Now that de la Cruz is returning to adult fiction with her book The Birthday Girl, out August 2, there's even more cause for celebration. The Birthday Girl is thriller that will appeal to fans of Big Little Lies and Desperate Housewives — stories of glamorous women with the skeletons in the closet only half-buried, and about to tumble out from amid the designer clothing.
Ellie de Florent-Stinson objectively has it all: a thriving career as a fashion designer, a handsome husband, healthy and happy kids, and more than a few houses. But when a figure from her past shows up at her insanely lavish three-day 40th birthday party, secrets are spilled — and some people are all to happy to watch the aftermath unfold.
Below, you'll find the first chapter of The Birthday Girl. Let the twists begin. The following excerpt is published with permission of Penguin Random House.
Chapter One: Last-Minute Preparations
Ellie de Florent‐Stinson had made a point of telling everyone she knew that she’d bought the house in Palm Springs for her birthday, as a gift to self.
Renting a Palm Springs house for a celebration was practically a rite of passage among a certain Los Angeles set, a flurry of Paperless Post invites with the requisite Rat‐Pack‐in‐the‐desert themes landing in one’s inbox with a predictable thud over the years.
But Ellie always had to one‐up, take it to the next mile, power it beyond the goalpost and smash it on the turf while doing an illegal victory dance — so she had actually bought a house, for a little over two million. Renting was so bourgeois.
Her phone had been blowing up with texts from excited friends for weeks.
What should I bring??
Ellie snorted. This was no potluck. She texted, Yourself!
It was going to be perfect. Her fortieth birthday blowout at her new mid‐century‐modern pad that night was the pièce de résistance. She’d own in the designer of her favorite Parisian hotels to turn a neighboring farm‐to‐table (or weeds‐to‐shithole as her husband joked) restaurant into a louche nineteenth‐century Chinese opium den for the decadent after‐after‐party. (The first after‐party would be held at the Ace Hotel’s infamous Drag Queen Bingo bien sûr.) The designer had arrived the week before with real persimmons in tow (two euros each at the farmers market in Clignan‐court) to hang from the newly bejeweled rafters. For the past two days, her guests had enjoyed guided spirit walks, hot yoga, mind‐ fulness, tarot, and the Parker’s two hot tubs. She’d own in the majority of the motley crew from New York on Thursday night via YourJet, the semiprivate charter service app. The three‐day event had been arranged down to every last detail—she’d even coerced a new acquaintance, a prize‐winning novelist, to help write the children’s loving speeches to her.
The party at her new home, Gulf House (so named because its original owner was said to have been the CEO of Gulfstream), was the icing on the cake, the cherry on the sundae, the culmination of a yearlong bacchanalian observance of the commencement of her fortieth year on the planet.
Except nothing was going the way she’d planned.
The hydrangeas were wilting and it was only twelve o’clock, an hour before her first guests were due to arrive. Fully half the flowers had died from exposure to the harsh desert climate. Of course it was Ellie’s fault: She’d insisted on the fragile posies over the objections of her party planner and local florist, who had warned her that only sunflowers would be able to survive the desert heat. Ellie had nixed sunflowers as cheap, and so had to contend with the reality of the dead white blossoms. She wanted to scream, but instead texted Nathaniel, her long-suffering twenty-something assistant: THE!!! FLOWERS!! ARE!!! DYING!!!!! FIX IT!!!!!
Who knew October in Palm Springs would be as hot as Phoenix in July? Not Ellie. It was a goddamn one hundred ten degrees out, and even with the cloud of misters over the pool going at full blast, there was no denying it was as hot as Satan’s armpit in the backyard. She took some consolation in the postcard‐perfect golf course view, the sky a brilliant blue overhead. Plus, once the sun had set — four hours from now — it would be bearable. Right?
The house was situated in the south end of Palm Springs, in the old Canyon Country Club neighborhood, which was now called Indian Canyons because the land was leased from the tribe that owned it. Half the city sat on Native American land, hence the presence of casinos downtown. But Ellie insisted on calling it by its original name — the name of the country club when Frank Sinatra and Walt Disney used to golf there. If she’d been on the city council, she never would have allowed the name change. e older families bunkered down in the Vista Los Palmas neighborhood in the north end, which was supposedly more desirable because it wasn’t leased land. But it was windy over there, and the views of the mountains were better on the south side of town. She’d fallen in love with her neighborhood’s wide streets dotted with palm trees. Here in Indian Canyons, the homes weren’t hidden behind high hedges or walls, so everyone could see exactly how fabulous your house was.
Ellie could have bought in the neighboring desert city of Rancho Mirage, in the swank confines of Thunderbird, where Gerald Ford famously retired and Barack and Michelle Obama were rumored to have bought a vacation home. But Rancho struck her as one gated community after another, soulless, moneyed, and contemporary, whereas Palm Springs proper had a certain old-fashioned cachet, a stardusting of Hollywood history. e house was on a double corner lot and had practically a three‐hundred‐sixty‐degree view of the golf course and the San Jacinto mountain range. She’d fallen in love the minute she walked through its double‐height double doors painted in a cheery yellow, almost exactly three months ago.
“The second DJ is here,” announced Lynn, her housekeeper from Los Angeles who’d agreed to work the weekend and who was plucking out dead hydrangeas from the oral arrangements and making them look lopsided. “Where should we put him?”
“In the game room,” she replied.
“Second DJ?” asked her husband, Todd, walking into the terrazzo‐floored living room and rolling his eyes. “Do we have two catering companies too? Or five? How many people are coming tonight anyway?”
“A bunch,” she said airily. Ellie tried never to answer his questions directly. How much was that handbag/bracelet/haircut/second house? “A lot.” Where are you going? “Out.” What time will you be home? “Later.”
They’d been in love, once. They even used to have sex — remember sex? Sure, married sex and all the lameness that phrase implied — hurried‐before‐the‐kids‐got‐up or fatigued‐after‐the‐kids‐went‐to‐sleep kind of sex — but now she couldn’t even remember the last time they’d done the deed. No wonder she was so uptight. It was ten years since that weekend in St. Barts when they’d pledged their trough — or was it troth? A trough was the thing pigs ate from, she thought. Although perhaps trough was the more appropriate word, now that Todd had gained fifty pounds after going on anti-anxiety, anti-depression, anti-everything meds. Paging Todd’s libido! Or maybe it wasn’t the meds at all; just because he wasn’t sleeping with her didn’t mean he wasn’t sleeping around, did it?
Did she even care if he was?
No matter, Ellie would get everything photoshopped to perfection later. Too bad there wasn’t a Valencia filter to smooth out memories.
Melissa de la Cruz
There they were, captured in that photograph in a silver frame resting on the piano. The four of them gathered near the shoreline: Todd — tall, dark‐haired, as handsome as the former‐actor‐turned-laid-off-network-executive he was, snuggling his then eight‐year old daughter, Sam, the two of them looking adorable in matching white‐on‐white linen suits. They stood next to Ellie in her one-of-a-kind Alexandre Vauthier wedding gown flown direct from the designer’s French atelier, the neckline falling o her bronze shoulder just so. It was the type of gown that should have rocked St. Paul’s Cathedral to the awe of five hundred guests — ornate, ruffled, sequined, hand-sewn-by-blind-Belgian-nuns-type couture. Instead, Ellie had worn her long blond hair down and disheveled, looking like a goddess standing barefoot on that white sand beach, carrying baby Giggy in a matching lace sling. Their blended family was even more beautiful than a traditional one because you could read the hope and survival in Sam’s mixed Chino-Anglo features, Todd’s artfully unshaven chin, Giggy’s quintessentially docile English baby face, and Ellie’s defiant smile.
Now Todd was puffy in the face, red in the eye, sour in the disposition, less employed than he’d ever been, and possibly cheating on her; Sam, who’d always been her favorite, seemed to hate her guts; Giggy, who was ten years old, still couldn’t read despite a quarter million dollars a year spent on private tutoring; six‐year-old twins Elijah and Otis were surely causing their usual mayhem somewhere in the house; and Ellie’s long‐anticipated fortieth birthday party was teetering on disaster.
No matter, Ellie would get everything photoshopped to perfection later. Too bad there wasn’t a Valencia filter to smooth out memories.
“Is Lord Fauntleroy coming?” Todd asked, using his favorite nickname for Giggy’s biological dad.
“Of course Archer’s coming,” Ellie snapped. “You know that.”
Ellie had invited everyone in her life to her fortieth birthdayparty in the same exact way that she’d invited everyone she knew — however barely — to her wedding ten years ago. She’d sent envelopes to the likes of Marc Jacobs, Karl Lagerfeld, and Anna Wintour. Privately, Ellie was a little embarrassed at her neediness, her graspy-ness, her reach.
But she couldn’t help herself. She wanted more. She’d wanted desperately to be personal friends with Marc, Karl, and Anna, and even if all three had returned the response cards with polite regrets (carefully preserved in her wedding memory box), she was glad she’d tried. She’d had the sense not to invite them to her birthday party, instead focusing on the nouveau riche LA circle they ran in — parent friends from the kids’ private schools, old friends from the garment trade in New York and London, a few boldfaced names from Todd’s past, and rich couples they’d met at American Express Black Card events.
Of course she’d invited her first husband, Archer de Florent. It was only right since Giggy —Imogen — spent two weeks with him in London every year. Archer was almost twice Ellie’s age, and at seventy‐eight still wore his crisp bespoke white shirts unbuttoned down to his navel (to show off his year-round Caribbean tan) and tucked into his too-tight jeans. He’d surely be bringing one of his post-pubescent-looking girlfriends tonight. Artists, actresses, dreamers, and gold diggers all.
She’d been one of those girls once, sitting cross-legged on his yacht in a gold string bikini, all of seventeen, Archer smiling wolfishly from the captain’s chair. They’d met on the circuit in St. Tropez.
Except instead of just a sore ass and a smile, Ellie had won the mother lode, so to speak, by securing the de Florent fortune. Back then, Archer couldn’t wait to pop Ellie’s cherry, couldn’t believe he was so lucky, that he was her first (or so she’d told him), and he’d proposed and promised this gorgeous thing anything she wanted. She’d asked if she could give him a child once they were married, and he’d agreed. But before they tied the knot, they broke up a couple of times, finally marrying when she was twenty‐two. She wanted a baby immediately, except the time was never quite right. Archer kept postponing it, and when she finally got pregnant, she was almost thirty and they were on the verge of divorce.
Ellie looked like she’d grown up in Connecticut hedge fund country and summered in Maine, with her thick flaxen hair (colored by the best, the same team that did Gwyneth’s), a tiny, perfect nose (sculpted by the best, the same team that did actresses whose names can’t be divulged), a deliberately crooked grin ( awed is more perfect than perfect because otherwise she’d look like a soap star-cheap), and golden tan, the kind of girl from whom American dreams were made. But in truth she was from a veritable trailer park, with a deadbeat dad and a scarred, world-weary mom in the withered branches of her family tree.
Not that Archer knew or cared about any of it, not when he’d married her, and not when they’d fucked in the penthouse suite of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong to conceive Imogen. She’d forced his secretary to put it on his schedule and divert him from his meeting in Bahrain since Ellie was taking fertility drugs and ovulating. No matter that they were hardly speaking by then and hated each other’s guts. He’d promised her a child and, boy, was he going to give her one.
Ellie had just finalized her divorce from Archer, and Giggy was four months old, when she met Todd, and for the first five years of her life, Todd was the only father Giggy ever knew. He’d wanted to give Giggy his last name even, and Ellie had considered it for a brief moment, but familial unity was no match for half the land in Norfolk, Beaumont Castle, and family history that went back to the sixth Earl of Surrey and a Viceroy of India — Archer’s great‐grandfathers, naturally. Imogen even had a title. Technically, she was Lady Imogen de Florent. Technically, Ellie had a title too, but she never used it; not even she would assume to reach that high. She wasn’t a tacky Real Housewife.
Besides, six years ago, she and Todd had finally gotten their own little miracle. Two, to be exact. As if on cue, the twins ran in with jelly hands, sticky, fighting as usual.
“Eli! Otis! Stop that!” she yelled as they ran around the dining table, leaving handprints on the tablecloth.
She was turning forty, her company was worth thirty million dollars, she was “happily married” (a stretch, but they weren’t getting divorced yet, so that was something), she had four gorgeous children (counting Sam, which she always did), and it was time to celebrate in this fabulous new house that she had bought fully furnished just two months ago.
It was going to be grand. Everyone who was everyone, everyone who mattered in her life, was going to be there tonight.
Her phone buzzed with yet another text. Assuming it wasNathaniel, her assistant, again, she started to type FUCK THE HYDRANGEAS GET ME SOME SUNFLOWERS when she saw the name on the screen.
Talk about a blast from the past.
Before she was Ellie de Florent‐Stinson. Before she was herself, really.
Happy birthday, girl.
The text came with a photo — taken twenty‐four years ago. Sweet Sixteen, sigh. Could it really have been twenty-four years ago that she had been that young girl in that picture?
There she was, in all her glory. Her hair all over her face, her smile, wary instead of megawatt, her clothes, cheap and ill-fitting.
Another text: See you tonight.
A promise or a threat? Was she feeling butterflies or tasting bile? She looked at him in the photo, standing next to her, so handsome and so young.
It was her fortieth birthday. All the important people in her life would be there. Including him.