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I know I’m not the only book person who loves You’ve Got Mail, Nora Ephron’s 1998 romantic comedy that celebrates bookstores, New York in the fall, and the importance of caviar as a garnish. It is full of quotable lines and charming scenes about why books are great. I’ve often wanted to wander into the movie’s adorable children’s bookstore Shop Around the Corner and ask for some book recommendations. But do I have any books for You’ve Got Mail characters?
Yes, of course I do. One of the interesting things about You’ve Got Mail 22 years later is that it feels like a cozy, rose-colored, nostalgic look back at the era when big-box bookstores were wildly successful. With the dominance of Amazon, that era now feels very far away. It’s easy to imagine a 2021 sequel about Fox Books being pushed out of business by Amazon. That got me wondering how have the characters might have changed in the years since the events of the movie. And more importantly, what books they should be reading in 2021.
Read on for my reading recommendations for You’ve Got Mail characters! (And a little bit of fanfiction about what they’re up to 22 years after the events of the movie.)
Reading Recommendations for You’ve Got Mail Characters
Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan)
Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin
After years of running a children’s bookshop, no doubt Kathleen has great taste and strong instincts for what books will sell. At one point, Joe’s girlfriend, Patricia, a publishing executive, says she wants to offer Kathleen a job as an editor. So, let’s imagine Kathleen does in fact take up that offer and works as a children’s book editor for a while. Maybe she even becomes an editorial director or publisher — but then, in search of more independence, I think she quits to become an agent. Thanks to her business lessons from Joe and The Godfather, she’s ready to strike out on her own again.
So what do I think Kathleen needs to read in 2021? I wouldn’t recommend her a children’s book (she’s read them all!), but Uzma Jalaluddin’s Hana Khan Carries On, a charming adult novel inspired by You’ve Got Mail and set in the restaurant world. Hana works at a halal restaurant — the only one in her neighborhood — and dreams of becoming a radio broadcaster. Right now, she’s working on her podcast and developing a friendship with one listener in particular. When a new halal restaurant opens in the area, complete with a handsome young owner, things get complicated. And when Hana’s aunt and cousin arrive from India for a visit, well, they get really complicated.
Joe Fox (Tom Hanks)
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
Look, I know. This character only works through the sheer force of Tom Hanks’s charm. Very few actors can appeal in the role of unrepentant capitalist who puts his dream woman’s bookshop for children out of business. So it’s kind of fun to imagine Joe getting his comeuppance. I imagine Fox Books (that’s F-O-X) goes out of business after the 2008 financial crisis. Joe is the third generation of Foxes, which means he isn’t hurting for money, but he struggles to redefine who he is without his family business (and realizes anew what a jerk he was to Kathleen in 1998). He tosses around the idea of opening an indie bookstore (Kathleen rolls her eyes) before deciding to write a book of life lessons inspired by The Godfather and his other favorite books and movies. It sells moderately well.
I’d recommend Joe read something that takes him out of his narrow rich white man perspective. I’m thinking They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib: very smart essays that seek to better understand our world through music and other forms of pop culture.
Patricia Eden (Parker Posey)
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Patricia, a publishing executive, is Joe’s girlfriend for most of the movie, until they break up in an elevator. By 2021, Patricia is obviously running her own publishing company. Parker Posey in this movie is one of several delightful supporting performances — her absolute commitment to self-interest is hilarious. As Joe says, “Patricia makes coffee nervous.” She recognizes literary potential instantly, whether it’s offering Kathleen a job or noting that Kathleen’s boyfriend Frank has fascinating opinions. She’s the kind of character who has memorized Lean In. If Younger exists in the extended You’ve Got Mail universe, Patricia works for the show writers as a publishing industry consultant.
So what’s a successful business lady who’s read everything going to read in 2021? I think Patricia needs something that will encourage her to question her assumptions about her industry. The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is just the thing. Harris’s buzzy debut is an electric thriller set in the publishing world. It’s about Nella, an editorial assistant in her 20s who’s both used to and fed up with being the only Black employee at a prestigious publishing house. But when Hazel, another Black woman, is hired and a series of events make it clear that the new girl is becoming the office darling, Nella starts receiving notes telling her to leave her job. As she digs into what’s going on, she discovers there’s a lot more at stake than just a job.
Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear)
Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo
Oh, Frank. Frank is Kathleen’s left-wing journalist boyfriend, who has a lot of opinions about modern life and the internet. Greg Kinnear is haplessly charming in this role, but Frank would be so annoying in real life. He’s a Luddite and a mansplainer who loves the sound of his own voice. He owns multiple typewriters! By 2021, I think Frank has bounced around from newspaper to newspaper, maybe taking a buyout at one point, and now he’s reluctantly pivoted to podcasting by teaming up with a digital media company, the only people who will hire him. He’s working on their ten-part investigative podcast about the dark side of a big tech company. (He still writes his scripts on a typewriter.) He did eventually write a book about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and though it had some glowing reviews, it didn’t sell very well.
For Frank, a journalist who seems ready to question authority, I think Ijeoma Oluo’s Mediocre would do nicely. Oluo investigates the last century of American history and how white men have created systems that disadvantage women and people of color. This book might even get Frank to reflect a little on his own privilege.
Kevin (Dave Chappelle)
You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar
Kevin works with Joe at Fox Books. I’m not entirely clear on what his job is despite having watched this movie once a year for at least ten years, but he seems to be in charge of supervising the new store Joe is opening in Kathleen’s neighborhood. I’m thinking he’s involved in store operations and logistics. When Fox Books goes bust, I imagine Kevin taking his talents to some sort of online bookselling startup. Let’s call it Shamazon. He’s in charge of new market outreach. He and Joe meet for a drink every few months and Joe still doesn’t understand exactly what his job is.
Kevin is quick-witted and tolerates Joe’s shenanigans, but we don’t know much about him. I’d love a version of You’ve Got Mail from his perspective…but without that, all I have to go on is the dating advice he gives Joe and his incredulous reaction to the whole “I accidentally fell in love with my archnemesis” thing. Kevin seems like someone who appreciates the absurdity of the people around him, and he’s one of the only Black characters in this movie, so for him I suggest You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by sisters Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar. Amber lives in New York and Lacey lives in their home state, Nebraska, where she endures ridiculous and problematic encounters with people wanting to touch her hair or mistaking her for other Black women. The sisters share their stories in this hilarious essay collection.
George (Steve Zahn)
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
I rewatched You’ve Got Mail in preparation for this post (as if I needed that excuse), mostly so I could remind myself what the secondary characters like George and Christina are like. Aside from the iconic line, “This place is a tomb! I’m going to the nut shop, where it’s fun!” what do we know about George? He lives in a large rent-controlled apartment that frankly sounds like a fantasy; he thinks the internet is just another way of being rejected by women; he has perfect, floppy ’90s hair. He is also knowledgeable about rare books, as we see in the scene where he helps Joe pick out some first editions. And, after the Shop Around the Corner is forced to close, he moves over to the children’s section of Fox Books and trains them all up to his level. I don’t think he’s still working in a bookstore in 2021 — I see him getting a PhD in children’s literature and moving upstate to teach at a small college.
His book recommendation is The Midnight Library, a book lover’s book. Imagine a library with an infinite number of books. Each one contains the story of another life you could have had. What would you do if you could read them and find out what else is possible? Nora Seed is faced with this choice as she travels through the Midnight Library, looking for answers about what would make her life truly fulfilling.
Christina (Heather Burns)
The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser
We don’t learn much about Christina other than that she’s in college or grad school and has been unlucky with online dating. (Which was still in its early days in 1998!) Heather Burns is so wonderful in this role, though — her sardonic delivery of lines like “I’ll have to move. To Brooklyn.” really makes Christina feel like a fully realized character. We don’t know what happens to her after the movie ends, but I think maybe she ends up moving to Brooklyn and realizing it isn’t that bad (and is in fact about to become the place to be).
Based on this, I’m recommending Christina a novel about bookstores, starting over, and falling in love: The Bookshop of Second Chances. Thea has been left by her husband and fired from her job. Deciding she needs a chance, she heads to Scotland, where a distant great-uncle has left her an antique book collection and his home. The cottage is quaint, the scenery is beautiful, and the locals are welcoming. All except bookshop owner Edward, to whom Thea was hoping to sell some of her uncle’s collection. As they bicker, Thea realizes that she’s starting to feel more alive than she has in a long time — but does that mean her temporary getaway should turn permanent?
Birdie (Jean Stapleton)
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
Birdie is Kathleen’s mentor, a longtime staff member who was also a friend of Kathleen’s mother. Birdie has had a colorful life (including what sounds like a doomed love affair with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco). She’s also the source of much wisdom as Kathleen prepares to sell the store. As Birdie says, “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.”
Birdie is very rich, according to her, so after the shop closes I think she just enjoys her cozy New York life and continues to give Kathleen (and now Joe) both maternal comfort and wacky stories. What does a woman with tons of her own interesting stories need to read? A novel that combines eternal life with bookstore intrigue, of course! The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue follows Addie, a young woman who makes a desperate bargain in 1714 and is granted to eternal life — but cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. Addie spends the next few hundred years having adventures across continents, determined to leave her mark somehow, until she meets a young man in a bookshop who remembers her. A novel about adventures spanning oceans seems perfect for wise Birdie.
And that’s it! Once you’ve read your way through all these reading recommendations for You’ve Got Mail characters, you might try reading more enemies-to-lovers stories. Or just escape back into the world of 1990s Upper West Side by rewatching the movie. In my biased opinion (as a former bookseller named Kathleen who now works in children’s publishing), the movie does still hold up thanks to Ephron’s sharp dialogue and the chemistry between Ryan and Hanks. And don’t cry, shopgirl, because bookstores are opening up again post-COVID and we’ll be able to wander in them (and blush at cute strangers) to our hearts’ content.
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