Cameo Lakeby Susan Wilson
Putting herself first doesn't come easy to Cleo Grayson McCarthy. A loving wife, doting mother, and dutiful
The novels of Susan Wilson are rich with stirring conflict and deeply felt emotion. "An empathetic storyteller"(Publishers Weekly),she delves into the complexities of the human heart to seek the truest meaning of love.
Putting herself first doesn't come easy to Cleo Grayson McCarthy. A loving wife, doting mother, and dutiful daughter-in-law, she has always done her writing on the side, in hours stolen from her "real" life. Now, desperate for the solitude she needs to finish her latest novel, she convinces her husband that she must spend the summer at her best fiend's rustic cottage at Cameo Lake in New Hampshire, out of reach of cell phones and the demands of family and friends.
Even as she immerses herself in her work, Cleo can't help but be aware of the man who lives across the lake. A reclusive composer, Ben Turner is struggling to come to terms with his wife's accident. An outcast, he is regarded with suspicion by the lake community, even accused by some of harming his wife. But at night, Cleo hears his music drifting across the water, and senses she has found a kindred spirit.
As they meet time and again -- often on the raft anchored in the middle of Cameo Lake -- Cleo and Ben begin a satifying friendship suprising in its intimacy and depth. And when a painful betrayal leaves Cleo stunned and adrift, she finds unexpected comfort and absolution in Ben's arms.
But love is never simple, and before Cleo can determine whether to fight for her marriage or seek a future with Ben, she must first know her own heart, and admit truths ling left unsaid. Even as Cleo struggles to come to terms with her own truths, Ben must find a way to face his. An unforgettable take of the many faces of love, Cameo Lake is Susan WIilson at her very finest.
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The sun dappled the track in front of me, strobing brilliant to black, dazzling my eyes and making me squint. I maneuvered my borrowed four-by-four into the ruts I couldn't go around, the groaning of the behemoth vehicle condemning my inexperience.
Just the good side of mud season, the track was only vestigially wet in the deeper grooves, uncomfortable but not impassable. Heavy tire marks ahead of me guided my way when I would have packed it in otherwise. After the lonely three-and-a-half-hour drive from Providence, it wouldn't have taken much else to turn me back from committing myself to this exile in the New Hampshire woods.
Grace's instructions had been precise. I found the turnoff to the cabin easily: third left beyond the abandoned fruit stand, watch for the faded blue sign cameo lake at the head of the mile-long private way. Before going any further I paused, checked my watch, and picked up the mobile phone plugged into the lighter. Grace had warned me that the cabin lay in a dead zone for microwaves and the car phone would only work at the top of the drive. Once down the road, I was lost to all outside communication. A fact which had made the offer to borrow her cabin that much more appealing.
"McCarthy." Sean's voice was abrupt.
"Hey, I'm here."
"You made good time."
"Under four hours. One stop."
"Good. Good." I knew Sean must have a client with him, his half of the dialogue was shaded with preoccupation.
"I'll call you at home."
"Fine. Wait. I've got a dinner tonight. Call late."
"Never mind, I'll call tomorrow." I repressed my annoyance that he couldn't spend this first night of my being away at home with the kids. Sean had been remarkably agreeable, if not precisely enthusiastic, about my making this working retreat. Putting a good face on it. Every time I mentioned some aspect of the upcoming retreat, Sean would carefully arrange his broad Irish face into a cheerful, benign expression, admirably illustrating the aphorism.
"Hey. Cleo. I'm glad you got there safely."
The track suddenly opened up into a good-sized yard, edged by a semicircle of pine and birch. The late-afternoon sun made golden the yellowish grass and patched the cabin roof between the long shadows. "Plain and simple" was how Grace described this lakefront family camp. Plain and simple it was. Rustic bordering on primitive: a two-circuit electrical system, limited hot water, and no phone. The one concession to environmental responsibility was the recent addition of a flush toilet and a tight tank.
"It's exactly what you need." Grace had taken my unfinished manuscript as her responsibility. "You need to get away from everyone every distraction." She meant my inability to say no to anyone: PTA, church, community activities. The phone rang and my Pavlov-ian response was to say yes.
Grace, of course, was my biggest distraction, the one who kept signing me up for things "It'll only be once a month...year...day." That's not fair. Grace was my one legitimate distraction, apart from my husband and kids. My best friend.
I sat for a long time staring at my future. Would I really find my abandoning muse in this peaceful, if lonely, place? A cardinal flitted in the bramble bush, cast himself into the air, and landed on the tin chimney. He called to the world, "Mate wanted, apply here," with a sharp call, like someone whistling up their dog. I waited. The cardinal dashed off to another, higher, place. Again he whistled his low-high notes. The breeze riffled through the pine trees and I heard a duck, though the lake wasn't visible from the driveway. Finally I moved, climbing down out of the car. I couldn't feel the writing urge come on me like the Spirit over the Twelve. The magic release from daily commitment hadn't kicked in yet. Instead, surveying my new uncluttered surroundings, I felt only the urge to climb back up into that ridiculous vehicle and barrel home to my known quantities and useful excuses. I didn't feel the writing urge; instead, I felt the bitter loss of my anger, that generalized anger that built up when there were too many things which kept me from working, the anger at myself for using those disruptions as an excuse.
Fish or cut bait. I think I said it aloud. I'm standing in my skeleton all protection gone. Gone the protective coloration of car pools and calling lists. No need to drop everything and run. I had arrived.
There isn't much in Cameo. A green denuded of big trees by storms, a pharmacy, and a pizza joint. In the last few years various rural artisans have set up shops and galleries, but nothing would open until July, which was still ten days away.
The next town over has the Big G grocery store, so I made due this first night with a slice of pizza from the pizza place and a quart of milk bought at the gas station convenience store. I had brought the necessities: coffee and cereal, and wine bought at the New Hampshire State Liquor store. The rest of my supplies could wait. My willingness to shrug off the responsibility of meals and good nutrition came as a pleasant surprise.
The private drive seemed shorter the second time in and I negotiated it more effectively. When Grace offered her family's cabin to me for the summer, I carried the offer in my mind for a long time before broaching the idea to Sean. Even with Sean's mother living on the street behind us, I knew Sean would feel put-upon being left with total child-care responsibility. Not that the kids needed much hands-on. At almost ten and eight, Lily and Tim were pretty independent and reliable. This was their golden time post total dependence and pre adolescence that lovely juncture of age and maturity when they needed only minimal supervision. I could hear his objections before he voiced them: I have to work. I can't blow off clients. What if I have to travel? Subtext: This is your job.
Then there was the other thing. The thing which must never be mentioned because I had forgiven him, but which would forever taint our relationship. The thing even Grace didn't know about because it had happened so long ago yet the pain of Sean's infidelity had the power to occasionally stop me in my tracks.
"So, when are you going to talk to Sean about going?" Grace, friend, confidante, pain in the behind, pressed me for an answer.
"I hate setting myself up for an argument."
"Why should he argue against productivity? Isn't that what he's always talking about in his job?"
"Oh, Grace. Okay. I'll talk to Sean."
Grace stage-managed the situation, as ably as she stage-managed the community theater where we first met. A few years ago, I had toyed with playwriting. Grace, an associate professor of English at Brown, turned one of my scripts into a respectably received production in a weekend of one-act plays by unknowns acted by students. But, as she knew right from the start, it was the long form, the novel, I really wanted to write. The play never saw the light of day again, but Grace and I remained close friends. I achieved a moderate success at novel writing and it was my fourth book that I was finding it hard to pay attention to.
Memorial Day Weekend, a picnic at Grace and her partner Joanie's flat on the East Side of Providence. Grace had Sean backed into a corner, amber bottle of beer in his one hand, the other hand balancing a paper plate heaped with chicken and salad, defenseless against her charm. "Sean, has Cleo told you about my offer?"
Grace always intimidated Sean by her sheer presence. Showman meets insurance man. Large, with masses of long curly hair, and built on the style of Rubens's vision of femininity, Grace fitted her name, every movement fluid, pouring herself over people, filling their space with her voice and gesture. I watched Sean back away a step. He once said she was the only woman who intimidated him physically while turning him on, evidently a contradiction in his mind.
"What offer, Grace?"
"To finish her damned manuscript at my New Hampshire cabin. To get off by herself for as long as it takes."
Sean's sharp blue eyes met mine. "Sounds like a good idea. When were you thinking?" He could have been speaking to me or to Grace.
"Soon. Tomorrow if she'd go." Grace closed the space between them with an arm around Sean's shoulder. "She's not even done with the first half are you, Cleo?"
Sean smiled his insurance smile, practiced and smooth. "It's a great idea."
I knew it would be an interesting ride home and already I rehearsed my rationale, seeking the palatable compromise.
"Then it's settled." Grace squeezed Sean's shoulder and nodded like a well-pleased god.
We walked to the car, parked halfway down the block. The streets were a little shiny now with headlight shimmers. It wasn't too late, maybe ten o'clock. The kids walked ahead of us, the truce of the moment evident in the proximity they kept with one another. Not quite touching, skipping over sidewalk cracks. Tim's blue ball cap on backwards in a rakish imitation of current style, Lily unkempt, her hair pushed into a ratty ponytail. Had I made her brush her hair before we left the house or had she gone to Grace's that way?
"Do you mean to be gone all summer?" Sean and I walked in a large-sized duplication of the kids, close but not touching, stepping carefully over the cracks.
"I need the time, Sean. I need the solitude."
"Are we that bad? You've managed before."
"It's not you. It's me. I'm not as good as I once was at shutting everything out." Even as I said it, the specter of old conflict, Hamlet's ghost, was raised and I remembered how successful I had once been at ignoring things.
Sean took my hand and slowed our pace down enough to fall behind the kids a little bit. "I love you."
"Sean, it's not a matter of love."
"Yes, it is. I love you enough to say, 'Go, write, thrive.' We'll be fine." His hand tightened on mine. "I'll be fine." The promise.
I squeezed his hand back and smiled. "It'll be all right. Once I can spend whole days working, it won't be long at all. Besides, the kids have been pestering to go to camp. Maybe this is the year."
"Absolutely." Then, "When will you go?"
"Not before school lets out. I don't want to miss the end-of-year activities. Mid-June, maybe. Kids get out around the twentieth."
"It's settled, then. A retreat."
"It's not impossible for you and the kids to come up on weekends."
Sean had slipped his hand out of mine to scratch at a mosquito bite. "Hmmm? Yeah, of course, weekends."
Hamlet's ghost hovered in the back of my mind and suddenly I was afraid.
What have I done?
The whole leave-taking was almost derailed when the timing belt in my ten-year-old minivan went. Grace, as always, to the rescue. "Take my SUV. I don't want the summer students renting our place to have it, it's no good to me in Italy, and I would love to know you have a good, reliable car up there. No if, ands, or buts, Cleo. No excuses not to go." I wondered what she would have said had I told her about Sean. But I kept my eyes looking forward and turned my back on history.
It was dark now and I chided myself for not leaving a light on in the cabin. I clumped up the steps, instinctively warning any predator of my arrival. I knew a light chain dangled from somewhere near the center of the kitchen space, I swung my hands in unintentional mockery of the blind before I could see the faint glow of a tiny luminous Scottie dog suspended in midair. One sixty-watt bulb, nestled in a blue cardboard shade, warmed the room. The pervasive smell of mold seemed more pronounced than when I had first come in that afternoon, the night's dampness raising the ante. Of the cabin's three rooms, the kitchen/living room space was biggest. The two bedrooms, originally one room now halved by particle board, were only large enough for two camp beds in the one and a three-quarter bed in the other. Both held only one three-drawer bureau into which a summer's worth of clothing had to be crammed. The recent addition of a bathroom, a lavatory really, encroached on the porch. The only shower, lake-water-supplied, was outside. The walls were painted pine, mostly shades of tan, varying where each summer's painting began and ended. The pine floor was dark brown, and here and there scatter rugs covered the worst of the gaps in the floorboards. An island counter separated the sitting area from the half-size stove and gas-powered fridge. The other attempt at modernization, a picture window, took up half of one wall; in the dark it was a black mirror, but in the day I knew that it overlooked the lake and the little islands rising out of it. The White Mountains served as backdrop. A screened porch jutted off the side of the cabin, precariously balanced on stilts.
I opened the windows against the musty inside air, letting in a chill early-summer breeze. So quiet. I pulled on a sweater and went out onto the porch. No, I was mistaken, it wasn't silent at all. I breathed in the fresh lake air and listened. The night sounds of bullfrog and cicada pierced the gloom. I strained to listen over it. Not one human-made sound. I stared out into the dark. Trees loomed more darkly than the night sky. They ringed the lake, massive pines hushing gently in the light breeze. From the porch it was clear-cut to the lake's edge. Unlike the ocean, the lake was still and made no noise except for the occasional splash of a jumping fish. Ungentrified, rustic, it was perfect.
Directly across from where I stood there suddenly appeared a soft yellow light, flickering slightly, as if not made of stable electricity. The screeck of a screen door carried across the water from the small island opposite my shore. So, I was not entirely alone. Sipping warm chardonnay my single glass of indulgence I stared at the beacon, thinking of Jay Gatsby longing after Daisy.
Random thoughts flickered like the light across the water. I wondered for the first time if this sabbatical might be as much time out from marriage as it was from everyday stress. A little separation to renew the faltering romance of a busy and distracted relationship. I poked at the thought a little to see if I could make it flame. The specter of past conflict was there, it was never entirely absent in our marriage. I loved my husband, but I couldn't entirely trust him. I never had any doubt that he loved me, but, like his father before him, Sean couldn't stop himself from flirting. I remembered the first time Sean brought me home to his family. We were new lovers, besotted with one another, keeping no less than a fingertip's distance, and yet, immediately, I felt the flattery of Francis McCarthy's attention. "Come sit by me, young lady," blue eyes so like Sean's glittering under shaggy brows, "tell me about yourself." Lacking a father, even while he was alive, I felt charmed and somehow selected by Francis McCarthy's interest in me. I thought it unfair of Sean to pull me away as he so quickly did.
"Bred in the bone," Alice McCarthy said when I complained to her about Sean's compulsion to flirt. "Pay it no mind or you'll never be happy." It was advice I shouldn't have taken.
A drift of piano music floated across the still water toward the screened porch where I sat, mired in old memories. The music was almost a perfect backdrop to the conflicted emotions I had pressed into being by allowing myself to dwell on what was supposed to have been past. The piano chords were a rising, inharmonic progression leading toward a natural resolution. They stopped before they touched the chord which would have put them into sense, leaving me with an auditory frustration not unlike missing the last rung of a ladder.
Eventually the porch light from across the water went out, and I went inside.
Copyright © 2001 by Susan Wilson
Meet the Author
From the time I was a little girl, the word "writer" held a special significance to me. I loved the word. I loved the idea of making up stories. When I was about twelve, I bought a used Olivetti manual typewriter from a little hole in the wall office machine place in Middletown, CT called Peter's Typewriters. It weighed about twenty pounds and was probably thirty years old. I pounded out the worst kind of adolescent drivel, imposing my imaginary self on television heroes of the time: Bonanza, Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Star Trek.
Those are my earliest memories of my secret life of writing. For reasons I cannot really fathom, I never pursued writing as a vocation. Although I majored in English, I didn't focus on writing and it wasn't really until I was first married that I hauled out my old Olivetti and began to thump away at my first novel. This was, as I recall, an amorphous thinly plotted excercise in putting sentences together and has mercifully disappeared in some move or another. I didn't try anything more adventurous than some short stories and a lot of newsletters for various things I belonged to until we moved to Martha's Vineyard and I bought my first computer. My little "Collegiate 2" IBM computer was about as advanced as the Olivetti was in its heyday but it got me writing again and this time with some inner determination that I was going to succeed at this avocation. I tapped out two novels on this machine with its fussy little printer. Like the first one, these were wonderful absorbing exercises in learning how to write.
What happened then is the stuff of day time soap opera. Writing is a highly personal activity and for all of my life I'd kept it secret from everyone but my husband, who, at the time, called what I did nights after the kids went to bed, my "typing." Until, quite by accident, I discovered that here on the Vineyard nearly everyone has some avocation in the arts. Much to my delight, I discovered a fellow closet-writer in the mom of my kids' best friends. For the very first time in my life I could share the struggle with another person. I know now that writers' groups are a dime a dozen and I highly recommend the experience, but with my friend Carole, a serendipitious introduction to a "real writer", Holly Nadler, resulted in my association with my agent. Holly read a bit of my "novel" and liked what she read, suggested I might use her name and write to her former agent. I did and the rest, as they say, is history.
Not that it was an overnight success. The novel I'd shown Holly never even got sent to Andrea. But a third, shorter, more evolved work was what eventually grew into Beauty with the guidance of Andrea and her associates at the Jane Rotrosen Agency.
The moral of the story: keep at it. Keep writing the bad novels to learn how to write the good ones. And, yes, it does help to know someone. Andrea might have liked my work, but the path was oiled by the introduction Holly Nadler provided.
Hawke's Cove is my second published novel, although there is a "second" second novel in a drawer, keeping good company with the other "first" novels.
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I could not put this book down..... I read this book non-stop for 2 days...I had bags under my eyes and took the book to work with me to read it every chance I got....
This book met my own personal requirements as it had many similarities to me. Protagonist Cleo Grayson is a dedicated mother (I am), who is already a successful writer (I'm a wannabe), who has serious communication problems with her husband (I do). The only thing I wish I had was a friend like Grace offering me to stay a whole summer at her lakeside cabin...how relaxing!!!!!!! Cameo Lake is a very good read. At the end, all the pieces seem to come together for everyone's benefit and life is better than before.
Her best friend Grace provided the remote cabin in New Hampshire so that Cleo McCarthy can concentrate on her writing without distractions. Cleo leaves behind her husband Sean and their two children, ten years old Lily and eight years old Tim. She also knows that there is no community chore she can volunteer to help with in this locale over three hours from Providence. Across CAMEO LAKE, Cleo hears music. Composer Ben Turner lives as a hermit with only his music as a companion. His neighbors treat Ben like a pariah, blaming him for the accidental death of his wife last year. When Cleo offers a smile with friendship, Ben grabs at it like a life preserver. However, Sean dumps the kids on Cleo, angering her almost as much as his past indiscretion with another woman. Cleo turns to Ben for support and soon love blossoms. With school just around the corner, Cleo has to decide between responsibility and a lifetime love. CAMEO LAKE is a powerful character study that digs deep into the souls of the lead protagonists who obtain empathy from the audience. The angst-laden story line will provide much pleasure to readers who enjoy a deep relationship drama. However, Susan Wilson simplifies things a bit too much by making Sean into a first class idiot. The novel is well written, but had possibilities of greatness if Sean was treated as a more responsible supportive adult. Harriet Klausner