In We Are the Kings, Ariane Torres’ debut novel, women are front and center. The narrator is a young woman named Marcella, and the story—part mystery, part family history—introduces women across generations of Marcella’s family.
For Torres, it’s an opportunity not only to pay tribute to the women in her own life, but also to give voices to these women, particularly her grandmothers, who, because of the times they lived in, may have stood in the shadows of their male counterparts.
“That generation of women had limitations based on their gender that were very profound,” Torres says. “All of them were very strong characters in life, and I always thought of them as incredibly powerful people. But they didn’t necessarily think of themselves as powerful.” That’s one of the main themes of We Are the Kings, which takes place largely during the aftermath of the death of Marcella’s beloved grandmother Adele. But it’s a book that might not have gotten written had it not been for major changes in Torres’ own life.
At Mount Holyoke College, Torres majored in Russian studies and English literature. Her two graduate degrees at Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and Columbia University focused on prison architecture and aging in prison, respectively. “I spent a lot of time with people in prison for violent offenses, and I was really blown away by their humanity,” Torres says. “It made me think differently about human nature and why certain people end up in situations where violence becomes a way of life.…I was really interested and committed in helping in ways that I could.”
But Torres got married and had kids and, in 2014, made a move with her family to Massachusetts, where she had a hard time finding work in prison advocacy. She began doing some freelance interior design work, and that’s also when writing—something she had thought about since her college days—began in earnest. “I guess a part of me always wanted to write, but I was nervous about it,” Torres says. “I didn’t know how that would look or what I would write.…This story started coming to life in my mind, but I felt insecure [about just trying] to do it. I didn’t really talk about it until I got together with my husband. He said, ‘If it’s something you want to try to do, then try to do it.’ ”
Regarding writing, Torres’ Russian history adviser had told her, “Unless you have a story you feel compelled to tell, don’t do it.” She found that story close to home, shaped by the relationships she had with four grandmothers (both of her parents had stepparents) and a trip she made to Africa with her father’s mother in 2009.
“That was the last time we spent a lot of time together before she died,” Torres says. “That started something within me. These characters sort of came to life.”
Adele is an amalgam of all of the author’s grandmothers, and Torres paints an indelible portrait of her early on in her novel:
She had her legs crossed and was absentmindedly bouncing her snakeskin Ferragamo slide against the bottom of her foot. Her golden-white hair was perfectly coiffed, with gentle voluminous curls framing her golden-tan, lined face. She was wearing coral lipstick, white linen pants, and a camel-colored cashmere sweater. In one hand she held her wine glass. Her long, never-chipped fingernails were painted dark red, like her toenails.
Adele’s death propels the action of We Are the Kings, as Marcella unearths family secrets while grieving her grandmother’s passing. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews calls the novel “an intimate and remarkable family saga.”
Adele is probably most closely related to Torres’ father’s stepmother, whom she adored. “She died when I was in college, and it was just a horrible, horrible shock,” the author recalls. “I remember recognizing that I had just started getting to know her as an adult.”
Like Adele in We Are the Kings, Torres’ grandmothers were smart, accomplished women who were somewhat dominated by the presence of their husbands. That theme resonates throughout Torres’ novel and provides her with the title. We Are the Kings refers to the women at the forefront of the novel, ascending to the power they had but that may not have been recognized because of their gender. Finally, they’re telling their stories.
“The title is really about how do we all think about our stories and what stories we tell,” Torres says. “If we have this power to tell our stories, what are we going to do with it?”
Art imitates life in some instances in We Are the Kings. “Marcella has this realization in reading Virginia Woolf’s novels that women have the power to tell [their] stories or not, or to tell their stories differently,” Torres says. “She’s trying to express that to her grandmother and realizes her grandmother had already read Virginia Woolf and come to that conclusion herself. Marcella had not thought to talk to her grandmother about literature. I experienced that, too. I had instances of, Why didn’t I speak to my grandmother about history and politics?”
“The undercurrents of sexism and patriarchy are kind of strong,” Torres adds. “Without meaning to ignore my grandmothers, I sort of thought of my grandfathers as more knowledgeable about worldly things.”
When Torres was writing We Are the Kings, progress came in fits and starts. “The book actually started out being told from multiple perspectives,” she says. “I did a number of drafts like that, but I thought it was a little too hazy and might work best with one narrative. I thought Marcella would be the strongest, clearest kind of vehicle for all the women’s stories. The process took about three years.”
Torres, not surprisingly, mentions Virginia Woolf at the top of her list of favorite authors, but there are others—Iris Murdoch, Roberto Bolaño, Gabriel García Márquez, Heinrich Boll. “More recently, I love Elena Ferrante,” she says. “I love literary biographies and history. I probably read more nonfiction at this point than I do fiction.”
Torres, who lives with her family in Somerville, Massachusetts, is already at work on a second novel, loosely based on a period of her life when she lived in New York. “It’s about a friendship that unfolds over about 20 years,” she says. “Unsurprisingly, it’s about women’s stories.”
Alec Harvey, former president of the Society for Features Journalism, is a freelance writer based in Alabama.