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Jenna Bush Hager says her June 2023 book pick will 'make you laugh and cry'

She said the bittersweet book makes for perfect summer reading.
RWJ June Pick

Funerals are for the living. That’s the ethos behind Jenna Bush Hager’s June 2023 Read With Jenna pick.

The Celebrants” by Steven Rowley is, according to Jenna, “the perfect summer book.” She says “it’ll make you cry on one page and laugh hysterically on the other.”

The book follows a group of friends who meet at UC Berkeley and stay in each other’s lives thanks to an unusual pact.

“Imagine your group of friends from college who know you better than anybody else. Who knew you before your marriages, your kids, your jobs,” Jenna says. “Upon losing one of their dearest friends, this group decides they’re going to meet and celebrate with each other when one of them needs it most.”

In short, “They get together and have basically living funerals where they tell each other how much they love each other.”

"The Celebrants" by Steven Rowley

Spanning decades, the book is broken up into a series of “funerals,” as the friends guide one another through the crises of life, not always delicately. They gathered when Marielle dealt with her divorce; when Naomi’s parents died; when Craig pleaded guilty to art fraud. Now, the Jordans — the nickname of a married couple in the friend group — have called the pact with a secret of their own.

Speaking to TODAY, author Rowley, the bestselling author who also wrote the book “The Guncle,” says the book was inspired by a loss in his own close-knit college friend group.

“I lost one of my best friends from college to breast cancer. There’s something about losing a friend, a contemporary, that makes you think about your own mortality,” he says. “When you lose a friend, it’s very hard to explain your grief in a way that's easy for everybody to understand.”

Around the time his friend died, Rowley had a trip planned and was deciding whether to keep his plans or go to the funeral. “Every single person told me, ‘She would want you to go.’ The phrase ‘Funerals for the living’ was repeated to me over and over again. That sparked something in me,” he says.

Writing “The Celebrants,” he says, brought him a sense of peace, especially since one of the characters in the book is grappling with a cancer diagnosis of his own.

“That’s what writers do — we take some kernel of what we’re wrestling with and we’re able to build characters around it. I don’t know if complete resolution is possible, but I’m at peace with the situation and what loss was,” he says.

As for whether he’d want to be at his own funeral? As a writer, Rowley says he’s not comfortable as the center of attention. Writing “The Celebrants” means he doesn’t need to wait. “This book has inspired me to reach out to people and tell them what they mean to me. I’m not waiting for an opportunity as formal as a living funeral,” he says.

“Particularly after the last few years we’ve had. We’ve lost so much over the last few years. If it’s not losing a person, we’ve lost time. We’ve lost togetherness. My way of dealing with it is wanting to tell people that they’re important to me.”