A Lover's Almanac: A Novel

Overview

One of the preeminent novelists of our time, Maureen Howard dazzles us with a love story of radiant intelligence and delicious wit. The exhilarating flights and emotional depths of Howard's storytelling balance the fates of two young lovers in New York: Artie, a bastard, perhaps "begot in the mud of Woodstock," now a boyish computer wizard; and Louise, a hot new painter out of the Midwest, seriously committed to her art. Their romance, seemingly shattered on the eve of the millennium, is played out against the ...

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A Lover's Almanac: A Novel

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Overview

One of the preeminent novelists of our time, Maureen Howard dazzles us with a love story of radiant intelligence and delicious wit. The exhilarating flights and emotional depths of Howard's storytelling balance the fates of two young lovers in New York: Artie, a bastard, perhaps "begot in the mud of Woodstock," now a boyish computer wizard; and Louise, a hot new painter out of the Midwest, seriously committed to her art. Their romance, seemingly shattered on the eve of the millennium, is played out against the tale of two old lovers lost to each other for a half century. As these two couples search through the cultural flotsam and jetsam for love and happiness, Howard spins a superb novel of ideas and transforms, as only she can, the dear Old Farmer's Almanac into a bright book of life.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Howard uses the format of the almanac as a framework for the deceptively simple story of the relationship between avant-garde artist Louise Moffett and her partner, computer nerd Artie Freeman, whose love founders at the turn of the millennium. The richness and wonder of this work comes from the characters, relationships, and historical musings that Howard weaves into Louise and Artie's tale and uses to instruct the reader on the nature and meaning of love. Complex and compelling, the work addresses important questions as it compels the reader to make intellectual leaps between the ideas of scholars past and those of the novelist present. This challenging novel deserves to be read more than once. -- Caroline M. Hallsworth, Cambrian College, Ontario
Library Journal
Howard uses the format of the almanac as a framework for the deceptively simple story of the relationship between avant-garde artist Louise Moffett and her partner, computer nerd Artie Freeman, whose love founders at the turn of the millennium. The richness and wonder of this work comes from the characters, relationships, and historical musings that Howard weaves into Louise and Artie's tale and uses to instruct the reader on the nature and meaning of love. Complex and compelling, the work addresses important questions as it compels the reader to make intellectual leaps between the ideas of scholars past and those of the novelist present. This challenging novel deserves to be read more than once. -- Caroline M. Hallsworth, Cambrian College, Ontario
NY Times Book Review
Taking as her model The Old Farmer's Almanac, the novelist plumbs the shallows of millennial irrationality as she follows two young members of Generation X into the year 2000.
Time Magazine
A funny, grouchy, madly nonlinear love story...a brilliant and convincing urban mindscape.
Boston Sunday Globe
Brazenly intelligent....Writing of such gorgeous proportion as to make you gasp.
Kirkus Reviews
The attempt here—a novel as expansive as an almanac, with a bit of everything in it—raises Howard's latest sometimes to considerable heights but as often slows it to a crawl through lives and commentary not always interesting enough for the trip. Louise Moffett, b. 1968, comes to New York from Wisconsin to find her fortune as an artist, and in doing so becomes the lover (later the mate) of gifted ne'er-do-well Artie Freeman. We meet the two at a party on the last night of the 20th century—when Artie proposes but, due to extreme drunkenness, flubs the moment, offends Lou, finds himself exiled from her downtown loft—and retreats to his grandfather Cyril's Fifth Avenue apartment. Moving from winter solstice to spring equinox, Howard's novel follows the lovers as they mope, pine, and are reunited, while those same three winter months afford plenty of space to fill in family backgrounds. Lou's farmer-scientist father (a prof in animal husbandry) failed to understand his daughter's emerging art, her mother went underappreciated, and research scientist Aunt Bea provided a role-model of dedication to her calling. As for math whiz yet school-dropout Artie: His unmarried ex-hippie mother, now dead, never revealed who his father was, leaving Artie eternally in a paternity search; and his widowed grandfather, Cyril, after a Wall Street career, retreated into books of American history—emerging only to continue a romance begun 50 years earlier with Sylvie Neiswonger, who, at 12, fled the Nazis through a backyard in Austria after being raped by a German soldier. Throughout, Howard sprinkles bits of zodiacal lore, rhymes of planting advice, snippets of biographies (Edison,Haydn, Mendel) remarks about computers, electronics, the information glut—all symbolically converging in Lou's newest gallery show of family lore, trinkets, cast-offs, and (literally) broken hearts. A worthy gathering—sometimes Dos Passos, sometimes Faulkner, sometimes Howard—that would have offered greater pleasures, as almanac and otherwise, at, say, two thirds its length.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140275124
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/1999
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.08 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

Maureen Howard is the author of seven novels, including Grace Abounding, Expensive Habits, and Natural History, all of which were nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She has taught at a number of American universities, including Columbia, Princeton, Amherst, and Yale, and was recently awarded the Academy Award in Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in New York City.

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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Eclipse

A WINTER'S TALE

Louise Moffett cries in the ruins. Tears give way to bleating sobs, her sorrow run dry. She shivers out of her stiff silk dress, unhooks her froth of petticoat, throws both costumey garments on the pile of crumpled napkins and tablecloth stained with wine and ashes. At three o'clock in the morning she is quite alone, strutting in stiletto heels across the floor of her loft littered with confetti, streamers, noisemakers, shriveled balloons. Louise (Lou, Lou-Lou) is not to be seen by a soul in her lacy corset that pops her pearly breasts. As she stoops to retrieve a harmless cake knife from the debris of last night's party, garters stretch across her pink butt and swell of white thigh to the top of seamed stockings. No one will blink in disbelief at the scrap of suggestive white silk veiling her mons veneris.

Louise jabs at her wrist, but the blade of the long silver knife is serrated, dull. It would take force and determination to cut her flesh and why should she? The party's over, not her life, though she has been possessed by final thoughts from the moment when she found herself alone and shot the bolt of her door. Her tears for a man, of course, lying to herself that he has been an amusement, a convenience, nothing more. She teeters in those painful shoes to the bathroom, is shocked and saddened to see her scant underwear, her smooth blond page boy, cheery bright lipstick; the retro makeup and costume for a miserable party. Scandalous, so much snowy lace on white flesh, Miss January, a Calendar Girl, one of those saccharine cuties that hung in every feed store and gas station back in Wisconsin, girlie girls offering themselves to the inaccessible grease monkey or farm boy. Yes, she is such a smutty, unenlightened woman, though her little breasts would never cut it as fodder for male fantasy. Pert breasts admired by Artie Freeman whose toothbrush and razor confront her. And then don't the tears fall fast and furious, for he shaved so badly, always a bloody nick or a patch of stubble left by his ears, ridiculous floppy ears. And, having sworn off the man, she's into it again, choking back saltwater sorrow, for can it be that one night can unravel their years, one rotten night of Artie's misdemeanors. The answer is yes. Her Artie will never give up on his lightness. And the years that stretch ahead offer a diminishing view in which he will never change. Lightness is his affliction.

Louise Moffett is an artist, a painter now scrubbing at her lips as though scraping ill-conceived strokes from a canvas. Her hand quivering, she grabs a razor blade, begins to hack off her hair in dangerous swipes. When this disfiguration is accomplished she unhooks the corset, her body scored with red welts from its stays, and runs naked to the back of the loft, where the bed, lamp, rug made it home, sort of home, for her and her lost love, Artie Freeman. Home in the background as it were, hidden, relegated to a corner behind a screen. Lou hitches on overalls, sniffling as she buttons a paint-stained shirt, one of Artie's threadbare at the cuffs. He would be wearing it still had she not, but that thought as to her care and upkeep of the unworldly man turns her weepy. She will never again give in to his nonsense. Will not keep it light: it--the easy irony of their longstanding affair, their arrangement. As she hauls out a canvas, a sniff of wet acrylic revives her and Louise, kicking away paper horns and cheap wooden crackers, begins to work with a putty knife at a ruined painting, well, at one small corner that's all he has destroyed, of a large work. Now to undo the damage, so she paints through what's left of the night until the smudge is restored to a little apple tree in bloom resplendent. With her last stroke of sap green, the party is over.

Louise Moffett came to this city to make art. She is thirty-one years old and could not name the day when she got serious, oh, not about her painting, that's fixed as the stars, about Artie Freeman who has been her lover, nothing more.

Yet her work, her vision we might say, has depended on a correction of perspective. Large: her Botanical Series presents blowups--just one segment of leaf--oak, birch or maple--its veins, hairs, connective tissue in greens and yellow greens of chloroplast, amber palisade cells as seen through a microscope, a jungle growth unavailable to the naked eye. Small: on each canvas she paints an inset, the little "window" of computerese in which the tree is seen whole--bark, trunk, limbs leafed out, the tiny tree reflecting a landscape of memory. Louise has demoted the backyard maple in Wisconsin to mere detail, as though a postcard of the entire Sistine Chapel balanced on one finger of God, as though the habitat--rocky crag, fishy prey--of an Audubon eagle perched on one feather of the mighty bird. Moving from the huge segment of maple leaf, the living tissue, the viewer's eye quickly sought the comfort of the small static tree. This simple reversal of scale, amusing yet unsettling, has made Louise Moffett somewhat famous. The Botanicals had seemed to her a bold statement about desire for the object once valued and lost, lost beyond simple possession, some dumb Eden of the deluded heart and mind. She steps back to look at her reconstructed apple tree which Lou has not set in a cross-section of leaf. No, the mini tree blooms in a dark swirl of heartwood, the dead center of an old malus, and as she inscribes the Latin name where she usually signs her name, the whole enterprise appears sentimental, an impossible yearning for a time before knowledge, the world pieced back together, her little world of a farm in Wisconsin, and for the antics of a clown, Artie Freeman.

There is this: she wears an impressive emerald-cut diamond, third finger, left hand. Louise would have settled for dime-store, for zircon. Genderwise, her aims are no better than the empty promises of that booby, Miss January. With a shudder of self-loathing, she sees herself as a throwback to sweetheart left in the lurch, for she had so shamefully wanted this chip of blue ice; and when at last the ring was offered Artie played it as farce, for he was bound to be clever as though he had sworn in blood against the more revealing emotions. The cold sun rises, its brightness eerily opaque through snow on the skylight. Louise takes off the ring, smears its little blue velvet box with the white acrylic of her apple blossoms, and though her work is held in high regard and she is young, ambitious, talented and strangely more beautiful in spattered overalls and ragamuffin hair, she chokes back a sob, falls on the bed crying. That bastard has broken her heart.

In the Year of Our Lord 2000--is that the year at last?--he wakes with a swollen head, two heads as it were, one twisting him back to the night of debauchery--to the songs, toots, cries and kisses which preceded his disgrace. He remembers the snapped stem of a glass, a busy white fizz of champagne splotching silk, running into a valley of breasts already damp with dancing. Whose breast? She is headless in memory, if memory is this befuddling pain.

There was snow. Of that he is certain, for the second head turns toward the assault of thick white snow plastered to windowsill. Plastered. Looking back, he remembers beating the trunk of a taxi with his fists, then slipping to his knees in supplication, studying the stamp of tire tread and the faint smear of exhaust on the new white world. Without scarf, gloves, overcoat, he had walked alone through Central Park, unpeopled by the storm, closed to traffic, a paper dunce cap dribbling crimson down his forehead. Concerts, fireworks, all outdoor revels had been called off in the city due to a freaky, calamitous storm. He did not consider that the lone cab, under no obligation to pick up a drunk, was driving the serpentine routes in the park illegally or had lost its way.

Yet here Artie Freeman finds himself, naked in his own bed, a bulging pressure behind the eyes, eyes no better closed than open to the excruciating light and to a view of sodden garments on the floor. Strange boots, coat, tie. The coat is an Eisenhower jacket with military emblems and campaign ribbons now stained. He had fallen a second time under a scaffolding, an armature surrounding his crumbling apartment house, a glamorous double tower erected in a year of disaster, 1929. In this shelter he collapsed in slush next to a barrel where street kids had lit a fire to welcome the incredible year. A girl, too young--twelve, thirteen--had propped him up. Soldier, she said, soldier. He remembers touching the wisps of her hair, limp hair of the undernourished, the ill. The spittle of her childish laughter sprayed his mouth in a mocking kiss, and he recalled the shallow wisdom of her eyes and his own wobbly stance, then his marching off with the hilarious rectitude of a drunk. He had thought the girl sickly pale and too young for any man.

Looking back that's not all Artie remembers: loose bolt of pain, a metallic shift in his head signals the coming day in the Year of Our Lord, Christ, it was Lou's dress he had ruined, the fizzle of his champagne sopping the blue silk from stiff pointed breasts down to a wasp waist.

"Forget it!" She had wrested the broken glass from his hand.

He no longer forgets her flouncing off like--like Mom in an old sit-coin--tidy housewife, prim disciplinarian. The New Year's Eve party being costumed and set in the innocuous Fifties--she flounced in petticoats of that era, hooked into her stays--wasp waist she had named it--to flirt with another man, a pudge in tweeds, white bucks, spiffy argyles. The creep had wiped at Lou's breasts with a clean linen handkerchief. Artie swung at him, whamming his little foulard bow tie into his chinless chin. The women, all with bright lips and sleek hair, screeched at the crash of a lamp, drew off from their men, dark-suited men coming toward him in silence.

"See here, guy"--the voice of Artie Freeman's oldest, perhaps now his only friend--"you want to apologize to the lady?"

Yes, the familiar twang of the pal he beat at chess twenty years. They hitchhiked the continent, tripped together at the peak of Mount McKinley. And though they are of an age, that desperately youthful age, their early thirties, Bud Boyce is more or less Freeman's boss. Once boys playing in cyberspace, now Boyce is a magisterial nerd, space salesman to galaxies, purveyor of time in the stratosphere, adman to corporate second-rate stars. Artie, sidekick to good buddy, was best man when Boyce wed the agreeable corporate wife.

"You want to apologize ..."

Artie laughed, "To--our hostess? The little lady?"

All the while Big Band music and it seemed to him, the couples now turning from his tawdry heroics, shuffling into a samba, that they were all, indeed, from a forgotten day. In the high bright void of Lou's loft the century had ended, not quite the diverting re-enactment they had plotted. At midnight Lou ran the tape of Times Square that once was, pre-porn belt, pre-po-mo tourist trap, just the old dazzling crossroads of the world with thousands of clean-cut kids, clean-cut cops, assembled without fear, the countdown--minute hand jerking to the hour, the big ball descending, shimmering on the black and white screen. Flipping back in time, they drank to 1950, in accordance with Lou's plan--and Artie's; fed up with media blab--for years the city's promotional relations declaring New York PARTY CENTRAL; for months, for weeks the preview of satellite hookup--Alps to remote atoll, laser show from Mount Fuji, grizzled Beatles atop the Great Wall of China. The demoralizing history--info-techno, gender bender, Deco-Eco, Lenin to Lennon, Stravinsky to Sting, Moon Mullins to moon walk, Blimp to Bomb, cola to coke.

On a bright December day, Lou said, "Sure is the end of the world." She had been accosted by a bearded man in a toga who passed her a number--666, her number coming up in his cracked millenarian spiel.

Artie drew out his number, "Get in line." The soothsayer of lower Broadway had scratched yet another 666 on a scrap of spongy pink paper. Shuddering with cold in his soiled white drapery, he had appeared as yet another novelty in People magazine, as an item in the "Metro" section of the Times. There followed a week in which everyone must have their number, always the predictable 666, from this wreck of a loon, once, it was rumored, dean of arts and humanities at Cal Tech or MIT. When, before Christmas, Artie Freeman figured the frequency distribution of cliches over a sampling of three hundred newscasters nationwide would result, median estimate, in "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times," being mouthed, excluding Spanish, Korean and Chinese, at least ...

"Enough!" Lou cried, then went moony, quiet. As though she faced a huge prepared canvas, she had sketched her notion in lightly. "Why not celebrate the mid-century? Turn back," she said. "Suppose we turn back. To my parents, their childhood. Chores, Sunday School, 4 H, both of them safe on the family farm. They might have been chicks in the incubator."

"A little hard to stage in the city." He said no more for it struck him that her paintings were always of the farm, every silo and barn and tree distorted or diminished to force observation, destroy nostalgia, and that her view had prospered in Metropolis. Lou was--at the moment, for the moment--wildly successful.

"Shirley and Harold, they would have been eight or ten," she had no head for numbers, "my father at least ..."

"No, in his early adolescence. So we can just play at being ourselves." She laughed at that one. "With zits and braces," he said.

"Be serious," a phrase she tossed at him from their first days together, lately without much amusement. "I only meant their amazing innocence."

Which Lou and Artie agreed would not be much fun. So that he had come up with the idea of his grandparents' sedate coming of age, a scenario feeding off old movies, shadowy reruns, a cartoon of the Fifties, the postwar American dream. "At least they knew who they were," he said.

"So, who were they?" she asked.

Artie dodged the question with a generic rundown of urban upper-middle class, so that once again Louise knew little of them, these prosperous grandparents, except that the dream had vanished. Their only daughter was dead. Their grandson, A. Freeman, was orphaned, named after no one, father unknown. Determined to claim no personal history, he might have been spawned by a mating of swanky schools and summer camps, or, as he reminded her charmingly--his life began when they met. So Louise, who was indeed serious, was much taken with these people who at least knew who they were in the funky Fifties, and with the sensible irony of a decorous party which might unlock a door.

Artie kicks aside the mound of soggy clothes, his costume of last night. At each step his right knee buckles, tibia grinding back into its socket. Unable to lift his head, he can't see himself in the mirrored medicine cabinet, just as well, for with his hair close-cropped for the party, he looks ravaged, skinned yet foolishly young and proper as he pees an inaccurate stream. At about eleven-thirty in the last century, the fun had gone out of the Fifties. For Artie at least, who had mixed and sampled the Manhattans, the martinis, the rye-and-ginger, the loft had started its slow swirl in which he could distinguish his friends and Lou's--their friends, he would say--and the inevitable extras, artists from her world half known to him, all passing before him in a solemn processional, though slow-dancing or eating the last of the historically accurate buffet--tuna noodle casserole, Waldorf salad, the damp ruins of a Boston cream pie--all twirling to "This Can't Be Love" on the portable hi-fi, vamping toward the millennium. Boozy, as in the old days he supposed, for he is of the recuperative generation, beer and wine, the mild toke, modest indulgences, take or leave your light pleasures, as he has taken Lou, she him, until lately when her unspoken proposition seemed to be that they should be getting on with their lives.

Such morning-after misery when he finally sees the pale stain which the party hat dribbled on his forehead, not the splatter of real blood, an unearthly dripping as from the bodiless heart of sweet Jesus, a bleeding heart crowned with thorns, framed in his grandparents' bedroom. Artie's torture, sharp almost visible. Puffed eyelids, swollen nose not a pretty sight. Lou had been exactly that, pretty in her blue taffeta dress held aloft with petticoats. Perched on high heels, she had displayed her mid-century finery to him. Her enormous canvases were stowed away, propped against their bed in the cozy area behind a screen--reference to privacy, domestic comforts. There was not a trace of turp or fixative in the workaday loft. Homey smells of supper, TV cart with the ten-inch set, a stack of scratched 78s. After that Biblical storm, the power had switched on in lower Manhattan for New Year's Eve and a chandelier only his Lou could unearth in a junk shop shone upon them, a fixture of such artlessness--frosted lights fitted to a futuristic galaxy welcoming the Space Age to the Levittown dining ell.

When he first arrived at the loft, as though her dress made all the difference, she rose on tiptoe to kiss him demurely, to touch the soft brush cut of his hair. Artie had looked down into the pretty dress. White lace poked her breasts forward, not necessarily for him in this getup. Lou's small pliant breasts he had soaped routinely in her, in their--he felt free to say in their Jacuzzi--though Artie Freeman did not live with Louise Moffett in the loft but kept, out of respect for his/their cherished independence, a bachelor apartment uptown. Waiting for their guests to arrive, she had looked to him shy, uncertain, fretting over arrangements of plates and cutlery. He was oddly elated that the great storm which canceled the fireworks at the Battery and at the North boundary of Central Park where the City virtually ended, had not interfered with their party. He had the ring in his pocket, and to Artie, who had left the dark streets uptown, it seemed that Consolidated Edison had conspired to illuminate the loft so that the diamond would dazzle his Lou at midnight.

A miracle of sorts, for at noon on this last day of the year the sky was luminescent grey, a negative. Howling wind swept up the broad avenues, clamored into side streets and blind alleys. Lights dimmed, flickered. Messages, in this city of messages, were half written, half transmitted, cut off in the troubled air. The mad prophet in his toga working the subways from Union Square to Chambers Street was exultant, his doomsday sign whipped into tatters, the last of his ominous numbers tossed like confetti in Astor Place. As the city shut down, so did the holiday air. Office parties dwindled. Not toasting that they had lived to this improbable day, workers--uptight, wary--wished each other safe home by whatever tunnel or train. By late afternoon the city was eerily calm, a short-winded bluster after all, but the last wild card of the century had done its damage.

Bothersome to Artie who worked at home designing plausible graphics for Bud Boyce--stylish bar charts and pies, seductive pictograms out of mightily inferential statistics. He punched at dead keys on the computer, on the phone. He could not call Lou to see if their time trip to the Unfabulous Fifties was still in place. The air in his apartment was suspiciously still, the dark street beyond a massive blank screen. The twilight zone that he (artfree @) dreamt up with Boyce (budboy @) had finally come about: the city had gone wireless. Cyberscouts playing WHAT IF on their screens: what if cables rotted in their decayed wood channels under the crumbling pavements of New York, what if the charged strands drew energy down signaling to resurgent mica in Manhattan's bed of granite, what if info ricocheted off the subway's charge or hyper optics were optioned by nibbling rats, jarred by shiftless tectonic plates. Twenty years since these meager fantasies entertained Artie and CEO Bertram Boyce who, bouncing messages of Product to the ever widening-narrowing world, had no time for such easy plots. Soon after Bud deleted the article before product, invested it with the capital P, Artie's faith went offline, a loss of youth in his microsoft heart, and he withdrew from Bud's enterprise, began simple piecework at home.

So, he was well out of the game, but thought seriously of Y2K unReadiness, the two blank 00s that erased a century, computers calculating the date as 1900, so belatedly searching and destroying each and every encoded day in the old mainframes at the cost of billions. And what if, somewhere around 1965, a neat-minded nerd had thought of the strategic imperative of a full four-digit date, but no one given the joy in the abbreviated language of tech talk, no one listened, for all such trivia would surely solve itself like a simple algebraic formula--x=______. Somewhere, a little guy, programmer retired--the U.S. Census Bureau, the actuarial troops at Allstate?--was laughing up his short sleeve in Scottsdale or hacker heaven. What if, but Artie is cut off, alone in his fantasy, and suppose it was only Mother Nature awarded her last chance to show them up, the communicants, corporate and casuals. To show Artie Freeman up as selfish, uncaring, for in the catastrophic silence he could not call the old man who did not want to welcome last year or the next, his grandfather who on the best of days, did not trouble himself to answer the phone, would not rise from his worn leather chair, or look up from his book, but read, read on, slowly drawing a magnifying glass across the page. The old man was Artie's family, all that was left, and his duty. His only duty to traipse across the Park with groceries, newspapers, clean socks and underclothes. Keep the old man going against the odds. Often, when Artie let himself into his grandparents' apartment--calling it that long after his grandmother's swift death--he feared to find the old man gone, last volume in his lap, head bent to decipher the last word. But his grandfather, fumed out in a threadbare suit, stained tie, translucent finger marking the page in his endless pursuit of history, came toward him with a firm step. "Ah, dear boy!"

"Who else?" For Artie felt he was the only soul who knew that Cyril O'Connor was still alive and that he no longer honored the predictable seasons, forget the second millennium. As the power died in the city, Artie had looked at his dead telephone with some relief. His grandfather would reject his New Year cheer. Though courteous, Cyril O'Connor would dismiss the peculiar holiday, turn back in the fading daylight to recapture the lost line in his book, and once again the dear boy, boy now over thirty, wondered at the perfect tension the old man sustained between the will to die and the will to live.

January 1--Feast of the Circumcision:

At that time: After eight days were past, but already the text in the prayer book would seem to be an adjustment--the seventh day after the birth of Christ as Cyril counted it when he was a small boy, seven days since his electric trains were set up to run round the tree, to stop with the will of his finger at the crossing where the farmer herded his sheep through the village square. Monster sheep, sniffing at chimneys, at a tiny brass bell hung in the steeple. Stupid sheep, knocking the farmer's silo into the looking glass pond. At times he would let the locomotive run his flock down, let the clumsy ovine giants bleed plaster dust onto the green felt grass where the snowy cotton batting never melted, but switched tracks in the nick of time when his soldiers hid under the popsicle-stick bridge plotting to ambush the fort.

Seven days as Cyril figured it to the Circumcision, till his child's prayer book pictured a knife that was about to be plunged into the Babe, a knife large enough to scale a fish, to skin a rabbit, though he was a city boy who only dreamed of such outdoor adventures. Why did the knife hover over the Holy Child? At school the good sister murmured, "Is it not here His suffering begins?" A muffled question to his question. Nor was he told, as he counted down the days, why his father, come home from his beat smelling always of whiskey and still in his patrolman's uniform, began at once to disassemble trains, track, transformer, schoolmarm (rod in hand at the schoolhouse door), barnyard with farmer's wife throwing corn to the chicks out of her checkered apron. His mother had been given the whole expensive setup by a family she worked for, a couple whose boy had died of diphtheria. They could not bear the sight of these toys. Not to accept the charity of Protestants was a matter of his father's inebriate Irish pride, though the parents of the dead boy were Jews. In an apocalyptic siege of unplugging, wrapping, packing, shoving boxes to a topmost shelf, Cyril's kingdom was destroyed one day before custom declared the date on which the dead tree must come down. A punishing feast for a kid in a West Side tenement with few pleasures.

Luke 2:21 At that time: After eight days were past that the child should be circumcised ... When he was fourteen, fine chap though a late starter, for some time prey to nocturnal emissions and perpetrator of shameful practices that might render him a drooling idiot or strike him blind, Cyril looked up a mysteriously forbidden word in the public library. Smegma: an unguent or soap: a secretion of any of the secretious glands, specifically, the cheesy matter which collects between the glans penis and the foreskin, or around the clitoris or labia minora. Well, that was a good deal of information for the head altar boy at St. Gregory's, a good deal yet not enough. What sort of soap might that be that soiled? And when had the cleansing act of circumcision been denied to the Christians? He dare not ask for answers, but Cyril O'Connor was learning his Latin. Quod turget, urget--what swells, impels--and did not lose faith, by which he did not mean his religion, until, ill-clothed, ill-armed, in cold outdistancing bitter, half the men in his unit were slaughtered in Korea to further inflate the imperial designs of Douglas MacArthur. Captain O'Connor, his zipper unyielding, finally zipped it down. Icy blue fingers adhered painfully for a moment to the soft fold of his foreskin; then Cyril pissed on the frozen chamber of his rifle as he had seen his men do if they were to defend themselves in this indefensible position. Their young leader under orders, he instructed them to go on with the killing in this Police Action, Yo-Yo war, for what else, in the frigid hollows leading to the Yalu River, could they possibly do. For fifty years, Cyril has not celebrated any holy day as holiday, though always a gentleman to those (most particularly his late wife) who delight in the hearts, masks, palms, eggs, crosses, doves, candles and trees that adorn their calendar of belief.

Isaiah 1:14-16.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth;
They are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.
And when ye spread forth your hands,
I will hide mine eyes from you:
Yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear;
Your hands are full of blood.
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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
January 1, 2000 (leap year), 224th year of American Independence, in the city and environs of New York.

Louise Moffett teeters in stiletto heels through her confetti-littered loft, lamenting the details of her disastrous millennium bash and the heartbreaking fallout that accompanies her entry into the new century. Across town, her lover, Artie, awakens with a hangover and the cloudy memory of a botched marriage proposal the night before. So begins A Lover's Almanac, a romantic, thinking-person's love story about fate — how and why we live the lives we do and fall in love with the people we do.

The lapsed lovers are two thirty-somethings in New York City. Louise, a Midwestern farm girl, is a hot artist. Artie, an orphan raised by his grandfather after the death of his hippie mother, is a hapless computer wizard. As we follow their romance, we draw back to learn about their parents' and grandparents' lives, about the events, public and private, that have affected their fates. At intervals, we turn from the characters' stories to consider the lives of the geniuses who have so profoundly affected our society: Edison, Einstein, Franklin, and other creative thinkers of the past. In this "broad meditation on Western thought" (Los Angeles Times), Howard asks: How do we make our own histories — and how do we connect to history writ large? To what extent do we control our destinies? As we plumb the depths of Maureen Howard's lush prose to discern the curious, looping narrative strands at the novel's heart, we find a witty, moving, and brilliantly simple love story. In the grander sense, as we ponder the fate of the characters in light of the novel's intricate historical backdrop, "a modern version of the great panoramas of the past" (The New York Times Book Review) is revealed, one that braids love, memory, and fate into a rich tapestry encompassing all our histories.

ABOUT MAUREEN HOWARD

Maureen Howard is the author of seven novels, including Grace Abounding, Expensive Habits, and Natural History, all of which were nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She has taught at a number of American universities, including Columbia, Princeton, Amherst, and Yale, and was recently awarded the Academy Award in Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in New York City.

A CONVERSATION WITH MAUREEN HOWARD

Part of the unique beauty of A Lover's Almanac is the fascinating detail that you use — like entries in an almanac — throughout the novel. What is your own conception of the significance of the almanac as cultural and historical repository, and what did you hope to achieve by shaping your novel in the almanac's image?

The almanac is a lively elastic form which combines both fact and fiction. I believe I call it, not irreverently, a bible for our days. On the one hand, its astronomy gives us the movements of the planets with great accuracy; on the other hand, it charts our fabulous stories in astrology.Though the novel makes mention of many ancient almanacs — Egyptian, Indian — it is the entertaining book of the American people, Ben Franklin's and the old Farmer's Almanac, that appealed to me as a perfect system to display the little stories by which we mark our days along with the almost operatic accomplishments of technology and the never ending tragedies of our society as we come to the end of this era.My gathering of facts with fiction in this playful form, the almanac, is a gesture against chaos. Call it a survival manual.

An important aspect of Cyril's character is his love of history — an idea that reverberates throughout the novel through your use of historical detail. Was this primarily a plot device, or a reflection of your own personal passion for history?

Cyril O'Connor's love of history strikes a thematic chord that I hope resonates throughout the novel. Cyril, the old lover in the story, had wanted to be a historian when he was young, but lost track of that dream in the getting and spending of life. He had wanted to understand the Founding Fathers and the vast story of events that formed the time and place he was born into. When he attempts to go back to American history, he's beyond making sense of it. My young lovers, Lou and Artie, have no sense of history at the start of their troubles. They treat the fifties, in which they enact their millennial party, as though it is a movie set, getting "the look" of it right and the spirit of that time all wrong. But yes, I am fairly passionate about the use of history in my work, about all the discoveries that might tell us who we are.

Your novel is, at heart, a love story. But it's also been called "a tribute to progress" (Miami Herald), and "an exuberant look at where we have been and where we may be going when the present millennium is over" (San Francisco Chronicle). Can you comment on your intentions when you first sat down to write? Was this the love story you've always wanted to tell, or, rather, your way of conveying larger ideas about history and fate?

The love story was absolutely essential from the start. I went back to that harsh late comedy of Shakespeare's, A Winter's Tale, which has both old and young lovers, and ends with a bittersweet reconciliation. That glorious work was only a touchstone, for I've bent the Bard's lovers quite out of shape, though Cyril and Sylvie — my golden oldies — have lived middling fair lives without each other for fifty years. And my young lovers — urban, savvy, cynical — are children still who have not tested the depths of love as the novel opens. Larger ideas? The idea seems to me so simple: that these characters' lives are to a great part shaped by the culture they live in, live through. Still, they must find their way.

The timing of the novel has a narrative significance, and also serves to emphasize certain themes and motifs. What inspired you to place the story at the turn of the millennium?

We started some years ago to plan the celebration, congratulating ourselves on making it to that spectacular date. Science and its servant, technology, can predict the placement of the stars, the full moon, even the tides, but we will be imprecise, even bewildered, about where we are headed. As Artie and Lou predict, the media will be all over the millennium. They fear that the virtual world, the glut of images, will distort the experience of the millennium, yet they distort it with their party. Finally, in A Lover's Almanac, both the old and the young must take stock of who they are.

A Lover's Almanac has much to say about individual choice. Historically, the almanac itself was used to predict future events, yet many of your characters seem to be at their best when taking it upon themselves to decide their fates. What are you thoughts on this fundamental question?

The question is too weighty. I write fiction, not the blustery self-help books of the successful writer in my almanac. Like Louise, who, as a kid, uses astrology to take swipes at her family, I disbelieve in predictions which limit us, rob us of choice. We may be creatures of our time and place, but we make choices, not always for the best, when we love and work. Sylvie, Cyril's old love, boldly rings his doorbell so that their romance may begin again; and Louise, in her Progress of Love, shows literally that in the end she understands the impact of the past on present lives, of the public world on the personal. She makes her art in the midst of her audience. As we make our lives? I suppose. And as I made my almanac "to summon aptly," as Robert Frost says of his work, "from the vast chaos of all I have lived through."

A Lover's Almanac is the first in a series of novels that you plan to write, each taking place during a separate season of the year. What themes do you see as unique to the Winter installment, and can you comment on your vision of what will unite the cycle?

Yes, I'm writing the seasons, writing Spring to be exact, the season of rebirth, picking up from birth at the end of A Lover's Almanac. Spring will be three tales that continue the themes of inheritance, of what we must recall to live with some honesty in the present. I'm interested in what stories we choose to tell, when we choose to tell them, and what dreams and memories we keep to ourselves. The natural world of the seasons is a grid, like the almanac, in which we live our days. Richer, grander in imagery than any novel, the seasons present us with their comforting and perilous stories. I hope to tap a few in my small way. Like Louise, I live on the dangerous edge between belief and disbelief in my project.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • In the past, the almanac was an indispensable tool for interacting with the practical world. Today it has become more a compendium of minutiae, a source of entertainment. How does Maureen Howard play with these different definitions of the almanac? What does each of these competing conceptions lend to the novel?
     
  • A surface look at A Lover's Almanac reveals a variety of characters and story lines, some seemingly unrelated to each other, or touching for only brief, glancing moments. Through this, what is Maureen Howard saying about life in the context of our interactions with others? What is Sissy symbolic of? Does her presence confirm the idea of lives interrelated, or question it?
     
  • How does Louise's vocation as an artist relate to the larger themes of creativity and inspiration that permeate the novel?
     
  • What does Maureen Howard achieve through her use of historical references in A Lover's Almanac? Considering the point in time at which the story takes place, what is the author saying about the importance of looking back if we hope to move forward? How is this idea, on a personal scale, carried out in the lives of the characters?
     
  • Is Louise's art show The Progress of Love meant by Maureen Howard to be ironic? In what ways have Louise and Artie progressed through the course of the novel?
     
  • How does Maureen Howard play with the idea of fate throughout the novel? Do her characters make their own histories, or are they playing into destinies laid out for them?
     
  • What is the significance of Howard's many evocations of inventors and men of ideas?
     
  • In what ways do Louise and Artie embody their generation? Are those nearing adulthood late in this century lacking a sense of their place in history? In the culture of 2000, does this matter?

  • RELATED TITLES

Bridgeport Bus
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The luminous, funny story of a woman's midlife rebellion and self-discovery.

The Facts of Life
ISBN 0-14-005500-2

Howard's brilliant, award-winning memoir. (July 1999)

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