh my God," Curtis said. "He did that on purpose."
"No, he didn't," I said as Thursday ran toward us, and Joe followed him.
"He so did," Curtis hissed under his breath, barely able to contain his excitement. "He wants to meet you."
"You just said he's dating Margaret?"
"So what? Maybe they just broke up. Or maybe they're about to break up. If you get my drift."
"Whatever," I said, rolling my eyes, as Thursday bypassed the Frisbee and trotted over to our chairs.
Curtis kneeled to pet him, saying, "Good boy, Thursday! The best boy, aren't you?"
"You're shameless," I added under my breath, shaking my head as Joe caught up to his dog.
"Get over here, you rascal," Joe said. Then he looked up at us and said, "Gosh, I'm sorry. He never listens!"
"Don't be sorry. He's adorable!" Curtis gushed. "What's his name?"
Shameless, I thought again, as Joe told him what he already knew.
"Thursday! What a cute name! How'd you come up with that?"
"'Cause I adopted him on a Thursday," Joe said. "And it's the best day of the week. You have the whole weekend to look forward to."
"Oh my God. Today's Thursday!" Curtis said. "What are the chances?"
"About one in seven," I deadpanned.
Joe laughed, his face lighting up, then looked directly into my eyes. I held his gaze, feeling a little light-headed. I'd met celebrities before, but no one near this famous — or handsome.
Overwhelmed, I had to glance away for a second. When I looked back his way, he was still staring at me.
"I'm Joe, by the way," he said, extending his hand.
I gave him a half smile, then shook his hand. "I'm Cate. And this is Curtis."
"It's great to meet you both," he said, nodding earnestly.
"Oh, my goodness. Same," Curtis said. "I'm a big fan. Huge."
"Thanks, man," Joe mumbled. A fleeting but unmistakably uncomfortable look crossed his face. "So . . . what are you guys working on today? A movie?"
"No. It's a campaign for Calvin Klein," Curtis said, though we technically weren't supposed to be divulging any details of the shoot. "Cate is our talent. I'm sure you recognize her?"
I rolled my eyes and said, "I'm sure he doesn't."
"Actually," Joe said, staring at me with a look of deep concentration. "You do look familiar."
"Yeah, right," I said.
He wouldn't have been the first person to recognize me. But it was almost always girls or gay men, with an occasional creeper thrown in.
"I'm serious," Joe continued, his face becoming more earnest by the second. "You look really familiar." He squinted a little and then said, "Wait. Are you on a billboard near LaGuardia?"
"Oh my God, yes! She is!" Curtis said.
Joe looked smug as he gave me a wink. "Yep. I knew it. I never forget a face. Not one as pretty as yours anyway."
It was the kind of line that usually sounded cheesy, but Joe's delivery was so sincere that it disarmed me, and I could feel my heart flutter a little as I thanked him.
"So where are you from?" Joe asked me.
"You live there now?"
I shook my head and said, "No. Not since high school. I live in the city."
Joe nodded and said, "And how long have you been modeling?"
"Since I was sixteen," I said, wondering if he was really trying to discern whether I had gone to college. It was something a lot of people tried to figure out by asking the same sorts of questions.
"But she's way more than just a pretty face," Curtis chimed in. I shot him a look to tone it down, but he ignored it and continued to promote me. "She's a whole mood and nobody has more style. She could be the next Anna Wintour. Only not as mean."
"Maybe as mean," I said with a smile, hoping to shut Curtis up.
Joe laughed, then bit his lip and lowered his voice. "Well. I'll keep my eye out for you, for sure."
He seemed to be flirting with me, and I suddenly felt weak — butterflies-in-my-stomach and clammy-hands weak. I told myself to get a grip. Joe was just a charming guy — everyone knew that— and any second, he would move on with his dog and his day and his life.
But as the minutes passed, he stayed so focused, locked in on me, asking me more questions. Meanwhile, Thursday panted at our feet and Curtis fussed with his makeup kit, humming Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know."
"Well, I guess I should let you get back to work," he said after another few minutes of small talk.
"Yeah," I said, glancing over at the crew — who were clearly getting restless.
"Maybe I'll see you around at Bubby's or the Odeon," he said, two of the places I'd mentioned when he asked where I liked to hang out.
"Hopefully," he said, staring into my eyes again, his face so serious.
As he held my gaze, I felt the strangest sensation. A connection. It was almost as if I'd known him in another life — or at least for a long time in this one. I reminded myself that everyone probably felt this way when meeting Joe — that it was a function of his fame, along with all the photographs we'd seen of him over the years. We felt like we knew him, but that was obviously only one-sided, illusory.
A few seconds later, Joe asked for my phone number, saying he'd love to get together sometime. Before I could answer, Curtis was handing over one of his business cards, my name and number written on the back.
"Thanks, man," Joe said, grinning at Curtis. Then his face grew serious again as he gazed back at me, holding the card up. "So I can call you?" he said.
"Sure why not?" I said with a little shrug, doing my best to play it cool, telling myself that the chances of him actually calling were remote at best.
From the book Meant To Be by Emily Giffin. Copyright © 2022 by Emily Giffin. Published this month by Ballantine, an imprint of Random House Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
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