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But the Hellinger women aren’t pulling off their roles the way they once did. Perri, increasingly filled with rage over the lack of appreciation from her recently unemployed husband Mike, is engaging in a steamy text flirtation with a college fling. Meanwhile Pia, desperate to find someone to share in the pain and joy of raising her three-year-old daughter Lola, can’t stop fantasizing about Donor #6103. And Gus, heartbroken over the loss of her girlfriend, finds herself magnetically drawn to Jeff, Mike’s frat boy of a little brother. Each woman is unable to believe that anyone, especially her sisters, could understand what it’s like to be her. But when a freak accident lands their mother to the hospital, a chain of events is set in motion that will send each Hellinger sister rocketing out of her comfort zone, leaving her to wonder: was this the role she was truly born to play?
With The Pretty One, author Lucinda Rosenfeld does for siblings what she did for female friendship in I’m So Happy for You, turning her wickedly funny and sharply observant eye on the pleasures and punishments of lifelong sisterhood.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
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OLYMPIA LOUISE HELLINGER HAD always been the "Beautiful One" in her family. Among her sisters, she was also understood to be the Artistic One, the Flaky One, the Chronically Late One, the Mellow One, the Selfish One, and the Unambitious One. Whether reality reflected reputation was a matter of opinion. But at thirty-eight she was the events coordinator of a small museum of contemporary Austrian art, located on the Upper East Side. She was also a single mother. Little wonder that, as much as she loved spending time with her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Lola, she also longed for more hours to herself.
For years, Olympia had been painting watercolors of little girls and furry animals. This had been true even before she'd given birth to Lola—or brought home Clive, a borderline-obese New Zealand white rabbit with pink eyes, from a local pet store. In her spare time, Olympia also enjoyed shopping for clothes; listening to music; setting up other single friends on blind dates; perusing symptoms lists on WebMD and fearing that she'd contracted a fatal disease (and feeling, somehow, that she deserved it); and then, as a distraction from her worries, drinking too much and reading the mystery and espionage novels she'd loved since she was a child, beginning with Harriet the Spy.
A week before Christmas, however, a more serious form of sleuthing beckoned. Impatient to begin, Olympia started "bath time" fifteen minutes earlier than usual. "Story time" followed. For the sixth night in a row, Lola wanted Olympia to read her Madeline's Rescue. Miss Clavel having turned off the light for the last time, Lola demanded that her mother "ask her a silly question."
Olympia complied with this request as well. "Excuse me," she began. "But there's something I've been meaning to ask you. Can you explain to me why there's a slice of pizza coming out of your elbow?"
"Ask me another silly question," Lola replied with a giggle.
"I was also wondering why there's a piece of celery sticking out of your ear?"
That was apparently an even funnier image to behold. Lola laughed so hard she burped.
"Also," said Olympia, "could someone tell me why there's a cheese sandwich attached to your behind?"
Now in stitches, Lola collapsed onto her mother's lap, then the rug. Enchanted by the sound of her daughter's laughter, Olympia momentarily forgot what a rush she was in, bent over Lola's tiny body, and, in an attempt to prolong her hysterics, tickled her exposed tummy. (Lola's beloved Disney Princess nightgown, a hot-pink firetrap given to her by her babysitter and featuring the entire royal assemblage clustered like newscasters on a billboard, had ridden up to her armpits.)
Shortly thereafter, Olympia's internal clock resumed ticking. "And now it's sleepy time for Sleeping Beauty," she announced, lifting Lola into the air with her as she stood up.
"I'm Belle—not Sleeping Beauty," declared Lola, her laughter abruptly ceasing.
"Well, Queen Mommy has decreed that all princesses must be asleep by eight thirty."
"One more silly question."
"No. You have school tomorrow."
"It's not real school. It's daycare."
Olympia released a heavy sigh of exasperation before attempting to regain the upper hand. "Okay, here's my last silly question: can you please tell me why you're not in bed already?"
"That's not silly."
"But you didn't sing 'Favorite Things' or do 'This Little Piggy' yet!"
Olympia had a new tack. "If I do both things, do you promise to go to sleep?"
"Okay," Lola agreed.
"But do you promise?"
And so Olympia assigned neighborhood destinations to all ten of Lola's toes. Then she did her best Julie Andrews impression. Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes!, she sang in a high register, secretly impressed with her own vocal skills and, for a split second, wondering if she could have made it a career. Silver white winters that meld into spring, she went on. Or was it melt into spring? And did it matter? Finally, Olympia arrived at the last of the feel so bads. "Okay, that's it. It's eight thirty," she said. It was actually eight twenty-seven; luckily, Lola hadn't yet learned to tell time.
Olympia deposited Lola in her toddler bed, then switched off the butterfly lamp on her dresser. The room went dark but for the fluorescent glow of a night-light.
"Noooooo!" moaned Lola. "No sleep. Not tired."
"Lola, you promised!!" said Olympia, her temperature rising.
"What are you scared of? I'm going to be in the next room."
"I'm scared of the dark."
"Don't be silly. It's not even that dark in here."
"Is too," said Lola, throwing her legs over the side of the bed as if preparing to stand up again…
Blood rushed to Olympia's cheeks and forehead. "ENOUGH!" she cried. "YOU'RE DRIVING ME FUCKING INSANE!!" With that, she pushed her daughter back onto the mattress—harder than she'd meant to.
Lola burst into hysterical tears. Guilt and fear consumed Olympia. How soon before Children's Services arrived? "I'm sorry I yelled at you," she said, taking Lola back into her arms. "Mommy's had a long day." As Olympia held her close, she lamented the wet spot forming on her new blouse, but felt unable to justify altering the position of her daughter's drooling mouth.
"You pushed me, too." The child wept. "You're a bad mommy!"
"All right, all right," said Olympia, who, despite feeling bad, thought Lola was laying it on a little thick. "Sometimes grown-ups get mad just like kids get mad."
"What does 'fugging' mean?"
"It means 'very.' But only grown-ups can use it."
"Like, I'm fugging hungry?"
"Something like that," said Olympia, cringing.
Lola's bedroom was really just an alcove of her mother's, separated by a curtain. "Will you lay on your bed until I'm asleep?" she asked.
Every night, Olympia told herself she wasn't going to do so anymore. And every night she did. How could she say no now? "Okay, but only for two minutes," she said.
Two minutes, of course, turned into twenty-five, during which time Lola issued a stream of unanswerable questions ("Why can't people fly?" "Why does cheese smell?" "Why don't cows and dogs wear underpants?"). Finally assured of her daughter's slowed breathing and splayed limbs, Olympia tiptoed out of her bedroom and, half closing the door behind her, felt as if she'd just posted bail from a developing-world prison.
Her interests never strayed far from her captor, however. After downing the remainder of a half-filled glass of Côtes du Rhône, Olympia walked over to her black file cabinet—once a floor model; hence the dent—and pulled out a manila folder marked "Lola-Birth." She opened the folder and removed several sheets of rumpled copy paper, the first page of which was headed "Anonymous Donor Profile #6103." It had been several years since she'd looked at the printout. Earlier that evening, gazing in fascination at Lola's hazel eyes, abundant freckles, and flaming red curls, Olympia—who had straight brown hair, light olive skin, and green eyes—had wondered if she'd missed some salient detail that the profile contained.
To both her relief and her disappointment, as she read through the document, she found nothing new in it:
Height: 6′ 1″
Weight: 185 lbs
Education: B.A., Ivy League college
Occupation: medical school student
Describes himself as: motivated, thoughtful
Athletic skills: rowing, lacrosse, and cross-country skiing
Education/occupation of father: businessman
Education/occupation of mother: homemaker
Favorite movies: Shawshank Redemption, Wedding Crashers
Favorite sports team: Boston Red Sox
Favorite author: Ralph Waldo Emerson
Chromosome analysis: normal male 46…
Clearly the hunky scion of a grand old WASP family, down on its luck, Olympia had thought at the time she'd purchased his genetic material—back when that assumption had been enough. Back then, she'd liked the idea of having a child with no identifiable paternity. Wounded by a tumultuous love affair with a married man that left her in doubt about the self-sufficiency on which she prided herself (and deeply ashamed as well), she'd seen the arrangement as refreshingly uncomplicated. Plus, the married man had had a vasectomy, so there had been no question of becoming pregnant by him.
It was only recently that Olympia had begun to question her decision to have a family on her own. Increasingly, she felt as if there was no one to share her daughter's small but, to Olympia's mind, miraculous milestones—from Lola's first steps without holding on, to the first time she'd drawn a figure with arms and legs, to her sudden ability to write her own name in crooked caps. Olympia's friends, even those who were parents, couldn't be expected to care. Her own parents seemed distracted. And when Olympia tried to tell her older sister, Imperia (known as "Perri"), her sister invariably pointed out that her daughter, Sadie, had done whatever it was six months earlier than Lola had.
Olympia also dreaded the inevitable day when Lola would ask who her father was. What would Olympia say? He was a doctor who moved to remote Bangladesh to aid cholera victims?
Little wonder that she'd begun to fantasize about finding the man behind the number. On one level, she knew it was a terrible idea and that she was better off idealizing a set of disembodied statistics than going through the inevitable heartbreak of locating someone—if it was even possible—who didn't want to be a father except maybe in the most abstract sense. According to his listed birth date, #6103 was nearly ten years younger than Olympia; in all likelihood, he'd donated for the beer money. But curiosity and longing had proven stronger than reason. And so Olympia had taken to picturing the three of them—herself, Lola, and Lola's virile young father—engaged in wholesome outdoorsy activities of the kind she imagined he must like (e.g., rowing across an algae-infested lake in New Hampshire). Not that Olympia had ever enjoyed sports or the outdoors, but maybe she could learn to do so.
She'd also taken to imagining #6103, a reluctant father at first, being won over by Lola's undeniable adorableness. These visions fixed in her head, Olympia had already started to make inquiries. She'd combed various message boards and donor registries—so far to no avail. But maybe there was another way…
Olympia woke the next morning to find that it was flurrying outside. Considering that she could locate only a single pink polka-dotted mitten, she bundled Lola up as best as she could—and instructed her to keep one hand in her pocket. ("Bad mommy," Lola told her for the second time in twelve hours.) Then, just as she'd done countless times before, Olympia wheeled her daughter the six blocks necessary to reach the Happy Kids Daycare Center, where she turned her over to two sexpots from Brighton Beach who appeared to be barely out of high school; wore low-cut glittery tops and sweatpants with words like "Player" and "Foxy" spelled out in script across the ass; and seemed utterly indifferent to children. Then again, Happy Kids charged only ten bucks per hour, which made Olympia a Happy Grown-up.
After dropping off Lola, Olympia caught the 4 train to the Upper East Side. Exiting the 86th Street station, she walked east to the modern town house that contained the museum. The director and chief curator was Viveka Pichler, a barely thirty possible android with a Cleopatra haircut who wore four-inch-high gladiator sandals all seasons of the year. Viveka had never been seen eating anything except eel sushi. She was also legally blind, a point of fact that, for obvious reasons, she kept a secret. Rumor had it that the money for Kunsthaus New York had been provided by Viveka's father, who'd made his fortune inventing a high-performance tire rubber for Formula One racing cars and other speed machines. Three years earlier, despite limited familiarity with the region and only rudimentary knowledge of the native language, Olympia had been delighted to accept a job at the museum. How bad could it be? she'd thought. Maybe she'd even score free airfare to Europe. And weren't Gustav Klimt and his protégé, Egon Schiele, two of her favorite painters? What's more, she'd left her previous position to spend time with Lola, then an infant. And her checking account had been hovering dangerously close to zero.
The museum's curatorial offices were to the right of the galleries. Viveka worked in one of them. The other three employees—Olympia and Viveka's assistants, two unsmiling twenty-something Austrians named Annmarie and Maximilian—worked in the other. The walls, chairs, desks, and computers were all white. For any measure of privacy, one had to leave the museum entirely or barricade oneself in the bathroom or supply closet, which, naturally, was filled with white paper clips and white pencils.
Later that morning, unable to forestall her curiosity until lunchtime, Olympia found herself crouched in the closet and calling the Cryobank of Park Avenue in search of Dawn Calico (now Cronin), her old high school classmate turned head nurse.
Four-plus years earlier, Olympia had been prostrate and in stirrups—and about to be inseminated—when she'd discovered the connection. "Wait, don't tell me you're the Pia Hellinger I used to know at Hastings High?!" Dawn had crowed excitedly from between Olympia's legs.
Olympia had wanted to disappear under the examining table. How soon before her entire high school graduating class knew it had come to this? "That's me," she'd said in a tiny voice.
"So, if you don't mind me asking," Dawn had gone on as she parted Olympia's thighs and inserted a catheter. "How does 'Miss Most Likely to Become a French Movie Star' end up in need of sperm?"
"I wasn't 'Most Likely to Become a French Movie Star,' " Olympia had protested meekly. "I was 'Most Likely to Live in France.' " A founding member of the high school improv troupe, Dawn herself had been voted "Most Likely to Have Her Own TV Talk Show by Age Twenty-five." Though, if Olympia had had any say in the matter, Dawn's crowning superlative would have been "Most Annoying Person in All of Westchester County."
"All I know is that Brad Gadzak was hot for you," Dawn had continued. "And he was the hottest guy in high school."
"Brad Gadzak. Wow. I haven't thought about him in years. Do you know what happened to him?" asked Olympia, flinching on all fronts.
"Last I heard, he was an Outward Bound instructor in Alaska with a harem of Inuit supermodels. Anyway, that's it!" She withdrew the catheter.
"Great!" Olympia had said, while fighting the urge to flee to the frozen north herself.
"Does Dawn still work here?" she now asked the receptionist, her back pressed to the supply closet door.
Within seconds, Dawn came on the line, and said, "Hello?"
"It's Pia… Hellinger!" she said, trying to sound upbeat.
"Hey, Baby Mama," said Dawn. "How the heck are you?"
"We're all great. How are you and your brood?"
"Haven't pulled an Andrea Yates yet."
"Well, that's good." Olympia laughed lightly as she ran through the accumulated tabloid stories in her head and tried to recall to which one Andrea Yates owed her notoriety. Was she the woman who drove off a bridge with her kids? Or was that Susan Something? "So listen," she began again in a faux-casual voice. "I'm sure you don't remember this, but I used six-one-oh-three."
"Ah, the ever-popular six-one-oh-three." Dawn sighed, alarming Olympia. Exactly how many of his "motivated, thoughtful" progeny were toddling around Brownstone Brooklyn and the Upper West Side?
"Right, him," said Olympia. "Anyway, this is kind of embarrassing, but I've sort of been obsessing about the guy. And I was wondering if there was anything you could tell me about him that isn't on the profile, even if it's just a first name." She held her breath.
"Listen, sweets: nothing would make me happier than dishing dirt," said Dawn. "But I can't. Bank policy."
"I totally understand," said Olympia, already wishing she'd never asked.
Before she hung up, Dawn made Olympia promise to stop by "the bank" some time with Lola to say hello.
Olympia would rather have run naked through Times Square.
Exiting the supply room, she was further distressed to find Viveka standing there, hands on her nonexistent hips. Had she overheard Olympia's conversation? "We promote the fine art of Austria here," was all she said before stomping away in her gladiators.
"Too bad you can't see it," Olympia muttered to herself on her way back to her desk.
And then, two weeks later, the Inevitable Day arrived. It happened to be January 1. Olympia was getting herself and Lola ready for the Hellinger family's annual New Year's Day brunch. (Olympia looked forward to and dreaded the event in equal parts. She fitted Lola's arms into her favorite pink polyester-velour jumper dress with the rubberized heart decal. Lola's closet was filled with beautiful European fashions by Jacadi, Catimini, and Bon Nuit, most of them purchased secondhand on eBay. But the child's most cherished dresses were from Target and the Disney store. Olympia was wearing skintight dark-wash cigarette jeans, a black wool turtleneck, gray suede booties, a short fake-fur jacket, and oversized square sunglasses. Which is to say that she still cared about keeping up appearances in front of her two sisters—namely, the appearance that she led such a busy and sophisticated existence that she lacked both the time and energy to care what they thought of her, even though, in truth, she obsessed about them constantly. "Mommy, who's my daddy?" Lola asked.
"You don't have a daddy, cookie," Olympia replied in the most lighthearted voice she could summon.
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because not everyone has a mommy and a daddy. Some kids have just a mommy. A few have just a daddy… There, you're all zipped!" How could she lie? If she made up someone, Olympia had decided, Lola would just ask to meet him. In preparation for this moment, Olympia had bought her daughter picture books about "modern families." But the child seemed completely uninterested. Apart from Madeline, her favorite titles were Olivia and The Story of Babar, both of which featured mommies and daddies, all of the four-legged variety, but still.
"And a few kids just have gymnastics teachers," Lola said.
Olympia had no clue what her daughter was talking about. But not wanting to disappoint any more of her expectations, she said, "That's right. A few just have gymnastics teachers." Then she lifted up Lola's dress and yanked her bunching turtleneck down over her Tiana underpants. Tiana was Lola's favorite Disney Princess, a fact that Olympia advertised widely, believing it reflected well on her own parenting since Tiana was the only African American in the stable.
Seemingly unfazed, Lola soon moved on to a new line of questioning: "Mommy, what day comes after Friday, again?"
But the earlier inquiry haunted Olympia the whole way from Brooklyn to Larchmont. That was where Olympia's sister, Perri, almost forty, lived with her husband, Mike, forty-one, and their three naturally conceived children: Aiden, nine; Sadie, six; and Noah, just two.
To pass the time it took to get there, Olympia suggested that Lola try to count the number of people in their Metro-North car. "One… twoooo… threeeee," the child began in a high-pitched cheep, standing up in her seat as she pointed at the various domes in her line of vision. "Foooour… fiiiive… six… seven… eight… nine… ten… eleven… twelve… thirteen… fifteen… sixteen."
Olympia sighed and tutted with undisguised frustration. "After thirteen comes fourteen. Then fifteen." How many times did she have to go over it? She knew you weren't supposed to judge children at this age. And yet Lola's inability to count to twenty had left Olympia secretly dubious about the child's intelligence, and, by association, the mental faculties of #6103. What if he'd lied about his Ivy League degree and was actually a high school dropout who worked in a supermarket parking lot, corralling shopping carts? Or maybe he didn't even have a job, not on account of the recession but because he'd never even tried to get one, preferring to spend his days on street corners making lewd remarks at passing women—when he wasn't busy relieving himself at sperm banks. Or maybe it was all the infant formula that Olympia had fed Lola when she was a newborn. Olympia had managed to breastfeed for only four weeks, and even then she'd supplemented. No doubt that was ten points erased from Lola's IQ right there. Olympia fretted, then scolded herself for obsessing.
Mount Vernon East was the next stop, followed by Pelham and New Rochelle. Finally, the train pulled into lily-white Larchmont. The doors slid open. Olympia grabbed Lola's hand, and the two stepped down and out. BMW's 5 Series ruled the station parking lot. Olympia flagged an idling taxi. Five minutes later, she and Lola were turning up North Chatsworth Avenue, past a fake stone well, into a woodsy development with big old homes. Perri and Mike's circa-1930 "stockbroker Tudor," as they were locally known, sat up high on a hillock. Pristine snow blanketed the sloping front lawn. A silver late-model Lexus SUV was parked at the end of a neatly shoveled, S-shaped driveway. Another well-defined path led to an oak front door with miniature yellow square windows and a giant brass knocker. "Here we are," chimed Olympia in as enthusiastic a voice as she could muster.
"I want to ring the bell," said Lola.
"Hold on," said Olympia, lifting her into the air.
With difficulty, Lola pressed her tiny thumb into the opalescent button.
Moments later, Perri appeared in the doorway. "Well, look who's shockingly on time!" she declared.
"Happy New Year to you, too," said Olympia, leaning in to greet her big sister.
"Same to you, Anna Wintour," said Perri, returning the air kiss.
"Try to be nice," said Olympia, sighing as she lifted her sunglasses to the top of her head. Did her sister ever stop?
"It might kill me," conceded Perri as she closed the door behind them.
"Try anyway," said Olympia.
"And how's my favorite niece?" asked Perri, squatting to embrace Lola. "You know, your aunt Perri has missed you."
Lola dutifully clutched Perri around the knees before she announced, "I want apple juice."
"Lola, say 'please' before you ask for something," said Olympia.
"Please I want apple juice," said Lola.
"I'm sorry, sweetie," said Perri, making a clown face. "We don't keep juice in the house for kids." She glanced up and over at Olympia. "You know, juice is terrible for their teeth."
"She doesn't drink very much of it," said Olympia, irked again. "Besides, it's mostly bourbon for this girl." She patted Lola's head.
"Excuse me!" said Perri, eyes bugging.
"That was a joke."
"Oh. Funny!" Perri flashed an exaggeratedly bright smile as she stood up.
While Olympia removed her jacket, she glanced around her. To the left of the entrance, a silver-framed botanical print hung over a mahogany console topped with an alabaster lamp fitted with a silk shade. She thought of the many guided tours through the Great Homes of the Hudson Valley to which their mother had subjected them while they were growing up. The writing desk to the left is a Chippendale original, purchased by Josiah Archibald Stanhope III, Franklin Roosevelt's great-uncle once removed, in 1761. Olympia still remembered getting chewed out by a guard for trying to swing on a velvet rope…
"Sorry," said Perri, teeth gritted apologetically, "but would you guys mind taking off your shoes, too? We just got our rugs cleaned."
"Not a problem," said Olympia, unfazed as she bent down to unzip Lola's boots. Her sister's hang-up about dirt and germs had a long history. What's more, Perri's neurotic worldview wasn't entirely alien to Olympia herself. The two shared a deep loathing of stray hairs, especially those found blanketing drains and curling around bars of soap. Unlike Olympia, however, Perri had found a way to monetize her madness: she was the cofounder and CEO of a home organization company called In the Closet. After starting out as an in-home consultation service, it had since expanded to encompass an online store, a magazine, a catalogue, a smart phone app, and numerous accessories lines. When the economy improved, Perri was hoping to take the company public.
"I appreciate it," said Perri who, Olympia noticed upon closer viewing, was wearing an ivory silk blouse with a wedding present–sized bow, a long brown cardigan the color of dog doo, boot-legged camel-colored wool trousers with a crease down the front of each leg, and matching patent leather flats with hieroglyphic-like gold hardware on each toe.
Olympia had never understood where her sister got her fashion sense. Insofar as it made for a sharp contrast with what Olympia considered to be her own impeccable eye, it both alarmed and tickled her. "New pants?" she found herself asking.
Perri suddenly froze in place, her expression stricken. "What? You think they're ugly?" she asked.
"I just asked if they were new!" cried Olympia, not entirely genuinely.
"I could tell what you were thinking."
"You have ESP?"
"I'm not stupid. You think I look fat in them, too. Just admit it."
"Ohmygod, can you please stop being so insecure about your appearance?" said Olympia, sighing and rolling her eyes again (and secretly enjoying herself).
"But you don't like them," said Perri.
"They're a little—I don't know—mustard for my taste," said Olympia, wrinkling her nose. "To be honest, I think your whole look could use some updating. It's kind of stuck in the nineties." A thought struck her: Was she being a horrible bitch? Did Perri deserve it?
"Well, I'm sorry we can't all be fashion plates!" cried Perri, neck elevated.
"Anyway." Apparently done with the topic, Perri cleared her throat. Then she turned to Lola, and said, "You know, Sadie is very excited to play with you."
- "Rosenfeld does do a stellar job of developing each personality, and the characters remain true to their nature throughout."—Publishers Weekly
- "Although the novel's twists and turns are entertaining, it's the sisters' realistic swings from jealousy to unity that make it compelling.Once again, the author of I'm So Happy forYou portrays women with insight."—Booklist
- "A witty character study of that contentious organism: sisterhood."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Although accomplished adults, the Hellinger sisters remain quick to judge each other and sometimes grapple with jealousy and resentment. Their relationships are tested when their mother winds up in the hospital, but Rosenfeld shows, with humor and charm, that these familial bonds are strong enough to withstand even the most trying circumstances."—Samantha Samel, Brooklyn Daily Eagle
- "In this impish new novel from the author of I'm So Happy For You, three sisters who have grown up cranky and competitive are itching to shed the stereotypes they've always represented to one another and their parents.... By the time everything's resolved, you'll have come to love them in all their hilarious imperfection." 4-stars, People Pick—Helen Rogan, People
- "Appealingly dark...."—Emily Cooke, The New York Times Book Review
- On Sale
- Feb 5, 2013
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown and Company