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From marriage, infidelity, and the mayhem of motherhood to scandal, tragedy, and illness—three women seek peace and comfort in Nantucket as they cope with life's challenges.
Three women—burdened with small children, unwieldy straw hats, and some obvious emotional issues—tumble onto the Nantucket airport tarmac one hot June day. Vicki is trying to sort through the news that she has a serious illness. Her sister, Brenda, has just left her job after being caught in an affair with a student. And their friend Melanie, after seven failed in vitro attempts, is pregnant at last—but only after learning that her husband is having an affair. They have come to escape, enjoy the sun, and relax in Nantucket's calming air. But into the house, into their world, steps twenty-two-year-old Josh Flynn.
Barefoot weaves these four lives together in a story with enthralling sweep and scope—a novel that is as fun and memorable and bittersweet as that one perfect day of summer.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
A Preview of Here’s to Us
A Preview of A Summer Affair
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Vicki teased Brenda all the time about her devotion to The Innocent Impostor, but that book, discovered at the tender age of fourteen when Brenda was in danger of being crushed under the toe of Vicki's Tretorn sneaker, had served as Brenda's life raft. It gave her a focus, an identity. Because of that book, Brenda became a reader, a critical thinker, a writer, an American literature major in college, a graduate student, a doctoral candidate, a doctor, a professor, possibly the foremost authority on Fleming Trainor in the world. And now that Brenda would never be able to teach the book again, and would never be able to write about it with any hope of being published someplace even remotely legitimate and scholarly, she was forced to commit a transgression (seen by some academics as even more egregious than the ones she'd already committed) and commercialize the novel. Take it public, as it were. She would write a screenplay for The Innocent Impostor. Brenda vacillated between thinking this was a brilliant idea and thinking it was completely inane. She wondered: Do all brilliant ideas seem brilliant from the very beginning, or do they seem far-fetched until they come into clearer focus? Brenda had first considered writing the screenplay for the novel (or "treating it," as they say) back in grad school, when she was dirt poor, subsisting on green tea, saltines, and ramen noodles, but she had dismissed the idea as crass and ridiculous. She was, like every other academic worth her salt, a purist.
Now, however, Brenda tried to convince herself that the novel was perfect for Hollywood. Set in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, the book told the story of a man named Calvin Dare, whose horse kills another man, Thomas Beech, by accident. (The horse kicks Beech in the head while the two men are tying up in front of a tavern during a lightning storm.) Calvin Dare, through a series of carefully disguised coincidences, proceeds to become the deceased Beech. He applies for and is given Beech's old job; he falls in love with Beech's bereaved fiancée, Emily. He becomes a Quaker and joins Beech's meetinghouse. The book was unsatisfying to some critics because of its blissful ending: Dare marries Emily, produces healthy and loving children, and is happy in his work. Dare suffers no qualms about how he moved into Beech's life as though it were an abandoned house, fixed it up, and made it his own. Brenda had spent the greater part of six years parsing the book's definition of identity and holding the implied messages of the book up against colonial, and modern, morality. If you didn't like your life, was it okay to become someone else? What if that person was dead? Brenda had often felt like a lone traveler on the icy plateau of this topic. There was nobody else who cared. But that might change if The Innocent Impostor were produced. She, Dr. Brenda Lyndon, formerly Professor Brenda Lyndon, would be acknowledged for unearthing a lost classic; and more important, she would be forgiven.
And yet, even with redemption almost within her grasp, doubt plagued her. Why waste her time on an idiotic project that was destined to lead nowhere? The answer was, she had no other options. She wished again and again that her academic career had not been so gruesomely derailed. Even with millions of potential dollars in her future, Brenda dwelled on the "if onlys." If only she hadn't answered her cell phone the night John Walsh first called, if only she'd warned Walsh not to show his midterm paper to anyone, if only she hadn't lost her temper with Mrs. Pencaldron and thrown a book at the painting, if only she'd exercised a modicum of common sense… she would still be a professor. Professor Brenda Lyndon. Herself.
Her first semester at Champion had gone beautifully. Brenda was awarded the highest teaching rating of any professor in her department, and these ratings were published in the campus newspaper for all to see. Some said it was because Brenda was new blood, a professor half the age of anyone else in the department, and with such unusual subject matter (Champion was the only university in the country teaching Fleming Trainor). Brenda was attractive to boot—slender, with long hair, blue eyes, Prada loafers. Some said the English Department offered no competition. The rest of the faculty were dinosaurs, wax dummies. Whatever the reason, Brenda blew away the other professors in her department, not only in the numerical ratings, but with the anecdotals. Engaging, absorbing… we hung on every word… we carried the discussion into the quad… we were still talking about the reading at dinner. Dr. Lyndon is available and fair…. She is everything a Champion professor should be. The Pen & Feather ran a front-page feature on Brenda the following week. She was a celebrity. She was part Britney Spears, part Condoleezza Rice. Each of Brenda's much-older colleagues—including the department chair, Dr. Suzanne Atela—called to congratulate her. They were envious, though not surprised. That's why we hired you, Dr. Atela said. You're young. You have a passion for your subject matter that we outgrew long ago. Congratulations, Dr. Lyndon.
Brenda had bragged to her family at Christmastime; she had bought a bottle of expensive champagne to celebrate, drank most of it herself, and then blew her own horn. My students like me, she said as they all sat around the harvest table in Vicki and Ted's dining room eating the impeccable meal that Vicki had prepared entirely from scratch. They love me.
These words took on a mortifying nuance second semester, when Brenda's class consisted of eleven females and one male, a fox in the henhouse, a thirty-one-year-old sophomore from Fremantle, Australia, named John Walsh.
I love you, Walsh said. Brindah, I love you.
In the passenger seat, Vicki coughed. Brenda peeked at her. She was pale, her hands were like restless birds in her lap. I am driving my sister to chemotherapy, Brenda thought. Vicki has cancer and might die from it.
Today, Vicki was having a port installed in her chest that would allow the oncology nurses to thread a tube into her vein and administer the poison. Installing the port was outpatient surgery, though the hospital told her to expect a three-hour visit. Brenda was supposed to take the kids to the playground, buy them an ice cream at Congdon's Pharmacy on Main Street for lunch, and be back at the hospital in time to pick up Vicki and get Porter home for his afternoon nap. Vicki had made it sound all nice and neat, the perfect plan, but Brenda could tell that Vicki was nervous. When other people got nervous, they tightened up, they became high-pitched and strained. Vicki was like this normally. When she got addled, she became floppy and indecisive. She was all over the place.
Brenda pulled into the hospital parking lot. As soon as she shut off the engine, Porter started to cry. Blaine said, "Actually, I want to go home."
"We're dropping Mom off, then we're going to the playground," Brenda said. She got out of the car and unbuckled Porter, but he screamed and thrust himself at Vicki.
"Give him his pacifier," Vicki said flatly. She was eyeing the gray-shingled hospital.
"Where is it?" Brenda said.
Vicki rummaged through her bag. "I can't find it right this second, but I know it's here," she said. "I remember packing it. But… maybe we should run home and get another one."
"Run home?" Brenda said. "Here, I'll just take him." But Porter kicked and screamed some more. He nearly wriggled out of her arms. "Whoa!"
"Give him to me," Vicki said. "I may be able to nurse him one last time before I go in."
"But you did bring a bottle?" Brenda said.
"I did," Vicki said. "This is going to be known as extreme weaning."
Brenda moved to the other side of the car and set Blaine free from his five-point harness. A person had to have an advanced degree just to operate the car seats. "Come on, Champ."
"Actually, I want to go home. To my house. In Connecticut."
"Actually, you have no choice in the matter," Vicki said in a stern voice. "Mommy has an appointment. Now hop out."
"Here," Brenda said. "I'll carry you."
"He can walk," Vicki said.
"No," Blaine said, and he kicked the seat in front of him. "I'm not getting out."
"After we drop Mom off, we're going to the playground at Children's Beach," Brenda said.
"I don't want to go to the beach! I want to go to my house in Connecticut. Where my dad lives."
"We should have left him at the cottage," Vicki said. "But I couldn't do that to Melanie."
Brenda kept quiet. She was not going to be predictable.
"I'm taking you to get ice cream for lunch," Brenda told Blaine. "At the pharmacy." This was the ace up her sleeve, and she was dismayed to have to throw it so early, but…
"I don't want ice cream for lunch," Blaine said. He started to cry. "I want to stay with Mommy."
"Oh, for God's sake," Vicki said. "Can we just get inside, please? Blaine? Will you help Mommy out here and come with me inside?"
Blaine shook his head. Strains of "Für Elise" floated up from Brenda's purse. Her cell phone.
"That's probably Ted," Vicki said.
Brenda checked the display, thinking, Yes, it's probably Ted, but hoping it was Walsh. The display said, Delaney, Brian. Brenda groaned. "Shit," she said. "My lawyer." She shoved the phone back into her purse and, fueled by her anger at the call, barked at Blaine, "Let's go. Right now."
Reluctantly, Blaine climbed into Brenda's arms. She gasped; he weighed a ton.
"I want to stay with Mommy," he said.
If only the university officials could see me now, Brenda thought as they walked through the sliding doors into the bright chill of the hospital. They would have mercy on me. Anyone would.
They slogged toward the admitting desk, where a busty young woman waited for them. She had blond hair held in a very sloppy bun with what looked like crazy straws, streaky blusher on her cheekbones, and breasts that were shoved up and out so far it looked like she was offering them up on a platter. Didi, her name tag said.
"Victoria Stowe," Vicki said. "I'm here for a port installation."
"Righty-o," Didi said. She had long painted fingernails with rhinestones embedded in them. Brenda wanted to whisk the girl home and give her a makeover. Pretty girl, bad decisions. Didi slid some forms across the desk to Vicki. "Fill these out, insurance information here, signature here, initials here and here. Sign this waiver, very important." She smiled. She had a lovely smile. "It's so you can't sue us if you die."
Brenda took a long, deep drink of the girl's cleavage. Could she buy the girl some tact?
"I'm not going to die," Vicki said.
"Oh, God, no," Didi said. "I was only kidding."
In the waiting area, they found a row of chairs in front of a TV. Sesame Street was on, and Porter became entranced.
"Go," Brenda said. "Get it over with. Go now while we're calm." Blaine emptied a tub of Lincoln Logs onto the polished floor.
"I can't," Vicki said, sitting down. "I have all these forms to fill out." As she said this, the forms slid off her lap and fanned out all over the floor.
Suddenly, a nurse appeared. "Victoria Stowe?"
Vicki bent over, scrambling to pick up the forms. "I'm not ready. Were these in any special order?"
"Bring them along," the nurse said. "You can fill them out upstairs."
"Yes, yes, yes," Didi called out. "Go now, or you'll back everything up."
Vicki remained in her seat. She looked at Brenda. "Listen, there's something I want to ask you."
"What?" Brenda said. Vicki's tone of voice made her nervous. Brenda traveled back twenty-five years: Brenda was five years old, Vicki was six and a half, the two of them were playing on the beach on a cloudy day in matching strawberry-print bikinis and yellow hooded sweatshirts. There was a bolt of lightning, then the loudest crack of thunder Brenda had heard either before or since. Vicki grabbed her hand as the rain started to fall. Come on. We have to run.
Until the obvious differences between them emerged, they had been raised as twins. Now, Brenda felt a fear as strong as Vicki's own. My sister! Fifteen years ago, when Brenda had spent her study halls as a library aide and Vicki was student council president, who would have guessed that Vicki would be the one to get cancer? It didn't make any sense. It should be me, Brenda thought.
"Mom?" Blaine said. He knocked over his log cabin running to her.
"If you can be strong and go with that nurse, I will take care of things here," Brenda said. "The kids will be safe. They'll be fine."
"I can't go," Vicki said. Her eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry. I just can't."
"Victoria Stowe?" the nurse said.
"They need you in pre-op," Didi said. "Otherwise, I swear, things will get backed up and I will get blamed."
"Go," Brenda said. "We'll be fine."
"I want to stay with Mom," Blaine said.
Vicki sniffled and kissed him. "You stay here. Be good for Auntie Brenda." She stood up and crossed the room stiffly, like a robot.
"Vick?" Brenda said. "What did you want to ask me?"
"Later," Vicki said, and she disappeared down the hall.
An hour passed with Brenda feeling like a broken record. How many times had she suggested they leave—to go to Children's Beach, to get ice cream at the pharmacy?
"With sprinkles," she said. "Please, Blaine? We'll come back and get Mom in a little while."
"No," Blaine said. "I want to stay here until she comes back."
Porter was crying—he'd been crying for twenty minutes, and nothing Brenda did made him stop. She tried the bottle, but he wouldn't take it; he spitefully clamped his mouth shut, and formula ran all over his chin and the front of his shirt. His face was red and scrunched, tears squeezed out of the corners of his eyes; he threw back his head and wailed. Brenda plopped him down on the floor, put an orange plastic gorilla in front of him, and hunted through Vicki's bag for the goddamned pacifier. Porter shrieked and threw the gorilla in anger.
Brenda pulled out a box of Q-tips, two diapers, a package of wipes, a Baggie of Cheerios crushed into dust, a set of plastic keys, two Chap Sticks, a box of crayons, a sippy cup of what smelled like sour juice, and a paperback called When Life Becomes Precious. Vicki could go on Let's Make a Deal with what she had in her bag, and yet there was no pacifier. Brenda checked the side pocket—the bottle was in there, and aha! Under the bottle, squashed at the very bottom of the pocket and covered with lint and sand, was the pacifier.
"I found it!" she said. She brandished the pacifier for the girl behind the desk, Didi, as if to say, Here is the answer to all my problems! Brenda stuck the pacifier in Porter's mouth and he quieted. Ahhhhh. Brenda sighed. The room was peaceful once again. But not a minute later, Porter threw the pacifier across the room and started with fresh tears.
"Blaine?" Brenda said. "Can we please go? Your brother…"
"There's a soda machine at the end of the hall," Didi said.
Brenda stared at her. Soda machine? She had two tiny children here. Did the girl think her problems could be solved with a can of Coke?
"We're not allowed to have soda," Blaine said.
Didi stared. "Maybe you could use a walk."
The girl wanted to get rid of them. And could Brenda blame her, really?
"We could use a walk," Brenda said. "Let's go."
She carried Porter, who was whimpering, down the polished corridor. Cottage Hospital, she thought. The kind of place where they fixed up Jack and Jill after they fell down the hill. Nothing bad happened here. Vicki was somewhere in the cottage hospital having her port installed. For chemotherapy. For cancer.
It should be me, Brenda thought. I don't have kids. I don't have anybody.
Before she got the teaching job, Brenda had never seen Champion University, except in photos on the Internet. She had taken a virtual tour like a prospective student and checked out the neo-classical buildings, the geometric lawns, the plaza where students sunbathed and played Frisbee. It looked, while not bucolic, at least sufficiently oasis-like, a real college campus in the melee of Manhattan. But at the start of second semester, in January, the blocks of Champion University were gray and businesslike. This only served to make the English Department, with its Persian rugs and grandfather clocks, its first-edition Henry James in a glass museum case, seem more inviting. Mrs. Pencaldron, the department's supremely capable and officious administrative assistant, had rushed to make Brenda a cappuccino, something she did for professors currently in her favor. Welcome back, Dr. Lyndon. How was your break? Here is your class list and the syllabus. I had them copied for you.
Brenda reviewed the syllabus. They would start by reading Fleming Trainor, and then they would compare and contrast The Innocent Impostor with the works of contemporary authors: Lorrie Moore, Richard Russo, Anne Lamott, Rick Moody, Adam Haslett, Antonya Nelson, Andre Dubus. The reading list was so delicious, Brenda wanted to eat it with a knife and fork. There's a wait list for your class, Mrs. Pencaldron said. Thirty-three people long. In the fall, Dr. Atela wants to add another section. Does she? Brenda had said. The department chair, Suzanne Atela, was only five feet tall, but she was exotic and formidable. She was a native of the Bahamas and had cocoa-butter skin without a single line of age, although Brenda knew her to be sixty-two years old, the mother of four, the grandmother of fourteen. She had published copiously on the literature of the Beat generation, and there were rumors she had slept with one of the minor players, a cousin of Ginsburg's, which seemed fantastical to Brenda, but who knew what the woman was like when she took off her harlequin glasses and unpinned her hair? Her husband was a handsome Indian man; Brenda had never met him, though she'd seen a photograph of him wearing a tuxedo, on Suzanne Atela's desk. Suzanne Atela was formidable only because she held Brenda's future, and that of every other untenured professor in the department, in her tiny, delicate hands.
Brenda surveyed her class list. Upon initial inspection, it looked as though she had struck gold. It looked like she had gotten a class of only women. This was too good to be true! Brenda started amending the reading list in her mind—with a class of only women, they could attack Fleming Trainor and the problem of identity with a gender slant. Just as Brenda started scribbling down the titles of some really incendiary feminist texts, her eyes hit on the last name on the list: Walsh, John. Sophomore.
Mrs. Pencaldron had tapped on Brenda's office door. "There's been a change, Dr. Lyndon," she said. "You'll be teaching your seminar in the Barrington Room."
Brenda grinned stupidly even as she crumpled her list of incendiary feminist texts and threw it away. First the cappuccino, then a mention of teaching two sections next year, and now the Barrington Room, which was the crown jewel of the department. It was used for special occasions—department meetings, faculty luncheons—and Suzanne Atela taught her graduate students in that room. It had a long, polished Queen Anne table and an original Jackson Pollock hanging on the wall.
"The Barrington Room?" Brenda had said.
"Yes," Mrs. Pencaldron said. "Follow me."
They made their way down the hushed hallway to the end, where the door, dark and paneled, loomed with importance.
"Now," Mrs. Pencaldron said, "I'm required to go over the rules. No drinks on the table—no cans, no bottles, no coffee cups. The room must be opened and locked by you and you must never leave the students in the room alone with the painting. Capiche?"
"Capiche," Brenda said.
Mrs. Pencaldron gave Brenda a long, unwavering look. "I mean it. That painting was bequeathed to the department by Whitmore Barrington and it is worth a lot of money. So, for that matter, is the table."
"Gotcha," Brenda said. "No drinks."
"None whatsoever," Mrs. Pencaldron said. "Now, let me give you the security code."
After Brenda had practiced locking and unlocking the door and setting and disarming the alarm with a long, complicated security code, Mrs. Pencaldron left Brenda to her own devices.
"I hope you realize, Dr. Lyndon, what a privilege it is to teach in that room," she said as she walked away.
Brenda pitched her cappuccino cup into the trash, then organized her papers at the head of the Queen Anne table and took a second to consider the painting. Ellen Lyndon was a great appreciator of art, and she had passed this appreciation on to her daughters with museum trips that started as soon as Vicki and Brenda were out of diapers. But really, Brenda thought. Really, really—wasn't the Pollock just a mess of splattered paint? Who was the person who designated Pollock as a great artist? Did some people see beyond the splatter to a universal truth, or was it all just nonsense, as Brenda suspected? Literature, at least, had real meaning; it made sense. A painting should make sense, too, Brenda thought, and if it didn't make sense, then it should be pretty. The Pollock failed on both fronts, but there it hung, and Brenda, despite herself, felt impressed.
It was at that moment, of Brenda feeling impressed but not knowing why, that a man walked into the room. A very handsome man with olive skin and dark eyes, close-cropped black hair. He was Brenda's age and as tall and strapping as a ranch hand, though he was dressed like John Keats, in a soft Burgundy sweater with a gray wool scarf wrapped around his neck. There was a pencil tucked behind his ear. Brenda thought he must be a graduate student, one of Suzanne Atela's doctoral candidates, perhaps, who had wandered in accidentally.
"Hi?" she said.
He nodded. "How you going?" He had some sort of broad antipodean accent.
"This is the seminar on Fleming Trainor," she said. "Are you…?"
"John Walsh," he said.
John Walsh. This was John Walsh. Brenda felt her good sense unraveling in her brain like a ball of yarn. She had not prepared herself for this—a man in her class, not a boy. He was beautiful, more beautiful than the girl-women who came streaming into the Barrington Room after him like rats following the Pied Piper.
Brenda wiggled her feet in her Prada loafers and stared down at her scrumptious syllabus. Day one, minute one: She was attracted to her sole male student.
- On Sale
- May 24, 2022
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Little, Brown and Company