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When Nancy, whose most recently published work is a medical newsletter, is asked to join a writing group made up of established writers, she accepts, warily. She’s not at all certain that her novel is good enough for the company she’ll be keeping. Her novel is a subject very close to her heart, and she isn’t sure she wants to share it with others, let alone the world. But Nancy soon finds herself as caught up in the group’s personal lives as she is with their writing. She learns that nothing — love, family, loyalty — is sacred or certain.
In the circle there’s Gillian, a beautiful, scheming, world-famous poet; Bernard, a pompous but lovable biographer; Virginia, a respected historian and the peacemaker of the group, who also happens to be Bernard’s ex-wife; Chris, a divorced father and successful thriller writer; and Adam, the youngest of the group, an aspiring novelist who is infatuated with Gillian. And then there’s Nancy, an unassuming fiction writer embarking on a new chapter in her own life. They meet to read their work aloud and offer feedback. Over the course of a year, marriages are tested, affairs begin, and trust is broken.
Through their complicated relationships, these eccentric characters share their families, their beds, and their histories, and soon find that buried secrets have a way of coming to light. Hearts break and emotions are pushed to the limit in this richly engaging tale of love, betrayal, and literature.
THE HOUSE IS SET ON A HILLSIDE, WITH A LONG DRIVEWAY that leads up to it and disappears around the back. It's after dinnertime, already dark. A garage door at the rear of the house opens, and a pickup truck backs out and turns around. Whoever is driving has not turned the headlights on, and if you were viewing the scene from above, you would barely make out the truck as it comes around the side of the house, as it heads down the driveway.
A figure cuts across the sloping front lawn and starts down the driveway, towards the road. It's probably a woman, but she's dressed in black, and almost invisible in the dark. A young man is standing by the house, watching her. Light spills out of the doorway behind him. He hears the pickup truck as it emerges around the corner of the house, and he turns towards the sound. Then he cries out something—the woman's name perhaps—but she does not hear him. She's halfway down the driveway, just at the point where it takes a sharp turn. He flies down the hillside, plunges towards her, towards the point of intersection.
Upstairs, in a room in the hospital, were a man and a woman and a dead baby. You would not realize, at first, that the baby was dead. The woman had bobby pins holding her brown hair back off her face. The man wore glasses with tortoiseshell plastic frames, cloudy over the bridge of his nose. Those were the only details the doctor could bear to picture now.
Years later the couple would have two more children—both boys—but at the time neither they nor the young doctor had any way to know that. They would adore those sons, and anyone who hadn't known about the first child they might have had, a little girl, would think them so content as parents that they wanted for nothing. But that night, as the doctor walked out through the lobby of the hospital, the future, which would in fact hold a reasonable share of blessings, was unimaginable.
It was a small country hospital, and the doctor, who was older than he looked, had come back to the area where he had grown up to join a local practice. His parents had moved to Arizona and sold the house where he had spent the early years of his life, but he still knew people in town, though not many, since he had always been a shy kid and had gone away to boarding school and then college.
The hospital had recently opened its new wing, the result of a surprisingly successful capital campaign, and the lobby had been in use for only three weeks. It was designed along the lines of a grand hotel, with high ceilings, art deco light fixtures, and upholstered armchairs placed in conversation clusters along its length. The floor was carpeted in purple and the walls were paneled in honey-colored wood, and the effect was soothing and deceiving, though no one was entirely fooled because the smell of the hospital seeped out from the rooms and corridors beyond. It was a façade that seemed fragile, because just beyond it the real business of the hospital—carried out in rooms with white linoleum floors—seemed as if it might burst through. But that was during the day. Now, at 2:30 a.m., even that world beyond the wood veneer was quiet, too, the lights all dimmed.
A woman wheeled a carpet sweeper in front of the bank of elevators and disappeared behind a doorway. And then the lobby was absolutely still until the doctor appeared around the partition at the far end. He had changed from his scrubs into his street clothes, and he wore running shoes and a black leather jacket that didn't seem like the style of clothing a doctor would choose. From a distance, the jacket made him look like a teenager. He walked with his shoulders slung forward and his chin against his chest, and he didn't look up until he passed the glass doors of the gift shop and snack bar. He paused for a moment and looked into the room, which was illuminated only by the lights in the refrigerated unit that held juice and bottled water. It had been nearly two days since he had slept and hours since he had eaten. He ran his hand along the brass door handle, and, although he knew the door was locked, when his hand reached the end he jiggled it anyway. He leaned against the door, pressing the side of his unshaved face against the cool glass, and closed his eyes for a second.
It was clear to him that he could not go on this way. He had allowed grief to enter into a realm where grief had no place, and the result was that he could no longer function as he needed to. He was absolutely certain about this—more certain than he had been when he had decided to go to medical school, more certain than when he had completed his residency and decided to join a practice in the place where he had grown up. He was certain that he could not recover the kind of distance that he knew he needed to have, that he had trespassed into an emotional territory where even the greatest amount of resolve couldn't lead him out. He had no idea what else he would do with himself, but he knew it couldn't be this.
The revolving doors in the center of the entrance had been locked. He let himself out from the smaller door on the side. The staff parking lot was on the far side of the building, farthest from the main road. There were white pines in the lot that must have been planted when the original hospital building had been erected, and now they were forest giants, several stories high. He breathed in the smell of them. He walked to his car at the far end of the lot and brushed the pine needles from the windshield. He started up the car and drove out to the semicircle of road that went past the emergency room entrance and under the porte cochere outside the main lobby. He looked back at the brick front of the hospital. Most of the rooms were dark. He was certain their room was dark, the room where the couple and the dead baby were, and he counted off the floors and windows and located which one was theirs. He forced himself to look at it, but his head soon jerked as he twitched himself awake. He put on his headlights, which he had neglected to do before, and pulled out into the road that would take him home.
IT WAS THE DAY OF TESTICULAR CANCER. NANCY (A NAME that no one was given anymore) had laid out the offprints from various medical journals on her desk the night before, but she hadn't looked at any of them yet. The monthly newsletter she edited had a dozen articles an issue, and she usually spent a day collecting material for each article, and a day reading through it, boiling it down, and writing it up. The newsletter was published under the name of a university medical school, but Nancy was its major author. An editorial board of physicians at the hospital—whose names were used for PR—sometimes suggested subjects for her, but mostly it was she who came up with the topics covered each month. She kept her ear out for what people were worried about, health crises that hit the local news (like the deadly strain of E. coli bacteria that had contaminated baby spinach) and the usual seasonal concerns. She did articles about lower back pain when spring gardening season arrived, articles about skin cancer as summer approached, and articles about frostbite at the start of winter. She farmed out some of the work to freelance writers (she had once been one of them), but she rewrote all the articles herself. The narrative voice she had perfected was professional but jaunty. She sounded like an authority, but her tone was upbeat, even when the article was ultimately informing the reader about some hideous condition that involved suffering, disfigurement, and certain early death.
"We are not in the business of scaring people" is what the physician who had started the newsletter and hired her years before had said. "We're in the business of informing them and helping them make wise choices about their health."
The wise choice about testicular cancer, Nancy knew from an article she'd done a year before, was to wear boxers rather than briefs and to be wary of bicycling. But there was now some new information about tumors and heat, and it was time for a follow-up. The word cancer in the headline was a certain draw for readers.
She was making herself a cup of tea when the phone rang. It was Bernard.
"I'm just calling to remind you about Sunday," he said.
"Good. It would have been embarrassing if you hadn't shown up."
Bernard laughed. "Yes. They would all have thought I had told you the wrong day. I did give you directions, didn't I?"
"You did, Bernard."
"But I neglected to tell you that sometimes Adam's buzzer doesn't work. If you ring and no one appears, go around the side of the building and tap on the window."
"Oh come on," said Nancy. "I'm not going to tap on windows!"
"Then if you meet me there at precisely three o'clock and the buzzer doesn't work, I'll go around and tap on the window."
"That will be very gracious of you," said Nancy. "By the way, I know something about all the members, except for Adam Freytoch."
"He's been with us only a few years. He designs running shoes for a living but has been working on a novel. He doesn't signify."
"Bernard!" Nancy cried. "How can you say that about someone?"
"He tries hard," said Bernard. "But he's very young."
"You are cruel," said Nancy. "You were young once, yourself."
"Too long ago for anyone to remember," said Bernard, so softly that Nancy couldn't tell if the wistfulness in his voice was authentic or ironic.
"I'll see you Sunday, then," said Nancy.
"Yes," said Bernard. "And no need to be worried. I'm sure they will all take to you."
"What makes you think I'm worried?" asked Nancy.
"Because you worry," said Bernard. "That's the sort of person you are."
"You don't know me that well," said Nancy.
"It's in your face," said Bernard. "Your perpetually knitted brow." And with that he hung up.
Nancy poured the hot water onto the waiting tea bag in her mug and angled the glass cabinet door so she could see her reflection. She was someone who worried, though less so now that her daughter, Aliki, was grown, but she had never thought it was so obvious. Bernard was like that. He said disturbing things, tossed them off, and whether they were true or not, they rankled. Once after he had made a particularly blunt remark about a jacket she wore—"sadly misshapen," she remembered he called it—she had accused him of being tactless.
"Tact, my dear," he had replied, "is merely a ploy of the unimaginative."
He was impossible, and she'd told him so. But she liked him, nevertheless, though she knew many people who didn't. She couldn't imagine being married to him, though, and she found it remarkable that two women, Virginia, in his past, and Aimee, now, had taken him on.
But he was right about her being worried. She hadn't published anything in years, and she was afraid Bernard—to whom she had foolishly confessed she was working on something new—had pressured the others to invite her to join them. She was not anxious about Virginia, who was unfailingly kind, or Christopher Billingsley, who wrote thrillers and whom Bernard had once described as "hopelessly seeking literary approval." But Gillian Coit was another story. Gillian was a poet who had been getting a lot of press recently. Nancy had met her twice in the past, and the second time Gillian hadn't remembered they'd been introduced before.
Nancy rescued the tea bag from the now almost too dark tea and carried the mug to her study. It had originally been a glass-enclosed porch, an addition to the back of the antique Greek Revival house, and she had renovated it and installed a heating system. The house was large and there were other rooms that would have been more sensible to use as a study, but she liked the way this room was far from the heart of the house yet still linked to it—an extremity—like a hand from the body itself. When the snow banked up in winter, she could get to her work without putting on her boots. She was away from her domestic life but still connected. She was away from her bedroom, where she and Oates made love, and she was away from Aliki's bedroom. When Aliki left for college, Nancy didn't want to alter anything in the room, as if ensuring that Aliki's departure was only temporary, yet each time Nancy passed the room and looked in, the uncharacteristic tidiness spoke only of absence.
Once, for the fun of it, Nancy had written an article on empty nest syndrome, a condition that parents—a higher percentage of females than males—suffer when their children go away to college, particularly acute if the child in question is the person's only progeny, but of course she could never publish it in the medical newsletter. Although the intensity of the emotion was palpable, not a melancholia brought about simply because of a change in the timbre of the dwelling place, but a response to a cluster of factors: loss of occupation (on-duty parent), loss of youth, awareness of mortality, it was hardly a legitimate medical condition. The name conjured an image of a quizzical robin perched by a nest of twigs. Nancy could write about depression or menopause, but she knew you had no business complaining because your child had made it through high school, gotten into college, and was thriving at that same college rather than hanging around under your roof.
Nancy's study was the room closest to the river, and she had a view of it, this lovely, moving body of water, from her desk. The house itself faced the road with its best front and then straggled out behind, summer kitchen, shed, added on over the decades and then incorporated into the house, one by one. The porch was the last link. From the point of view of historic preservationists, it should have been torn down, since it was tacked on in the 1920s, added by people who liked, as Nancy did, to look at the river but who didn't like to be bitten by mosquitoes while they did so. Presumably the generation that had built the original house was not so inclined. For them the river's value was utilitarian rather than aesthetic. If the original owners sat anywhere, it would have been in front of the house, so they could observe what passed on the road. The road was busier now, and cars sped by. Far at the back of the house, Nancy was protected from their noise, protected even from awareness of them.
She set her mug on her desk and settled into her chair. She started flipping through the articles awaiting her from The Journal of the American Medical Association and The New England Journal of Medicine, the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, the British Medical Journal. She nudged them to the side and looked out her window—the goldenrod at the edge of the mowed field, the just oranging maples, the brown river, low after the summer.
She thought about her father and wondered how he would view what she did for a living. All those years of his secret life when he had studied and practiced medicine, delving into the peculiarities of the human body and the way it went awry, and here she was writing about medical conditions without the slightest training herself, without a single encounter with a real patient. She did not delude herself that she was doing a noble thing. Perhaps people were desperate for information like this, but she was part of an enterprise whose interests were commercial, not altruistic. And for her own part, she did it because it was a way to make a living. It was, by all accounts, an enviable job for a writer. She was paid well, and her hours were flexible. She was her own boss. And presumably she had time for her own writing—for certainly the writing she did for the health newsletter was not her own. Her own, now, was the novel about her father, which she had been working on, bit by bit, for the past year.
It wasn't really about her father, of course, it was fiction after all, but the main character was based on her father. She felt close to him, as if he were still alive, as if by writing about his youth she had given that youth back to him. And it was a way to explore the mystery of the choice her father had made in his life, the secret that had been kept from her most of her childhood. The secret that, when revealed, gave her insight into a man whom she had thought she knew.
She had had to wait until he died to write about him. She could not have intruded on the privacy of his past knowing that he would witness this intrusion. She could not bear his knowing what she imagined about him, for imagining takes a liberty with someone's life, and although her father loved her, would grant her anything, it would have embarrassed them both.
Bernard's phone call had thrown her off course this morning. It had reminded her that she had committed herself to a next step. It was one thing to probe into her father's story in the intimacy of her manuscript, in the safety of her study. It was another thing to expose it to anyone else. What was she doing laying it bare before someone like Gillian Coit?
There was a circle of brown liquid in the bottom of Nancy's mug now, but it was cold. She spun the mug around once, so the white stars blurred on the blue ceramic background, then she pushed the mug to the back of her desk. She had to get to work now. She turned to the articles in front of her. She began reading through the stack, marking useful paragraphs with a blue felt-tipped pen and processing the information, summarizing it in a few simple sentences. Male testes are located in the scrotum outside the body cavity because it's cooler there. When testicular cancer cells spread to parts of the body that are warmer environments (like the brain and the liver), they don't thrive as well and are therefore less resistant to the drugs that combat them. The idea of using heat to help combat cancer is already meeting some success in cases of prostate cancer.
Who reading this would imagine its author here now, sitting with her feet tucked up under her, a woman in sweatpants and a T-shirt, a sweater with worn-out elbows slung around her neck? Who would imagine the scene from her window, the monarchs clustered on the purple asters, the river in the distance turning blue-green in the morning sunshine?
SMALL, AND SLENDER AS A BOY, BERNARD'S WIFE, AIMEE, had struggled most of her adult life to have people take her seriously. From a distance, she looked like a child. Up close, she looked twenty rather than forty. Her voice was soft, too, a little girl's voice, though she spoke with a care and deliberateness, and when you entered into a conversation with her you thought her smarter than in fact she was. She was a quarter Japanese, a quarter French, and when it suited her, she exploited one or the other.
Bernard was inclined to clutter and messiness. His home with Virginia had been filled with old books, old sofas, and old velvet drapes. Aimee changed all that. Bernard had ended up with the house after his divorce, and Aimee transformed it when she moved in. Not so much to exorcise Virginia (she liked Virginia) or make her mark as second wife, but because the place depressed her as it was. The house was practically gutted. All the woodwork was painted white—including the mantel in the living room and the stair railing, which Bernard, in a previous life, had spent days stripping of its old paint. And the furniture was spare and modern. Aimee transformed Bernard's wardrobe as well, but when he could, he still wore the old clothes he had salvaged.
"He looks," Virginia told her husband, Joe, "like a man sitting in a furniture showroom. But he doesn't complain. He's in love with her, he'll put up with anything." Virginia smiled and shook her head. "The old fool," she added, kindly.
Bernard worked late at night—every night—and slept late in the morning. Aimee couldn't sleep past eight, and the only way she could get Bernard to come to bed before midnight was to make a bath for him, in the large, claw-footed tub, slip in behind him, and soap his broad, white back. He wouldn't return to his study after that.
He was sleeping late, as usual, this Sunday morning, and Aimee had already jogged her requisite three miles, gotten the paper and croissants, and showered before she woke him. She slipped, naked, into bed beside him and lay with half her body across his. His breath in the morning was usually a turnoff, so she avoided his mouth and instead left a trail of kisses from his ear across his cheek, down the side of his neck, settling her lips finally in the corner of his collarbone, the soft stretch of skin that, when she pressed against it, seemed to have nothing below it but air.
Bernard stirred in his sleep, woke, and smiled. He reached up one hand and stroked Aimee's head. The bottom edge of her hair was wet, and he knew she had just come from the shower.
"I wish you didn't have to go anywhere," she said. "I wish we could have the whole day together."
"We have most of the day," said Bernard. His hand moved down from Aimee's head to her shoulder, to her back.
"Three. You have to be there at three. That's the middle of the afternoon."
"Sh," said Bernard. He held her against him and moved his body back and forth so her small breasts rubbed against his chest.
"Where are you meeting?"
"At least that's nearby."
"Sh," whispered Bernard. His hand progressed now to Aimee's buttocks. He cupped one cheek and then moved his hand towards the center, slipping his forefinger into the fold. He pressed against her anus. There was a moment when she began to relax and his finger started to push inside her, but her muscles tightened suddenly.
"I wanted to drive up to Cranford Orchards today," she said. "If you have to go to Adam's, then we better get going now or it won't be worth driving all the way up there."
Bernard opened his eyes. He patted Aimee and smiled. The erection, which he had nearly achieved, subsided, painlessly.
"All right," he said.
He didn't think Aimee did this consciously, but this wasn't the first time she had begun to arouse him on a Sunday morning only to withdraw, as if to punish him for the transgression he was about to commit: going to a meeting that she was excluded from, taking their weekend time, which she felt belonged to them rightfully as a couple, and using it for an activity that didn't include her. She had no concern about activities he was involved in during the week. She worked at an architectural design firm and put in long hours.
She also sometimes attempted to sabotage—well, perhaps that was too strong a word—influence? his going to the meeting. A romantic encounter on an early Sunday afternoon, so he might forget about the meeting entirely (he didn't) or an emergency that arose. Bernard never called her on this, never confronted it directly. He took her jealousy of his time away as a sign of her affection for him. He thought she was transparent, but he smiled at her in private, for he knew she would be furious if he pointed this out to her, would see it as a sign of his paternalism. He wasn't afraid of her, but he was afraid of her anger, which was the anger of a small person, sharp and intense.
At Cranford Orchards the trees looked almost artificial, the apples round and red against all the green, like ornaments that had been placed on the branches, that could not possibly have emerged from those brown, knotty stems.
"A jubilant sight," said Bernard as they stood on the edge of the gravel parking area, looking out at a hillside of apple trees.
"You find you simply can't put it down. This is a wonderful book, tense, engaging, and highly recommended."
—Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club
- "The exurbanite culture and cultured chums Demas evokes have a charmed staying power."—Chicago Tribune
- "Fascinating . . . gives readers a seat in the writing world."—Sacramento Book Review
- "An amazingly clever novel with depth, drama, and warmth."—Anita Shreve, author of The Pilot's Wife
- On Sale
- Mar 22, 2011
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Books