Finally, a Cure for Eldest Daughter Syndrome! On Alexandra Tanner’s “Worry”

By Leah AbramsMarch 25, 2024

Finally, a Cure for Eldest Daughter Syndrome! On Alexandra Tanner’s “Worry”

Worry by Alexandra Tanner

BIG SISTERS ARE bullies. Big sisters have trauma. Big sisters are tired. They’ve been diagnosed with “eldest daughter syndrome”—for which there is no known cure. Are you the eldest daughter of an immigrant household or are you normal?

Take it from a certain corner of the internet and big sisters are schlepping the whole world on their shoulders—the burden of care that accompanies their gender, the pressure to succeed that plagues every firstborn, the warped combination of the two that makes them lonely, mediating, bossy little bitches, strapped with all the responsibility of motherhood but none of the respect.

This is stupid. Like all memes, its relatability comes at the expense of precision. Big sisterhood is not some universally potent cross to bear, any more than flat feet or high cholesterol or being a Gemini. Which is to say, on its own, it tells us a little bit about a person, not everything. But if a Big Sister Manifesto did exist, one that captured the hypocrisies of the role along with the heroism, the joy along with the pain, then Alexandra Tanner has come as close as it gets with her debut novel, Worry (2024).

The year is 2019 and the big sister in question is Jules Gold, a wannabe writer haunted by a tragicomic Greek chorus of alt-right, anti-vax mommy bloggers she follows from a burner account on Instagram. Perhaps Jules finds comfort in the company of these fascist fatales, who hit the same brain button of love-hate that she feels for her own mother: a Floridian boomer careening down the internet slip-and-slide of disinformation. Mother is, after all, the first object of love.

Jules pretends that she follows these women for “research,” but even she sees through this glass facade. Because, beloved—research for what? She works a remote job from her apartment in Brooklyn, occasionally fucks her unemployed ex for weed gummies, and vaguely contemplates writing a brilliant essay on Jewish American assimilation but never quite gets around to it. In other words, Jules lives a boring, solitary life. Solitary, that is, until the novel’s opening scene, when her younger sister Poppy arrives at her door, covered in hives, and stays, and stays, and stays.

The sisters needle each other. Jules tells Poppy to stop itching her hives. Poppy pulls her eyelids away from her eyeballs, which she knows repulses Jules. Jules steals Poppy’s coat, then considers telling her it’s ugly so that she can keep it forever. Poppy complains about her period; Jules objects—she’s not special because she has a bad period. Everybody has a bad period!

“We’re, like, literally the same person,” Jules tells Poppy in one cutting fight. It is not meant as a compliment. Deep down, Jules takes her art seriously, but she coats it in layers of irony for fear of flubbing her own high standards. Poppy, then, is a mirror, a human reminder of Jules’s own artistic failings—her lack of focus; her penchant for hysterics; her susceptibility to manipulation by her mother, her rivals, and her niche internet micro-influencers. Living, breathing evidence that Jules is not so special herself.

The question of which one of them is special (if either) sits at the core of the novel. They see a play together, an updated version of an unnamed Greek tragedy told using TikTok and Uber. Predictably, they hate it, sparking a cold war between the two as they fester over their respective places in a world of “dead art.” “We hate big ideas and big emotions. The Greeks felt but we don’t feel,” Poppy says. Even if Jules agrees, it’s hard not to take it as a slight. What has she been doing with her flailing writing, if not trying to feel?

So Poppy sends a long apology text from the blowup mattress in her makeshift room, saying that “all her life all she’s done is listen to [Jules’s] ideas about art and movies and television and internalize them […] and now she’s in her twenties and doesn’t know what parts of her are real.” She lives in Jules’s house; she wears Jules’s clothes; at one point, she even works Jules’s old job. Jules gives the message a thumbs-up react. This is just one of many times throughout the novel that the sisters make up through a wall—neither capable of walking down the hall, neither wounded enough to walk out the door altogether.

“If there is anyone who hates a young English lady more than does her mother, it is her elder sister,” Freud wrote in his General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1917), misquoting George Bernard Shaw. His interpretation may not have been what Shaw was getting at in Man and Superman (1903), but it perfectly describes the predicament of Jules and Poppy, who were condemned to competition from the very beginning.

In a classic triangulation that would surely make Freud jizz his pants, the Golds’ mother constantly pits the two against each other, shitting on one sister to endear the other, ignoring one to manipulate the other, simultaneously confounding and enchanting both by withholding her love and then relinquishing in tiny, ineffectual bursts. One gets the sense that if only the mother would get out of the way, the two would be best friends, confidantes, eternal allies.

But the mother, of course, does not get out of the way (does she ever?). “All anyone wants,” Jules says, after she and Poppy are dishonorably discharged from Thanksgiving at their parents’ house, “is to be mothered. Taken care of.”

Jules tries to show Poppy love in the only ways she knows how: by buying her things (a bed that never gets built) and nagging at her (to get new, better friends). If it sounds familiar, well—that’s the point. Mother Gold lurks in the wings, just an Instagram DM away.

In the end, it is little sister Poppy, not Jules, who manages to break the cycle. It is Poppy who convinces Jules that they should adopt a small tripod dog named Amy Klobuchar. It is Poppy who goes to therapy and learns how to communicate her emotions rather than smoke-signal them. It is Poppy who books an Airbnb in the Hamptons just for the two of them, a chance to form their own traditions. Score one for the little sisters.

“We can trade responsibility, you know,” Poppy says, “like, over time, who gets the thoughtful gift and who gets the not thoughtful gift. We have our whole lives. We don’t have to be perfect. God, stop crying.

Jules can’t stop. The book was pitched as Seinfeldian—and sometimes the plot leans too far in that direction. With so few other characters given meaningful development across the novel’s 300 pages, our universe is restricted to Jules and Poppy, both of whom are prone to navel-gazing and self-sabotage. Maybe in an effort to distinguish the beats, Tanner has a habit of tipping her hat to real people, places, and events: the aforementioned Amy Klobuchar, a Co–Star analogue called “Starlab,” the flat Earth movement and its warped antisemitic underpinnings. Occasionally, she overplays her hand, winking too hard at the reader with a set of references that were niche in 2019, when the novel is set, but now feel horrifically mainstream.

Still, if the scope feels claustrophobic and repetitive, it is a testament to Tanner’s realism—because isn’t life as an internet addict claustrophobic and repetitive? The relationship is tenderly, torturously portrayed in loving jabs and vicious blows and a thousand unspoken I Love Yous through bathroom doors and deleted texts. The dialogue is spot-on, the anxieties real and compelling, and the prose is understated but assured. Present-tense sentences plop out at a zippy clip, until suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Tanner lets rip a long, beautiful, multi-clauser, and the reader is left reeling under the weight of Jules’s neuroses.

Tapping into millennial cultural fascination with female friendship, arrested development, and adult “girlies,” Worry reads like a novelistic take on Broad City (2014–19). The depth of the portrait of these two sisters calls to mind other great literary depictions of female duos—Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Like Ferrante and Heti before her, Tanner has constructed a layered Künstlerroman, an artist’s novel about two artists coming to maturity. But where Lenú and Lila are repressed and destructive and Sheila and Margaux are daring and spontaneous, Jules and Poppy are anxious, unsure.

The critic Sarah Chihaya proposed in 2015 that Ferrante’s Lenú and Lila are compelled by the joint “desire for definition”—the urge to be clearly legible to another. This, perhaps, is where Jules and Poppy diverge most from their foremothers. If anything, they are too legible—to each other and to the world. Jules takes a gig writing horoscopes for Starlab and finds it painfully easy to peg people into types. Every meme can be “me”; every shitpost has already been shat. In contrast to Lenú and Lila before them, Poppy and Jules are begging, screaming to do something illegible—to be unpredictable for once in their lives. In fact, it’s Poppy’s ability to surprise that Jules envies most, even when the surprise is just another round of hives.

Sitting alone on the beach in the book’s final pages, the waves soaking her shoes and socks, Jules reads a montage of Instagram captions that crescendoes in the resonant staccato of doomsday rapture and rage. One thinks of Don DeLillo’s 1983 story “Human Moments in World War III,” in which the naive engineer Vollmer gazes down at Earth from above, stunned into quiet awe. DeLillo’s narrator observes its effect on him, saying,

It satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars, whatever obsessions eat at the night side of his mind […] all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.

Agape at the edge of her own digital universe, Jules seems to find the same sense of peace—or at the very least, the perverse silence of sated curiosity. She doesn’t have to choose between mommy or baby, big or little, legible or mysterious. There is so much more space than that, inside her phone and just beyond it.

“Life isn’t that hard,” Jules says to Poppy, just before adding: “But it’s a little hard.”

LARB Contributor

Leah Abrams is a Brooklyn-based writer originally from North Carolina. She is the co-host of Limousine, a reading series.


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