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Read With Jenna author Tara Conklin previews her next novel, 'Community Board'

Read With Jenna author Tara Conklin previews her next novel, 'Community Board'
Courtesy Mary Grace Long

Tara Conklin will go down in Read With Jenna history as the author of the book club's first-ever pick. Jenna described her last novel "The Last Romantics" as a book she was "dying to read" when she first heard about it — and you're now among the first to hear about "Community Board," her next book coming out in March 2023.

"Community Board" is set in the quiet suburban New England town of Murbridge, Mass., where things keep disappearing, and where Darcy Clipper has gone to find herself. Darcy moves home after a series of calamities. She tries to use the town's online community board as a way to, well, build community, but it doesn't go to plan.

Speaking to TODAY, Conklin said the novel was inspired by watching drama unfold on her town's online community board. "The original inspiration came from my local NextDoor neighborhood site, which contains more daily drama, humor and absurdity than most novels I’ve read. It also seemed like a fun writerly puzzle to construct a book in the form of an online message board," she said.

"Once COVID hit, however, the book’s purpose shifted from fun puzzle to personal survival. Writing it was basically how I stopped myself from going quietly insane during quarantine, home schooling, isolation, fear, rapid tests. I desperately needed something to make me laugh, so I wrote 'Community Board,'" she said.

Conklin said she "absolutely loved" seeing the cover, which TODAY is previewing exclusively. "The drawings are taken directly from scenes in the story. I think the toile style lends a sort of nostalgic timelessness to the images, which perfectly reflects some of the book’s historical ideas: that today’s problems aren’t new, people with different opinions have always had trouble getting along. But then the shock of neon pink makes it clear that this novel is entirely modern," she said.

Below, find an excerpt of the novel. While reading, here are the questions Conklin hopes readers ask themselves: "What do I want my community to look like? How can I help make that happen? How can I be a better neighbor, family member, friend? And: hmm… where did I put that can of chickpeas?"

Read a preview of 'Community Board'

It was 11:32 a.m., day 15 of my period of self-imposed isolation and canned food consumption. I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. A dream from the night before appeared like smoke, a shifting ghostly vision that faded even as I struggled to keep it intact: a giant bird flying against a gray, cold sky and me, watching from below, as the bird approached. I knew that the bird meant me harm, I knew I should run, but my limbs were leaden, my entire body paralyzed. As this horrible creature stretched out its razor-sharp talons to grab me or gouge out my eyes or slash at my face, I saw that its nails were painted lavender.

Fred! I called to my absent fern. What happened? Where did I go wrong?

I sat up and pulled my laptop onto my lap. Why Bianca? Why my Skip? I did what any self-respecting twenty-first-century jilted lover with free high-speed internet would do: I began to cyberstalk my husband’s new girlfriend.

I scrutinized Bianca’s accounts: Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest. Bianca was a woman who liked scented candles and axe-throwing. She cooked a mean veggie chili and belonged to the Association for the Prevention of Pet Obesity. On Facebook, she followed James Blunt and Angela Merkel. Late last year, per Pinterest, Bianca considered renovating her basement into a mother-in-law-apartment unit. Rental income. I gathered from her numerous public posts and queries re knockoff Gucci that skydiving did not place Bianca at the income level she desired and believed she truly deserved.

Fred, I called from my bed, do you think Bianca wants Skip for his money? Skip doesn’t make much, but I’m guessing more than a skydiver. Recreational industries tragically underpay their employees. You’re better off as a kindergarten teacher.

I looked again at Bianca’s online Pinterest boards. What’s that you say, Fred? More research needed? I think you’re right. Let’s get on it.

The scenario made perfect sense. Skip had fallen victim to a scheme. Instead of an email from a Nigerian prince requesting a wire transfer, Bianca struck in the flesh. She appeared in a silken jumpsuit and presented her case. Was it illness? A lost inheritance? A hostage situation? All sorts of people fall victim to the clever shenanigans of financial tricksters. Very intelligent people, members of Mensa and the United Nations and whatnot.

I moved from my bed to the couch, bringing the comforter with me. No, I am not suggesting that Skip is a member of Mensa. Far from it. I believe he’s of extremely average intelligence. He never told me his SAT scores, though I certainly asked, and we both got straight As in junior college, but Skip generally copied my work, so there you go. What he does possess is a high degree of dopey innocence and a trusting nature that undoubtedly would play right into the hands of a person like Bianca. Or a person like the kind of person I imagine Bianca to be.

"Community Board", by Tara Conklin

But Pinterest, in the end, proved me wrong. If you were to spend the better part of a day perusing the Pinterest boards of a twenty-something single woman with a job and domicile (rented or owned, doesn’t matter), no kids and a pet smaller than your average handbag, you would learn all there was to know about her. Every desire, every plan, every preference, every budget range, every clothing choice and favorite muffin recipe—there for all to see. It was here

I found that in addition to the mother-in-law unit, Bianca had also posted boards for a spa bathroom and newfangled kitchen with hand-built cabinets. And, most recently, a child’s nursery complete with elephant wallpaper and a mobile of tiny crocheted skydivers. Bianca, it seemed, had sufficient funds to remodel her home in true Joanna Gaines fashion without Skip’s contributions. Even worse, she must truly envision a future mother-in-law someday residing within that mother-in-law apartment.

Oh Fred, I mumbled. This is horrible.

As an image of Skip’s mom, Eunice, living in Bianca’s basement rose in my mind, I closed my eyes. Tears, which I’d managed to avoid for at least thirteen hours, returned. Some images are too painful to sustain. Eunice and I always got along famously. That’s how Eunice put it: famously. She was a grand dame who smoked long thin cigarettes and ate peanuts out of the shell. Her teeth, not so great. But her hairdos! She visited the salon every week for a shampoo, blowout and style. Every week, a different sort of updo or twist, long luscious waves or corkscrew curls.

I missed Eunice. Why hadn’t she called me? I imagined the fun she must be having with Bianca. I imagined the two of them sitting side by side at the nail salon. Eunice, red; Bianca, lavender.

Now, you are a delightful daughter-in-law! Eunice exclaims. Thank goodness Skip got rid of that downer Darcy.

Oh Eunice, Bianca replies. You are the best. Already I love you like a mother. And I promise to give you oodles of grandchildren.

At the thought of children, my tears turned to full-on weeping, snotty-nose blowing, asthmatic lung heaving. Eunice had wanted nothing more than to be a grandmother. I’d tried, I’d tried so hard but—

And then, I heard a voice calling my name. I wiped my eyes.

Fred? I whispered. Is that really you?

A knock at the door.

Darcy, dear, it’s Mrs. Pevzner, said the voice. Your parents asked me to check on you.

A shock ran through me. Paralysis struck. I remained on the couch, moving not one muscle.

Darcy, your parents are very worried. Please let me just get a look at you. They want to make sure you’re not bludgeoned. Oh, and Todd says hello! His kids are so darn cute dressed all alike—I brought photos. Darcy? Dear? Are you bludgeoned? Darcy?

A pause. I grabbed a tissue and silently wiped my nose. The need to avoid Mrs. Pevzner immediately and completely eclipsed the need to weep dramatically over my personal predicament. I could not, under any circumstances, face my high school boyfriend’s mother at this moment.

The pause lengthened. Outside, snow began to fall in slow, fat flakes.

Had she left?

No. Mrs. Pevzner was just gathering strength.

Darcy, dear, I know you and Todd didn’t end on the best of terms, she shouted through the door. He told me about the parking brake incident. I’m so sorry, Darcy, it sounds just terrible. And on prom night! But that was so long ago. And look how you both turned out! If I could look at you, that is, I could see how you’ve turned out. That’s all I need, Darcy, just one look. Remember, I’m not here to ask questions. I’m only here to verify that you’re still among the living. No bludgeoning. No sudden asphyxiation or hair dryer in the tub. Poisonous spiders. Carbon monoxide. Undiagnosed heart condition. Darcy, you know how your mother worries.

Another pause. I held my breath.

And Darcy? I’ve brought you some blondies. Coconut caramel, which honestly is too sweet for my taste—five cups of sugar in every batch!—but Todd just loves them. They always sell out at the school bake sale and I send boxes out to the grandkids in Utah.

Darcy? Please come to the door.

Darcy? Please.

Please, Darcy.


Finally Mrs. Pevzner’s voice grew hoarse and I heard the distinct sound of a mildly overweight, incredibly annoyed sixty-five-year-old stomping down my front steps. Slowly, I removed myself from the couch and peeked outside. She’d left two things: a path carved in the snow from front door to sidewalk, and a round pink Tupperware full of blondies. I ate them all in one sitting.

From Community Board by Tara Conklin, published by Mariner Books. Copyright © 2023 by Tara Conklin. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers book link