Going Toplessby Megan McAndrew
When Constance Wright arrives at her family's summerhouse on the Mediterranean island of Santerre for her father Ross's memorial, she hopes that boyfriend Jim, the New York investment banker on her arm, will boost her status in the family. Between her ravishing sister, Isabelle; her ageless French stepmother,/i>
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Sibling rivalry has crossed many an ocean....
When Constance Wright arrives at her family's summerhouse on the Mediterranean island of Santerre for her father Ross's memorial, she hopes that boyfriend Jim, the New York investment banker on her arm, will boost her status in the family. Between her ravishing sister, Isabelle; her ageless French stepmother, Odette; and her English stepsisters, former model Lucy and famous artist Jane, there's a lot of competition for attention -- not to mention double beds.
...Now it's time to sink or swim.
What she hadn't counted on is the attraction Jim develops for one of the other women in the house...and the affinity she feels for the mysterious writer who moves in next door. As liaisons shift and tension soars, Constance finds that she's not the only one in the house whose love life is in turmoil. Complicating matters is the discovery of a Swiss bank account that Ross left behind. Now, the women of this eclectic family are about to learn more than they ever wanted to know about each other, their father, and themselves.
Kirkus Reviews Two sets of sisters reunite tensely on a Mediterranean island to honor their dead patriarch. Constance arrives at her family's dilapidated house in Santerre brandishing her new boyfriend Jim, hoping that his presence will improve her rank in the household. She's always watched her older sister Isabelle garner all the compliments and is surprised when the intriguing next-door neighbor takes a liking to her instead. Isabelle is on the prowl, wounded from publicly losing her famous and charismatic husband to a younger fling. She butts heads with her English stepsister Lucy, another beautiful, strong-willed woman who grew up longing to usurp Isabelle for the role of her father's favorite daughter. Even as an adult, she refuses to believe he could ever have wronged them. Lucy's younger sister, the sensitive Jane, also smarting from losing her lover, knows better. The man in the middle of all this is the late Ross Wright, a schemer who went down in his heavily mortgaged plane, leaving his family literally to pay the price for his poor investments. His third wife, Odette, certainly feels the burden. Forced to leave their New York apartment and move back to her native France, she too finds herself on the island, privy to the familial and culture clashes. Newcomer McAndrew realistically relays sibling love and tension as the sisters bicker with and comfort one another in the days leading up to their father's memorial service. The narrative takes some crazy turns that might seem preposterous in any other story, but McAndrew's skill is such that you buy every minute of the partner swapping, surprise appearances, quirky locals, and discovered treasure that pop up on the way to epiphanies about dear old dad, relationships, and life in general. A smooth, engrossing debut.
Newsday Masterful...If you're reminded of the novels of Diane Johnson, then you're on the right track...a wry, comic voice and a sharp eye.
Entertainment Weekly Perfectly formed characters...their couplings and uncouplings make for a fun French farce.
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We're here on vacation, though leisure was the last thing on the minds of the Genoese warlords who settled Santerre, hewing their towns and villages out of the mountainside into the flinty strongholds that I point out to Jim as we hurtle along the coastal road that hugs the cap. I've made the trip from the airport so often that I've come to enjoy the hairpin turns, the vertiginous drops into the winking sea, the sharp intake of breath as an insane native comes careening around the bend in a beat-up Peugeot, honking too late in warning. The same can't be said for Jim, who stares fixedly ahead, missing all the scenery. By the time we reach the town of Orzo, he has grown unnaturally quiet, his unease betrayed by the overly casual tone in which he asks, "Why are all the road signs painted over?"
"Nationalists," I cheerfully reply.
I swerve to avoid the mournful cow that appears in the middle of the road after the next turn. "They drive around at night with paintbrushes."
"I don't get it."
Sometimes I forget that what passes for local color on Santerre would be viewed by most people as criminal behavior, just as I don't notice anymore the lurid slashes that deface the island's road signs. "Resistance to French cultural imperialism. They blow stuff up too."
"Yeah, right," Jim says wanly.
"Honest," I say, motioning to the charred hulk that once housed the administration of Orzo's defunct asbestos mine, though no one knows for sure how the building reached its present state. Jim, however, is by now entirely focused on not throwing up. Watching him stagger out of the rental car, I can't help but feel a little guilty. Poor Jim: I doubt this was what he had in mind when I proposed a French holiday.
At first sight, the village of Borgolano presents none of the standard Mediterranean charms, especially at dusk, when it takes on a frankly lugubrious aspect, with its tall shuttered houses deep in gloom. Like all Santerran villages, it is carved out of the rock that surrounds it, its four levels connected by a maze of alleys and steep stone stairs patrolled by feral cats, a mangy specimen of which slinks by as we unload our bags. "Where's the beach?" Jim asks, having regained his equilibrium, and I point down, far, far below, to the rocky inlet where sea urchins and jellyfish lie in wait.
Our wheeled cases bumping behind us, we set off down the path, past the Benoîts' and the Paolis', the Perettis' gated compound, and the old Albertoni place, its crumbling stucco baring the stacked stone slabs beneath, until we reach the last bend before the cliff. And there, in the gloaming, awash in purple shadows, rises my family's summer house, the great black oak door flung open to reveal Odette waving in the embrasure.
"Alors, did you have a nice trip?"
Odette used to be a stewardess, and she has retained from those days a brisk social efficiency that I've always found disconcerting but seems to put men at ease. It works on Jim; having ushered us in and installed him in the comfortable chair, she sets about plying him with apéritifs and solicitous chatter, all the while dutifully showcasing me with questions about my exciting life in New York City and my terribly glamorous and important job, the unglamorous nature of which Jim is well acquainted with, since he works with me. I suppose Odette sees this kind of thing as a maternal duty, even though by the time Ross married her I was too old to require a stepmother.
She's done some decorating since I was last here: Lace curtains hang in the windows and a flowered slipcover has been thrown over the couch. Still, the salon, as Odette wishfully calls the big common area on the ground floor, with its refectory table and the picture of General Marconi -- the only local figure ever to have achieved international celebrity, in the eighteenth century -- betrays the fact that Ross was already broke when they moved in.
"Tiens," she now says, "do you know that we had a cambriolage?"
"The house was broken into?"
"Yes, but it is very strange: They took nothing."
"It was probably just kids," I say, "looking for a place to party."
Odette frowns. "I had the lock changed nonetheless."
"They'll just find another way in," I say, glancing at the windows. In daylight they look out on the Mediterranean, but now all you can see is an inky black void.
"So," Odette says when we have finished our drinks, "what room will you take?"
I've been waiting for this.
"The yellow room," I drop casually, as if it were the most natural thing in the world -- which it isn't, because the yellow room is the best in the house after Isabelle's, with the firmest mattress and a sea view, and mine to grab since I got here first (before Lucy, that is, who regards it as her birthright). Odette raises an eyebrow but says nothing. With a profound feeling of triumph, I lead the way up, cautioning Jim about the hole in the stairs and showing him the (only) bathroom on the landing. I tell him the house is three hundred years old and used to belong to a pirate, and he says, "Cool."
While we are unpacking -- Jim now rather giddy after two glasses of wine and, I can tell from the way he brushes against me, planning on sex tonight -- I hear voices downstairs, strange since no one else is due until tomorrow. I assume it's Madame Benoît, with whom Odette is friendly in the way the French are, which means that after five years they've moved beyond stiff bonjours on the road to discussions of the weather and finally, last summer, joint outrage at the cacophonous renovation of the Paoli's house, undertaken in July! When I go back down, though, I find not Madame Benoît but a slim, dark-haired Frenchman whom Odette introduces as Yves. An old friend, she explains. He is staying in the attic room, the one no one ever uses because it gets too hot. This Yves, it turns out, on top of being a nervous smoker, speaks good English -- he's some kind of schoolteacher in Paris -- so that when Jim comes down to join us, they shake hands and embark on a conversation about the World Cup. For lack of anything better to do, I follow Odette into the kitchen.
Here, too, improvements have been made: A red and white checked curtain blocks the view of the ruin across the way -- one of Borgolano's many abandoned properties -- and a new light illuminates the stone sink. It's been Odette's long-standing dream to put in new appliances, but for now she's still making do with the original fixtures. Odette takes great pride in her adaptability: As she has often pointed out, if you can cook in a galley you can cook anywhere. Since there are men in the house, she is making a sybaritic feast of lamb in a wine and garlic sauce and even, I notice on the sideboard, cheese and a peach tart.
"Eh bien," she says conspiratorially, "he seems very nice this Jeem, very présentable." She lifts the lid off the stew and gives it a brisk stir, then adds a pinch of salt. It's always amazed me how Odette can cook entirely by smell, undoubtedly the reason she remains a size two despite being nearly fifty.
"Well," I say, chewing on an olive, "he's an investment banker: He has to be presentable."
"Ah, bon," murmurs Odette, who has a healthy respect for power and position and, I can see, is wondering how I managed with my meager charms to snare this prime piece of eligible manhood. I should mention that Jim is good-looking in the square-jawed Brooks Brothers way that appears to be a requisite for a career in corporate finance. Meanwhile, I am wondering exactly what kind of old friend this Yves is. Ross died less than a year ago and Yves seems a bit young for her, not to mention slightly prissy in his ironed jeans and navy blue polo shirt. An odd choice, you would think, after having been married to a dead ringer for Lee Marvin. But Odette doesn't want to talk about Yves, or me, or even her late husband, my father. Now that she's acquitted herself of her stepmotherly duties, her eyes take on the haunted cast that heralds a discussion of what really interests her: the dissolution of my sister Isabelle's marriage to the famous Czech dissident poet and philanderer Jiri Orlik.
"Alors...how does she seem?" she asks, for I am the last one to have seen Isabelle, my former job as an analyst in the emerging markets division of Grohman Brothers having taken me twice to Prague this year.
"The same. It'll take more than a divorce to knock Isabelle down," I reply, helping myself to a gooey wedge of Camembert. Odette, who subscribes to the French canon that cheese is strictly après-dinner, winces. If she could get you into a corner, she would tell you that I am difficile, that she sometimes even finds it hard to believe that Isabelle and I are related.
"Ah, Constance, you don't know what divorce does to a woman," she says, making me wonder how she's so sure since, as far as I know, she's only been married to my father. "And to have to endure it in public!" she adds, for the whole debacle about Jiri abandoning his wife and two daughters for an eighteen-year-old starlet was played out in all the tabloids, since the Czechs take a far greater interest in intellectuals than we do in America. Isabelle even sent me one paper, called Halo, with a picture of Isabelle in a bikini on the cover under the caption, ORLIK DUMPS AMERICAN WIFE!
"If you want my opinion," I offer, chomping on another olive, "Jiri is a jerk and she's well rid of him."
She shoots me one of her How can you be so heartless? looks. Poor Odette: I can't say she hasn't tried hard. It's not her fault that, unlike Isabelle, I didn't need her ministrations. To placate her, I throw her a bone. "So, when are Lucy and Jane arriving?"
It always works: Her preternaturally smooth (collagen injections) brow relaxes as the one bond we share takes hold. Lucy, she informs me with the faintest moue, is arriving from London tomorrow.
Copyright © 2004 by Megan McAndrew
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Meet the Author
Megan McAndrew is herself the daughter of expatriates. She grew up in France, Spain and Belgium before attending college in the United States. She worked in Warsaw, Poland, as a representative for the Financial Services Volunteer Corps. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her teenage son.
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Very fast read about a stepfamily who converge on a French island to spread their patriarch's ashes. As they gather, the author slowly unfolds the offbeat personalities of each: four grown sisters and their partners, their mother and her husband, the father's second wife and a young niece. These characters come from very different backgrounds and it feels like the author just throws them together to verbally spare, snipe and annoy each other. Each woman seems desperate as she juggles for attention, power and to have her own selfish desires met. At times this book plods along slowly, concentrating too much on the petty spats and silly arguments but then the book takes an unexpected turn as two sisters accidentally trip over their father's secret life. When he died, he left some loose ends which forces the daughters to do business with dangerous and deadly thieves. This part adds a nice detour away from the otherwise self-absorbed characters. The end of the book is silly and ridiculous. A follow-up epilogue tells how the sisters ultimately end up and provides a quick wrap-up to the book. It felt to me like the author had to meet her deadline, so she just slapped together this conclusion. Overall, I would NOT recommend this book.
This book was such a waste of time - none of the characters (or the writing, for that matter) were appealing AT ALL. They all got on my nerves and confused me with their lightning-quick changes in attitude, personality, etc. I would NOT recommend this book to anyone.
When family patriarch Ross Wright died in a plane crash, he left behind plenty of debts for his extended families to cope with. Still, the gathering of his female offspring from several marriages arrives at the Mediterranean island of Santerre to pay tribute to him in a special memorial............................. Constance hopes that her boyfriend makes her look good with her family though she doubts she will attain the bar of Isabelle, her older sister. Isabelle is filled with resentment since her famous spouse dumped her for a younger model. Stepsister Lucy still competes with Isabelle for the role of departed dad¿s favorite by insisting that Ross was the greatest father and would never harm them. Isabelle only half fights to keep her throne because she is seeking a new stud, preferable the guy next door. He seems shockingly interested in Constance. Lucy¿s younger sister Jane hurts from the end of a relationship, but that and her dad¿s death do not color her reality as she sees that he left them to clean up his mess. Ross¿ four adult children pay their respects by arguing, fussing, and fighting with some comforting as only sisters can do...................................... Though the plot meanders, the strength of author Megan McAndrew lies in her ability to have the reader believe that all the male swaps, brawls, and hugs are normal family relationships. The sisters and key supporting players including dear departed dad seem so real that readers will believe that they are there to pay respect to Ross. This is a fabulous debut from a writer who has created a powerfully interesting character study of four ferocious females fighting at their father¿s funeral........................ Harriet Klausner