As Husbands Go

( 88 )

Overview

Call her superficial, but Susie B Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten assumed her marriage was great—and why not? Jonah Gersten, MD, a Park Avenue plastic surgeon, clearly adored her. He was handsome, successful, and a doting dad to their four-year-old triplets. But when Jonah is found dead in the Upper East Side apartment of second-rate “escort” Dorinda Dillon, Susie is overwhelmed with questions left unanswered. It’s bad enough to know your husband’s been murdered, but even worse when you’re universally pitied (and ...

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As Husbands Go: A Novel

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Overview

Call her superficial, but Susie B Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten assumed her marriage was great—and why not? Jonah Gersten, MD, a Park Avenue plastic surgeon, clearly adored her. He was handsome, successful, and a doting dad to their four-year-old triplets. But when Jonah is found dead in the Upper East Side apartment of second-rate “escort” Dorinda Dillon, Susie is overwhelmed with questions left unanswered. It’s bad enough to know your husband’s been murdered, but even worse when you’re universally pitied (and quietly mocked) because of the sleaze factor. None of it makes sense to Susie—not a sexual liaison with someone like Dorinda, not the “better not to discuss it” response from Jonah’s partners. With help from her tough-talking, high-style grandma Ethel, who flies in from Miami, she takes on her snooty in-laws, her husband’s partners, the NYPD, and the DA as she tries to prove that her wonderful life with Jonah was no lie.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Very funny… A freewheeling comic monologue, part satire, part whine, socially acute and skillfully vicious.”—Washington Post

“A master of the genre.”—O, the Oprah Magazine

“Wildly sassy… Susie is an irresistible character.”—Columbus Dispatch

“Issacs is a master of witty fiction with an undercurrent of emotional truth.”—USA Today

Ann Hodgman
…the characters are fun to meet, and the accretion of detail makes the book nice and chewy.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Bestseller Isaacs draws on tony Long Island, gritty New York City, and a tabloid-friendly murder for this smart-alecky whodunit/surprisingly sweet love story. Susan is left alone with her three boys, big suburban house, and nagging questions when plastic surgeon hubby Jonah Gersten turns up dead in a hooker's Upper East Side apartment. Though the police and prosecutors wind up their case against call girl Dorinda Dillon, it's far from settled for Susan. “It simply didn't add up, in either my head or my heart,” she confesses. And what better sidekick to track down the truth than Susan's rogue granny, Ethel. What follows is an intricate and fascinating dissection of Susan's marriage, family, husband's medical practice and partners, and the unwitting call girl at the center of it all. Isaacs (Past Perfect) brings it all together in this fast and furious ride through wanton greed, fragile relationships, and love worth fighting for. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
What was Susie Gersten's perfect husband doing in the apartment of a medium-rent call girl?Getting stabbed with a pair of scissors, it turns out, following 80 not-very-suspenseful pages devoted to filling in the back story after Jonah goes missing. On paper the Gerstens seem perfect. They have a lovely home in Shorehaven, Long Island, funded by Jonah's lucrative Manhattan plastic-surgery practice (Susie's floral-design business is more of a hobby). They have adorable four-year-old triplets (in vitro, natch), two live-in Norwegian au pairs and a full-time housekeeper-it's a pretty great life. Jonah, narrator Susie tells us, was devoted to her and not the cheating kind; we tend to believe her, since she rarely has a good word to say about anyone else. Susie is a trademark zingy Isaacs heroine (Past Perfect, 2007, etc.), happy to tell us all about her designer clothes, her better-than-decent looks and her fondness for life's finer things. It's no big shock when she confesses, "I'd never been the plumbing-the-depths type," but she's fun to be with and mildly witty about her snobbish in-laws, her dismal parents, the entitled senior partner in Jonah's group practice and the dowdy homicide chief who rushes to declare the call girl the perp. The semi-snide repartee was fresher three decades ago in Compromising Positions (1978), and Susie's grief at losing Jonah never has much emotional force, though her determination to vindicate her marriage rings true. None of this is meant to be taken terribly seriously, even after Susie joins forces with her elegant grandmother to investigate the holes in the DA's case. There's only one other viable suspect, and when the homicide chief finally admits thatSusie has fingered the real murderer, our heroine seems more concerned about not being thanked properly than she is happy that the killer of darling Jonah is going to jail. The mystery is barely there, but Isaacs' fans will enjoy another sharp-tongued romp through the New York privileged classes and their foibles.
Library Journal
Imagine being the smart and adored wife of a marvelous and successful man as well as the proud, if harried, mother of his darling four-year-old triplet boys in New York City. Then, one seemingly ordinary day, your thoroughly reliable husband does not return home from work. Isaacs vividly conveys the initial panic and gut-wrenching fear that Susie Gersten feels in those first hours as she contacts family members, his colleagues, and the police. Days go by with no word, and Susie fears the worst. Nothing, however, could have prepared her for the news that her beloved husband, Dr. Jonah Gersten, was found murdered in a call girl's apartment. Susie can't accept it, and by asking questions and challenging assumptions, she fights for the memory of her good marriage. VERDICT Issacs's (Past Perfect) latest novel depicts the hardship of a sudden death and the capacities of a clever and spirited woman to stay engaged in the world while struggling with grief. For all of its serious aspects, there are good measures of wit and fun here. All of Isaacs's novels have been New York Times best sellers—this one will be no exception. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/10.]—Sheila Riley, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, D.C.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416573081
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 4/5/2011
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 691,385
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Isaacs

Susan Isaacs is the author of thirteen novels, including As Husbands Go, Any Place I Hang My Hat, Long Time No See, and Compromising Positions. She is a former editor of Seventeen and a freelance political speechwriter. She lives on Long Island with her husband. All of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers.

Biography

Susan Isaacs, novelist, essayist and screenwriter, was born in Brooklyn and educated at Queens College. After leaving school, she worked as an editorial assistant at Seventeen magazine. In 1968, Susan married Elkan Abramowitz, a then a federal prosecutor. She became a senior editor at Seventeen but left in 1970 to stay home with her newborn son, Andrew. Three years later, she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. During this time she freelanced, writing political speeches as well as magazine articles. Elkan became a criminal defense lawyer.

In the mid-seventies, Susan got the urge to write a novel. A year later she began working on what was to become Compromising Positions, a whodunit set on suburban Long Island. It was published in 1978 by Times Books and was chosen a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Her second novel, Close Relations, a love story set against a background of ethnic, sexual and New York Democratic politics (thus a comedy), was published in 1980 by Lippincott and Crowell and was a selection of the Literary Guild. Her third, Almost Paradise, was published by Harper & Row in 1984, and was a Literary Guild main selection; in this work Susan used the saga form to show how the people are molded not only by their histories, but also by family fictions that supplant truth. All of Susan's novels have been New York Times bestsellers. Her fiction has been translated into thirty languages.

In 1985, she wrote the screenplay for Paramount's Compromising Positions, which starred Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. She also wrote and co-produced Touchstone Pictures' Hello Again. The 1987 comedy starred Shelley Long and Judith Ivey.

Her fourth novel, Shining Through, set during World War II, was published by Harper & Row in 1988. Twentieth-Century Fox's film adaptation starred Michael Douglas and Melanie Griffith. Her fifth book, Magic Hour, a coming-of-middle-age novel as well as a mystery, was published in January 1991. After All These Years was published in 1993; critics lauded it for its strong and witty protagonist. Lily White came out in 1996 and Red, White and Blue in 1998. All the novels were published by HarperCollins and were main selections of the Literary Guild. In 1999, Susan's first work of nonfiction, Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen, was published by Ballantine's Library of Contemporary Thought. During 2000, she wrote a series of columns on the presidential campaign for Newsday. Long Time No See, a Book of the Month Club main selection, was published in September 2001; it was a sequel to Compromising Positions. Susan's tenth novel is Any Place I Hang My Hat (2004).

Susan Isaacs is a recipient of the Writers for Writers Award and the John Steinbeck Award. She serves as chairman of the board of Poets & Writers and is a past president of Mystery Writers of America. She is also a member of the National Book Critics Circle, The Creative Coalition, PEN, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the International Association of Crime Writers, and the Adams Round Table. She sits on the boards of the Queens College Foundation, the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Association, the Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and is an active member of her synagogue. She has worked to gather support for the National Endowment of the Arts' Literature Program and has been involved in several anti-censorship campaigns. In addition to writing books, essays and films, Susan has reviewed books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Newsday and written about politics, film and First Amendment issues. She lives on Long Island with her husband.

Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.

Good To Know

Some outtakes from our interview with Isaacs:

"My first job was wrapping shoes in a shoe store in the low-rent district of Fifth Avenue and saying ‘Thank you!' with a cheery smile. I got canned within three days for not wrapping fast enough, although I suspect that often my vague, future-novelist stare into space while thinking about sex or lunch did not give me a smile that would ring the bell on the shoe store's cheer-o-meter."

"I constantly have to fight against the New York Effect, an overwhelming urge to wear black clothes so everyone will think, Egad, isn't she chic and understated! I'm not, by nature, a black-wearing person. (I'm not, by nature, a chic person either.) I like primary colors as well as bright purple, loud chartreuse, and shocking pink. And that's just my shoes."

"I'm not a great fan of writing classes. Yes, they do help people sometimes, especially with making them write regularly. But the aspiring writer can be a delicate creature, sensitive or even oversensitive to criticism. I was that way: I still am. The problem begins with most people's natural desire to please. In a classroom situation, especially one in which the work will be read aloud or critiqued in class, the urge to write something likable or merely critic-proof can dam up your natural talent. Also, it keeps you from developing the only thing you have is a writer -- your own voice. Finally, you don't know the people in a class well enough to figure out where their criticism is coming from. A great knowledge of literature? Veiled hostility? The talent is too precious a commodity to risk handing it over to strangers."

"Writing is sometimes an art, and it certainly is a craft. But it's also a job. I go to work five or six days a week (depending how far along I am with my work-in-progress). Like most other people, there are days I would rather be lying in a hammock reading or going to a movie with a friend. But whether you're an artist or an accountant, you still have to show up at work. Otherwise, it is unlikely to get done."

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    1. Hometown:
      Sands Point, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 7, 1943
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Education:
      Honorary Doctorate, Queens College
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Who knew? It seemed a perfectly nice night. True, outside the house, the wind was whoo-whooing like sound effects from a low-budget horror movie. The cold was so vicious that a little past seven, a branch of the great white spruce on the front lawn that had been creaking all afternoon suddenly screamed in pain. Then a brutal CRAAACK, and it crashed to the frozen ground.

But inside our red brick Georgian in the picturesque Long Island town of Shorehaven, all was warmth. I went from one bedroom to another to kiss the boys good night. Despite the sickly yellow gleam of the SpongeBob Squarepants night-light in his bedroom, Mason, the third-born of our triplets, glowed pure gold. I stroked his forehead. “Happy dreams, my sweetie.” He was already half asleep, thumb in mouth, but his four other fingers flapped me a good night.

A flush of mother love reddened my cheeks. Its heat spread. For a moment, it even eased the permanent muscle spasm that had seized the left side of my neck seconds after Jonah and I gazed up at the sonogram and saw three little paisley curls in utero. My utero. Still, a perpetual neck spasm was a small price to pay for such a wonderful life, one I had hardly dared dream about as a little girl in Brooklyn.

Okay, that “wonderful life” and “hardly dared dream” business does cross the line into the shameless mush of Mommyland, where “fulfillment” is all about children, not sex, and where mothers are jealous of each new baby-shoe charm on their friends’ bracelets. Feh.

Sure, sure: Sentiment proves you’re human. Feelings are good, blah, blah, blah. But sentimentality, anything that could go on a minivan bumper sticker, makes me cringe. Take this as a given: Susan B Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten (i.e., me) was never a Long Island madonna, one of those moms who carries on about baby Jonathan as if he were Baby Jesus.

What kind of mother was I on that particular night? A happy one. Still, it wouldn’t have taken a psychologist to read my emotional pie chart and determine that the sum of my parts equaled one shallow (though contented) human being. One third of that happiness was attributable to the afterglow of the birthday present my husband had given me two weeks earlier, a Cartier Santos watch. Another third was courtesy of Lexapro (twenty milligrams). A little over a sixth came from the pure sensual gratification of being wrapped in a tea-green Loro Piana cashmere bathrobe. The remaining sliver was bona fide maternal bliss.

Maybe I’m still shallow, just deluding myself that after all that’s occurred, I’ve become a better person. On the other hand, even at my superficial worst, I wasn’t terrible. Truly, I did have a heart.

Especially when it came to my immediate family. I loved them. So I gloried in that moment of mommy bliss. I remember thinking, Jonah and I have some lucky star shining down on us. Along with our three boys, my husband, Jonah Paul Gersten, MD, FACS (picture a slightly older—and significantly shorter—Orlando Bloom, with a teeny touch of male pattern baldness), was the light of my life. Naturally, I had no clue about what was happening with Jonah twenty-six miles west, in Manhattan.

How could I possibly know that right at that very instant, he was stepping into the Upper East Side apartment of a call girl who had decided a month earlier that the name Cristal Rousseau wasn’t projecting the class-up-the-ass image she had been aiming for. Lately, there hadn’t been much of a market for the refined-type fuck, so she’d changed her image and her name to something still classy yet more girl-next-door—Dorinda Dillon.

Why would a man of Jonah’s caliber bother with someone like Dorinda? Before you go “heh-heh,” think about it. It’s a reasonable question. First of all, Jonah never gave me any reason to believe he wasn’t devoted to me. Just a couple of months earlier, at the annual holiday party of his Park Avenue surgical practice, I had overheard the scheduling coordinator confide to one of the medical assistants, “Dr. Gersten always has that look of love, even when Mrs. Gersten is standing right beside him in those four-inch heels that—I hate to say it—make her shockingly taller.”

Also, being a plastic surgeon with a craniofacial subspecialty, Jonah was a man with a sophisticated sense of beauty. He had the ultimate discerning eye. No way would Dorinda Dillon’s looks have pleased him. Objectively speaking, I swear to God, she looked like a ewe in a blond wig. You’d expect her to go baa. Genuinely sheepy-looking, whatever the word for that is. All my life I’ve read much more than people ever gave me credit for, and I have a surprisingly decent vocabulary—though obviously not decent enough.

Anyway, Dorinda had a long, wide sheep nose that sloped down straight from her forehead. It took up so much room in the middle of her face that it kept her eyes farther apart than human eyes ought to be. Despite her loyalty to some hideous blackish-red lipstick, her mouth came across more as dark two-dimensional lines than actual lips.

Not that I was gorgeous. Far from it. All right, not that far. Still, most people saw me as . . . well, fabulous-looking. I guess I should apologize because that sounds arrogant. Okay, obnoxious. A woman who comes right out and says, “Hey, I’m stunning!” (even when she is) is violating what is probably the real First Commandment, the one that somehow got replaced by the “I am the Lord thy God” business, which never really made a lot of sense to me because how is that a commandment? Anyway, the true numero uno of human conduct is “Thou shalt not speak well of thyself.”

Because of that, every great-looking woman has to apologize not only by acting nicer than she really is but by showing she’s paid her dues, à la “I had major zits when I was fourteen and was totally flat-chested and, like, so self-conscious nobody even knew I was alive. I’m still, like, really, really shy deep down.”

So let me get with the program. For most of my life, whenever I looked in the mirror, I honestly did feel insecure. In fact, throughout my childhood in Brooklyn, I kept waiting for someone to shout “Hey, Bucktooth!” which would inevitably become my nickname until I graduated high school. Weird: No one ever did. Years passed without any cruel mockery. My confidence grew—a little. And after Jonah came into my life, it flourished. Someone like him genuinely wanted someone like me! Yet I always knew my overbite stood between me and actual beauty.

Braces would have fixed me up, but I didn’t get them. With perfect clarity, I still see myself at age ten, gazing up at Erwin Monkarsh, DDS, a blobby man who looked like he’d been put together by a balloon-twisting clown at a birthday party. Even though he didn’t seem like a guy who could answer a maiden’s prayer, my young heart fluttered with hope. I put all my energy into willing him not to do . . . precisely what he now was doing: shaking his head. “No, her bite’s actually okay,” he was telling my mother.

In that instant I understood I was doomed. No orthodontia. “However, I’m not saying she couldn’t use braces for cosmetic reasons,” he added. “She definitely could.”

At that time my mother was in her Sherry the Fearless Feminist and Scourge of the Frivolous stage, and she responded with a single humorless chuckle. “‘Cosmetic reasons’!” Then she snorted at the notion that she would spend money on a treatment that would aid in transforming her daughter into a sex object.

For the next ten years of my life, I spent thousands of girl-hours on self-criticism—gazing into mirrors, squinting at photos, having heart-to-hearts with my girlfriends and department store makeup artists. What I finally concluded was that my overbite was clearly not a plus. The good news was that it made me look a little dumb but not unappealing. Sometimes after I changed my hairstyle or got a new coat, I’d catch myself in a mirror. In that fraction of a second before I realized it was me, I’d think, Great look, but double-digit IQ.

Still, as I explained to Andrea Brinckerhoff, my business partner as well as my official best friend (you’re not a true woman unless you have one), men liked what they saw when they looked at me. I still got frequent second and, once in a while, third looks. Naturally, no guy ever went—I demonstrated by pressing both hands over my heart and gasping—“Omigod!” the way a guy might if he bumped into an indisputable, acknowledged beauty, a Halle Berry or Scarlett Johansson. On the other hand, Halle and Scarlett weren’t rolling carts down the household-detergents aisle of a Long Island Stop & Shop.

“Why do you even waste two seconds worrying about your appearance?” Andrea demanded. “Look who you’re married to. A plastic surgeon. Not just any plastic surgeon. A plastic surgeon who made New York magazine’s top doctors. You know and I know, way before Jonah even went into medicine, he had a gut understanding about what ‘stunning’ meant. He couldn’t marry a d-o-g any more than he could drive an ugly car. With all he has going for him, he could have had almost anyone. He has a good family background. Well, not Social Register, since they’re . . . you know. But still, he is Ivy League. Then he stayed at Yale for medical school. And he’s hot in that Jewish-short-guy way. He could have picked a classic beauty. But he chose you.”

Andrea may have been irritating and snobbish, but she was right: I was close enough to beauty. Take my eyes. People called them “intriguing,” “compelling,” “gorgeous.” Whatever. They were very pale green. At Madison High School in Brooklyn, Matthew Bortz, a boy so pasty and scrawny that the only type he could be was Sensitive Artiste, wrote me a love poem. It went on about how my eyes were the color of “liquid jade mix’d with cream.” Accurate. Sweet, too, though he got really pissed when I said, “Matty, you could’ve lost the apostrophe in ‘mix’d.’”

It wasn’t only great eyes, the kind that make people say a real woof is beautiful just because she has blue eyes and three coats of mascara. I also had world-class cheekbones. They were prominent and slanted up. Where did I get them? My mother’s face was round, my father’s was closer to an oval, but both their faces were basically formless, colorless, and without a single feature that was either awful or redeeming. My parents could have pulled off a bank heist without wearing masks and never have been identified.

I was around thirteen and reading some book about the Silk Road when I began to imagine that my facial structure came from an exotic ancestor. I settled on a fantasy about a wealthy handsome merchant from Mongolia passing through Vitebsk. He wound up having a two-night stand with one of my great-great-grandmothers. She’d have been the kind of girl the neighbors whispered about: “Oy, Breindel Kirpichnik! Calling that green-eyed minx a slut is too good for her. They say she’s got Gypsy blood!”

It’s a long story I won’t go into here, but I was twenty when I sought out and actually found where my looks came from: my no-good grandmother who’d taken a hike, abandoning not only her boring husband but her eight-year-old daughter—my mother. Grandma Ethel was tall, willowy, with liquid-jade-mixed-with-cream eyes. She was me minus the overbite. She told me I could thank her for my hair, too, light brown with gold highlights. She was pretty sure hers had been my color, but she’d become a blonde in 1949 so couldn’t swear to it.

But back to me. My mouth was better than Grandma Ethel’s, but “better” is mostly luck, since I’d been born into Generation X, a global slice of humanity that tolerates fat only in lips. Other women were forever asking me, “Did your husband inject collagen or some new filler into your lips?”

My body was good, which made me one of maybe five females within a fifty-mile radius of Manhattan who did not have a negative body image. I was blessed with an actual waist, which came back (though not 100 percent) after the triplets. Long legs and arms. Enough in the boob department to please men without having them so cantaloupish as to make buying French designer clothes an act of willful idiocy.

My mind? No one would ever call me brilliant, unless those MacArthur people gave grants for genius in accessorizing. Still, I was smart enough not only to make a beautiful life for myself but to be grateful for my incredible blessings. Plus, to get people to ignore any “she’s dumb” thoughts courtesy of my overbite (also so they wouldn’t think I was all style, no substance), I listened to The NewsHour on PBS five nights a week. Jonah helped, because having gone to Yale, he went for subtitled movies about doomed people, so I saw more of them than any regular person should have to. I read a lot, too, though it was mostly magazines because I never got more than fifteen minutes of leisure at a shot after Dashiell and Evan and Mason were born. Still, there was enough stuff about books in Vogue that when all the women at a luncheon talked about, say, Interpreter of Maladies, I’d read enough about it to say “exquisitely written” and not “hilarious.” I did like historical fiction, but more the kind that got into eighteenth-century oral sex, or the marchioness’s brown wool riding jacket with silver braid, and didn’t linger on pus-filled sores on the peasants’ bare feet.

So, okay, not a great mind. But I definitely had enough brains not to let my deficiencies ruin my happiness. Unlike many wives of successful, smart, good-looking doctors, I didn’t make myself crazy with the usual anxieties: Ooh, is Jonah cheating on me? Planning on cheating on me? Wishing he could cheat on me but not having the guts or time?

To be totally truthful? Of course I had an anxiety or two. Like knowing how fourteen years of marriage can take the edge off passion. We still enjoyed gasping, sweaty intimacy now and then. Like one starry Long Island evening that past August. We did it in a chaise by the pool after three quarters of a bottle of sauvignon blanc. Also in a bathtub in the Caesar Park Ipanema Hotel during an International Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery convention.

But with three four-year-olds plus two nineteen-year-old live-in Norwegian au pairs (twins) and a five-day-a-week, eight-hours-a-day housekeeper, our chances for hot sex were close to zero—even when Bernadine wasn’t there and Ida and Ingvild had a weekend off. After “Sleep tight, sweetie” times three, Jonah and I were rarely finished being parents. We still had to deal with Evan’s nightmares about boy-swallowing snakes, Dashiell’s nighttime forays downstairs to play with remote controls, and Mason’s frequent wakenings. So even ho-hum marital hookups weren’t as common as they had been. On those exceptional nights when I still had enough energy to feel a tingle of desire, Jonah was usually too wiped from his ten-hour day of rhinoplasties, rhytidectomies, mentoplasties, genioplasties, office hours, and worrying about what the economy was doing to elective surgery to want to leap into bed for anything more than sleep.

Even though I was clueless about what my husband was doing when he was actually doing it (though now I can picture Jonah stepping onto the leopard-print carpet of Dorinda’s front hall, his milk-chocolate-brown eyes widening at the awesome display of lightly freckled breasts—which of course he would know weren’t implants—that rose from the scoop neck of her clingy red tank dress), I do remember sighing once or twice over how Jonah’s and my private time lacked . . . something.

Fire. That’s what was lacking. I knew I—we—had to figure out some way to cut down the noise in our lives so we could once again feel desire. Otherwise? There could be trouble down the road.

Not that I didn’t trust him. Jonah was a one-woman man. A lot of it was that he had an actual moral code. Not just the predictable DON’T SHOPLIFT AT BERGDORF’S MEN’S STORE. Seriously, how many super-busy, successful guys in their thirties were there who (like Jonah) absolutely refused to weasel out of jury duty because they believed it was a citizen’s obligation to serve?

Also, Jonah was monogamous by nature, even though I hate the word “monogamous.” It always brings to mind a nature movie from eighth grade about a mongoose that had dried-out red fur and brown eyes. Just as I was thinking, Oh my God, it looks like the Disney version of my mother! the mongoose gave a gut-grinding shriek and whomp! It jumped on a snake and ripped it apart in the most brutal, revolting way.

Okay, forget mongoose and monogamous. Jonah always had one girlfriend at a time. We met standing on line in a drugstore when he was a senior at Yale. I was a freshman in the landscape architecture program at the University of Connecticut at Storrs but was in New Haven for a party and had forgotten lip gloss. The weekend before, he’d broken up with a music major named Leigh who played the harp. That we actually met, going to schools sixty-five miles apart, was a miracle. Right from the get-go, I became the sole woman in his life. I knew that not only in my head but in my heart.

And in the years that followed? At medical school, lots of the women students were drawn to him. At five feet eight, Jonah couldn’t qualify as a big hunk, but he was a fabulous package. He looked strong with that squared jaw you see on cowboy-booted politicians from the West who make shitty remarks about immigrants, which of course he never would. Plus, he was physically strong, with a muscled triangle of a body. And the amazing thing was, even though Jonah was truly hot in his non-tall way and had that grown-up-rich-in-Manhattan air of self-possession, he gave off waves of decency. So his female classmates, the nurses, they were into him. But he had me. He never even noticed them. Okay, he knew he was way up there on lots of women’s Ten Most Wanted, which couldn’t have hurt his ego. But my husband was true by nature.

However, a girl can’t be too careful. Since I wanted Jonah more than I wanted to be a landscape architect (which was a good thing, because with the department’s math and science requirements, my first semester wasn’t a winner), I quit UConn five minutes after he proposed. There I was, eighteen, but I knew it was the real thing. So I moved in with him in New Haven. At the time I was so in love—and so overjoyed at never again having to deal with Intro to Botany or Problem Solving—that dropping landscape architecture seemed all pros and no cons.

I transferred to Southern Connecticut State in New Haven as an art major and wound up with a concentration in jewelry design, an academic area that evoked double blinks from Jonah’s friends at Yale (as in Could I have heard her right?) followed by overenthusiastic comments of the “That sounds sooo interesting!” variety.

Much later, it hit me how sad it was, my tossing off my life’s dream with so little thought. From the time of my third-grade class trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, when I gaped at the thousands of roses covering arches and climbing lattices, the bushes laid out in a plan that had to one-up the Garden of Eden, and inhaled the mingling of roses and sweet June air, I understood flowers were somehow my ticket to a world of beauty. Those scents transformed me from a shy kid into an eight-year-old live wire: “Hey, lady!” I hollered to the guide. “What do you call someone who thinks all this up?”

“A landscape architect.”

Strange, but until I talked to my guidance counselor in my senior year at Madison, I never told anybody this was what I wanted. No big secret; I just never mentioned it. The librarians knew, because two or three days a week, I walked straight from school to sit at a long table and look at giant landscape books. When I got a little older, I took the subway to the garden itself or to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. The librarian in the Arts and Music section there, a guy with a face like a Cabbage Patch doll’s, would always ask, “What do you want to look at today, garden girl?”

Though I did turn out to be a quitter, landscape architecture–wise, I wasn’t a loser. First of all, I snagged Jonah. I got my BA in art from Southern. Also, from the get-go in New Haven, I proved I wasn’t going to become one of those burdensome, useless doctors’ wives. I moved my things into Jonah’s apartment on a Saturday while he fielded hysterical calls from his parents. By late Monday afternoon I had landed a late-afternoon/weekend design job at the crème de la crème of central Connecticut florists by whipping up a showstopping arrangement of white flowers in milk, cream, and yogurt containers.

Why am I babbling on like this? Obviously, I don’t want to deal with the story I need to tell. But also because I never bought that business about the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. What’s so great about short? Too often it’s the easy way out. Plus, a straight line is minimalist, and my work is all about embellishment. Any jerk can stick a bunch of thistle into an old mayonnaise jar, but what will people’s reaction be? Why couldn’t that thistle-pulling bitch leave the environment alone? But I take the identical thistle and jar, grab a few leaves or blades of grass, and voilà! create an arrangement that makes those same people sigh and say, Exquisite. Makes you really appreciate nature. And so simple. It really wasn’t simple, but if your design shouts, Hey, look how brilliant I am, it’s not much of a design.

Anyway, after Jonah graduated from college and then finished Yale med school, we moved on from New Haven. With time ticking away like that, a lot of men who marry young start thinking, Do-over! Not Jonah. Even after ten years of marriage (along with two failed attempts at in vitro), when some other deeply attractive senior resident in plastic surgery at Mount Sinai might have dropped a starter wife for a more fertile number two (maybe one from a Manhattan family even richer and more connected than the Gerstens, one who could push his practice), Jonah stayed in love with me. Never once, in word or deed, did he communicate, It’s not my fault you can’t conceive.

Once we were settled back in New York, I began realizing my chosen career shouldn’t have been chosen by me. I did not love jewelry design: Finding brilliant new ways to display pyrope and tsavorite garnets in Christmas earrings wasn’t a thrill. Living in Manhattan made me want to work with something real, and I yearned for the smell and feel of flowers.

So I wound up with a design job at Bouquet, which billed itself as “Manhattan’s finest fleuriste.” While I was still finding myself, Jonah was already a success, and not just in the OR. He was surrounded by enamored patients. Housewives and advertising executives, beauties and battle-axes. So many had crushes on him. They would have given anything for a taste of his toned pecs, his status, his obvious decency. Except those women only got what they paid for—a first-rate surgeon and a caring doctor. Not that I was complacent. Throughout our marriage, I saw what happened to other doctors’ wives as well as to some of our neighbors when we moved to the North Shore of Long Island. I understood: Marriage is always a work in progress.

On that particular night, I was too wiped to be inventive about how to turn up the romantic heat. In fact, I was too wiped to do anything. So instead of calling Andrea to discuss what seasonal berries would be right for Polly Kimmel, who wanted ikebana arrangements for her daughter’s bat mitzvah, or exfoliating my heels, or reading The Idiot for my book club because Marcia Riklis had said, “Enough with the chick lit,” I flopped onto our Louis XV–style marriage bed without my usual satisfied glance at its noble mahogany headboard and footboard with their carvings of baskets of flowers and garlands of leaves. Almost instantly, I fell into an all-too-rare deep, healing sleep. Sure, some internal ear listened for any sound from the boys’ rooms, but one thing I’m certain of: I would have been deaf to the soft tread of Jonah’s footsteps as he climbed the stairs.

If he had.

© 2010 Susan Isaacs

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Interviews & Essays

A Bonus Essay by Susan Isaacs on her inspiration for As Husbands Go

She began as someone for whom bravery was defined as electing to wear wide-leg pants in a season of skinny crops. Was there a way for such a woman not only to think courageously but to act it? Or was it simply too late?

I've got a license to daydream. Being a novelist is the adult version of a kid creating a make-believe world. But unlike a child, a writer of fiction has to come up with a structured story, one that has as much meaning for others as it has for her.

There is no "right" way to begin a novel, but for me, plot has to wait. The character comes first. Some new person comes strolling into my head asking I write his or her story. If I ignore them they insist. If I mutter, I don't think so, even the quietest ones get pushy: Just do it! They're convinced they picked the right writer for the job and they don't like resistance.

I guess I picked them, too-no matter who they are or how unlikely a character-author pair we seem at first. Slowly, we form a working relationship. They begin to confide in me. I listen, ask questions. Gradually, it becomes a conversation that continues throughout the writing of their (fictional) memoir. Having said all that, As Husbands Go didn't happen that way. The would-be protagonist who came striding into my consciousness made me want to plead with her For God's sake, find some other novelist! But I couldn't whip up the courage because-I'm almost embarrassed to say it-this new, ultra-cool character in my head was too intimidating to challenge.

Not that she seemed hostile, loathsome, or even unlikable. In fact, she was the 2010 version of the American dream, female division: devoted mother (of four-year-old triplets, no less), loving wife. She had a successful, non-husband-threatening career as a floral designer, along with great looks and an enviable body. Money was no problem. Oh, and she had sublime taste. She stirred up every idiotic insecurity I'd experienced between sixth grade and my fiftieth birthday. Looking at her, my mind's eye flickered uneasily. Talk about statuesque! I noted that her height and model-sleekness were enhanced by Jean Paul Gaultier jeans and Louboutin stilettos. My normal protection against such blatant elegance would have been to embrace the Me = Genuine, She = Superficial defense, which allows me to congratulate myself for not being the sort who'd spend eight hundred dollars on shoes.

What kept me interested in her was a puzzlement. Why was some empty suit (albeit a Prada) bothering me? I was a novelist, after all, not a stylist. And why did I need her? Did I want to spend the next two years growing progressively wearier of her 'tude, sublime appearance, and overt self-confidence? How could I explore the depths of a character when there seemed to be only shallowness?

Still, she got me wondering (not for the first time) what it must be like to be able to get along on your looks. Is it a perpetual high? Do women like this character merely glide through life, never experiencing the rough patches necessary for developing moral fiber? Were the people she charmed so preoccupied with her surface that they never challenged her ideas or values-letting her remain an exquisitely wrapped but empty package? Or were beautiful people no different from everybody else-aside from being capable of finding pleasure when shopping for bathing suits?

Our culture now places more emphasis on the visual than ever before. I needed to check out whether our greater-than-ever fascination with beauty, fashion, celebrity-style in general-keeps us from looking below the surface.

In case you're wondering, my being intrigued and somewhat daunted by this character did not arise from some lifelong "I look like Quasimodo with a wig" anguish. I'm okay. Nevertheless, "gorgeous" would never appear on any Top 10 List of Adjectives Most Frequently Applied to Susan Isaacs. Furthermore, I couldn't imagine writing a novel about someone who had that "g" word, along with "stunning" and "chic," on hers.

One microsecond later. Or maybe it was two weeks. Hard to tell, as my Susan-the-novelist mind often does its work on its own while Susan-the-person carries on with what non-novelists refer to as real life. However long it really was, when the beaut next appeared in my consciousness, she was no longer someone to be intimidated by or condescended to. She was clear to me. Amazingly, I liked her. (Not that you need to like or even respect your protagonist. I can't imagine Dostoevsky thinking, Gee, that Raskolnikov is a total sweetheart.)

I knew my protagonist's name was Susan B Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten and-surprise!-she was going to show everyone the stuff from which she was made: a lot more than sugar and spice and La Prairie makeup. I couldn't wait to write about her.

Best of all, I wasn't observing her from the outside. I was inside her head. Not only was I comfortable in there, I felt at home; Susie and I had undergone that magical author-subject merge. We'd become one (though not to the point of my being able to wear her clothes).

From the inside looking out, I comprehended what it was like to be self-assured and pretty, just a tad away from beautiful: It felt good. Okay, that sensation was not enough to create a fully realized protagonist. But I now understood that Susie's preoccupation with appearances was the key to her inner life. Her own prettiness and presentation was always a work in progress. The world beyond herself was subject to similar scrutiny. She'd been born with a sense of order and style. For me, seeing the world with that artistic eye was so challenging. I'd never been the sort who instinctively knew which car or chair or abstract expressionist painting had intrinsic worth. I rarely had the urge to rearrange anyone's furniture.

What was it like to be supersensitive to fashion, art, or people's appearances? I had my own supersensitivity-to nuances in language and behavior-but I wanted to experience the world through the eyes of someone who had the Eye.

After I had that insight into Susie, the rest of the novel fell into place fast. Her background: She'd been born into a rather boring, mildly depressed family-a swan among ugly ducks. I could see her growing up in a dreary Brooklyn apartment, yearning for some quality in her life. Okay, some of that yearning turned into banal social ambition, the desire to be in a position where she could own the lovely things she believed were necessary for fulfillment and status. But Susie also needed to create beauty for others who didn't know how. I got a flash of her arranging roses in a bowl, inhaling their sweetness, getting pleasure from the process as well as the results. Bingo! She became a floral designer.

And who would be the man of her dreams? Jonah Gersten, a plastic surgeon, a man who also had the Eye, the aesthetic sense, as well as the need to make things beautiful. And since life is never perfect, Susie's backstory included a struggle with infertility that did have a happy ending: as the novel opens, she and Jonah are the exultant though frazzled parents of four-year-old triplet sons.

Backstory is dandy, but I needed a front story. I later realized it had been waiting for me from the moment I took on the voice of someone who is all about surfaces. What would happen when something occurs, something potentially shattering, to demolish a gorgeously constructed existence? Could Susie face the truth, no matter how awful? She might be willing, but would she be able to stand up for this truth, fight for herself and her family? Was there substance beneath the style?

Also, with all the current chatter about values, family and otherwise, few people truly have to put up or shut up. But here was my protagonist, thirty-five years old, someone who'd never given morality a thought beyond the vague understanding that it has to do with the Ten Commandments (of which, maybe, she could recite five). Facing what might be a major injustice-the wrong person being convicted of a crime-could she act? Was it even her responsibility, considering that all the authorities considered the prosecutor's case a slam dunk? Can someone whose lifetime thinking about morality probably totaled two minutes develop a sense of ethics, along with the courage to actually do the right thing?

So that's how I began. I joined with my new companion, Susan B Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten, saw through her eyes, thought her thoughts, comprehended all she was up against. Now I could finally do what she'd asked of me: set down her story.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 88 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 88 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 16, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    strong look at the grimier side of the American dream.

    John and Susie Gersten live the perfect life with their four years old identical male triplets (Dashiell, Evan and Mason) in exclusive Shorehaven, Long Island. He is a thriving Manhattan plastic surgeon and she a floral designer although the income exclusively comes for his practice. They employ a housekeeper and two Norwegian au pairs.

    However, the Gerstein family idyllic life ends abruptly when he is found murdered in the apartment of a high priced hooker. Susie rejects the NYPD-District Attorney's assertion that escort Dorinda Dillon killed her client with a scissor because the widow strongly believes her late spouse would not cheat on her. With the aid of her grandma Ethel, Susie investigates who killed her husband and why.

    More of a sharp character study than an amateur sleuth; Susie's objective is not to free Dorinda, but to prove to her friends, family and the tabloids that her wonderful life was genuine. Her belief in her husband's fidelity is based on his treatment of her and his being a devoted loving father. Although the story line takes a while to set the table, Susie's account makes for a strong tale. The story line skewers the wealthy avaricious people who never have enough money; admonishes the legal system for settling for the easiest resolution; and bites the media for dumbing down reporting with sound bite analysis. Susan Isaacs provides a strong look at the grimier side of the American dream.

    Harriet Klausner

    9 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 29, 2011

    BORING!

    This was the first and last book of Susan Isaacs I will pick up. I couldn't even make it through the entire book because it was so boring. In an attempt to be funny the author fills up the pages with useless and boring details and goes off the point on many tangents that add nothing to the story. I tried to skip over these parts but there were so many that I finally gave up on the entire book. This is one of the books that makes me think publishers will publish anything whether the author has any talent or not. Don't waste your time with this one.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2010

    Very disappointing

    I loved some of Susan Isaacs' earlier books, and I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, the book did not live up to my expectations. The characters were unappealing and/or uninteresting, and the plot was thin. Even the odd angles, such as how Grandma Ethel had abandoned the narrator's mother, were never either resolved or truly worked into the story. I kept waiting for the story to take off the way the earlier books did, but it never happened. Even the narrator didn't seem to feel any particular urgency about answering the questions surrounding her husband's murder. Bottom line: go back to Ms. Isaacs' earlier books, and skip this one altogether.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 4, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    LISTENERS WILL BE GLEEFULLY ENTERTAINED

    Susan Isaacs and Hillary Huber are a merry, mirth making, laugh provoking pair as is made evident in Huber's reading of AS HUSBANDS GO penned by the ever imaginative Isaacs. Huber's narrating skill has been described as "a perfect marriage of novel and narrator" - surely the case with this title. She has the ability to easily segue from charming to caustic to comedic, and has ample opportunity to exercise all of these inflections with AS HUSBANDS GO.

    The husband who has just gone, quite literally and finally, was married to Susan B. Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten who thought their pairing was near perfection. Jonah Gersten was really good looking, a doting dad, and a very successful plastic surgeon with an office on Park Avenue and a client list to match. Susan was devastated to learn of his untimely death - more than devastated when she found out he was stabbed to death in Dorinda Dillon's apartment. Dorinda aka Cristal Rousseau is a call girl with lots of free hours which may be due to the fact that she resembles a sheep.

    Well, there's just so much Susan can take, and this sort of final departure is totally unacceptable. Fortunately, she has money at her disposal, plus two Norwegian au pairs to look after her 4-year-old triplets. Plus, she has a garrulous bisexual 80-year-old grandmother (and granny's lover), and a snooty business partner, Andrea, who seems stymied by any word over three syllables, to aid and abet her in a search for the truth. Believe it or not Susan doesn't believe Dorinda did Jonah in, and sets out to prove it.

    Well, you can imagine where this will go - no, you probably can't because Isaacs always has surprises up Susan's designer sleeves as well as enough quips, stabs and bon mots to keep listeners gleefully entertained.

    Enjoy!

    - Gail Cooke

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 23, 2011

    Not particularly good

    I've read quite a bit from this author, & this is not her best work at all. The plot doesn't wake up until about page 200, & the mystery is see-through. Yawn. What a shame.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2011

    Decent - but kind of forgettable

    A so-so mystery, the whodunit revelation was very anti-climatic. More of a blink & you'll miss it. I liked the main character & her approach to the circumstances of her life. However the story felt a bit like the author got bored with writing it about 2/3 thirds through & just phoned in the resolution.

    This is book falls into the 'popcorn' reading category for me - it's fine & tasty while you're in the middle of it but an hour after you finish the satisfaction is already beginning to fade.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 2, 2011

    Interesting Twist

    This book about the grieving of a plastic surgeon's widow takes a twist as she tries to clear his name and save her perception of him.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 30, 2011

    Morbidly funny, surprising

    A hooker named DorindaDillon might have killed Susie's husband? She is determined to find the truth. With the help of her awesome Grandma Ethel, her grandma's lesbian partner, best friend's husband FatBoy, she researches tirelessly to find answers. Some parts were kind of confusing, but this book was funny and had unexpected twists. Loved it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 13, 2011

    So-So

    The story was enjoyable but found myself trudging through at times. The ending was anticlimactic to say the least! I have to say I thought this book would be more in the genre of the Stephanie Plum books, so maybe it's just me.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 8, 2011

    Witty and Sacrastic

    The sarcastic look at society's hangups on materialism combined with the witty and insightful, yet touchingly human main character makes this novel a "must read" for anyone who enjoys sharp wit and clever satire. The "who and how done it" was also well written all the way to the last word.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2014

    I really enjoyed the storyline. Having faith in someone and the

    I really enjoyed the storyline. Having faith in someone and the strength and conviction to prove it fact.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2014

    It was ok.

    It was a hard book to get into and stay focused.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2012

    Anonomys

    Interesting but dragged on a bit kept wanting to get to the point

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 21, 2012

    Good Story

    I enjoyed this book...I usually like Susan Isaac's books & I wasn't disappointed. I loved the NY venue (I love NY City, so I enjoyed that). I just felt the ending was very abrupt and while I liked the way it ended, I didn't like the manner. The characters were likable; you really were rooting for Susie, Jonah & the family.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2011

    Great book!

    Susan Isaacs at her best. A must for all Isaacs fans.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 4, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Posted May 5, 2011

    GiftDiva

    Despite the fact that I found myself disliking Susie Gersten, I spent the entire reading cheering her on. A bit slow pace for my taste, but I was compelled to keep listening (CD Book). Won't go on my "recommends" list.

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  • Posted April 5, 2011

    SO DISSAPOINTING!!!!!

    i read the sample and it was not good. when i finished the first page i had ENOUGH!!!!!! I notisted this is more expensive than all the better books. I do not know if they did this to gain some money. but it is BAD!!!!!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 17, 2010

    Started out great, but fizzled...

    This book was good in the first couple of chapters and then it was as though the author got tired of character and story development and stopped. It was disappointing after such a good start.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2010

    Disappointing Read

    I was very disappointed with this book. The characters were very superficial and the plot was underdeveloped. I found myself disliking Susie more and more. Perhaps it was for that way she She was not a person for whom I could feel much empathy.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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