Synopses & Reviews
Chapter OneHilda said she'd take the plums back to the cottage with her, because if she left them at the lake no one would remember to bring them. They were the tart red plums of July. Frances, who had eaten one a while ago, didn't care whether her mother took them."Come on," said Aunt Pearl, who had started quickly up the hill but then turned to wait, watching Frances's mother, who didn't hurry. Aunt Pearl's freckled arm was raised and her hand shielded her eyes. She looked restless to Frances, who was watching from a little way into the water, Aunt Pearl didn't wear a beach jacket, just her blue bathing suit, and when she was ready to leave the beach, all she had to do was walk away, but Hilda put her terrycloth jacket on over her bathing suit, then gathered up her knitting. Next she leaned over for the paper bag of plums, which was on one of the Adirondack chairs. When Hilda leaned over, her beach jacket opened and her breasts looked big. Frances, who was eleven, did not yet have breasts.Hilda caught up with Aunt Pearl, and Aunt Pearl stretched her hand out: she wanted a plum. Frances knew that she would eat two or three on the way back to the cottage, her free hand under her chin to catch the juice. Now Hilda fed her the first one, reaching up to offer it. Aunt Pearl was tall.They hadn't suggested that Frances come along. Of course, they were only going to the cottage to change their clothes and start supper. Her mother wanted to eat early because people were coming from one of the other cottages after supper to sing or play cards.Frances's teenage cousin Simon, Aunt Pearl's son, stood at the edge of the lake in his shoes and socks and trousers and shirt, looking straight ahead atthe water, not answering when Uncle Mike shouted at him. "Stupid," said Uncle Mike, and Frances's father, Nathan, who was sitting in an Adirondack chair at the edge of the beach, flinched. Uncle Mike had stopped shouting for a while but now that the women had gone up the hill he began again.Frances liked sitting on the rock because her feet stayed wet. She liked listening to Uncle Mike too. She didn't mind when he shouted at Simon, though she knew she ought to be angry with him. Mostly she found it interesting, and waited almost eagerly for the next thing he'd say. Her parents would never talk that way. It gave her the edgy, excited feeling that some permission had been granted -- to both herself and Simon -- though Uncle Mike shouted at him "not to do things. She had stayed in the water longer than she would have if Uncle Mike hadn't been criticizing Simon for not going swimming at all.Simon stood so close to the water that although his shoes looked dry, Frances thought there wasn't room between his shoes and the water for so much as a pine needle. He would not go into the water or even put on a pair of swimming trunks, though his parents had gone to the trouble and expense of buying a bathing suit and bringing it from the city. His family had been at the lake for three days -- visiting Frances's family, who stayed for a month -- and so far Simon hadn't gone into the water once. It was shameful not to learn to swim, and Simon could barely swim. It was hot, and anyone with sense would want to cool off in the water. Uncle Mike shouted all this at Simon's back.Years earlier, Frances had been lying in bed one night, supposedly asleep, listening to her parents talk through the slightlyopened door. "Mike takes his belt to Simon," her mother had said."No," said Nathan. Frances had known what her mother had meant. It was a strange way of talking, to take your belt to someone. It could mean that Uncle Mike carried his belt across the room and gave the belt to Simon, but it didn't. She had wanted to question Simon about this subject, but she never did. She was five years younger than he was, and he was kind to her, but they didn't talk much.She was facing the shore. When she looked up she saw her mother and aunt, now far along the dirt road that went to the cottages. There were many cottages, and theirs was far away. She knew how her mother and Aunt Pearl would walk: slowly, talking all the time, sometimes giving each other a push if one of them made a joke. They would stop when Aunt Pearl wanted another plum, and Hilda would open the bag and hold it for her, teasing about how much Pearl ate.Simon was looking out at the lake. Frances thought he was trying to look as if he had something on his mind and hadn't troubled himself to notice who Mike was talking to. At the edge of the beach, near where the grass started, Frances's father turned his hands over and over on the arms of the Adirondack chair.Nobody but their family was at the lake, even though there were many cottages and it was a hot day. It was after five o'clock, that was one reason, but none of them could figure out any other reasons. She and her parents sometimes talked about what the other people were missing. Frances's father liked the beach the most. He would take a long swim and then sit in the sun, moving his chair as the shade advanced in the afternoon. He said he needed many hours of sun to bake thewinter out of him, and Frances pictured him in his classroom at Erasmus Hall High School...
To Frances, an only child living in McCarthy-era Brooklyn, her mother, Hilda, and her aunt Pearl seem as if they have always been friends. Frances does not question the love between the two women until her father's job as a teacher is threatened by anti-Communism, just as Frances begins to learn about her family's past. Why does Hilda refer to her "first pregnancy," as if Frances wasn't her only child? Whose baby shoes are hidden in Hilda's dresser drawer? Why is there tension when Pearl and her husband come to visit?
The story of a young girl in the fifties and her elders' coming-of-age in the unquiet thirties, this book resonates deeply, revealing in beautiful, clear language the complexities of friendship and loss.
In a "memorable novel about love's resilience" ("New York Times Book Review"), the author of "The Book Borrower" tells a universal story of friendship set in McCarthy-era Brooklyn.
About the Author
Alice Mattison grew up in Brooklyn, studied at Queens College and Harvard, and teaches fiction in the Bennington Writers Seminars. She is the author of three previous novels, three collections of short stories, and a volume of poetry. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Agni, New York Stories, The Threepenny Review, and The Pushcart Prize. Her short story "In Case We're Separated" was in The Best American Short Stories 2002. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.