Archive for April, 2010

How Reading Changed My Life

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Excerpt

Here are some of Anna’s Reading Lists from HOW READING CHANGED MY LIFE

The 10 Books I Would Save in a Fire (If I Could Only Save 10)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats

The Collected Plays of William Shakespeare

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Books I Just Love to Read, And Always Will

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

My Antonia by Willa Cather

The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Group by Mary McCarthy

The Blue Swallows by Howard Nemerov (poetry)

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Excerpted from How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen Copyright © 1998 by Anna Quindlen. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, 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.

Thinking Out Loud

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Living Out Loud

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Loud and Clear

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Excerpt

Preface
ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, I was doing what I do as well as anyone I know: that is, not writing. This is an enduring part of my daily routine, something like the unbirth- day party in Through the Looking-Glass. Unlike some of my colleagues—mainly the ones I don’t really care for—I do not fly to my desk each morning with a full heart and a ready hand. I skirt the perimeters of my home office with a sense of dread, eyes averted from an empty computer screen. Instead of creation there is always procrastination: the call to my closest friend to chew over the morning paper and to gossip, which sometimes comes to the same thing; the power walk in Central Park and the interlude at Starbucks—my husband calls it Four-bucks—and the triple venti no-foam latte. Luckily the laundry room is five stories below my office, or I could surely eke out another half hour folding sheets and T-shirts. Several years ago my daughter downloaded a computer game called Snood onto my laptop and for months, before I had used up all the demonstration games, I played over and over in single-minded pursuit of nothing more than a position on a scoreboard that only I ever saw and on which I was known as Big Mama. Eventually I deleted the program. I had developed a terrible Tetris problem a decade earlier that had enabled me to put off writing until well past 10:00 a.m., and I could see which way things were headed.

I am a creature of habit; it is all that allows me to write in the first place, the routine designed to ward off the moment, and then the moment itself, when the first feeble sentence, often merely a prelude to better things, appears as my fingers play word jazz on the keyboard. What follows is usually a manic two or three hours fed by caffeine and the CD of the moment. Sondheim, Tori Amos, Rosemary Clooney, James Taylor, Alanis Morissette. I did not want to learn to type, but the nuns insisted, saying someday I might marry a man who would need his papers typed or be employed by a man who needed the same done to his business letters. My fingers are the only sure-handed things about me when I first sit down to write. After all those years in newsrooms I am a very fast typist indeed, as fast as any executive secretary.

But it was the variation from routine that enables me to remember that morning in particular, remember it before it became the morning of the most important day in the history of the United States during my lifetime. It was my eldest child’s eighteenth birthday, and that morning at breakfast his father and I had recalled with clarity and more than a little schmaltz the stiflingly hot morning when he had arrived, limp and gray after a forceps delivery. Twelve days before we had left him at college for the first time, and we were still smarting from the fissure in our family. Before we got into the car and drove away, we reminded him yet again that when he turned eighteen he was obliged by law to go to the post office and register with the Selective Service. Neither of us felt any fear when we told him to do that; it seemed almost quaint, that particular demand at that moment in time from the two of us, the former boy who had lived through the Vietnam draft lottery, the former girlfriend who had stood by breathless waiting for his number to come up, the young couple exhaling in relief after. If I had thought there was any chance my son would be forced to go to war, I would have bought him a ticket to Canada instead of driving him to Connecticut.

There were two other reasons that I remember that morning so clearly as well. The day before my daughter and I had attended the funeral of a family friend in Pennsylvania, and once I was done with my nonwriting rituals I intended to write about her, about the considerable inspiration that the lives of valiant older people provide us. I had gone straight from that funeral to a hospital, where my closest friend was having cancer surgery, surgery that appeared to have been spectacularly successful. So while I have a great deal of trouble remembering almost anything at this moment in my life—while I once did a column tied to my age called “Life in the 30s,” I now say that the fifties version would be entitled “Where the Hell Did I Leave My Keys?”—I do remember how I felt that particular morning as I settled into the old Windsor chair at which I finally, finished with preliminaries, sat down to write. I felt painfully mortal, quite vulnerable, and enormously grateful.

Over the course of the next few days the entire city in which I work, the entire country in which I live, would come to feel much the same way.

For me there was a peculiar reason for gratitude as the horrible events of that day unspooled in a long endless loop of cataclysmic news footage. When my husband called to tell me to turn on the television, we both thought there had been a freak accident. But as I watched the arc of that second plane as it smashed into the Trade Center towers just a few miles south of our narrow Victorian row house, I knew that something uniquely terrible was taking place. I also had reason to believe that everyone I cared for most was safe: My husband across the Hudson at his office. The children at their schools. My friend in the hospital across town. It was difficult for us to talk to one another, of course, with the New York City telephone lines out, the tunnels and bridges shut down, and cyberspace hopelessly jammed. One of the mementos I have kept from that morning are three identical e-mails from our son at college, who could not get through on the day of his birthday or for three days afterward. Each one is dated September 11, 2001, and says in capital letters I REALLY NEED TO HEAR YOUR VOICE.

The morning after, a new world burned and bloomed, too, beneath an incongruously cerulean sky. A group of my daughter’s friends gathered in our kitchen and made hundreds of sandwiches and brownies to take to the Red Cross offices nearby. They bought enormous bags of dog food to bring to the local firehouse for their dalmatians and the rescue dogs looking for survivors downtown. The familiar strangers in our neighborhood lingered on the street to speak to one another, to pass along the newest stories about the horror to the south and the people who knew people who’d been inside the twin towers. Two days later the wind changed and the neighborhood smelled sharply of smoke. “I know that smell,” an old man who lived in the apartment house on the corner said in accented English, and someone told me he was a Holocaust survivor.

Most nights, housebreaking the puppy we had picked up the day after our son left for school, I would run into a fireman who was heading home after working the wreckage, his eyes burning bright in a grimy face, his hands nicked and bandaged. He would pet our dog, rub her ears and muzzle, finally crouch to hold her squirmy little body close, and by the time he rose for the rest of the walk home there would be bright tear tracks in the dirt on his face. I tried not to cry until he was gone.

But despite the scent of death and the fighter planes flying low overhead and the interior rat-a-tat of panic and fear, there was also that hidden gratitude, the feeling on the part of most New Yorkers that they might have been downtown, that they could have gone to a meeting or a breakfast, that they somehow were still alive. For me that gratitude was also professional. The morning of September 12, 2001, I was at my desk first thing, no preliminaries, no computer games, seizing the chance to write about an event more destructive, more transformative, and more important than any I had ever written about during three decades as a journalist. And at that moment I thanked God, not only for the safety of my family and friends, but for the gift of being permitted to do what I do for a living.

It’s a strange job, covering and commenting on the news. Life washes over us as it does all our fellows, and yet we see it in a completely different way than they do. Disaster, tragedy, malfeasance, change: Everything is always arranging itself into stories, making itself tidy and suitable for 900-word retellings. Nothing is too messy to be summed up in a headline or a sound bite. We are the people who go to wars with laptops instead of guns, who look at the scene of the crime without turning away, who stand in the flickering heat of a house fire and take down the details as someone jumps from a third-story window. We ask questions ordinary people would be ashamed to ask. We watch. That is our job.

The greater the event, the larger the disconnect between what we feel as human beings and how we look at things dispassionately as reporters. I remember well arriving back in the city in 1977 after telling our families that we had become engaged and emerging from the Holland Tunnel, not into the twinkle glare of the downtown streets but into darkness limned with the foreboding shadows of buildings black-on-black, New York City absent all electrical power. For just an instant I thought how amazingly different the place looked, how bright the stars, how dark the streets. But almost immediately everything coalesced into a single thought: how big the story!

I do not know any reporter who truly managed to feel that way about the events of September 11, although all of us knew it was indeed the biggest story we would ever cover. It was also the one in which the human part of us stayed in the forefront, right there beside the notebook. The pain was too great, the loss too enormous, the shock too overwhelming. Most of my colleagues stayed whole during the days that followed, feeling the event and covering it at the same time. This is relatively rare but, in this case, absolutely necessary, not only, I think, for the mental health of the reporters but for the verisimilitude of the stories they produced. I have never been quite as proud of being in the business as I was during those dreadful days, when newspapers, magazines, and television all produced exemplary work. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, The New York Times would win more Pulitzers than it ever had, and Newsweek would be honored with the National Magazine Award for best magazine in its circulation class. This was no accident. The story of what happened to the people in those buildings and to the United States was so enormous that it called upon the best within all of us to respond. Some people did that by combing the wreckage, cooking for the rescue crews, setting up funds for widows and orphans. In my business we did it by writing the truth, beautifully.

For me personally the opportunity to do this was something of an accident of timing. I had been in the newspaper business for many years, as a reporter, an editor, and finally a columnist, and while I had loved it almost insanely, I had always hoped someday to write novels. I’d managed to work on my fiction while I was a columnist, but eventually the challenge of keeping on top of the news and on top of three young children and ricocheting wildly between the two while trying to live in the invented world of fiction became too much for me. In 1995 I left The New York Times and, I thought, the world of journalism for good. One of the most enduring memories of my life will be walking my last night down Forty-third Street, past the New York Times building, the globe lamps with the old English logo glowing black against the white light. I felt as though a door had slammed at my back, and while I’d blown it shut myself, it was still not a good feeling.

For the first year I was a recovering journalist, not a recovered one. Occasionally news would break out and I would feel a frisson, like a phantom limb: I know about that! I have some thoughts! And once one of the children, in that inimitable way children have, went to the heart of it when we were watching the report of a doctor murdered at an abortion clinic. “Who’s going to write about this stuff now that you’re gone?” he said, chewing thoughtfully on a Fruit Roll-Up.

But the children also agreed that what they called “that look” had disappeared. I had not even known that there was a particular look, but when they reprised the semiconscious mother of seasons past it turned out to be the look a woman might have while listening to an account of a bad call at a basketball game or a hilarious episode of flatulence in the fifth-grade classroom while simultaneously thinking of welfare reform or gun control. According to their reports, I now appeared to be attending at least some of the time. Certainly it had become easier to attend to the business of writing fiction, and I found myself inhabiting the world of my third novel in a way that had been more difficult to do with the two before it, falling in and not climbing out every other day for a visit to a homeless shelter or a wild six hours banging out a screed on capital punishment. It was a good life, and whenever I was asked whether I missed being a journalist, I always answered, “No.”

But five years into it the editor in chief at Newsweek had offered me a prime piece of real estate, the back page of the magazine and its venerable “Last Word” column. My essays would run only every other week, which left plenty of time to wallow in the invented world of a new novel. The first column was like riding the proverbial bicycle; you may be shaky, but you never forget. I was nearly two years into the routine when the worst happened that September morning and terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and, because of the intervention of a group of heroic passengers, an empty field in Pennsylvania. And at that moment I was so glad to have a column that I could have written one every day. I looked time and time again at my son’s message: I NEED TO HEAR YOUR VOICE.

It was not that I necessarily had something distinctive to say about the savagery of the terrorists, the scope of the devastation, or the psychological scars left on the nation, although that was what I tried to produce in the long run-up to the first anniversary of the attack. I wanted to serve the readers; I also wanted to serve myself, to understand for my own sake as well as theirs. That I have always done through the algebra of prose—this word, to this one, and so on, and so on, until by inches an idea is born, and sometimes even an epiphany. That is one of the things journalists do when they go about their work, one of the collateral benefits of our hit-and-run lives. We learn to understand the world, what is important and what is important to us, and therefore who we truly are. The great plagiarism scandals in the profession have always originated with people who are empty vessels and are therefore comfortable filling the emptiness with invention, which is a fancy way of saying lies. Real reporters are always searching for some version of the truth so that, in the long run, they can assemble the truth about the world out of all the stories they have covered and the things they have learned. That is why, in contrast to the common belief that they are the world’s great cynics, the best journalists are the world’s great idealists. They have experienced firsthand the great soothing balance of human existence. For every disgrace there is a triumph, for every wrong there is a moment of justice, for every funeral a wedding, for every obituary a birth announcement.

There was no better time to be about this work than on September 11, 2001, and not because it was what we like to call a great story. It transcended that, as it transcended so much else we had ever imagined or known. But to try to cast light into the gray darkness that fell as those buildings burned and fell to bits was a uniquely important undertaking that I would not have wanted to watch from the sidelines. And it cemented what I had always known about the business, that it had the ability to make you better than you thought you could be because of the ordinary courage you saw at every turn.

Two nights after the terrorist attacks I was driving home from New Jersey, where I had given a speech, and as I came around the ramp that leads to the Lincoln Tunnel I saw across the river a great plume of gray smoke with orange fire at its center, a hellish foundry where two of the city’s greatest landmarks had stood just days before. The man driving the car and I both let out a kind of strangled sound, a gasp and a cry together, and both of us wept. “God help us,” he said. And as he did I took a notebook from my bag and wrote down what he said and how it looked and how I felt.

Excerpted from Loud and Clear by Anna Quindlen Copyright © 2004 by Anna Quindlen. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, 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.

Being Perfect

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Good Dog. Stay.

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

A Short Guide To A Happy Life

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Excerpt

I’m not particularly qualified by profession or education to give advice and counsel. It’s widely known in a small circle that I make a mean tomato sauce, and I know many inventive ways to hold a baby while nursing, although I haven’t had the opportunity to use any of them in years. I have a good eye for a nice swatch and a surprising paint chip, and I have had a checkered but occasionally successful sideline in matchmaking.

But I’ve never earned a doctorate, or even a master’s degree. I’m not an ethicist, or a philosopher, or an expert in any particular field. Each time I give a commencement speech I feel like a bit of a fraud. Yogi Berra’s advice seems as good as any: When you come to a fork in the road, take it!

I can’t talk about the economy, or the universe, or academe, as academicians like to call where they work when they’re feeling kind of grand. I’m a novelist. My work is human nature. Real life is really all I know.

Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work. That’s what I have to say. The second is only a part of the first. Don’t ever forget what a friend once wrote to Senator Paul Tsongas when the senator had decided not to run for reelection because he’d been diagnosed with cancer: “No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

Don’t ever forget the words on a postcard that my father sent me last year: “If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”

Or what John Lennon wrote before he was gunned down in the driveway of the Dakota: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

That’s the only advice I can give. After all, when you look at the faces of a class of graduating seniors, you realize that each student has only one thing that no one else has. When you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living.

But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.

Excerpted from A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, 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.

Q&A

Q: This book was inspired by a commencement speech you gave to a graduating high school class. Why did you choose the topic of happiness, as opposed to more familiar topics, like civic achievement and academic excellence? Is the advice given in the book something you think you needed to hear at the same age in your life?

A: I know lots of people of great accomplishment who seems to take precious little pleasure in that accomplishment. And I know people of achievement who seem to have let friendship and family fall by the wayside. So I believed that young people were growing up in a culture in which they heard over and over again that they would want to accomplish great things but were not hearing enough that they would want to appreciate the small ones. It’s a lesson I learned early in life, but which I’ve kept on learning. In fact one of the things I said to the graduate was that they might not appreciate what I was saying as they sat there, but that perhaps my sentiments would come back to them at some time when they really needed them. Their parents, however, came up to me afterwards and said they wished they’d heard this message many many years before.

Q: Throughout A Short Guide to a Happy Life, you mention many people, but in particular your mother. Why do you think it was the loss of you mother that taught you about true happiness, and how do you think you pursued happiness before her death? What role does family and close friends play in a happy life?

A: I have attended several memorial services in recent years at which family and friends noted that the deceased has understood what really mattered in the face of terminal illness. That’s so sad. That’s a knowledge we would have long before we get a bad biopsy results. But of course I know that that’s how I understood the importance of living life to the fullest, from watching my mother lost it by inches. She wasn’t clinging to life so that she could write a bestseller, or make a million bucks. She just wanted to watch the sun come up one more time, or to hug my little sister, or to listen tot “South Pacific” on the stereo. And that teaches you something. It teaches you that so much
Of what you take for granted is the bedrock of happiness. You know, one of the most affecting scenes in any ply for me is when Emily is watching the mourners at her own funeral in “Our Town.” And she asks the other dead around her whether living people ever understand how wonderful life is. And one of them replies, “That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. TO spend and waste time as though you had a million years.” I refused to live with that inevitability.

Q: Who are the people in your life who have informed your thinking on what’s important in life most?

A: Well, certainly my mother, who was a humble woman with a great capacity for unconditional love. And now my kids. Because you can reexperience the world through the eyes of your kids, whether it’s the first time they catch a fish or dive off the board, or read To Kill a Mockingbird.I feel infinitely more alive and aware of the world since I had children to show me the way. I could never do enough to repay them for that. (And, no, honey, you can’t have a motorcycle!)

Q: Several times in the book you quote writers, like Gwendolyn Brooks, and you incorporate their wisdom about life into your own. Which writers and books have influenced you the most and helped you to form your own philosophy about living?

A: Reading is another thing that has made me more human by exposing me to worlds I might never have entered and people I might never meet. Actually it’s poetry that more than any other form makes me fell the quiet overwhelming joy that points the way to emotional satisfaction. Yeats, for example, whose poem I used for the dedication to “Thinking Out Loud.” Elizabeth Bishop. William Carlos Williams. John Ashbery. Robert Lowell. Sometimes you read a novel and it’s like a symphony playing in your head, Anna and Vronsky and all the rest, the rich tapestry of Faulkner’s language. And it takes the one f two perfectly placed words in a short poem to pick out the truth on the strings of your violin-heart. How’s that for an overwrought metaphor?

Q: How has your own writing contributed to your happiness and satisfaction with your life, both in a day to day way and in general?

A: There’s no greater happiness than doing something every day that you love, that you feel you do in a satisfactory fashion, and which both supports and gives you time to support your family. I fell so lucky to have all that. But I am also happy that it provides me a measure of immortality with the people I love most. When I am gone my children will be able to sit down and read A Short Guide to a Happy Life and remember me, and remember what I cared about and held most dear. That’s enormously soothing.

Q: Beautiful, happy, and uplifting photos appear throughout A Short Guide to a Happy Life, and they capture what you are saying perfectly. When choosing these photos, what were you looking for? What role has art played in your own life, and how do you think it contributes to the pursuit of happiness?

A: Louis Armstrong once said when someone asked him to define jazz, if you have to ask, you’ll never know. I just knew that these pictures belonged. Cal lit a chemical reaction. Their emotional content just seemed consonant with that of the book.

Q: Many of these photographs are of beautiful landscapes or people surrounded by nature. What role has nature played in understanding of happiness? Why do you think it is such an apt metaphor for rediscovering the wonder of life?

A: There’s an Emily Dickinson poem — now that I’m on the subject of poetry — that ends with the words, “How much can come/and much can go/ and yetabide the world!”. That has something to do with it, that sense of clinging to what will remain after we are gone.

Q: In the book, you stress the importance of women realizing and being thankful for being able to be alive during such a healthy, prosperous and peaceful time. Women now seem to have more opportunity than ever to pursue their dreams. Of what importance are issues of women’s’ rights to you? Has your involvement in women’s issues in the community contributed to your own happiness? What role does community service play in happiness? Is giving back a necessary part of true happiness?

A: I’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager, but originally it was because I wanted to make the world a better place for me. Now I just rejoice in the opportunities for so many. What could make you happier than to make a better world, a world that is fairer, more egalitarian, that works better for all.

Object Lessons

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Q&A

Was there a particular image or idea that inspired you to write Object Lessons? Did you begin with a vision of a particular character, a plot occurrence, both or neither?

Object Lessons is my most autobiographical novel–like Maggie Scanlan, I am the daughter of an Irish father and an Italian mother–and so the motivating principle was more overarching than it has been in subsequent books, when I’ve often begun with a single character, image or theme. But I would say that my initial impulse had a good deal to do with the construction of the second-stage suburbs during the 1960s. As much as the counterculture, that sprawl of split levels and ranch houses changed America and how Americans saw themselves. And it was a metaphor, I think, for taking a good hard look at the old ways and mores. That’s an important theme of the book.

Was there a mood you hoped to evoke by calling the novel Object Lessons? Were there any other titles you considered and then abandoned? What are the “object lessons” that you think the characters–Maggie and Connie in particular–learn in the book?

Oy. Do I have to tell the truth about this? I am terrible with titles, although I’ve gotten better and better over the years. But Object Lessons was my first book, and so I found it particularly difficult to reduce this one to a handful of words. I remember saying “Titles are so reductionist” and having my editor reply, sensibly, “Yes, but a book needs to have one.” In fact I dithered so persistently that we dummied up one version of the cover with the line Title TK, which means Title to come. Then the director of publicity at Random House read it and said, “Well, I think it’s all about object lessons, about those central tenets we learn from experience.” It was kind of a kaboom moment. I only wish it had been my kaboom moment!

You frame the book from its very first pages as taking place in a summer that’s “the time of changes.” Why did you decide to explicitly mention the events that take place later in the novel, like John Scanlan’s stroke and the demise of Maggie and Debbie’s friendship, in the first chapter of the book? Did you know what would happen in Object Lessons when you started writing, or were you surprised along the way?

I always know what will happen at the end when I begin a novel. The beginning and the end are never really the journey of discovery for me. It is the middle that remains a puzzle until well into the writing. That’s how life is most of the time, isn’t it? You know where you are, and where you hope to wind up. It’s the getting there that’s challenging. Besides, I don’t think the trajectory of Object Lessons is about John Scanlan, or even Debbie. It’s about that moment when Maggie can think of herself as an individual separate from others. That’s the ending.

Object Lessons is set in the 1960s as sweeping social changes are beginning to take hold in the United States, but these changes are slow to creep into the town of Kenwood. In what ways did you intend to depict the town as an idyllic place to grow up? How did you picture it as “frozen in time”? How do you think that Kenwood’s reaction to altering the status quo mirrored the reality of the world at that time?

I don’t think most of what we call the 60s actually took place in the 60s. In San Francisco and New York and on some college campuses, sure. But if you go back and look at photos in most places, of most people, you don’t see long hair or tie dyes. My high school yearbook, circa 1970, has a handful of hippie looks but mostly people are pretty straight. But the fault lines were beginning to subtly appear. The changes in the Catholic Church. The growing political disenchantment in the years after the Kennedy assassination. The peace movement and women’s liberation. The earth was rumbling during the time covered by this novel. It hadn’t opened yet.

Some reviewers have wondered if Maggie is, in some ways, a young stand-in for you. How much of your own character is in Maggie? Why do you think that readers are so intrigued by trying to figure out how much autobiography exists in a writer’s fictional works?

Oh, I think everyone wants to disbelieve the notion of fiction. It’s too much, to think that someone could invent an entire believable world from scratch. And that goes double if you’ve been a newspaper reporter, as I was, trained to deal in something approaching literal truth. There are certainly similarities between Anna and Maggie, although she is preternaturally wise and a little judgmental in a way I was not at her age. I find her a bit of a pain.

The struggle between parent and child is paramount in this book–from Maggie and Connie, to Tommy and John, to Connie and Angelo. Which parent-child pairing comes the closest to understanding one another? Is there any element that you view as an “irreconcilable difference” in any of the relationships?

The most irreconcilable of those relationships is the one between Tommy Scanlan and his dad, mainly because it’s not really a loving relationship on the part of the elder man. It’s one of dominance. That’s always doomed to failure. I think Connie and her father have a genuinely loving bond, although he comes from a culture that likes to keep its children close, and so he is distressed about the obvious ways in which she has pulled away. It’s too soon to know how the relationship between Maggie and Connie will develop, but I will say that of all the characters in the book Connie has the greatest capacity for unconditional love. And that carries you a long way in the long run.

In which ways is Connie a renegade, and in which ways does she want to fit in? How is her relationship with Joey break boundaries? How does it put her in closer touch with herself?

I don’t think she means to be a renegade. She’s not born to it, the way Celeste is. She’s just wound up in this role because of the ethnic tensions in her marriage. Reading this book in the early 90s, people thought I had exaggerated that. Someone said to me, “You made it sound almost interracial.” At the time that these people were growing up, that’s exactly what it was like. (Maybe now that everyone has seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding they’ll understand the intractability of certain groups about having their kids marry outside the clan!) It gets tiring always being the outsider. The relationship with Joey is all about spending time with someone who speaks your language and doesn’t see you as the other.

It’s interesting that John Scanlan loathes the Kennedys, as he seems such a Joe Kennedy type in many ways. Did you have any inspiration for this larger-than-life personality? Why do you think he and Maggie have such an affinity toward one another?

A lot of Irish Catholic patriarchs of a certain age loathed the Kennedys. It was jealousy, pure and simple. They couldn’t break through with the WASPs of their own community. Somehow, to a limited extent, Kennedy had managed to do so. And they had as many sons, but none of them Senators or fledgling Presidents. Some of them felt the same way about the Kellys of Philadelphia. “Who do you think you are?” might as well be tattooed into the forehead of certain old Irish Catholics, they ask it so much. “Too big for your britches,” too. I think at some level Maggie likes the old man because he is strong and sure of himself. And that’s what she wants to be. And he likes her because she’s smart.

You set up a marked contrast between Monica and Maggie. Why do you think Monica harbors such vitriol toward her younger cousin? Why does John Scanlan see through her, while few others do? Are they cut from the same cloth, so to speak?

In some ways Monica and Maggie are protoypes of two very different types of women who will do battle over and over in the decades after the action of this novel ends. One is the woman who will play by all the rules in order to win, who will dress correctly, pretend to be tractable, make herself alluring to men and do whatever it takes to succeed, although the standard of her time is that success comes only through a man. She is basically a hard case, and she is about to get harder because all the rules of what makes a successful woman are about to change on her. Maggie is the kind of girl who will be the beneficiary of those changes in the years to come. She is intelligent and thoughtful. She is interested in prospering on her own terms and the old ways of female manipulation either don’t interest or don’t occur to her. The Monicas and the Maggies will always have a hard time getting along. John Scanlan is amused by the combat. He sees Monica for what she is because he, too, is a hard case.

How is Maggie’s desire for order tested by the events of the summer? How is she similar to Tommy, who is a self-admitted “slave to routine”? Will his status as a creature of habit change?

The change of that summer is the catalyst Maggie needs to become herself. It tears her apart, but at the end she can put herself back together. In that way I think she is prototypically female in some sense, and her father prototypically male in that he is quite passive and likely to remain so. The one upheaval he has allowed himself in his life was to marry Connie. But I don’t think he’ll see the like of that moment again.

Maggie is drawn toward unconventional female figures, like Helen Malone and her aunt Margaret. How about these women appeals to Maggie? Was there a particular female character that you most enjoyed writing?

Helen Malone is actually based on a kind of older girl that I saw and knew in my own neighborhood growing up, the kind who had the self-assurance of physical attractiveness and the allure of sexual experience. Those girls suffered. They were golden one day and cast out the next, almost always because of pregnancy. It’s one of the ways in which the world has changed for the better since I was young; you don’t have to pay, all the rest of your life, for a mistake you made when your hormones were in overdrive. I was mesmerized by those girls growing up, because they had so much, and because it was so fleeting. It made me very suspicious of those things that came to you because of your physical allure, and very determined to develop my intellect and my will.

There’s a constant theme of artifice in Object Lessons. Who do you think is the most masked person in the story? Who’s the most true to his or herself? How do you seek to strip away artifice as a writer?

That’s something I’ve never thought about. I suppose it’s the neighborhood, actually, that’s most artificial, because everyone collectively pretends that life is one way when deep underneath there are all sorts of fissures. It’s like that moment near the end when Maggie can see this couple who have moved into one of the new houses. It seems a tableau of success and contentment, but she intuits that there are endless fault lines. And that’s correct.

Object Lessons touches on social issues–divorce, infidelity and teenaged pregnancy, among others. Did you consciously set out to write a novel that included social commentary? Or did these issues emerge while you were writing?

My feeling is that things become social policy issues because they are happening in life, not the other way around. So if you set out to write a realistic novel about America, social issues will inevitably arise in the text. It would be almost impossible to write a novel about, say, marriage, without writing about infidelity. Even Tolstoy had to do it in Anna Karenina, and that was more than a century ago. These are the ways of the world. We just call them social issues when we’re trying to quantify and analyze them somehow. I only do that when I’m wearing my columnist’s hat.

I was struck by a statement of Connie’s at the end of the book: “Everything in your life is who you marry.” Would Tommy agree with this? Has Connie truly forgiven Tommy and accepted the realities of her marriage?

Oh, sure. I don’t think you can even argue with that. Who you marry determines what sort of children and family you’ll have, and that shapes your entire life. I don’t think Connie understood that, going in. She thought it was all about her and Tommy, when of course a marriage is a much larger circle than that of two people holding hands. I think she’s made her peace, but she’s going to keep kicking at the larger indignities. Frankly, she’ll be a much happier woman the day after John Scanlan’s funeral.

You open and conclude the book with the concept of “here and hereafter.” How do John Scanlan and Maggie share a similar worldview with respect to those two concepts? Does this jive with your perception of the world?

Well, the obvious reference is a religious one. In many ways this is a profoundly Catholic book, and I am a profoundly Catholic writer. But it also refers to the future. John knows that things are changing, in his business and in the lives of his children. He has only to consider his half-Italian granddaughter to know that. And I think he suspects that the hereafter for her will be in a much different society. So does she. That’s the moment at which both of them are poised. One regrets, one embraces. But both understand.

In a commencement address at Mount Holyoke, you said, “Listen to that small voice from inside you, that chooses to go the other way.” Who in this novel truly takes this advice to heart? How does it represent a struggle for them? How do you try to heed your own advice?

I never made the connection before, but of course that line in the Holyoke speech describes precisely the moment at the end of Object Lessons when Maggie first hears her own voice in her head. So I would say it would be her, first and foremost. As for me, I have the opposite problem. Because of my life as a novelist and as a columnist, I’m always hearing voices in my head. It’s getting them to shut up and give me a little peace that’s the problem! Usually I have to write it all down first; then I get to watch some TV!

Object Lessons was your first published novel. Do you have a particular fondness for it because of that designation? As you look back at it after over a decade has passed, is there anything that you’d approach differently? Has your writing process changed over that span of time?

I’m more surehanded as a novelist now. You hope that’s true, after publishing four and beginning work on the fifth. You just know your way around a fictional mis en scene better than you did first time out. I had to do three full drafts of this book. On my last novel, Blessings, I did a draft and a fairly light reworking and then it was fine. So I suppose it’s like anything else; the more you do it, the better you become. I can’t tell you whether I’d do anything differently because I’ve never reread Object Lessons. The last time I read it was the day I handed the final draft in. Reading my own work makes me sweat; all I can see are the mistakes and the clunks, never the felicitous phrase or the apt characterization. So I just keep pushing on.

Reader’s Guide

1. Object Lessons unfolds mostly through the eyes of twelve-year-old Maggie. In which ways is Maggie older and more perceptive than her age would suggest? How is she naive? How do you envision Maggie’s evolution as she grows older and away from her family?

2. Does the book have the elements of a traditional coming-of-age novel? If so, what are they? Do you agree with Connie’s assessment at the end of the book that her daughter has become a woman? In what ways is Maggie still a little girl?

3. What does the development being built near Tommy and Connie’s house represent to the various Scanlans? To the neighborhood kids, including Maggie, Debbie, Bruce, and Richard? To the town of Kenwood as a whole? How does it represent a larger theme or symbol in the novel?

4. How do Maggie and Connie have a typical mother-daughter rapport? An atypical one? How is Connie’s attitude toward Maggie influenced by the attitudes of her parents toward her?

5. What factors motivated Tommy and Connie to marry? What initially draws one to the other? How are they well-matched? What causes their marriage to flounder?

6. Why is it significant that Joey Martinelli appears on Connie’s doorstep when he does? How has she become a different person from the girl he once knew? What attributes would she like to bring to the surface once again?

7. When he learns of Connie’s driving lessons, Tommy thinks that he “could take her anywhere she needed to go.” Why does he view her learning to drive as a betrayal? Are Connie’s driving lessons symbolic? If so, how?

8. What role does the Roman Catholic Church play in Object Lessons? How does the Church and its rituals represent a spiritual force for the characters? In which ways is it a business entity?

9. At the beginning of Object Lessons, John Scanlan rules over the family as an indomitable patriarch. What about his personality is so arresting, both to those within the family and outside of it? How does he inspire emotion—whether it’s fear, respect, or loathing? Why do he and Maggie get along so well? How do you see the family evolving as they adjust to his death?

10. Whom does Maggie look up to as a role model, both within her family and outside of it? What attributes do these people have in common? Why does she so dislike her cousin Monica?

11. The friendship between Maggie and Debbie Malone evaporates during the course of the book. Why do you think that Debbie turns on Maggie? How is their friendship different from the relationship Connie has with Celeste?

12. What does the Malone family represent to Maggie? Why does Debbie’s sister, Helen, take a liking to Maggie?

13. After his stroke, John Scanlan says, “It’s not the dying I mind, it’s the changing.” How is this statement typical of his character? Which members of his family would agree with him; who in this novel would disagree?

14. How do Maggie’s two grandfathers compare and contrast with each other? Which attributes from each does Maggie seem to have? To which one does she seem most similar? Why?

15. Debbie decries always being known as “Helen Malone’s sister”; Maggie counters that she’s always “John Scanlan’s granddaughter.” How do the two girls grapple with the idea of identity, especially as it relates to their relationship to other family members? How does each girl try to form her own individuality? How do names and nicknames play a part in identity in Object Lessons?

16. “Until this horrible sweaty summer, lines had been drawn,” Maggie recalls sadly. What connections and boundaries are erased from Maggie’s life during the course of the book? Which fissures are the most apparent? How does Maggie handle the disintegration of these connections?

17. In your opinion, why do the kids begin setting fires in the development? Why does Maggie initially participate? At the last fire, are Maggie’s actions heroic or cowardly, or a combination of the two? Why? Do you think that her behavior hastens the end of her friendship with Debbie?

18. In which ways does John’s death free Mary Frances? Why is she consumed by the memory of her dead daughter, and why does she want to be buried with her? Why does Mary Frances prefer Connie and Tommy living with her to her other children?

19. At the beginning of Object Lessons, Maggie “listens too much”; by the end of the novel, she’s found her voice. Why did it take so long for her true self to emerge? How do you think she’ll merge her newfound consciousness with the competing voices of her past influences?

Black and Blue

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Praise

“A compelling and suspenseful story that goes straight to the gut.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“[Black and Blue] is good enough to become to domestic violence what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to slavery.”
Time

“A sad and important story, convincingly told . . . Black and Blue is enormously readable. . . . Like her columns, Quindlen’s novels are written with intelligence, clarity and heartrending directness.”
Newsday

“In her third novel, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anna Quindlen demonstrates the same winning qualities that inform her journalism: close observation, well-reasoned argument and appealing economy of language. This portrait of a battered woman is intimate and illuminating and, as is true of most anything Quindlen writes, well worth the read.”
People

“A gut wrencher . . . another stunner.”
The Denver Post

“[A] smoothly written, nicely structured, engaging work . . . There is not a badly written sentence in 300 pages. The scenes are deftly drawn.”
The Boston Globe

“Eminently readable . . . Quindlen knows how to build a story.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Intimate and illuminating and, as is true of most anything Quindlen writes, well worth the read.”People

“Heartbreaking.”
Time

“Beautifully paced—keeps the reader anxiously turning the pages.”
New York Times Book Review

“A gut-wrencher—another stunner.”
Denver Post

“Impossible to put down—the tension is both awful and mesmerizing.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Engrossing—compassionate and tense.”
New York Times

“Her best novel yet.”
Publishers Weekly

“Absolutely believable—Quindlen writes with power and grace.”
Boston Globe

“A moving masterpiece.”
Lexington Herald-Leader

A selection of the Literary Guild and Oprah’s Book Club

Reader’s Guide

1. In Anna Quindlen’s novel Black and Blue, Fran Benedetto explains,”In the beginning I loved [Bobby] . . . pure and simple. And then after a while I loved the idea of him, the good Bobby, who came to me every once in a while and rubbed my back and kissed my fingers. And I loved our life, the long stretches of tedium and small pleasures. . . . And now all the love goes into what’s left of that life, one boy” (page 99). What brought Fran and Bobby together in the first place, and how did their relationship fall apart so dramatically?

2. Fran’s sister, Grace, alludes to the domestic violence that Fran has silently endured for years: “How could none of us have known? I called Winnie at the hospital. She said the same thing. She suspected, but she said they all told themselves that you wouldn’t put up with it” (page 161). Have you ever wondered if someone you knew was in an abusive relationship? What would you do if you suspected that a friend or family member was in this kind of trouble?

3. How does Anna Quindlen’s remarkable skill as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist help her as a fiction writer? Discuss.

4. After moving to Lake Plata with her son, Fran realizes, “All my life I’d tried to make my boy happy, and now to keep him safe I had to make him sad. And angry, too” (page 96). How does she handle this dilemma? In Fran’s experience, is it okay to lie to your child? If you are a parent, how do you deal with these complex issues?

5. There are several deep friendships in Black and Blue: Fran and Cindy’s, Fran and Mrs. Levitt’s, and Robert and Bobby’s. What makes these relationships so special? What do you value the most in your own close friendships?

6. Secrets abound in Quindlen’s novel-from the secrets Fran and Robert share about why they fled from New York, to Cindy’s story about her twin sister’s death. What other secrets can you find in this novel? Why does the subject of secrets resonate so deeply in Black and Blue?

7. Why is Patty Bancroft so tough? Is she too tough, or are her actions and comments when dealing with “clients” like Fran justified? Is Fran being fair where she points out that both Patty and Bobby say a lot of the same things?

8. Fran says, “It took me a dozen years of house pride and seventeen years of marriage before I realized there were worse things than a cramped kitchen and grubby carpeting” (page 168). What does “home” mean to Fran, and how is this subject explored throughout the novel? What do you treasure the most about your own home, and how would you feel if you suddenly had to leave it?

9. When Fran’s mother asked Grace why she was going to Chicago for school, Grace replied, ” ‘Because I want to.’ Like it was the most natural thing in the world, to do what you wanted” (page 143). Contrast this with Fran’s earlier comment, “I could tell you what Bobby liked and didn’t like . . . But I couldn’t have told you as much about myself. I was mostly reaction to Bobby’s actions, at least by the end” (page 18). How did these two sisters end up with such different senses of themselves and of what was possible?

10. In the world of Black and Blue, what constitutes a good marriage? How would Cindy Roerbacker and Mrs. Levitt answer this question? Do you agree with these characters? How might Bobby and his mother, Ann, define a good marriage?

11. Fran’s patient Jennifer, who suffers from cerebral palsy, uses the name Sexyjen in chat rooms online. Fran describes “two Bobbys, two Frans,” living in Brooklyn. And when she thinks about Cindy and Craig, she wonders “whether there were two of them, too, the daytime and the nighttime couple, like masks of comedy and tragedy”(page 87). Is it fair to say that all of us show different personalities, depending on the circumstances? Discuss.

12. According to Cindy, “if the good Lord had wanted women to have male friends he would have arranged for men and women to have something in common” (page 123). What do you think about this statement?

13. Knowing the dangers involved, why does Fran choose to stay in Lake Plata, Florida, as Beth Crenshaw, even after Robert has broken the rules and called his father, and Fran has appeared on local TV?

14. Robert’s father tells him, “There’s a part of me in you. And there’s a part of you in me. And there’s a part of me in all the kids you’ll have, and their kids” (page 239). How do you think young Robert will turn out? Will the boy perpetuate his father’s violent streak when he grows up, or will his mother’s influence save him?

15. Mrs. Levitt points out that “other people’s troubles don’t take away yours. But don’t be foolish and think somebody else is having everything fine” (page 257). What does she mean by this? Is it useful to weigh yourself against other people? Fran’s father tells his daughter to “Count your blessings . . . It shames you, to count yours by the hardships of other people” (page 76). How hard is it to follow this advice?

16. Fran thought of Bobby as “Tasty but dangerous. Mike Riordan was the least dangerous guy I’d ever known, and every time I thought to myself, well, Fran, he’s just not your type, I had to remind myself that my type was the type who left marks” (page 213). What do Fran and Mike find in each other, and what eventually pulls them together as a couple?

17. Despite the serious subjects explored in Black and Blue, Quindlen describes plenty of scenes that evoke happiness. These include Fran and Bobby enjoying Robert’s First Communion, Fran and Robert making a collage of sports figures on his closet door, Fran and Mike giving each other the same jacket for Christmas, and Cindy giving birth to healthy twins after losing her own twin sister in childhood. Which moments of hope, love, and redemption stood out to you the most when you read the novel?

18. “Beth Crenshaw is the name of the me I am today,” says Fran. “Grace Ann’s mother. And Robert’s mother, too. No matter what” (page 278). How does she come to terms with the disappearance of her son? What gives her the strength to make a new life for herself and keep going?

Excerpt

The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old.

One sentence and I’m lost. One sentence and I can hear his voice in my head, that butterscotch-syrup voice that made goose bumps rise on my arms when I was young, that turned all of my skin warm and alive with a sibilant S, the drawling vowels, its shocking fricatives. It always sounded like a whisper, the way he talked, the intimacy of it, the way the words seemed to go into your guts, your head, your heart. “Geez, Bob,” one of the guys would say, “you should have been a radio announcer. You should have done those voice-over things for commercials.” It was like a genie, wafting purple and smoky from the lamp, Bobby’s voice, or perfume when you took the glass stopper out of the bottle.

I remember going to court once when Bobby was a witness in a case. It was eleven, maybe twelve years ago, before Robert was born, before my collarbone was broken, and my nose, which hasn’t healed quite right because I set it myself, looking in the bathroom mirror in the middle of the night, petals of adhesive tape fringing the frame. Bobby wanted me to come to court when he was testifying because it was a famous case at the time, although one famous case succeeds another in New York City the way one pinky-gold sunset over the sludge of the Hudson River fades and blooms, brand-new each night. A fifteen-year-old boy from Brooklyn was accused of raping a Dominican nun at knifepoint and then asking her to pray for him. His attorney said it was a lie, that the kid had had no idea that the woman in the aqua double-knit pants and the striped blouse was a nun, that the sex was consensual, though the nun was sixty-two and paste-waxing a floor in a shelter at the time. They took paste wax from the knees of the kid’s pants, brought in the paste-wax manufacturer to do a chemical comparison.

The lawyer was an old guy with a storefront in a bad neighborhood, I remember, and the kid’s mother had scraped together the money to hire him because Legal Aid had sent a black court-appointed and she was convinced that her son needed a white lawyer to win his case. Half-blind, hungover, dandruff on the shoulders of his gray suit like a dusting of snow, the kid’s attorney was stupid enough to call the kid as a witness and to ask why he had confessed to a crime he hadn’t committed.

“There was this cop in the room,” the boy said, real low, his broad forehead tipped toward the microphone, his fingers playing idly with his bottom lip, so that his words were a little muffled. “He don’t ask none of the questions. He just kept hassling me, man. Like he just keeps saying, “Tell us what you did, Tyrone. Tell us what you did.” It was like he hypnotized me, man. He just kept saying it over and over. I couldn’t get away from him.”

The jury believed that Tyrone Biggs had done the rape, and so did everybody else in New York who read the tabloids, watched the news. So did the judge, who gave him the maximum, eight to fifteen years, and called him “a boil on the body of humanity.” But I knew that while Tyrone was lying about the rape he was telling the truth about that police officer, because I lived with that voice every day, had been hypnotized by it myself. I knew what it could do, how it could sound. It went down into your soul, like a confessor, like a seducer, saying, “Tell me. Tell me.” Frannie, Frannie, Fran, he’d croon, whisper, sing.

Sometimes Bobby even made me believe that I was guilty of something, that I was sleeping with every doctor at the hospital, that I made him slip and bang his bad knee. That I made him beat me up, that it was me who made the fist, angled the foot, brought down a hand hard. Hard. The first time he hit me I was nineteen. I can hear his voice now, so persuasive, so low and yet somehow so strong, making me understand once again that I’m all wrong. Frannie, Frannie, Fran, he says. That’s how he begins. Frannie, Frannie, Fran.

The first time I wasn’t your husband yet. You were already twenty, because it was the weekend after we went to City Island for your birthday. And I didn’t hit you. You know I didn’t hit you. You see, Fran, this is what you do. You twist things. You always twist things. I can hear him in my head. And I know he’s right. He didn’t hit me, that first time. He just held onto my upper arm so tight that the mark of his fingertips was like a tattoo, a black sun with four small moons revolving around it.

It was summer, and I couldn’t wear a sundress for a week, or take off my clothes when my sister, Grace, was in the room we shared, the one that looked out over the air shaft to the Tarnowski’s apartment on the other side. He had done it because I danced with Dee Stemple’s brother and then laughed when he challenged me on it. He held me there, he said, so that I couldn’t get away, because if I got away it would be the end of him, he loved me that much. The next night he pushed back the sleeve of my blouse and kissed each mark, and his tears wet the spots as though to wash the black white again, as white as the rest of my white, white skin, as though his tears would do what absolution did for venial sins, wash them clean. “Oh, Jesus,” he whispered, “I am so goddamned sorry.” And I cried, too. When I cried in those days it was always for his pain, not for mine.

As rich and persuasive as Bobby Benedetto’s voice, that was how full and palpable was his sorrow and regret. And how huge was his rage. It was like a twister cloud; it rose suddenly from nothing into a moving thing that blew the roof off, black and strong. I smell beer, I smell bourbon, I smell sweat, I smell my own fear, ranker and stronger than all three. I smell it now in the vast waiting room of Thirtieth Street Station in Philadelphia.

There are long wooden benches and my son, Robert, and I have huddled together into the corner of one of them. Across from us slumps a man in the moth-eaten motley of the homeless, who smells of beer and vomit like so many I’ve seen in the waiting room at the hospital, cooking up symptoms from bad feet to blindness to get a bed for the night, an institutional breakfast on a tray. The benches in Thirtieth Street Station are solid, plain, utilitarian, like the pews in St. Stanislaus. The Church of the Holy Pollack, Bobby called St. Stannie’s, but he still wanted us to be married there, where he’d been baptized, where his father had been eulogized as a cop’s cop. I had never lived in one place long enough to have a real home parish, and I’d agreed. Together we’d placed a rose from my bouquet at the side altar, in front of the statue of St. Joseph, in memory of Bobby’s father. It was the only memory of his father that Bobby ever shared with me.

The great vaulted ceiling of the train station arched four stories over us, Robert and I and our one small carryall bag, inside only toothbrushes, a change of clothes, some video-game cartridges and a book, a romance novel, stupid, shallow, but I had enough of real life every day to last me forever. Gilded, majestic, the station was what I’d believed the courtroom would be like, that day I went to court, when my husband took the stand.

State your name.

Robert Anthony Benedetto.

And your occupation?

I’m a police officer for the City of New York.

The courtroom in the state supreme court had been nothing at all like Thirtieth Street Station. It was low-ceilinged, dingy, paneled in dark wood that sucked up all the light from low windows that looked out on Police Plaza. It seemed more like a rec room than a courtroom. The train station in Philadelphia looked the way I’d always imagined a courtroom would look, or maybe the way one would look in a dream, if you were dreaming you were the judge, or the accused. Robert was staring up at the ceiling, so high above that those of us scattered around the floor so far below were diminished, almost negated by it. At one end of the huge vaulted room was a black statue of an angel holding a dead or dying man. I thought it was a war memorial, and under normal circumstances I would have walked across to read the inscription on the block beneath the angel’s naked toes. But whatever the opposite of normal circumstances was, this was it. I shivered in the air-conditioning, dressed for July in a room whose temperature was lowered to April, my mind cold as January.

The statue was taller than our little house down the block from the bay in Brooklyn, taller than my in-law’s house or the last building where I’d lived with my parents, the one in Bensonhurst, where, in the crowded little bedroom, I’d dressed in my wedding gown, snagging the hem of my train on a popped nail in the scuffed floorboards. The sheer heroic thrust of the station made me feel tiny, almost invisible, almost safe, except that my eyes wandered constantly from the double glass doors to the street at one end to the double glass doors to the street at the other. Waiting, watching, waiting for Bobby to come through the doors, his hands clenched in his pants pockets, his face the dusky color that flooded it whenever he was angry about anything, which was lots of the time. I’d been waiting for Bobby to come through doors most of my life, waiting and watching to gauge his mood and so my own.

A finger of sweat traced my spine and slid into the cleft where my underpants began. The cotton at my crotch was wet, summer sweat and fear. I’d been afraid so many times that I thought I knew exactly what it felt like, but this was something different altogether, like the difference between water and ice. Ice in my belly, in my chest, beneath my breasts, between my eyes, as though I’d gulped down a lemonade too quickly in the heat. “Brain freeze,” Robert and his friends called it when it happened to them, and they’d reel around the kitchen, holding their heads.

“Wait on the bench by the coffee kiosk,” the man had said. He had driven us from New York to Philadelphia in total silence, like a well-trained chauffeur. As we got out of the old Plymouth Volare in front of the train station, he had leaned across the front seat, looking up at me through the open passenger door. He had smelled like English Leather, which Bobby had worn when we were both young, before we were married. Bobby had worn it that time when I was nineteen, the first time. Or twenty. I guess it was right, Bobby’s voice in my head; I guess I’d just turned twenty, that first time. Maybe he was testing me then, to see how much I could take. Maybe he did that every time, until finally he had decided that I would take anything. Anything at all.

“What?” Robert had said, looking up at me as the man in the Volare drove away to wherever he came from, whoever he was. “What did he say? Where are we going now? Where are we going?”

And there was the coffee kiosk, and here was the bench, and here we were, my ten-year-old son and I, waiting for–what? Waiting to escape, to get gone, to disappear so that Bobby could never find us. I think Robert knew everything when he saw me that morning, cutting my hair in the medicine-cabinet mirror, whispering on the phone, taking off the bandages and throwing them in the trash, putting all the recent photographs in an envelope and addressing it to my sister, Grace, so that Bobby wouldn’t have good pictures to show people when he started to search for us. “Where are we going?” Robert had asked. “On a trip,” I’d replied. If Robert had been an ordinary ten-year-old he would have cajoled and whined, asked and asked and asked until I snapped at him to keep quiet. But he’d never been ordinary. For as long as either of us could remember, he’d been a boy with a secret, and he’d kept it well. He had to have heard the sound of the slaps, the thump of the punches, the birdcall of my sobs as I taped myself up, swabbed myself off, put my pieces back together again. He’d seen my bruises after the fact; he’d heard the sharp intakes of breath when he hugged too hard in places I was hurt. But he looked away, the way he knew we both wanted him to, my husband for his reasons, me for mine.

It was just that last time, when he came in from school and I turned at the kitchen counter, his apple slices on a plate, his milk in a glass, my face swollen, misshapen, the colors of a spectacular sunset just before nightfall, my smile a clownish wiggle of a thing because of my split lip, that he couldn’t manage to look away, disappear upstairs, pretend he didn’t see. “Mom, oh, Mom,” he’d said, his eyes enormous. “Don’t worry,” I’d replied before he could say more. “I’ll take care of everything.”

“Mom,” he’d said again. And then maybe he remembered, remembered the secret, remembered all those mornings after the horrible sounds and screams, how his father would sit at the table drinking coffee from his PBA mug, how I’d come in from running and go up to shower, how everyone acted as though everything was just as it should be. So the wild light in his eyes flared, flickered, died, and he added, “Was it an accident?” Because that’s what I’d said, year after year. An accident. I had an accident. The accident was that I met Bobby Benedetto in a bar, and I fell crazy in love with him. And after that I fell further and further every year. Not so you’d notice, if you knew me, although no one really did. On the outside I looked fine: the job, the house, the kid, the husband, the smile. Nobody got to see the hitting, which was really the humiliation, which turned into the hatred. Not just hating Bobby, but hating myself, too, the cringing self that was afraid to pick up the remote control from the coffee table in case it was just that thing that set him off. I remember a story in the Daily News a couple of years ago about a guy who kept a woman chained in the basement of the building where he was a custodian. Whenever he felt like it, he went down the concrete steps and did what he wanted to her. Part of me had been in a cellar, too, waiting for the sound of footfalls on the stairs. And I wasn’t even chained. I stayed because I thought things would get better, or at least not worse. I stayed because I wanted my son to have a father and I wanted a home. For a long time I stayed because I loved Bobby Benedetto, because no one had ever gotten to me the way he did. I think he knew that. He made me his accomplice in what he did, and I made Robert mine. Until that last time, when I knew I had to go, when I knew that if I told my son I’d broken my nose, blacked my eyes, split my lip, by walking into the dining-room door in the dark, that I would have gone past some point of no return. The secret was killing the kid in him and the woman in me, what was left of her. I had to save him, and myself.

“Where are we going, Mom?” he whined in the station, but he did it like any kid would, on any long trip, and it almost made me laugh and smile and cry, too, to hear him sound so ordinary instead of so dead and closed up. Besides, he knew. He knew we were running away from his father, as far and as fast as we could. I wanted to say, Robert, baby, hon, I’m taking you out of the cellar. I’m taking you to where there won’t be secrets anymore. But that wasn’t exactly true. They’d just be different secrets now.

There are people who will do almost anything in America, who will paint your house, paint your toenails, choose your clothes, mind your kids. In Manhattan, at the best private schools, you can even hire a nitpicker if your kid gets head lice. And there are people who will help you get away from your husband, who will find you a new house, a new job, a new life, even a new name. They are mysterious about it because they say it’s what they need to do to keep you safe; when she goes on television, their leader, a woman named Patty Bancroft, likes to say, “We do not even have a name for ourselves.” Maybe that’s why I’d felt I had to whisper when I talked to her on the phone, even though Bobby was long gone from the house: to keep their secret, my secret. There are people, Patty Bancroft had said, who will help you; it is better if you know no more than that. I looked down at Robert, hunched over on the bench, bent almost double over a little electronic game he carried with him everywhere. Ninjas in glowing green lunged forward and kicked men in black masks; the black masks fell back, fell over like felled trees. The ninjas bowed. The number at one corner of the screen grew larger. Robert was breathing as though he had been running. I ran my hand over his dark hair, cut like a long tonsure over his narrow, pointed skull. My touch was an annoyance; he leaned slightly to one side and rocked forward to meet the ninjas, take them on, knock them down. He was good at these games, at losing himself in the tinny electronic sounds and glowing pictures. My sister, Grace, said all the kids were, these days. But I wondered. I looked across the station at a small girl in overalls who was toddling from stranger to stranger, smiling and waving while her mother followed six paces behind. Even when he was small Robert had never, ever been like that. Grace said kids were born with personalities, and Robert’s was as dignified and adult as his name. But I wondered. When Robert was three he sometimes sat and stared and rocked slightly back and forth, and I worried that he was autistic. He wasn’t, of course; the doctor said so.

“Jesus, talk about making a mountain out of a whatever,” Bobby had said, reaching to lift the child and never even noticing the way in which the small bony shoulders flinched, like the wings of a bird preparing to fly, to flee.

“We’re going on a trip,” I’d told Robert that morning.

“Where?” he’d said.

“It’s kind of a surprise.”

“Is Daddy coming?”

Not if we’re lucky, a voice in my head had said, but out loud I’d replied, “He has to work.”

Robert’s face had gone dead, that way it does sometimes, particularly the morning after a bad night, a night when Bobby and I have gotten loud. “Is that why you’re wearing glasses?” he said. “Sort of, yeah.” “They look funny.”

In the station he looked up from his video game and stared at me as though he was trying to figure out who I was, with the strange hair, the glasses, the long floaty dress. The ninjas were all dead. He had won.

His eyes were bright. “Tell me where we’re going,” he said again.

“I will,” I said, as though I knew. “In a little while.”

“Can I get gum?”

“Not now.”

Around the perimeter of the station were small shops and kiosks: cheap jewelry, fast food, newspapers, books: the moneychangers in the temple. The voice of the train announcer was vaguely English; there was a stately air to the enterprise, unlike the shabby overlit corridors of the airports. No planes, Patty Bancroft told me when we first talked on the phone two weeks before. Plane trips are too easy to trace. The women she helped never flew away; they were not birds but crawling creatures, supplicants, beaten down. Trains, buses, cars. And secrecy.

When I’d first met Patty Bancroft, when she’d come to the hospital where I worked, she’d said that she had hundreds of volunteers all over the country. She said her people knew one another only as voices over the telephone and had in common only that for reasons of their own they had wanted to help women escape the men who hurt them, to give those women new lives in new places, to help them lose themselves, start over in the great expansive anonymous sameness of America.

“What about men who are beaten by their wives?” one of the young doctors at the hospital had asked that day. “Don’t make me laugh,” Patty Bancroft had said wearily, dismissively. She’d given me her card that day, in case I ever treated a woman in the emergency room who needed more than sutures and ice packs, needed to escape, to disappear, to save her life by getting gone for good. “Nurses are one of my greatest sources of referral,” she’d said, clasping my hand, looking seriously into my eyes. It was the most chaste business card I’d ever seen, her name and a telephone number. No title, no address, just a handful of lonely black characters. I put the card in my locker at the hospital. I must have picked it up a hundred times until, six months later, I called the number. She remembered me right away.

“Tell me about this patient,” Patty Bancroft had said. “It’s me,” I said, and my voice had faltered, fell into a hiss, a whisper of shame. “It’s me.” “Where are we going?” I had asked her when we spoke on the phone two days before the man in the Volare had picked us up at a subway stop in upper Manhattan, two weeks after Bobby had beaten me for the last time.

My voice was strange and stiff; my nose and jaw had begun to heal, so that if I didn’t move my mouth too much the pain was no more than a soft throb at the center of my face.

“You’ll know when you get there,” Patty Bancroft said. “I’m not going away without knowing where I’m going,” I said.

“Then you’ll have to stay where you are,” she’d replied. “This is the way it works.” My hand had crept to my nose, pressed on the bridge as though testing my resolve. I felt the pain in my molars, the back of my head, the length of my spine. I felt the blood still seeping from between my legs, like a memory of something I’d already made myself forget. “The bleeding will stop in a week or so,” they’d said at the clinic. Pack plenty of clean underpants, I thought to myself. That’s what it comes down to, finally, no matter how terrifying your life has become. A toothbrush. Batteries. Clean underpants. The small things keep you from thinking about the big ones. Concealer stick. Tylenol. My face had faded to a faint yellow-green in the time it had taken me to plan my getaway. Bobby had been working a lot of nights. We’d scarcely seen one another.

“What will happen if you leave and then your husband finds you?” Patty Bancroft had said.

“He’ll kill me,” I answered.

“He won’t find you if you do what we say.” And she’d hung up the phone.

The station public-address system bleated and blared. “Mom, can I have a Coke?” Robert said, in that idle way in which children make requests, as though it’s expected of them. The video game and his hands lay in his lap, and he’d tilted his head back to look up at the ceiling.

“Not now,” I said.

A line of people in business suits had formed at the head of one of the stairways leading to the tracks. Two of them talked on cellular phones. A woman with a handsome leather suitcase on a wheeled stand left the line and walked toward the coffee kiosk. Her heels made a percussive noise on the stone floor. “Café au lait, please,” the woman said to the girl behind the counter. She looked at her watch, then turned and smiled at me, looked down at the floor, looked up again. “You dropped your tickets,” she said. She handed me an envelope she stooped to pick up from the floor.

“Oh, no, I–”

“You dropped your tickets,” she said again, smiling, her voice firm, and I could feel the corner of the envelope, a sharp point against my wet palm.

“Metroliner!” called a uniformed man at the head of the stairs, and the woman picked up her coffee and wheeled her suitcase to the stairway without looking back. I sat down heavily on the bench and opened the envelope.

“God!” groaned Robert, hunched back over his game.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he said.

Inside the envelope were two tickets to Baltimore on the 4:00 pm Metroliner. I looked at the big digital clock and the wall timetable. 3:12, and the next Metroliner was on time. There were other things in the envelope, too: bus tickets, a driver’s license, Social Security cards. For a moment I was blind with confusion, and then I found the names: Crenshaw, Elizabeth. Crenshaw, Robert.

I had not liked it when Patty Bancroft gave me orders on the phone, but now I felt a powerful sense of gratitude. She had let me have my way in at least one thing: Robert had gotten to keep his own first name. And I was to be Elizabeth. Liz. Beth. Libby. Elizabeth Crenshaw. Seeing myself reflected in the glass of the coffee kiosk, I could almost believe it. There she was, Elizabeth Crenshaw. She had short blond hair, a pixie crop that I’d created with kitchen scissors and hair dye in the bathroom just before sun-up, just after I heard the door shut behind Bobby as he left for work. She wore a pair of gold-rimmed glasses bought from a rack at the pharmacy, clear glass with the kind of cheap sheen to the lenses that turned the eyes behind them into twin slicks of impenetrable glare. Elizabeth Crenshaw was thin, all long bones and taut muscles, because Fran Benedetto had been running for more than a decade and because terror had made it hard for her, these last few years, to eat without feeling the food rise back up into her gorge at a word, a sound, a look. “Skin and bones,” Bobby said sometimes when I was naked, reaching for me.

It had taken me a while, that morning, to decide what to wear, but I was accustomed to being concerned with my own clothes, even though I didn’t care about them much, not like Bobby’s mother, who was forever seeking discount silk and cashmere, trousers cut perfectly to her tiny frame, jackets and skirts with good linings and labels. Much of the time I wore my nurse’s uniform, the white washing out my thin freckled skin and making a garish orange of my hair. But let me change into anything snug, or short, or low, and I would see Bobby’s eyes go narrow and bright.

Although it was always hard to tell exactly what would offend until the moment when he put his head to one side and looked me up and down until my pale skin flushed. “Jesus Christ,” he’d say in that voice. “You wearing that?” And I would feel like a whore, me, plain Frannie Benedetto, who had been up half the night with her little boy who had a stomach bug, who had been on her feet all day carrying syringes and gauze pads and clipboards and pills, calming down the drunks and hysterics, stopping to talk to the children, placating the doctors. Fran Benedetto, who had never been with a man other than her husband. But let her wear a blouse whose fabric suggested the faintest hint of slip strap, and all of a sudden she was a slut. Slip strap over bra strap, of course, for if I wore a skirt and didn’t wear a full slip, the way Bobby’s mother always had, there was no telling what Bobby might do.

It was funny, after a while: I could tell you what Bobby liked and didn’t like, what might set him off and how much. But I couldn’t have told you as much about myself. I was mostly reaction to Bobby’s actions, at least by the end. My clothes, my makeup: they were more or less his choice. I bought them, of course, but bought them with one eye always on Bobby’s face. And his hands.

But Beth Crenshaw I would create myself, without reference to Bobby. I started to create her even before I found out her name in the waiting room at Thirtieth Street Station. Beth Crenshaw wore a loose, long flowered dress I’d found in the back of my closet from two summers before, the sort of dress that Bobby always said made women look like grandmothers. Bobby’s own grandmother, his father’s mother, always wore black, even to picnics and street fairs. “C’mere, Fran,” she’d yell across her daughter-in-law’s white-on-white living room, where she sat like a big blot of ink on the couch. She’d fold herself around me and cover me in black, make me feel small and safe. “Aw, God bless you, you’re too thin,” she’d say. “She’s too thin, Bob. You need to make her eat.” She’d died just before Robert was born, Bobby’s Nana. I missed her. Maybe it would have happened anyhow, but I think Bobby got harder after that.

Harsher, too.

“The reason you hooked up with me,” I said to Bobby once, when we were young, “is because my red hair and white skin look good next to your black hair and your tan.”

“That was part of it,” he said. That was a good day, that day. We played miniature golf at a course owned by a retired narcotics guy in Westchester, had dinner at that Italian place in Pelham, made out in the car at a rest stop on the Saw Mill River Parkway. Both of us living with our parents, he in the Police Academy, me in nursing school: we had no place else to go. The first time we had sex it was in a cabana at that skanky beach club his mother liked; a friend of his from high school who vacuumed the pool let us stay after closing. It didn’t hurt, I didn’t bleed. I loved it. I loved how helpless it made him, big bad tanned muscled Bobby Benedetto, his mouth open, the whites of his eyes showing.

It made me want to sit on his lap the rest of my life. He talked about getting a tattoo on his shoulder, a rose and the word Frances. I said I’d get Yosemite Sam on my upper thigh. “The hell you will,” he said. It turned out I didn’t need it; Bobby tattooed me himself, with his hands.

“Red hair is too conspicuous,” Patty Bancroft had said on the phone. It had been the only conspicuous thing about me, all these years. Smart, but not too. Enterprising, but not too. Friendly, but not too. The kind of girl who becomes a nurse, not a doctor. The kind of nurse who becomes assistant head, but not head nurse. The kind of wife–well, no one knew about that.

“There’s still some good years left on her,” Bobby would say when his friends came over, and they’d laugh. It was the way they all talked about their wives, and I wondered, looking at their flushed and friendly faces, if they were thinking of bones that had not yet been broken, areas that had not yet blossomed with bruises. And they looked at me and saw a happy wife and mother like so many others, a working woman like so many others. Fran Flynn–you know, the skinny redhead who works in the ER at South Bay. Frannie Benedetto, the cop’s wife on Beach Twelfth Street, the one with the little boy with the bowlegs. Gone down the drain that morning.

Transformed, perhaps forever, by Loving Care No. 27, California Blonde. Hidden behind the glasses. Disguised by the flapping folds of the long dress. California blonde Elizabeth Crenshaw, with nothing but thin milky skin and faint constellations of freckles on chest and cheeks to connect her to Frances Ann Flynn Benedetto. A bruise on my right cheek, faded to yellow, and a bump on the bridge of my nose. And Robert, of course, the only thing I’d had worth taking with me from that tidy house, where Bobby liked to walk on the carpeting barefoot and I cleaned up the blood with club soda and Clorox before the stain set. Beth. I liked Beth. I was leaving, I was starting over again, I was saving my life, I was sick of the fear and the fists. And I was keeping my son safe, too, not because his father had ever hit him–he never ever had–but because the secret inside our house, the secret about what happened at night, when Daddy was drunk and disgusted with himself and everything around him, was eating the life out of Robert. When he was little he would touch a bruise softly, say, “You boo-boo, Mama?” When he got a little older he sometimes said, narrowing his big black eyes, “Mommy, how did you hurt yourself?”

But now he only looked, as though he knew to be quiet, as though he thought this was the way life was. My little boy, who had always had something of the little old man about him, was becoming a dead man, too, with a dead man’s eyes. There are ways and ways of dying, and some of them leave you walking around. I’d learned that from watching my father, and my husband, too. I wasn’t going to let it happen to my son. Frances couldn’t. Beth wouldn’t. That’s who I was now. Frances Ann Flynn Benedetto was always watching and waiting, scared of her husband, scared he would turn on her, hit her, finally knock her out for good. Scared to leave her son with no mother to raise him, only a father whose idea of love was bringing you soup after he’d broken your collarbone. Frannie Flynn was gone. I’d killed her myself. I was Beth Crenshaw now.

Beneath the rippling skirt I could feel my legs trembling as an announcer with a sonorous voice called out the trains. But I could feel my legs, too, feel them free. No slip. I’d left that goddamn slip behind.

Frannie Flynn–that’s how I’d thought of myself again, even though my last name was legally Benedetto. The name on my checks, on my license, on the embossed plastic name tag I wore on the breast of my nurse’s uniform. Frances F. Benedetto. But in my mind I’d gone back to being Frannie Flynn. Maybe Bobby knew that. Maybe he could read my mind. Maybe that was part of the problem, that he could read my mind and I never had a clue what was going on in his.

Frannie, Frannie, Fran. I heard his voice saying my name, like the ringing in my ears when he brought his open hand hard against the side of my head in a dark corner of the club foyer, that time I argued with him in front of his friends about whether we were staying for another round of beers at a retirement party. Fran. I can hear his voice in the sound of the train moving south down the tracks. I’m coming, Frannie.

You can’t get away. You’re mine, Fran. Both of you.

Excerpted from Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, 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.

Every Last One

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Praise

A New York Times Bestseller

“In a tale that rings strikingly true, Quindlen captures both the beauty and the breathtaking fragility of family life.”
?People

“Quindlen…creates a mother readers will understand, sympathize with and immediately file in the mental Rolodex of someone who would make a good friend… Losing a loved one is the theme of so many novels. But as Mary Beth deals with her losses and the accompanying guilt over whether she could have prevented it, Quindlen hits all the notes of reality that make parents question their decisions, judgments and the consequences of both. As difficult a story as Every Last One tells, it tells it with an honesty and openness hard to find in a lesser writer.”
?St. Louis Post Dispatch

“[Quindlen] has a talent for gently, almost imperceptibly, setting the stage for what happens. The narrative of life with the Lathams is subtly prophetic regarding the impending doom. All the while, we come to love this family, because Quindlen makes their ordinary lives so fascinating, their mundane interactions engaging and important. Every Last One is about excruciating grief. It’s about how people treat victims of violence, survivors’ guilt, random blame and figuring out how to go on living. Never read a book that made you cry? Be prepared for a deluge of tears.”
?USA Today

“Quindlen braids pathos, wit, and resilience in this compelling family yarn.”
?Good Housekeeping

“Anna Quindlen’s writing is like knitting; prose that wraps the reader in the warmth and familiarity of domestic life. The platters in the sideboard. The naps on the couch. The way a teenager wakes warm and affectionate, then cools and crackles as the day goes on. Then, as in her novels Black and Blue and One True Thing, Quindlen starts to pull at the world she has knitted, and lets it unravel across the pages.”
?Seattle Times

“Engrossing.. [a] tragedy of an outrageous, almost unbelievable, dimension strikes at the heart of the family. The events leading to this catastrophe, and then its painful aftermath, make for a spellbinding tale.”
?New York Times Book Review

“[Quindlen’s] ability to convey the mundanity of everyday life while also building suspense stems from her journalistic eye for detail.. [She] succeeds at conveying the transience of everyday worries and the never-ending boundaries of a mother’s love.”
?Washington Post

“If you pick up Every Last One to read a few pages after dinner, you’ll want to read another chapter, and another and another, until you get to bed late.”
?Associated Press

“Quindlen is in classic form, with strong characters and precisely cadenced prose that builds in intensity.”
?Publishers Weekly

“Unforeseen catastrophe and how we cope with it is fiction’s raison d’etre, yet few novelists can turn the innocent ‘before’ and the shattered ‘after’ into fiction as accessible, specific, authentic, graceful, touching, and radiant as Quindlen’s. magnetizing. for all of Quindlen’s bold an invaluable insights into anguish and recovery, what stands out most are her charming and insightful portrayals of mercurial, marvelous teenagers, her fluency in the complexity of family dynamics, and her deep understanding of mother love.”
?Booklist

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Excerpt

This is my life: The alarm goes off at five-thirty with the murmuring of a public-radio announcer, telling me that there has been a coup in Chad, a tornado in Texas. My husband stirs briefly next to me, turns over, blinks, and falls back to sleep for another hour. My robe lies at the foot of the bed, printed cotton in the summer, tufted chenille for the cold. The coffeemaker comes on in the kitchen below as I leave the bathroom, go downstairs in bare feet, pause to put away a pair of boots left splayed in the downstairs back hallway and to lift the newspaper from the back step. The umber quarry tiles in the kitchen were a bad choice; they are always cold. I let the dog out of her kennel and put a cup of kibble in her bowl. I hate the early mornings, the suspended animation of the world outside, the veil of black and then the oppressive gray of the horizon along the hills outside the French doors. But it is the only time I can rest without sleeping, think without deciding, speak and hear my own voice. It is the only time I can be alone. Slightly less than an hour each weekday when no one makes demands.

Our bedroom is at the end of the hall, and sometimes as I pass I can hear the children breathing, each of them at rest as specific as they are awake. Alex inhales and exhales methodically, evenly, as though he were deep under the blanket of sleep even though he always kicks his covers askew, leaving one long leg, with its faint surgical scars, exposed to the night air. Across the room Max sputters, mutters, turns, and growls out a series of nonsense syllables. For more than a year when he was eleven, Max had a problem with sleepwalking. I would find him washing his hands at the bathroom sink or down in the kitchen, blinking blindly into the open refrigerator. But he stopped after his first summer at sleepaway camp.

Ruby croons, one high strangled note with each exhale. When she was younger, I worried that she had asthma. She sleeps on her back most of the time, the covers tucked securely across her chest, her hair fanned out on the pillows. It should be easy for her to slip from beneath the blanket and make her bed, but she never bothers unless I hector her.

I sit downstairs with coffee and the paper, staring out the window as my mind whirrs. At six-thirty I hear the shower come on in the master bath. Glen is awake and getting ready for work. At six-forty-five I pull the duvet off Ruby, who snatches it back and curls herself into it, larval, and says, “Ten more minutes.” At seven I lean over, first Alex, then Max, and bury my nose into their necks, beginning to smell the slightly pungent scent of male beneath the sweetness of child. “Okay, okay,” Alex says irritably. Max says nothing, just lurches from bed and begins to pull off an oversized T-shirt as he stumbles into the bathroom.

There is a line painted down the center of their room. Two years ago they came to me, at a loose end on a June afternoon, and demanded the right to choose their own colors. I was distracted, and I agreed. They did a neat job, measured carefully, put a tarp on the floor. Alex painted his side light blue, Max lime green. The other mothers say, “You won’t believe what Jonathan”—or Andrew or Peter—“told me about the twins’ room.” Maybe if the boys had been my first children I would have thought it was insane, too, but Ruby broke me in. She has a tower of soda cans against one wall of her bedroom. It is either an environmental statement or just one of those things you do when you are fifteen. Now that she is seventeen she has outgrown it, almost forgotten it, but because I made the mistake of asking early on when she would take it down she never has.

I open Ruby’s door, and although it doesn’t make a sound—she has oiled the hinges, I think, probably with baby oil or bath oil or something else nonsensically inappropriate, so we will not hear it creak in the nighttime—she says, “I’m up.” I stand there waiting, because if I take her word for it she will wrap herself in warmth again and fall into the long tunnel of sleep that only teenagers inhabit, halfway to coma or unconsciousness. “Mom, I’m up,” she shouts, and throws the bedclothes aside and begins to bundle her long wavy hair atop her head. “Can I get dressed in peace, please? For a change?” She makes it sound as though I constantly let a bleacher full of spectators gawk as she prepares to meet the day.

Only Glen emerges in the least bit cheerful, his suit jacket over one arm. He keeps his white coats at the office. They are professionally cleaned and pressed and smell lovely, like the cleanest of clean laundry. “Doctor Latham” is embroidered in blue script above his heart. From upstairs I can hear the clatter of the cereal into his bowl. He eats the same thing every morning, leaves for work at the same time. He wears either a blue or a yellow shirt, with either a striped tie or one with a small repeating pattern. Occasionally, a grateful patient gives him a tie as a gift, printed with tiny pairs of glasses, an eye chart, or even eyes themselves. He thanks these people sincerely but never wears them.

He is not tidy, but he knows where everything is: on which chair he left his briefcase, in what area of the kitchen counter he tossed his wallet. He does something with the corners of his mouth when things are not as they should be—when the dog is on the furniture, when the children and their friends make too much noise too late at night, when the red-wine glasses are in the white-wine glass rack. It has now pressed itself permanently into his expression, like the opposite of dimples.

“Please. Spare me,” says my friend Nancy, her eyes rolling. “If that’s the worst you can say about him, then you have absolutely no right to complain.” Nancy says her husband, Bill, a tall gangly scarecrow of a guy, leaves a trail of clothing as he undresses, like fairy-tale breadcrumbs. He once asked her where the washing machine was. “I thought it was a miracle that he wanted to know,” she says when she tells this story, and she does, often. “It turned out the repairman was at the door and Bill didn’t know where to tell him to go.”

Our washer is in the mudroom, off the kitchen. There is a chute from above that is designed to bring the dirty things downstairs. Over the years, our children have used the chute for backpacks, soccer balls, drumsticks. Slam. Slam. Slam. “It is a laundry chute,” I cry. “Laundry. Laundry.”

Laundry is my life, and meals, and school meetings and games and recitals. I choose a cardigan sweater and put it on the chest at the foot of the bed. It is late April, nominally spring, but the weather is as wild as an adolescent mood, sun into clouds into showers into storms into sun again.

“You smell,” I hear Alex say to Max from the hallway. Max refuses to reply. “You smell like shit,” Alex says. “Language!” I cry.

“I didn’t say a word,” Ruby shouts from behind the door of her room. Hangers slide along the rack in her closet, with a sound like one of those tribal musical instruments. Three thumps—shoes, I imagine. Her room always looks as though it has been ransacked. Her father averts his head from the closed door, as though he is imagining what lies within. Her brothers are strictly forbidden to go in there, and, honestly, are not interested. Piles of books, random sweaters, an upended shoulder bag, even the lace panties, given that they belong to their sister—who cares? I am tolerated because I deliver stacks of clean clothes. “Put those away in your drawers,” I always say, and she never does. It would be so much easier for me to do it myself, but this standoff has become a part of our relationship, my attempt to teach Ruby responsibility, her attempt to exhibit independence. And so much of our lives together consists of rubbing along, saying things we know will be ignored yet continuing to say them, like background music.

Somehow Ruby emerges every morning from the disorder of her room looking beautiful and distinctive: a pair of old Capri pants, a ruffled blouse I bought in college, a long cashmere cardigan with a moth hole in the sleeve, a ribbon tied around her hair. Ruby never looks like anyone else. I admire this and am a little intimidated by it, as though I had discovered we had incompatible blood types.

Alex wears a T-shirt and jeans. Max wears a T-shirt and jeans. Max stops to rub the dog’s belly when he gets to the kitchen. She narrows her eyes in ecstasy. Her name is Virginia, and she is nine years old. She came as a puppy when the twins were five and Ruby was eight. “Ginger” says the name on the terra-cotta bowl we bought on her first Christmas. Max scratches the base of Ginger’s tail. “Now you’ll smell like dog,” says Alex. The toaster pops with a sound like a toy gun. The refrigerator door closes. I need more toothpaste. Ruby has taken my toothpaste. “I’m going,” she yells from the back door. She has not eaten breakfast. She and her friends Rachel and Sarah will stop at the doughnut shop and get iced coffee and jelly doughnuts. Sarah swims competitively and can eat anything. “The metabolism of a hummingbird,” says my friend Nancy, who is Sarah’s mother, which is convenient for us both. Nancy is a biologist, a professor at the university, so I suppose she should know about metabolism. Rachel is a year older than the other two, and drives them to school. The three of them swear that Rachel drives safely and slowly. I know this isn’t true. I picture Rachel, moaning again about some boy she really, really likes but who is insensible to her attentions, steering with one hand, a doughnut in the other, taking a curve with a shrieking sound. Caution and nutrition are for adults. They are young, immortal.

“The bus!” Alex yells, and finally Max speaks. This is one of the headlines of our family life: Max speaks. “I’m coming,” he mumbles. “Take a sweatshirt,” I call. Either they don’t hear or they don’t care. I can see them with their backpacks getting on the middle-school bus. Alex always goes first.

“Do we have any jelly?” Glen asks. He knows where his own things are, but he has amnesia when it comes to community property. “It’s where it’s always been,” I say. “Open your eyes and look.” Then I take two jars of jelly off the shelf inside the refrigerator door and thump them on the table in front of him. I can manage only one morning manner, so I treat my husband like one of the children. He doesn’t seem to mind or even notice. He likes this moment, when the children have been there but are suddenly gone. The dog comes back into the room, her claws clicking on the tiled floor. “Don’t feed her,” I say, as I do every morning. In a few minutes, I hear the messy chewing sounds as Ginger eats a crust of English muffin. She makes a circuit of the house, then falls heavily at my feet.

After he has read the paper, Glen leaves for the office. He has early appointments one day a week and late ones three evenings, for schoolchildren and people with inflexible jobs. His office is in a small house a block from the hospital. He pulls his car out of the driveway and turns right onto our street every single morning. One day he turned left, and I almost ran out to call to him. I did open the front door, and discovered that a neighbor was retarring the driveway and a steamroller was blocking the road to the right. The neighbor waved. “Sorry for the inconvenience,” he called. I waved back.

I put on a pair of khaki pants, a white shirt, and soft flat slip-on shoes with rubber soles. “Those are such . . . mom clothes,” Ruby sometimes says. It is not exactly an insult. I am wiry and tan from work, or perhaps from genetics. My mother taught English to high school students, not exactly a physically taxing profession, and she, too, is wiry and tan. At seventy, she still wears tennis clothes without thinking about it.

At eight-thirty a dump truck pulls into the driveway. On its side is a trio of primitive painted flowers, the kind that second-grade girls draw in their notebooks in colored markers. A blue flower, a pink flower, a yellow flower, and to one side the words latham landscaping. One day I was a freelance copy editor, then I had three children, then I took a master gardening class, then I started a landscaping business. The business is successful.

“Hey, Mary Beth,” says Rickie from the truck. He’s wearing his Latham Landscaping windbreaker, but the zipper strains over his big hard belly. The truck is tidy, but I know that the glove compartment is filled with candy wrappers and greasy waxed paper. Rickie runs the equipment; he’s past being able to use a shovel or do the weeding. We are going to see a copper beech two towns over that is losing its bark. It’s probably a fungus that’s been going around, moving slowly and silently through the forests and the front yards, the way a cold does through the kids’ classes at school: first one, then another, then a half dozen or so. This tree is probably a hundred years old, and it’s probably not going to get much older. It’s a
shame; it’s a glorious tree, the kind that looks immutable.

That’s the humbling thing about doing what I do for a living: You can look at the pin oak in a front yard, or even the daffodils you put in the autumn before, and know that long after you are gone there will be shade, and color, and you won’t be there to see it. In many ways it’s a soothing feeling, like telling your daughter that someday she will have your diamond earrings, without ever spelling out what “someday” means.

“Want to stop for coffee?” Rickie says. What Rickie means by coffee is a box of assorted doughnuts.

“Sure,” I say. “There’s never enough.” I rummage in my bag.

“Wait, I forgot the phone again. I’ll be right back.”

We might still have a nighttime frost, so there’s not much we can do yet in people’s gardens. Last year around this time, a woman hired us to put in hundreds of flowering plants for her daughter’s outdoor wedding. God had smiled on her. The spring afternoon had been sunny and warm, and the delphiniums, the lobelia, and the sweet-faced purple and blue pansies glowed against the green of the grass, vying with-overshadowing, I would have said-the Dutch blue of the bridemaids’ dresses. The next night there was a hard freeze. Those pansies were the saddest things imaginable the next morning, splayed on the ground. I hated the sight of them.

“We got a call for a big job around the courthouse,” Rickie says. “The county clerk wants you to give them a proposal.”

“Oh God, save me from the county clerk. No matter what I come up with they’re going to want geraniums.”

Rickie hits a pothole and the tools jump in the back of the truck with a jangling sound. I take a tissue from inside my bag and blow my nose. A woman I only vaguely recognize waves as we wait at a red light. Every day, with few variations-snow, minor illness, the failure of the paper to arrive, a lost backpack, a sleepover that’s left us one, or two, or sometimes even three kids shy of the usual full set-every day is like this. Average. Ordinary. More or less.

Excerpted from Every Last One by Anna Quindlen Copyright © 2010 by Anna Quindlen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, 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.