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Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence: A Novel

Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence: A Novel

3.7 10
by David Samuel Levinson

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Catherine Strayed is living a quiet, unremarkable life in a secluded college town following the mysterious death of her husband, a promising writer whose death may have been an accident, a suicide, or perhaps even a murder. When her former mentor (and onetime lover)—a powerful critic who singlehandedly destroyed her late husband’s chance for


Catherine Strayed is living a quiet, unremarkable life in a secluded college town following the mysterious death of her husband, a promising writer whose death may have been an accident, a suicide, or perhaps even a murder. When her former mentor (and onetime lover)—a powerful critic who singlehandedly destroyed her late husband’s chance for success—takes a teaching job at the college, Catherine’s world threatens to collapse. For with him has come his latest protégé, an exotic young woman named Antonia Lively. Antonia’s debut novel has become a literary sensation—but it is, in fact, an almost factual retelling of a terrible crime that she relates without any concern for the impact its publication will have on the lives of those involved.
As Antonia insinuates herself into Catherine’s life, mysterious and frightening things start to happen, because unbeknownst to Catherine, the younger woman intends to plunder her own dark, regrettable past—and the unsolved death of her husband—for her next literary triumph.

Provocative and cunning, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence asserts that fiction is never truly fictional and asks, What does stealing another’s life do to your soul? Levinson spins a tale of surprises, peeling back one revelation only to find another in this tightly wrought, wickedly cynical look at the worlds of academia, publishing, and celebrity. 

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The worlds of academia and literary criticism prove treacherous in Levinson’s debut novel (after the short story collection Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will). After 18 months, Catherine Strayed still mourns her husband, Wyatt, a professor of creative writing whose first novel was recently published and whose death might have been a suicide caused by a devastating review from critic Henry Swallow. Unknown to Wyatt, Catherine, as a college student, had been a lover of the sexually predatory Henry. Meanwhile, to her discomfort, Henry has been hired by her late husband’s university, and his talented creative writing protégée, Antonia Lively, who has a novel on the way, insinuates herself into Catherine’s life. It turns out that the nakedly ambitious Antonia strip-mines the lives of those close to her for fiction. But will she be prepared to face the consequences of her actions? Although the story has the trappings of a psychological thriller, Levinson is more interested in charting the heedless ambition and corrosive jealousy of less-than-sympathetic characters, whose motivations are exposed through a series of clunky plot devices. Despite raising intriguing questions about a writer’s responsibility, this novel too often strains credulity to truly illuminate the subject. (June)
Kirkus Reviews
Literary success inspires only bad blood, jealousy and contrived plot twists in this debut novel by Levinson (Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will, 2004). Catherine, the hero of this tale, lives in a bucolic New York college town, but her mood is dark: Her husband died under unusual circumstances not long after his debut was savaged by the famously brutal critic Henry Swallow. An unforgivable offense? Apparently not: After all, Catherine did have a dalliance with Henry when he was her teacher, and when he arrives in town looking for a place to live, she only half-grudgingly rents him the cottage behind her home. But Henry spends much of his time nearby, at the house where Antonia Lively, his latest young-writer conquest, is staying. Antonia is poised for literary fame with her debut, but Antonia's uncle has arrived in town, bent to expose the ways she wrongly mined and manipulated family history for her novel. Levinson means to show how fiction provides a pathway to inner truths that can't be spoken directly, but he never quite settles on an effective tone for his story. Henry is intended to be a fearsome critic and kingmaker, but his antics strain credulity; the same is true for Catherine, who is quick to forgive slights, insults and even life-threatening violence, apparently in the interest of moving the plot along. (In this town, the occasional break-in and burst of gunfire is only mildly troublesome.) There's no sourness or malice in Levinson's riffing on the unjust ways of the literati, but the novel is so weighted down by its plot turns and character collisions that it never achieves the lift of a satire either. The foibles of novelists, critics and the people who love them are rich fodder for fiction, but weakly addressed here.

Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence




Copyright © 2013 David Samuel Levinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56512-918-4


Red Wine, Black Coffee

* * *

The best place to begin is right in the middle, on that hot June afternoon, as Catherine struggled through her yard. In one hand, she lugged a bag of groceries; in the other, a heavy bag of books. Exhausted and grumpy from another long shift at the bookstore, on her feet all day, she couldn't wait to set the bags down; the runny French cheese and her favorite wine were calling her name as usual. More than this, she couldn't wait to get out of her heels, put on her bathing suit, and swim some laps in the pool. The sun blazed through the trees, the air as miasmic as ever. Another summer in Winslow, she thought glumly. Blow, winds, blow. But there weren't any winds, only the monstrous heat and an absolute stagnation, as if the entire world had stopped turning. Everything sparkled with dust and crackled in earnest. Every step she took through the brittle grass reminded her of how long they'd gone without rain. Revelation is at hand, people said, though Catherine didn't believe in omens or doomsayers, even less in the meteorologists, whose predictions for a break in the weather had dried up along with the town's hope. They were living through the longest, most abject heat wave on record.

As sweat dripped down her arms, the house shimmered before her, and for a moment Wyatt was back at the door, already hurrying to help with the bags. There was Wyatt, her husband, her love, rising out of the dust and heat. She'd heard that it was possible for the heat to play such nasty tricks on people, and when she realized that she'd called out his name, she cursed herself. Deflating, she became who she was again — Catherine Strayed, his thirty-nine-year-old widow. Again, she felt Wyatt's absence acutely, as sure as the weight of the bags in her hands. Books, cheese, wine — the precious cargo that carried her through.

Inside the sanctuary of the shuttered house, the idea of fall settled around her. Fall, months away — when the quality of light shifted from an incessant, blaring yellow to a muted, lustrous gold, when the students returned and with them a kind of liveliness, an energizing optimism that floated in the cooler air, when life resumed, and with it came the possibility of love — fresh, unmarried faculty faces, divorcés, widowers. It was like this every fall; she took another deep gulping breath, inhaling hope. While most people she knew looked forward to spring, Catherine looked forward to fall, the drops in temperature, the change in the light and leaves.

In the house, she set the bag of books down, collected the flurry of mail scattered across the hardwood floor, then slid out of her heels and damp sundress, comfortably naked except for her bra and underwear. A narrow hallway connected the sitting room with the kitchen, and she hurried through it, cradling the groceries in her arms, the mail pressed under her arm. In the kitchen, she placed the mail on the table, the wine in the cupboard, then removed the cheese and opened the refrigerator, leaning into the cold. She shut her pale green eyes, and let the frosted air creep over her, the sweat drying gradually. She was happy to be home.

On the counter at her back, the answering machine flashed red, noting a single message. She was in no rush to check the machine, knowing the caller was Jane. Jane, one of her best friends. Jane, who felt compelled to remind her of tonight's dinner at Maddox Cafe, even though they'd been meeting there every Wednesday night for years. Catherine knew these calls were well intentioned, yet she resented them anyway, as she had the calls and visits those first few weeks after Wyatt's death, when Jane showed up at the house unannounced. Then, she'd brought food, movies, playing cards, and more concern than Catherine knew what to do with. Sweet, yes, but wholly unnecessary. You can't be alone, Jane had said. Can't, or won't, be? Catherine had asked. She never turned Jane away, because they were friends and because she understood her welfare was more important to Jane than it was to herself.

A year and a half ago, that's when it happened. She'd been standing in almost the same spot, gazing disappointedly into the empty refrigerator, wondering where Wyatt was — he'd been gone all day — and why he hadn't bothered to buy the groceries. After all, it was his turn, she'd thought. She'd seen him drive off that morning, the sky leaden and threatening snow. The snow had come — that time, just as they'd predicted — and it was snowing still as she slammed the refrigerator shut, going for her boots, parka, and purse in the other room. She was putting on the boots, when there were heavy footfalls on the porch, and the irritation she had felt evaporated. She went to the door, expecting Wyatt, his arms loaded down with everything on the list she'd made — milk, cheese, wine, fish, tampons, toilet paper — these things they'd needed.

It wasn't Wyatt but an officer of the law, and Catherine suddenly understood, without having to be told, that moments like these — a missing husband, a blizzard, a policeman — were sometimes as unavoidable and unaccountable as love itself.

Since then, there'd been winter in its dread and dreariness, and the spring had passed and the summer and the fall, followed by another winter, another spring; and here it was summer again, all spent without him.

Now Catherine sipped a glass of wine and nibbled at a plate of cheese and crackers while she riffled through the mail. There were the usual bills, and the odd letter to Wyatt, the occasional piece of fan mail. It still surprised and, yes, infuriated her, that he continued to get these letters, because it seemed to her a real fan would have kept better track of him, would have heard about his death. The letters were always sweet, and said the same things, the writers mostly young women, who praised Wyatt's novel, even as they went on to ask the inevitable — Are you single? Had he been there, he and Catherine would have had a great laugh. He wasn't there, though, and God, how she missed him.

With a steak knife, Catherine sliced open the bills and set them aside before picking up the powder pink envelope. She turned it over in her fingers, noting the return address in Des Moines, Iowa. She pictured the lonely young woman holding Wyatt's novel, her excitement as she flipped the pages, never wanting to put it down. It was that kind of book, a page-turner, something to fall in love with, and it cheered her to know Wyatt had found his way to this stranger. Wasn't that the true test of success? For most people maybe, but not for Wyatt, who couldn't help comparing the minor strides he'd made with the larger and, as he often declared, less-deserving strides of others. The disparity tormented him.

And it also tormented me, she thought, just as the silence was broken, and she heard a series of insistent knocks accompanied by a loud hello. It was the kind of thing that happened on occasion: the random Jehovah's Witness, a Girl Scout in pigtails, friends showing up to check on her. At one time, there'd also been a troop of reporters from as far away as Buffalo, all of them trying to piece out the story of Wyatt's death. She didn't speak to any of them. Yet even as she slammed the door in their faces, she'd wanted to say, "You vultures. Where were you when he was alive?"

Catherine sat still, hoping the woman at the door would take the hint and go away. Instead, she knocked again, louder, harder, her hellos echoing through the house again, filling the silent rooms. Still, Catherine did not move, did not breathe, clutching the letter in one hand, the wineglass in the other. Go away, she thought. Please just go away.

Yes, there'd been reporters at one time, and photographers, even a news van stationed in front of the house. There'd been the click of cameras when she left for work in the morning and again when she returned at night. What right did they have to intrude? For what — to pry the details of Wyatt's last days out of her? For weeks they came, until the story, like any other, finally faded, and the journalists, reporters, and news teams turned to fresher, more grisly tales. Even after they'd forgotten the story, however, their awful, ugly rumors and insinuations lingered, for a time making even leaving the house to go to work unbearable.

As the intruder called out another hello, Catherine concentrated on the letter, the perfumed pink paper and the slanted blue words, the curlicues, the misspellings, all of it blurring the longer she focused, the longer she held her breath. What did this stranger want? What had any of them wanted but the story of their lives, Catherine's life with Wyatt, and then the story of a life that continued without him?

Go away, she thought again, but then realized this time she'd said it out loud — shouted it — and she dropped the letter and took a gulp of wine. The knocking stopped, and then the afternoon again fell into silence, as it had the afternoon a year and a half ago when she'd opened the door and the world changed. Today Catherine didn't have time for an unexpected visitor, whoever she might be; she had the girls in less than an hour.

Since the woman had obviously heard her, and she herself couldn't stomach rudeness of any kind, Catherine rose grudgingly and passed through the late afternoon sunlight that flooded the room, highlighting the streaks and scuffs Wyatt's life and hers had left over the years. He was there, in the finely knifed crosshatches on the counter, the concentrically ringed stains on the blond-wood kitchen table, the fanned, spidery cracks in the kitchen window he'd slammed shut the day before he disappeared. He wasn't just there, of course: he was everywhere. As she made her way to the door, through the dim, hushed hallway that led to the sitting room, still full of what they used to joke was their starter furniture, she smelled the cigarette smoke in the air and all at once felt more alone than she had in months.

She'd been a heavy smoker from junior high well into graduate school. It was how she'd crammed for midterms and handled twenty-page essays, and it was how she'd met Wyatt that wintry day in Penn Station back in 1981, when you could still smoke everywhere. If she'd been paying more attention, they might never have met, but she hadn't been paying attention: while rummaging through her purse, she'd brushed Wyatt's sleeve with the tip of her cigarette. She apologized and wiped away the smudge with her finger. "Attractive women shouldn't smoke," he'd said, waving away a gray plume. Am I attractive? she'd wanted to ask.

Both her mother and father had been career smokers, and if it hadn't been for Wyatt, who refused to see her if she didn't quit, she suspected she would have been a career smoker, too, until her death.

Now, as she went into her bedroom and slid into a sundress, then made her way to the front door, which was open as usual on these hot summer days, she wanted nothing more than to finish her glass of wine and take a drag on a cigarette, specifically the cigarette that hung casually from the glossy lips of the girl who was peering through the screen door. Though Catherine recognized her instantly, she'd never met Antonia Lively — this young woman who'd written the celebrated short story, "Vitreous China," this young woman whose much trumpeted debut novel was coming out in early July.

For the last couple of weeks, Catherine had caught glimpses of her about town, sometimes on a bench in the park, her head in a book, sometimes just idling outside one of the shops on Broad Street. She came into Page Turners once, last week, rummaged the used-book bin, picked up a frayed copy of Wyatt's novel, The Last Cigarette, read the first page, replaced it, and left the store without a word. Whenever Catherine saw her, wherever she saw her, Antonia was usually dressed in loose-fitting halter tops and thigh-high shorts, and was never without a cigarette, somehow pulling it all off gracefully, as only the young can.

That liquid-hot afternoon, Antonia was less made up than she'd been in the photograph accompanying the brief interview in last month's Modern Scrivener, but traces of that girl were still apparent in the pink-smudged cheekbones and metallic green eye shadow. She was tall, thin-limbed and seemed so young that, for a moment, Catherine was taken back to her own youth, when she, too, had had the courage to go around in skimpy shorts and tight blouses. There was something else, though, something garish, even sad about Antonia's getup — it was too self-conscious. She was trying too hard to be provocative and alluring, which merely called attention to one simple fact: she wasn't beautiful. No, she wasn't beautiful; striking, maybe even exotic, but not beautiful. The cigarette only made her less so.

Had Catherine known her, she might have scolded her, saying, "Cigarettes kill, or haven't you heard?" It had always been her experience that girls like this, who thought smoking made them seem more mysterious and adult, would go on smoking because that's what they did whether you worried about them or not. For a moment, it looked as if Antonia were about to fling her cigarette to the curb (a natural inclination in the city, a revolting one in Winslow), but then she thought better of it and asked Catherine if she had an ashtray. She pointed to a barren terra-cotta flowerpot, which, until recently, had housed a pink begonia, another casualty to the summer's abominable heat. Antonia took one final drag, then planted the cigarette in the loose, dry earth.

Although the habit was disgusting, smoking seemed to suit her, Catherine thought, and was a part of an idea she had of herself — the lonely writer in the lonely world. Catherine couldn't help but notice, however, the awkward way she'd held the cigarette, as if she couldn't quite understand how it had gotten in her fingers. This should not have surprised her, since the girl's entire manner was awkward.

"I've seen you before. You work in the bookstore, right?" she asked. Nodding, Catherine introduced herself. "I'm Antonia," the girl said in response. She smiled, her lips pulled tight over her small, gray teeth. Catherine let her into the house without another word but felt as if it were Antonia inviting her inside and not the other way around. Antonia apologized for disturbing her and took great care to compliment the house, a polite yet needless gesture, Catherine thought, knowing the house's shortcomings. Once inside, Antonia removed her sandals, a winning gesture that left Catherine wondering how the girl knew she didn't allow shoes in the house. (This, too, went back to Wyatt and his need for absolute silence whenever he was working. Although she hated the sight of her big feet, Catherine had gone barefoot in the house anyway, just something else she did out of love and respect for him.) "I'd like to see the whole place, if that's all right," Antonia said.

"The whole place?" she asked, having no idea what she was talking about, or why she was there.

The girl's blue eyes swept the room back and forth and fell on Catherine, her freckled skin and tan face, the faded sundress threaded with colorful posies, a dress she'd had since college.

"Aren't you renting the house?" she inquired. "I mean, Henry told me that you were." She sounded exasperated and winded, and Catherine wanted to ask her to sit down but didn't, because at the mention of Henry's name she flinched and went silent. "Everything I've seen is either too far out of town or just isn't right. I loved this little house on the east side, but I'm not sure."

At one time, the east side of the town had been Winslow's wealthiest, most tended neighborhood, but it had fallen into disrepair, the Victorian homes going to ruin in the current economic climate. With good reason, those on the west side tried to forget about the east, as everything unpleasant in Winslow seemed to originate from there. Catherine had already seen enough of Antonia to know she wouldn't be happy across the railroad tracks.

Excerpted from Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence by DAVID SAMUEL LEVINSON. Copyright © 2013 David Samuel Levinson. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Dale Peck
“Levinson’s characters are wonderfully, maddeningly insistent on their own view of things, often to their detriment. This approach leaves room for great moral complexity . . . My sympathies and allegiances shifted constantly. I can’t think of the last novel I read that had the power to manipulate me so well." —Dale Peck

Robert Goolrick
"Precise in its plot, immaculate in its writing, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is a thriller in every sense of the word. Thrilling to read, with enough terrifying plot twists to keep you up far into the night, and thrilling in the precision and creative expansiveness of the storytelling itself. You are going to love this novel." —Robert Goolrick, author of Heading Out to Wonderful

Kate Christensen
"Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence has the taut pacing and intellectual daring of Donna Tartt's The Secret History and the gothic, dark, page-turning energy of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca." —Kate Christensen, author of The Astral

Gary Shteyngart
"A sweet, smart, tasty book, it hooked me from the start and swiftly pulled me to shore." —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story

Meet the Author

David Samuel Levinson is the author of a story collection, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will. His stories have appeared as well in Prairie Schooner, West Branch, and the Brooklyn Review, among others. He lives in New York City. This is his first novel. 

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Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence: A Novel 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read about this novel in Entertainment Weekly and had my doubts, but...it was one of those rainy nights in New York and I picked it up and I didn't put it down again. I've never done that! But this book just drew me in and in and in until I gave over to it completely. Maybe you will as well. I'm recommending this book to all of my friends and family. But don't take my word for it. REad it for yourselves. 
RobertDowns More than 1 year ago
I didn't really feel much of anything after I finished this novel. Not happy, or sad, or anger, or despair, or excitement, or resentment. Even as I was reading ANTONIA LIVELY BREAKS THE SILENCE, my only desire was to set this book aside and move on to the next one. Instead of aiming to be either literary fiction or a mystery, this novel tried to combine elements of both, and the glue never quite seemed to gel. The novel might have been better served if it stepped back a bit and got out of its own way. Because there's no question David Samuel Levinson has talent, and there's no question he's got a great career ahead of him, but I don't think this is the book that is going to lead him to the Promised Land. To be fair, it's not a bad book, but none of the characters really resonated with me. Pretty much all of the characters end up being unlikeable, their faults leaving more permanent marks than their assets. The story had me a bit lost at times, like I'd been jarred from the merry-go-round, and I was left staring up at the clouds from the flat of my back. And when it was all said and done, I was left feeling a bit helpless, more than a little lost, and more than a little hopeful that I'll connect with my next read a bit more than I did this one. I received this book for free through NetGalley. Robert Downs Author of Falling Immortality: Casey Holden, Private Investigator
Anonymous 3 months ago
Anonymous 10 months ago
Hey, we should get to know each other... :)
Anonymous 11 months ago
Remember me? I talked to you one night but then fell asleep XD. My life is so similar to yours... im in 7th, and i hang out with friend groups too. Also one of my friends showed me Panic! At The Disco. Weird coinsidnce right?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Even the villians can be likeable or funny. Too many unpleasant events characters and unlikeable heros spoil the broth like too many cooks or salt author take heed
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
DTootsie More than 1 year ago
I just could not get into this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This fast-paced literary thriller pulled me in from the start. The storyline is intriguing and ingenious. As a dangerous past encroaches on a bucolic campus, the tension here isn't just that of a routine thriller. This novel is about truth-telling and lies in both life and fiction. Larger issues of honesty, integrity and ambition in the literary world--and by extension in life--resonant throughout a well drawn, fast-paced story. Not an easy accomplishment to weave a good plot with deeper themes:I would recommend this book highly.