Dear Exile: The Story of a Friendship Separated (for a Year) by an Ocean

Overview

A funny and moving story told through the letters of two women nurturing a friendship as they are separated by distance, experience, and time.

Close friends and former college roommates, Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery promised to write when Kate's Peace Corps assignment took her to Africa.  Over the course of a single year, they exchanged an offbeat and moving series of letters from rural Kenya to New York City and back again.

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Overview

A funny and moving story told through the letters of two women nurturing a friendship as they are separated by distance, experience, and time.

Close friends and former college roommates, Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery promised to write when Kate's Peace Corps assignment took her to Africa.  Over the course of a single year, they exchanged an offbeat and moving series of letters from rural Kenya to New York City and back again.

Kate, an idealistic teacher, meets unexpected realities ranging from poisonous snakes and vengeful cows to more serious hazards: a lack of money for education; a student body in revolt.  Hilary, braving the singles scene in Manhattan, confronts her own realities, from unworthy suitors to job anxiety and first apartment woes.  Their correspondence tells--with humor, warmth, and vivid personal detail--the story of two young women navigating their twenties in very different ways, and of the very special friendships we are sometimes lucky enough to find.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Two good friends, ten thousand miles between them, and dozens of letters back and forth. These features make up the compelling face of Dear Exile, but the real strength of this collected correspondence between two 20-something women lies beneath the surface in the relationship they share, the worlds they inhabit, and the lives they are trying to sort out.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One woman has the privilege of a happy, secure marriage while confronting the poverty of a Third World country. The other enjoys the luxuries of a big American city while struggling to find romantic happiness. In this humorous, touching, real-as-daylight collection of letters former college roommates Liftin and Montgomery exchanged during their year apart, we see the support and humor two 20-something women can offer each other as they move down disparate paths.

In the small Kenyan town where she and her husband are spending 12 months as Peace Corps volunteers, Montgomery realizes that, although she can gamely adjust to eating rancid goat stew, living with fist-sized spiders and having her house exorcised of genies, the tasks of caning students until they bleed and teaching them to "sit down and shut up" while their headmaster uses their textbook money to buy himself a new pickup truck are beyond her limits of cultural assimilation. Meanwhile, back in New York City, Liftin tackles her own obstacles, including finding an apartment in Manhattan, surviving the embarrassing loss of her "cybervirginity," enduring the threats of a paranoid neighbor and recovering from the pain of unreciprocated love. Though Liftin's problems can pale in comparison to Montgomery's, the duo's correspondence makes it clear that their relationship has thrived precisely because of their unconditional recognition of the immediacy and importance of each other's travails.

Many women readers will be reminded of their own intense college and postcollege friendships, and may be inspired to try to reconnect with lost friends. This is a smoothly sewn book that appeals on several levels: as engaging travel literature, as a witty exploration of modern women's lives and as a testament to the power and blessing of friendship.

Library Journal
YA-College roommates Kate Montgomery and Hilary Liftin went in different directions after they graduated. Kate married and went to Kenya with her husband to teach with the Peace Corps, while Hilary attempted to conquer Manhattan. This book consists of their letters during the year they were separated. Kate's letters were full of life in Africa-the heat and disease, the lack of school supplies where she taught, the absence of personal and public amenities, and the political machinations of local authorities. Hilary wrote about the snow, the difficulties of finding a place to live, her attempt at a career that was never fully described, her family's complicated relationships, and her social life (or lack thereof). These two young women maintained their friendship and found comfort and sustenance in the letters they exchanged. For young adults, the appeal of this book lies in the contrasts of life in Kenya versus life in the Big Apple, in the importance of an enduring friendship, and in seeing the challenges that young people are apt to face as they make their way in the world.-Pamela B. Rearden, Centreville Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Jane Manners
Former Yale roommates Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery share a year's worth of correspondence in Dear Exile: The True Story of Two Friends Seperated (For A Year) by an Ocean. After college, Liftin worked for an internet company in Manhattan and Montgomery signed on to teach with the Peace Corps in eastern Kenya. The collected letters, which were written during Montgomery's year abroad, contrast the obstacles each woman confronts in her new environment. Montgomery makes light of a treacherous ride on a crowded minitruck while suffering from an upset stomache; Liftin gives a tongue-in-cheek account of the discomforts of living with her father. Throughout the exchange, both women combine humor and gravity in describing the challenges they face. Dear Exile is most striking for the global perspective it offers readers in juxtaposing Liftin's urban woes with the hardships faced by Montgomery and her Kenyan neighbors.
Brill's Content
Denise Kersten
An encouraging look at the post-college world as well as a tribute to female friendship. It seems that there is, indeed, both life and friendship after college.
USA Today
Kirkus Reviews
The year-long correspondence between two former college roommates—one a smart, utterly self-absorbed young Manhattanite, the other a droll yet stubbornly idealistic Peace Corps volunteer—becomes a funny, harrowing, heartbreaking meditation on life, love, suffering, and friendship. A few years after graduation, Hilary finds herself summoned to the City Hall wedding of her friend Kate, who embarks shortly thereafter for Kenya, where she and her husband will work as English teachers. The two friends pledge to keep in touch; the letters that comprise the book turn this promise into print. In the beginning, Kate pens breezy missives out of Africa, emphasizing the exotic and the comic, particularly the gastrointestinal consequences of existing on a diet of rancid goat meat and orange Fanta. But as the year goes on, Kate's letters turn darker in tone as she battles malaria, is sickened by contaminated water, and watches helplessly as her students, who are routinely beaten by school authorities, erupt into violence. In counterpoint to her friend's stories of real if temporary deprivation, Hilary's urban tales of woe round up the usual suspects of middle-class life: men she wants who don't want her, "brutal" commutes, endless business meetings, and, for good manure, a possibly psychotic downstairs neighbor. Though she sometimes becomes downright silly, Hilary is not blind to the ironies of her privileged situation. Instead, she champions the validity of everyday unhappiness. "I realize how this may sound in context of the crisis in Kwale," she writes after a painful breakup, "but love counts, even in warfare." Elegantly written, this correspondence reads like miniature essays onsubjects as diverse as loneliness, clementines, the joy (and pain) of cybersex, and how to behave while one's concrete hut is being exorcised. Above all, this book affirms the power of friendship as expressed in the nearly lost art of letter writing. (Author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781417709038
  • Publisher: San Val
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Format: Library Binding

Meet the Author

Hilary Liftin
Hilary Liftin grew up in Washington, DC. In 1991 she graduated from Yale University, where she was the editor of the Yale Literary Magazine. She has worked in book publishing as an associate editor of nonfiction and literary fiction and as an editor/producer at several websites. She currently develops online products for Muze, a provider of digital information about music, videos and books, in New York City.

Kate Montgomery was raised in Wakefield, Rhode Island. She studied at Yale and Columbia Universiities, and has spent time teaching in both Czechoslovakia and Kenya. Kate has previously co-authored a non-fiction book A Teacher's Guide to Standardized Reading Tests. She is currently on leave from her job as a high school English teacher in Harlem to raise, with her husband David Hackenburg, their new son, Kobi.

Good To Know

In our interview, Liftin shared a few fun facts:

"I started keeping a journal in the third grade, writing doggerel. I always wrote in one of those clothbound books you get at bookstores, almost every day throughout high school and college. I credit journal keeping with my memory of my youth, which is very complete. Also, I think because the journals were private and never judged, I never have any kind of writer's block. I can always write something, even if it's terrible."

"My first job was working for the legendary publisher Sam Lawrence, who first published Richard Yates, Kurt Vonnegut, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tim O'Brien, Tillie Olsen, Susan Minot, and many other amazing writers. On my third day of work, Sam told me, ‘Publishing used to be fun, but you've ruined it for me.' "

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    1. Hometown:
      Los Angeles, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 12, 1969
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Yale University, 1991

Read an Excerpt

Kwale, May 31

Dear Hilary,

This business of having to write letters to keep up friendships definitely separates the wheat from the chaff. You are the wheat. (That would be the good part?)

Our new neighbor, Mwanamisi, came over last night to show me how to make coconut rice, wali wa nazi. Kate, you say, but you already know how to make coconut rice! Yes, I say, but I don't know how to make friends. So David and I were rushing around trying to make reality match what we had probably said in Kiswahili. (I think we said we'd 'already' cleaned the rice and we 'were doing' laundry.) Mwanamisi arrived midway through the coconut-milk-making process and was chatting with us about how to cook it really well, soft and sweet. As far as I could tell, she was complimenting me on what I had done so far, except there was one little part that I didn't catch, and her tone was less spunky, so I figured I probably didn't put enough salt in or something. But, all in all, I was pretty excited at not being totally incompetent at cooking.

Later, I checked on that verb to figure out what I'd done wrong. Here's what my dictionary said about it. (I mean, I just "haribu"-ed it--how bad could it be, right?) "kuharibu: v. injure, destroy, spoil, damage, ruin, demoralize, spoil work, break up an expedition, devastate a country, cause miscarriage, pervert, corrupt." That's what I did to the rice. Good thing we like potatoes, eh?

Love, Kate

New York City, December 19th

Dear Kate,

I have obeyed my rules and leapt empty-handed into the void. Much as I try to explain to myself that I am in transition and that everything will turn out fine, I'm hardly the happy camper we remember. I'm living at my dad's now. My eyelid has had a twitch ever since I moved in here. It's a delicate fluttering twitch that others don't seem to see, but to me it feels like there's a bird in my head beating itself against the window of my eye. So right now I hardly recognize myself. I wake up in a strange apartment. I hide away my bed and all signs of me.
I commute out of the city--away from all my friends and the places I know--to work at a sterile office at an ill-defined new job in a big, generic office building on a highway in Westchester. I'm just waiting: waiting to accumulate a foundation of knowledge that will get me the right job; waiting to get my own apartment so I can make noise and be a person; waiting to hail a cab and smile at the person getting out and see that stranger again and again.

Most of all right now, I can't wait to live alone. The finances of buying an apartment are impossible, but I'm willing to make adjustments. No long distance service, for example, no food on weekdays, drugstore makeup, factory-second panty hose, found art. I can't wait to acquire "homeowner's insurance." I want to have my stereo going when I fall asleep. I want all the messages to be for me. I want to bring home strangers and store their body parts in my freezer. I want to polyurethane floors and leave the toilet seat up (Oh wait, I'm a girl.) and throw away all the plastic grocery bags, which wouldn't even accumulate anyway since I don't shop. I want the shower to be a hundred percent available. I want to have parties and not clean up.

Oh, and how much do I miss you? Let me count the ways: I miss you like the plague; I miss you because you understand everything I say and because for all I know when I say I see blue everyone else might see green but I'm pretty sure you see blue; I miss you because when you get back you're going to be really different and dirty; I miss you because you are not coming to my Christmas party; I miss you because you are speaking Kiswahili and I can't and I'm afraid you'll never come home; I miss you as often as I check my voice mail (which is like every minute); I miss you because I don't trust anyone else's sanity (except maybe my brother's); I miss you more than I miss all my stored belongings and with a force that is just a tiny bit less than my desire to find a lifetime companion; I miss you because the park is covered in snow and I haven't been there yet; I miss you because I think you love me unconditionally and I definitely do you. This turned into a love letter, is that so wrong?

Goodbye my dirty friend, goodbye,

Hilary

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Reading Group Guide

1. In Dear Exile, Kate's and Hilary's stories unfold in their letters to
one another. How does the immediacy of letters, in contrast to a straight
narrative, affect your experience as a reader? Did you empathize with one woman
more than the other? Did your feelings change during the course of the book?

2. Hilary says she "was afraid that Kate would disappear into married life, and
she actually did disappear, almost right away . . . when the newlyweds joined the
Peace Corps and went to Kenya" [p. 5]. Is Hilary only concerned about the
physical separation? Are her fears about losing Kate realized to any extent, or
do the friends maintain the closeness they enjoyed before Kate married? Would
their relationship have been different if Hilary had not been so fond of Dave?

3. During her first weeks in Kenya, Kate writes, "I'm beginning to feel
generally disoriented" [p. 16]. Are Kate's feelings an inevitable reaction to
being in a foreign environment? How do the perceptions of the local people affect
her perception of herself? In response, Hilary writes about her new job, saying,
"So right now I hardly recognize myself" [p. 18]. Is Hilary's feeling of
disorientation as understandable as Kate's?

4. Hilary feels like a guest in her father's house, admitting, "I would never
feel the need to be so cautious and polite and adult if I were staying with my
mother" [p. 20]. Kate is taken under the wings of older women in the villages she
and Dave live in during their stay in Kenya. Discuss the role that bonds between
women play in Dear Exile, comparing and contrasting their importance in Kenyan
culture andAmerican culture. In what ways are the lives of women in Kenya
similar to the lives of women in America?

5. Except for Dave's short notes at the end of Kate's letters, the men in Dear
Exile
are seen only through the eyes of two women. What are your impressions of
the men Hilary discusses in her letters: her close friend, Josh Stack; her
brother, Steven; Jason, her old boyfriend; and William Strong, the doctor she
falls in love with? How do Hilary's romantic notions influence her reactions to
men?

6. When she arrives in Ramisi, Kate writes, "For the time being, Kenya has
totally kicked both of our butts" [p. 40]. What adjustments--both practical and
psychological--help her feel more at home? What does she mean when she says "my
feeling of independence is really not from deprivation but actually from
privilege and wealth. I can feel lighter, relieved of the load of a life of
luxury" [p. 45]?

7. In several letters, Hilary makes wry observations about the differences
between her life as a single woman [p. 52] and the lives of couples [p. 64]. In
your opinion, do her assessments reflect only her personal experiences or are
they valid in a more universal sense? To what extent do they stem from her
admiration and even envy for Kate's and her brother's marriages?

8. Kate is very unsettled by the atmosphere in Kenyan schools--from the rigid
style of teaching to the acceptance of harsh physical punishment. Are Kate's
expectations about what she can accomplish as a Peace Corps teacher unrealistic?
Is her idealism a privilege that only can be enjoyed by well-educated,
"comfortable" people? Do you think her unwillingness to accept local standards of
behavior is right or wrong? How do you feel about her statement that "it's all
about what a person is raised to believe, it could all be called culture, but I
wasn't raised to believe this, and I can't be open-minded about it" [p. 73]?

9. When the Peace Corps reports that the drinking water in Ramisi is unfit for
human consumption, only Kate and Dave take the news seriously. Kate says, "It's
tricky to be telling people that their ways aren't good enough. I don't know if
they don't want to hear it from us whites, if they don't want to contest 'God's
will, ' or if they just don't care" [p. 69]. Do Kate and Dave--and Peace Corps
volunteers in general--have an obligation to teach basic rules of sanitation
which would lessen the incidence of disease and death despite the resistance of
the local people?

10. Hilary worries that she is caving in to the standards of American office and
beauty cultures. Is renouncing the promises she made in college--"never to wear
panty hose or painful shoes, never to have manicures . . . or pay more than
twenty dollars for a haircut or carry a purse" [p. 78]--a necessary part of
becoming a "grown-up"? Do these outward signs of change mean that she is being
untrue to herself?

11. What was your reaction to Hilary's sexual adventures in cyberspace? Do
you think she should have continued the virtual affair once she discovered that
she knew her chat-room lover? Do you think they should have pursued their
relationship in real life?

12. At Kwale High, the second village school Kate and Dave are sent to,
conditions are just as bad as the conditions in Ramisi schools. Have Kate's
attitudes about the canings and verbal assaults--integral parts of African
education--changed in any way during her nine months in Kenya? Do you think that
her fellow teachers' image of "American schools full of weapons, violence, and
disrespect for authority" [p. 119] justifies their dismissal of Kate's teaching
style? How would you respond to their claims that treating children severely in
school is a natural, necessary extension of the traditions set at home?

13. Kate and Dave meet a volunteer who has thoroughly assimilated to the Kenyan
way of life [p. 120]. Is his approach to living in a foreign country more
appropriate than Kate's and Dave's? Is his willingness to embrace the negative
aspects of the culture morally reprehensible?

14. Kate compares the exorcism in Kwale to the Salem witch trials, yet the witch
doctor's rituals do cure the "curse" on the young girls. How do you explain the
success of these ancient rites? How would similar problems with adolescent girls
be treated in this country?

15. What do Hilary's weird neighbors--the woman upstairs who moves furniture in
the middle of the night and the man downstairs who screams frightening
threats--as well as some of her less successful dates, represent in the context
of the book? What insights do Hilary's reactions to them reveal about her ability
to cope with the real world? Do you sympathize with Hilary's fears and
uncertainties, or do they seem trivial in comparison to Kate's? Why yes or no?

16. Kate remains on the sidelines as the tensions at school mount and eventually
escalate into violence. Should she have taken a more active role--either in
dealing with the "powers that be" or with the students themselves? As part of the
community, was it really possible for her to be an "innocent bystander"?

17. Kate and Dave decide to leave Kenya because they don't have the spirit and
energy to move to another village. Do you think they could have adapted by
drawing lessons from their experiences and developing new attitudes? What
experiences have you had with culture clashes? Discuss how--and if--it is
possible to adjust to another culture without betraying personal values.

18. Dear Exile ends with a postscript and an epilogue by the letter
writers. How do these finishing touches enhance the impressions you formed of
each woman through their letters? Which woman changed more during their year
apart?

19. Do you think the intimacy Kate and Hilary developed as correspondents will be
sustained now that they live in the same city? Does writing letters offer
opportunities for introspection and honesty that can't be matched in telephone
conversations and face-to-face encounters?

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