By Hilma Wolitzer
Hardcover, 272 pages
List Price: $24.95
Alyssa Snyder Is Troubled
Lissy Snyder hated nature, especially its lavish variety on the eastern end of Long Island. All those sudden winged or crawly creatures everywhere, feeding on one another and on you, too, if you weren't vigilant. Ants in the pantry, moths batting at the lamps, something living or dead plucked discreetly from the pool every day. And then there were the piano-tuner birds that shrieked or sang the same two notes incessantly, and the ones that seemed to be typing in the woods behind the house. Once in a while, Lissy stood at the spruce-lined border of the property and yelled "Shut up shut up shut up!" just to get a little peace and quiet. But they would begin again the moment she turned her back, like a rowdy junior high school class mocking a substitute teacher.
She had sweet-talked Jeffrey into buying a beach house while they were still on their honeymoon, a time he would have gladly agreed to anything. How gorgeous and powerful and canny she'd felt! But she hadn't bargained for the rampant flora and fauna in Sagaponack. That was supposed to be upstate somewhere, or in New England, where wildlife belonged, where rabid bats were as common as houseflies, and bears were said to be driven mad by menstruating women.
In Lissy's childhood memory of an idyllic Southampton summer, before her father left, before the death of her beloved nanny, there was a vast velveteen lawn skirting her cousins' house and, behind it, the sand dunes that led to the sea, and everything that lived there knew its place: the lobsters in their traps or in a citrus vinaigrette, the other secrets of the deep kept appropriately secret. Fireflies flashed around the porches at night, accompanied by the strumming of hidden crickets, but they'd seemed pretty harmless; her Grandmother Ellis had called their performance "a charming petit son et lumière."
Now, on a balmy June day during her second Sagaponack season, Lissy peered anxiously into the patio garden. Everything had to look perfect for that afternoon's meeting of her summer reading club, the Page Turners; she'd already plumped the cushions in the screened gazebo, where they convened. The group was led by Angela Graves, who'd taught English Lit at some tiny women's college in Texas a million years ago. Ardith Templeton had found her through an ad the previous winter in the East Hampton Star. "Enhance your summer with the company of great books. Retired professor of literature will lead the way."
The flowers that Pedro and his crew tended were nice enough, fragrant and colorful, except for all the bees they attracted, and the way their brief blooming reminded Lissy of her own mortality. She would turn twenty-eight in October, and although none of her mirrors, not even the cruelly lit and magnified one on her dressing room table, had yet hinted at the ravages of aging or even the slightest dimming of her crisp blondness, she felt that her shelf life had begun to expire. Maybe all that required reading — never her strong suit — was undoing her, or it could just be the forbidding example of Angela herself, who must have faced the sun fearlessly all her life and was now a bas-relief of age spots and wrinkles.
Lissy had felt flattered when Debby and Joy, whom she knew from yoga class in the city, invited her to join the book club. And she was thrilled when they'd accepted her offer of a designated meeting place, along with the name she had come up with for them. The original Page Turners had been the group for slower readers she'd been made to join in the third grade at the Betsy Ross Day School, where the letters of the alphabet had a habit of reversing themselves to her, and she often had to be coaxed into concentration. But she didn't mention any of that to her current book group friends.
Everyone in the Hamptons wanted to get to know beautiful and aloof Ardith better. She was like those savvy, popular girls at school in whose orbit Lissy had dizzily spun without ever coming any closer to them. And Larry Templeton was someone important in Jeffrey's corporate world. Lissy envisioned a brilliant, career-enhancing friendship evolving from this casual connection, and Jeffrey's astonished pride in her.
Every other Tuesday since Memorial Day, Angela Graves drove her blue Chevy Neon from The Springs to Lissy's more desirable neighborhood and sat among the dewy-skinned young members of the grown-up Page Turners, a veritable bulletin from their grim future. Some of the books she extolled were equally grim Victorian novels, in which infants or their new mothers routinely died and, not surprisingly, sexual repression was the rage.
Lissy had been thinking, on and off, about having a baby. Not that she was beset by maternal yearnings, but perhaps it was time. It wasn't as if she had a real career to interrupt; even she knew that being a part-time, freelance party planner wasn't a serious or inspired pursuit. The sprinkling of referrals she'd had so far had been favors from business acquaintances of Jeffrey's: a couple of toddlers' birthday parties, an anniversary dinner for someone's senile in-laws. Balloons and baby lamb chops for every occasion, and all the honorees equally insensible.
Besides, a few of Lissy's friends had started families already, bucking the national trend of waiting until your ovaries dried up and fell off. She might well be in on the beginning of a new trend. It astonished her sometimes that she made so many crucial decisions this way, guided by arbitrary social patterns rather than passion.
But it was how she'd been raised, as if everything depended on some invisible, incontestable clock. Time for dinner, hungry or not. Time for bed (ditto for sleepiness). Time for school, let go of Mummy's hand, Alyssa! Time for deflowering. Time to get married. And why not; how did you ever know if you were really in love, anyway?
Still, starting a family might be inconvenient, or worse, and especially complicated right now. If, as Angela Graves suggested, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was merely an elaborate metaphor for childbirth, what could one expect? Jeffrey and Lissy would have custody of little Miles and Miranda, who would require all of her energy and concentration, during the final weeks of the summer, after their mother brought them back from a European trip. Lissy could play at mothering then, if those beautiful but daunting children allowed it, and make an informed decision for once. Why, it might even be fun.
She was supposed to have finished reading Can You Forgive Her? for today's session of the Page Turners, although it was incredibly long and printed in such microscopic type. Angela had given them the title back in January, just after they'd first signed up, instructing them to start reading it then, but Lissy hadn't gotten around to it right away.
And now, flailing to catch up, it seemed more like winter reading to her — that endless blizzard of pages flecked with the blown soot of words. She skimmed as quickly as she could through the chapters that dealt with politics and money, in favor of the romantic passages. But even sounding out the characters' names as she flipped through the book — Alice Vavasor, Lady Glencora, Plantagenet — badly fatigued her. Imagine saddling a child with a name like Plantagenet!
The bloated little paperback had been wedged open and propped against the sugar bowl as she ate breakfast that morning, and it was dangling from her hand as she peeked into the flower garden later. In fact, she'd hardly been seen without it for the past few weeks. Jeffrey carefully pried it from her sleeping fingers at night, and he always tucked in one of his business cards to save her place, which never seemed to change. Chapter 14, Alice Vavasor Becomes Troubled. Lissy relied on the chapter headings — she'd read all of those right away. They gave the novel a somewhat predictable shape, something she wouldn't have minded having in her own life. Jeffrey Makes a Killing on Wall Street. Lissy Sparkles in Book Discussion Group. Wherein the Myth of the Evil Stepmother Is Dispelled.
Jeffrey had made more than a few killings on Wall Street, most of them back in the crazy early nineties — the go-go years — long before she even knew him. When she was still a teenager! And then, like everybody, he'd lost a bundle in the downswing. He was still wealthy, though, by most standards, when he and Lissy met and married two years before. There was more than enough for a showy courtship and wedding; this house they'd christened Summerspell; his sailboat, the Argo; those outrageous alimony and child support payments; and the extravagant Manhattan life he and his new bride pursued.
But he fretted about the past and about the future. She would often discover him in the middle of the night, a prisoner of his own bad dreams in striped pajamas, his worried pale face eerily illuminated by the glow of his computer screen as he tracked the global markets. Jeffrey was haunted by nonfinancial concerns, too, especially his absentee fatherhood and his survival of the World Trade Center disaster, when so many of his colleagues had perished. To complicate matters even further, he believed that his life had been saved by his then four-year-old son, Miles, whose preschool orientation meeting Jeffrey had attended that fateful morning, instead of going to work on the ninety-sixth floor of the first tower to be hit.
And then there were the letters from Danielle, his ex-wife, so full of vitriol they seemed to burn his fingers when he opened them. Lissy sometimes read them in the privacy of her bathroom later, and felt just as stung by their tone and content. How could she accuse him of abandoning her and the children when he was so generous, and still seemed to have one foot firmly in their lives?
Danielle and Jeffrey had already been estranged when Lissy met him, but Danielle referred to her as "that woman" or "your stupid, blond slut" in her letters as if Lissy were some kind of home-wrecking whore and not his legal, loving wife. And she wasn't stupid, even if she felt that way sometimes. Worst of all, Danielle always addressed him as Jeffie, a nickname from his past that looked disturbingly like an endearment on the page, despite the nasty context.
On Jeffrey's troubled nights, Lissy would cluck at him and urge him back to bed, where she'd assume his insomnia and a condensed version of some of his fears — the less personal ones — while he snored peacefully beside her. What if they became poor, or at least not as rich anymore? That was where the chapter headings might have come in handy. Would she have stuck things out? Did she love Jeffrey for himself? Who was he, exactly? How hard it was to separate and sort out the many facets of identity and affection and commitment.
And then he made his comeback, a spectacular and unique killing on some combination of investments and strategies — something to do with offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico — that made him the envy of the financial community and the uneasy focus of the SEC for a while. His business card, placed so inconspicuously in her Trollope that it seemed to be a part of the text, soothed her with its tone of authority: jeffrey j. snyder, esq. president and cfo world trade consultants. But like so many Victorian housewives, real and fictional, she didn't know precisely what her husband did for a living.
Left to her own choice of reading material, Lissy would have purchased a pile of easy, glossy beach books gleaned from the bestseller lists and thumbed her way through the thick, perfumed summer issues of Vanity Fair and Hamptons. Her membership in the Page Turners forced her into an attitude of self-improvement, although she had yet to sparkle or even overcome her shyness at the meetings any more than she ever had in the classroom. If she'd been able to finish Can You Forgive Her? or any of the shorter assigned novels in time for the appointed discussions, she might have fared better.
Unfortunately, she had never moved up to the Whiz Kids, the highest-level reading group at Betsy Ross, and her difficulty with the printed word served as a soporific — more efficiently now than even sex or Ambien — as it had most of her life. She would begin to doze off soon after she began reading, her eyes losing focus first, then the page she'd intended to turn becoming impossibly heavy, even when she was curious about the story's outcome.
In college her roommate, a scholarship grind named Cynthia Ann Pope, had shared voluminous class notes with Lissy and even wrote some of her papers in exchange for clothing and cash. These days, without Cynthia Ann's assistance, Lissy browsed through or just read part of the way into most books, and then hastily checked out plot summaries and criticism on the Internet. She'd Googled her research for Can You Forgive Her? even before she'd begun reading the first page. So she knew, if the title hadn't been a big enough hint, that a moral decision was begged of the reader by Trollope, and that most academics, just like Trollope's heroine, had voted in favor of decency and true love. She could probably safely take that stance herself during the discussion.
But right now she had to focus on the refreshments required of her as the Page Turners' hostess, the one job at which she felt proficient. In the kitchen, that sullen new dayworker — Jo Ann Cutty's daughter, what was her name again? — skulked at the sink. The girl needed to tweeze her eyebrows and do something about her posture. Lissy said, "Hi!" and smiled at her with forced friendliness. Without waiting for the usual scowling response, she opened the refrigerator to check on the pile of creamy little sandwiches under their sheltering dome, and the pitcher of mango mint iced tea working up an appealing cold sweat on the shelf just above.
Then she went to the powder room, where the rose petals of soap she'd brought from Paris, when the beach house was still only a postcoital tease, lay nestled in a Lucite shell. She patted the impeccable, monogrammed linen guest towels and gazed critically at herself in the mirror. But instead of touching up her lipstick or adjusting an errant strand of hair, she found herself looking into her own eyes and wondering if she would have forgiven Alice Vavasor for whatever it was she'd done. Well, she didn't have to decide that very second; she could just wait and see what the others said. But then she was ambushed by another stray thought — would she ever do anything that would require the forgiveness of strangers? — and felt a shivery thrill of prescience.
Excerpted from Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright © 2007 by Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.