The Generosity of Women by Courtney Eldridge, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
The Generosity of Women

The Generosity of Women

by Courtney Eldridge

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Joyce, the foul-mouthed and wildly successful curator of a controversial art exhibit on surveillance, who unexpectedly finds herself under surveillance—in her own bedroom.

Her best friend, Bobbie, a gynecologist—driven, poised, and in control—a woman who finally finds love at fiftysomething and watches, horrified, as her



Joyce, the foul-mouthed and wildly successful curator of a controversial art exhibit on surveillance, who unexpectedly finds herself under surveillance—in her own bedroom.

Her best friend, Bobbie, a gynecologist—driven, poised, and in control—a woman who finally finds love at fiftysomething and watches, horrified, as her perfectly ordered world crumbles around her.

Bobbie’s patient, Lisa, a former juvenile offender and habitual runaway, who once dreamed of fame working as Joyce’s gallery assistant and is now struggling with her new identity as a banker’s wife and doting mother.
Lisa’s sister, Lynne, a middle-aged suburban mother whose penchant for home decorating conceals her troubled marriage and blinding desire to exact revenge for a childhood injustice.

Jordan, Lynne’s sixteen-year-old daughter, a former straight-A student and aspiring model who, no longer fitting in at school or at home, takes a part-time job at a supermarket to spite her mother—and finds a close confidant in her thirtyyear-old male boss.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The Generosity of Women is wonderful, dramatic, comic, deeply felt and possessed of a beauty that is both quotidian and rare."—Mary Gaitskill, author of Veronica

"Courtney Eldridge is one of the most interesting young writers I've read in years. The Generosity of Women is a lovely and difficult book that rewards its readers page after page. A stunning novel."—Frederick Barthelme, author of Elroy Nights

Publishers Weekly

Eldridge's first novel (after the collection Unkempt) grinds its sparse plot into the ground by revisiting the same incidents over and over again from the points of view of six women. Joyce, "one of New York's most successful and controversial art dealers," and Bobbie, a gynecologist who sometimes performs abortions, have been friends since college. But their friendship is sorely tested by the events of one long weekend when Bobbie's adopted daughter, Adela, arrives in New York to meet Paul, her mother's new boyfriend, and to reveal some secrets of her own. At the same time, new mother Lisa, one of Joyce's former assistants, helps her older sister, Lynne, after Lynne's teenage daughter, Jordan, goes to Bobbie for an abortion. The rotating first-person narration underscores the characters' profound narcissism, but the gaggle of voices becomes tiresome as it moves among the women's self-centered ruminations and justifications of their questionable behavior. The way Eldridge obscures the story's critical details until the waning pages feels manipulative, while how she repeatedly explores the periphery of a few key events is, at best, tedious. (June)

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Library Journal

Eldridge (Unkempt: Stories) carves up the sacred cows of women's experience and leaves the bloody corpses on the slaughterhouse floor for readers to view. Marriage and motherhood take the most punishing blows, but career ambitions and the ever-complicated roles of friend, daughter, and lover are up for dissection as well in this juicy, messy romp through the lives of six middle-class women who struggle to define and articulate their identities and desires. Readers who appreciate vivid characterization will find figures like feisty, foul-mouthed Joyce and her best friend, the ever-so-perfect yet slowly crumbling Bobbie, impossible to forget. The writing style is episodic and fluid, moving freely through time, and designed to appeal to those readers who prefer to have key plot points and relationships revealed gradually. However, the fan of the "problem novel" will benefit most here, as Eldridge forces her readers to take a good, hard look at family planning from every possible angle, not just the ones they might personally agree with. Visceral and stunning.
—Leigh Anne Vrabel

Kirkus Reviews
Short-story author Eldridge (Unkempt, 2005) gives distinctive voice to six very different characters in her challenging debut novel. Joyce is a curator whose abrasive personality is a perfect match for her provocative art shows. Elegant, beautiful Bobbie, her first-year roommate at Barnard, is now a gynecologist and still Joyce's best friend. Bobbie's patient Lisa, Joyce's aggrieved ex-assistant, is adjusting to life as a banker's wife, mother and reformed bad girl. Lisa's sister Lynne is her temperamental opposite. Lynne's teenage daughter Jordan, who has always been fascinated by her aunt's wild ways, is now in trouble herself. Then there's Adela, Bobbie's adopted daughter and Joyce's goddaughter, a young woman whose close relationship with her mother might not survive a big revelation. Each character has a story to tell, and it's not entirely easy to keep track of these intersecting first-person narratives. Eldridge does not use any typological signs to designate dialogue, and she employs an elliptical style that forces the reader to approach each woman's story from the outside. It takes a while to fully grasp the various overlapping conflicts that compel the plot, but readers willing to do the work will be rewarded with a rich, emotionally and intellectually engaging experience. Eldridge's craft enhances the verisimilitude-quotation marks and long passages of exposition tend not to occur in real life-and there's something exciting about a book that combines technical daring with concerns generally relegated to the nongenre known as "women's fiction." The author takes her characters seriously, she takes her work seriously, and she takes her audience seriously too. Brave andaccomplished.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt


HERE’S THE QUESTION -- here’s what you got to ask yourself, okay. The question is, do you want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or . . . or do you just want me to blow sunshine up your ass? Wait, he said, I have to choose? Yes, I said. But just one? he said, and I said, See, this is the part men never seem to understand: given two options and told to choose one, one means one, sweetheart. Just one, he said. Just, I said.

Well, that’s tough, he said, taking a drink and clenching his jaw, exhaling through his teeth. Because the sunshine . . . I have to say, the sunshine’s tempting, very tempting. But in that case, he said, scratching his cheek, I think I’ll take -- honesty. And I said, You’re brave, Paul. I like that in a brave man. Joyce, do me a favor: leave me some eyebrows, huh? They’ve just grown back from the last time I asked you for an honest answer, he said, stroking his right brow with two fingers. All right, then, I said.

My first impression, honestly? I hated that bitch from the word gofuckyourself, I said. And not a twitch -- I mean, the man doesn’t bat an eye -- then he says, You know what I like about you, Joyce? And before I could answer -- because I had an answer, trust me, I had a very good answer -- he said, You don’t mince words. Yeah, well, in whiskey veritas, I said, throwing out my arm, offering him my empty glass.

Would you like another? he asked, standing from his chair. Paul, I said, so long as we’re being honest with each other, have you ever known me to say no? Actually, Joyce, he said, turning around, so long as we’re being honest, has any man ever known you to say no? You’re funny, Paul. I like that in a funny man. Now off you go, I said, running my fingers in a scurry.
And could you make it a little stronger this time? I said, sitting up, hearing him drop a couple of ice cubes into a glass, then he stopped. You want it a little stronger? he asked, and he walked back, carrying my glass in one hand and the whiskey in the other. How’s that? he said, handing me the bottle, keeping the clean glass for himself. I smiled, taking the bottle; he’s a cool customer, all right. I’ll give him that.

So, go on, he said, holding out his glass, and I had to bite my tongue, reeling him in. I knew it -- I knew that would get him. I mean, really, what’s more seductive than the promise of a heavyweight catfight? What do you want to know? I asked, pouring him another drink. For starters, he said, what didn’t you like about her?

Oh. I don’t know, really, I said, taking a swig. I mean, aside from the fact that she was beautiful, she had an incredible body, and the real killer, she was smart. We’re talking four years -- four years on a full ride, okay. But what’s really infuriating is that she wasn’t the one who told me she was on scholarship. To this day -- to this day -- Bobbie’s never mentioned it, not once. And modest, to boot; I love that in a brilliant, beautiful woman, he said, getting up to stoke the fire.

I said, Oh, so now you’re interested? I’ve been trying to get you to meet her for months, and now? Joyce, come on -- can you hear yourself? Honestly, do you ever hear yourself, talking? he said. What do you mean? I said, adding: Cut to the chase, will ya? What I mean is that you sound like an old Jewish mother sometimes, you know that? And I said, Paul, I am an old Jewish mother. Anyhow, he said, returning to his chair.

Anyhow, I said. She walks into our little dorm room, right, and first thing -- I mean, not even a hello or nice to meet you, oh no. She walks in, all la-di-da, perky nose in the air, then she proceeds to kick -- I mean, the girl has the nerve to kick -- my suitcase out of her way, and then she goes: Excuse me.

So I take one look at her, and it’s like -- I mean, I’m on the phone with my folks, who’ve managed to get lost somewhere between the second floor of the residence hall and the car, don’t ask me how. Wait, he said, you had a phone in your dorm room? Of course, I said. This is the Ivy League -- we’re talking girls of the Ivy League here, Paul.

Anyhow, all I know is one minute I’m giving my dad directions, and the next minute I hear my brand-new Samsonite suitcase sliding across the linoleum floor like a shuffleboard. So I look up, and I’m telling you, one look -- one look -- and, looking her up and down, I thought, I hate you. As a matter of fact, I hate absolutely every fucking thing about you.

But of course, seeing as her dad’s there and her little sister’s standing in the doorway like the church mouse, I put my hand over the phone and I said, Oh, hi -- you must be Roberta? And then -- then, just to add insult to injury, she goes, It’s Bobbie, actually. No one calls me Roberta, she says. So I said, O-kay. Well, Bobbie, I’m Joyce, and everyone calls me Joyce, but you can call me whatever you please. And then I smile at her, just as big as I can, thinking, You want to rumble, princess? Because I’ll take you out.

So I wait until her dad and sister leave to get another load of her small-town crap out of the station wagon, and then I go, So, Bobbie, what’s your major? And she goes, Premed. And I go, Oh, really? Like dermatology, or--, and she goes, Gynecology, actually. Have you heard of it? So I smile, like I’m just joking around -- it’s all fun and games until someone gets her eyes scratched out -- and I go, Oh, well, dermatology, gynecology, same difference. So you’ve always been this way, he said, rubbing his index finger across his forehead. I said, Witty, you mean? There’s that, too, he said, raising his brow. Anyhow, I said, taking another drink.

Then she goes -- get this -- she goes, And you, Joyce? What’s your major, stand-up? And I’m thinking, Well, well . . . looks like Goldilocks’s got herself a right hook, huh? I said, Art history, actually. Heard of it? And without missing a beat, she goes, Oh, well, art history, stand-up, same difference, right? Then she cocks her bubbly head to the side, giving me this shit-eating grin, and just then . . . just as I’m about to lunge across the room and choke her to death, who walks in the door but Irving and Sonja, my long-lost parents.

And of course, being that it’s Barnard and there are Negroes lurking around every corner, Sonja walks in, huffing, holding hand to chest, like they’ve narrowly escaped with their lives, running from the natives. Forty minutes they’ve been gone, okay. Swear to god, how many Jews does it take to find a better parking space, you know?

So I go, Mom, Dad: this is my new roommate, Roberta Myers. Roberta, I said, these are my parents, Irving and Sonja. Nice, Paul says, very nice. Of course, I said, I mean, what a name, Roberta. I like the name Roberta, he said, and I said, Excuse me, who’s telling this story here, you or me? You, he said, it’s all yours. Thank you, I said.

As I was saying, I said, lying back, stuffing a pillow beneath my head and propping my feet on the arm of the couch. The way I figured it, not only would Bobbie have to correct me in front of my parents and repeat the fact that no one called her by her full name or . . . or she’d have to deal with my parents calling her by a name she obviously hated. Which, in the business, is what we like to call a win-win, or better yet, a fuck-you–fuck-you situation.

Besides which, I knew once my mother heard that this girl had a boy’s nickname, she’d be sure to give one of those famous Sonja looks, like she just walked out of a truck-stop toilet on Interstate 90. And best of all, when I finally got around to telling them that the girl wanted to be a gynecologist -- a female gynecologist? -- Sonja was sure to take her for a lesbian. I mean, keep in mind, this is nineteen seventy, oh . . . let’s say —. Nine, ten? Paul offered. Exactly, I said: Keep in mind, this is nineteen seventy-ten, or thereabouts. So, he said, did your mother give you the truck-stop-toilet look and assume your new roommate was a lesbian?

No! That was the real shocker, I said. Bobbie corrects me, right away -- like she’s not going to take any shit, right? She looks at me and goes, It’s Bobbie: please, call me Bobbie, she says, smiling, and then turns to offer her hand to my mother. Then my mother says, ¬Bobbie? Well. How adorable, she drawls. Bobbie, she says, speaking to my dad as though he hasn’t been standing there, listening the whole time. Oh, I love that! Sonja says. And would you look at her? she says. What a face -- Irving, would you take a look at this face. Bobbie, she says, you could be a model.

May I say something? Paul said, interrupting, and I said, Make it quick, and he said, You know, the way you describe her sometimes, your mother sounds right out of central casting, and I said, Paul, please, my mother invented central casting, okay? That’s where she made the family fortune. But, as I was saying.

So I’m about to puke, and Sonja says, Bobbie, sweetheart, you aren’t alone, are you? And Bobbie says, Oh, no. My dad and sister will be right back -- they drove me down. Then, of course, being the nosy-body she is, but playing it off as common courtesy, Sonja smiles and says, And your mother? And then Bobbie says, My mother died when I was young. And Sonja . . . I swear to god, I’ll never forget this -- hearing those words, Sonja gasps, okay. I mean the woman literally gasps and covers her mouth with both hands -- not one, but two -- a two-hander. Because one hand just wouldn’t be enough, he says. Exactly, I said, quietly snapping and pointing at him.

So a good minute passes in this state of animated Jewess horror, and then, finally, Sonja drops her hands and says, Oh, you poor angel. Paul finally cracked a smile. But wait, I said, it gets better. Then Sonja repeats herself for good measure: Oh, you poor, poor angel, she says, all but reaching out her arms. Now, I said, sighing, now keep in mind, it’s nineteen seventy-something, and we’ve been watching years of Vietnam casualties, assassinations, potbellied children starving in Cambodia or Bangladesh or wherever the hell they were all starving in those days, and not once, not once have I ever heard the woman say, You poor angel.

There you have it, I said. Eighteen years in the making, but at long last, Sonja Kessler had finally found the daughter of her dreams: my new roommate. So that was it, he said. Yes, I sighed, it was official: Roberta-it’s-Bobbie-actually Myers was perfect in every possible way, I said, counting on my fingers: Smart. Gorgeous. Great bod. And, last but not least, motherless. I mean, despite myself, despite my worst intentions, I just looked at her, thinking, Ohmygod, you’re . . . you’re everything I ever wanted to be. So basically, you wanted her dead, he said. And I said, In so many words: yes.

So when do I get to meet this amazing woman? he said, slouch-ing farther down in the chair as he crossed his ankles. I said, Well, Paul, here’s the real question, okay. The question is, what’s in it for me? He started to speak, then stopped himself, shaking his head no, don’t. He scratched behind his ear, then said, Well, what do you want, Joyce? For now, I said, taking a sip, for now, let’s just say you owe me one. Deal, he said, swinging out his glass for me to pour him another.

By the way, I said, topping off his drink, nice fireplace you got here. Thank you, he said. Be sure to mention that as one of my selling points, won’t you? One of many, Paul -- but one of many, I said, kicking out my feet, letting my shoes drop to the ground. Yes, I said, sighing and resting the bottle on my stomach, a hot fire and a warm penis. What more could a woman want? he said, and I just had to laugh. Oh, Paul, I said. Paul, Paul, Paul . . . you have so much to learn, my friend.


WELL, OBVIOUSLY SHE had lost her mind. First of all, she didn’t call me back. I called her at least five times, starting immediately after I hung up with Adela, Saturday night: I called her cell, I tried her at home, I even tried the gallery on Sunday. She wouldn’t take my call. I’ve known the woman half my life, and no matter how angry she’s been, Joyce has never once passed up an opportunity to speak her mind. Then, when she finally called me back Monday, all she said was, Can you meet?

Tell me when and where, I said, and she said, How about the dog run at Washington Square Park at four? I was stunned, but of course I said yes, asking one of my partners to cover for me. Then, when I got to the park, I was so nervous I was sweating -- and there she was, sitting on the bench, smiling at the dogs, sweet as could be. Imagine: I’m sweating, and Joyce is the very picture of composure. What was the world coming to?

Sorry I’m late, I said, and she shook her head, not to worry. Have you been waiting long? I said. No, she said, still staring at the dogs. Not long. Just since I called. I said, You called me three hours ago, and she nodded yes. Joyce, what have you been doing in Washington Square Park for three hours? I asked. Oh, she said, you know -- people watching, dog watching . . . I just looked at her.

Then she finally looked up and said, What? What’s wrong with that? Nothing, I said, nothing’s wrong with that -- aside from the fact that you hate dogs, you hate parks, and you hate people. That is not true: I love dogs, she said. Oh, really? I said. Oh, really, she said. Since when? I said. Since always -- I always wanted a dog, growing up, she said. I begged and begged my dad to let me get a dog, and then, one day, he finally had to sit me down and explain the sad truth. Which was that Sonja has an aversion to living beings -- he and I were on thin ice, as it was.

Well, you’re still funny, I said. And you’re still tall, she said. Mind taking a seat? Did you get my messages? I asked, sitting down beside her on the bench. Yes, she said, but I didn’t know what to say. Joyce, I swear I didn’t know anything about it; I would never lie to you. I know, she said, I know you didn’t. You have no idea how awful I feel, I said. What can I do? Nothing, really, she said, sighing and shaking her head.

Well, I brought you something, I said. You didn’t, she said. I did, just a little something, I said, removing a white paper bag from my purse. Part of the reason I was late, I said, handing it to her, then she took the bag and tore it open, peeking inside. Oh, Bob . . . Vicodin? It’s perfect, thank you, she said, squeezing my thigh.

Don’t mention it, I said. I won’t, she said, I promise. Where have I heard that before? I said. Anyhow, are you sleeping at least? Yes, she said, as a matter of fact, I slept twelve hours yesterday. That’s not sleep, that’s mild hibernation, I said, reaching to take the bag away from her. But Saturday, she said, turning, shielding the bag from me, Saturday, it got so bad, guess who I called? Who? I said. You’ll never guess, she said. Not Michael? Worse, she said. Worse than Michael? I don’t know who that could be, I said. Yes, you do, she said. Who? Tell me, already. Sonja, she said, grinning. No, I said. Yes, she said. No.
You called your mother? I said. Scout’s honor, she said, holding up three fingers. What did you say? I said, at a complete loss. Oh, that’s the best part, she said, starting to laugh. I’m sure, I said. What did you tell her? Then she doubled over, shaking with laughter, and I said, Joyce, you didn’t tell her, did you? No, she said, waving me off. Relax, Bobbie, will you? All I said, she said, starting to laugh again, all I said was . . . I love you. I said, I love you, Mom.

You actually said I love you? Yep, she said, my exact words. You must have been out of your mind, I said. And you must have scared the poor woman half to death. Yes, I did, she said. And had I known the effect it would have, I would’ve called her years ago, believe me. So now I’m thinking I’ll just have to try her again, first thing tomorrow: once more into the breach.
You’re evil, you know that? I said, You are truly evil. Then she finally turned her attention away from the dogs to look at me, and said, Oh, please -- don’t kid yourself, sweetheart . . . because without me, you’d be nothing.


SHE’S CHANGED? I mean, he actually had the audacity to tell me she’s changed. That’s what he said, he goes, She’s changed, Leese, and I just looked at him, like, you gotta be fucking kidding me. Let me tell you about Joyce Kessler, all right. In a word, in a single word: totalfuckingcunt. Or, as Joyce would say, We’re talking cunt with a capital cunt, okay. I didn’t say that, of course, but he knew what I was thinking.

What, you don’t believe people can change? he said, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing in his face. Well, obviously some people do, I said. Take you, for example. You’ve certainly changed your tune. Who was it -- I’m sorry, I said, what was it -- how did that go, Greg? Joyce Kessler wouldn’t know a work of art if it . . ? Or maybe you don’t remember that part, either, I said, then he looked away, ashamed. I mean, assuming he has any conscience whatsoever.


HONESTLY, I DON’T KNOW what I expected, really. All I know is that when I dialed her number, I was so desperate I would’ve told her everything -- every last gruesome detail, starting, what, Wednesday? Thursday? Christ, I can’t even remember now. No, Thursday, it was Thursday. Anyhow.

Thursday, I’ve got conference calls up the ass -- we’re talking eight, nine, ten, eleven, and noon, okay. So when I finally had two seconds to pee, my assistant comes in and says there’s some sort of emergency and my new cleaning lady needs me to call her right away. And I’m like, Alana, what sort of emergency? And she says, I don’t know, and I said, Well. Did you try asking her, maybe? Then she holds up her hand: Joyce, she’s called four times, and she says it’s private. So I look at her, and seeing that she’s even more frustrated than I am, I reached for the phone, Jesus H. Christ . . .

So I call Rita, and before I have a chance to say anything, she starts in saying she’s so sorry, she broke the machine, dusting in the bathroom, but it was an accident, nobody told her. And I’m just like, Hold on, back up, Rita. I said, You called me at work to tell me you broke the vacuum, dusting? No, no, she says, not the vacuum, the muh-cheen on top of the peek-churs. And I’m thinking, What machine on top of the pictures is she talking about?

I had a lunch, so after lunch, I swung by the apartment. And sure enough, I found the thing on the dining table, alongside a note from Rita: Deer Mrs. Kessler, you tell me what I ow you and I pay you bak . . . And let’s be honest, I took one look, and I knew what it was, but I couldn’t admit the truth. I mean, really, I have people I pay to do that for me. Which is why I sent the driver back to the gallery, then called Alana and told her to reschedule my three thirty and send Steve, our IT guy, back in the car.
Well, turns out, I was right: it’s a camera. The muh-cheen is actually a mini spy cam, and, as Steve put it, ever so tactfully, it would appear that someone has been spying on me in my bathroom. And in my bedroom. And in my walk-in closet. Three: there were three cameras, total. And seeing as I didn’t put them there -- because god knows I can barely stand to look at my naked ass in real time -- I just looked at Steve, dumbfounded.

Who? Who could have done this? I said. Well, who has keys? he said, and then I just shook my head. No one, I said, no one else has keys. Then it hit me. No one except Benjamin, my son. My one and only child. At least until I get my hands on that squawk box of a pubescent throat and snuff the living daylight out of him, you . . . You deviant little turd, you.
I mean, call me old-fashioned, but am I wrong in thinking that a kid three months shy of his fifteenth birthday should not be videotaping his mother in the shower or sitting on the toilet? I mean, what the hell would possess him to do such a thing? And more importantly, what about me? How worried should I be, here? Seriously, forget drugs and alcohol and unprotected sex, what I want to know is how do you recognize perfectly normal teenage-boy behavior from that of a future sex offender? Because right now, from where I’m standing, I can’t tell the difference.

So yeah -- and this will attest to just how upset I was, okay. Thursday afternoon, I found myself dialing Sonja. As if she could offer some sort of advice, or support, or god knows what, but anyhow. All I could think was: Is there some history of mental illness and/or sexual deviance in our family that no one’s ever told me about, or am I right to blame his father for this, too? Really, I just needed someone I could trust, family -- and Sonja’s it. Then again, I called assuming I’d get her machine and I could just vent a bit, so when she answered, it completely threw me. So I told her I had another call, and I’d call her back.
It wasn’t true, of course, but her voice worked like smelling salts. Besides which, the first person I had to talk to was Michael, Benjamin’s father, better known as my ex-husband-to-be. Because the one thing we agree on -- the one and only thing we agree on -- is that we always discipline Ben as a united front. Because we don’t need him playing us off each other -- we do that just fine without his help, thank you very much.

Meet the Author

COURTNEY ELDRIDGE is the author of Unkempt, a collection of short stories and a novella. Her work has appeared in numerous literary publications, including Post Road, Bomb, and the Mississippi Review.

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