Goldberg Variationsby Susan Isaacs
The ultimate novel of family dysfunction from New York Times bestselling author Susan Isaacs, combining her trademark sass and wit, her distinctive characters, with reflections on faith, family, and inheritance that both entertain and enlighten.
Imagine King Lear as a comedy . . .
Elegant, amusing, and profoundly nasty tycoon Gloria/i>/b>/i>
The ultimate novel of family dysfunction from New York Times bestselling author Susan Isaacs, combining her trademark sass and wit, her distinctive characters, with reflections on faith, family, and inheritance that both entertain and enlighten.
Imagine King Lear as a comedy . . .
Elegant, amusing, and profoundly nasty tycoon Gloria Garrison, née Goldberg, has a kingdom to bequeath to one of the grandchildren she barely knows. They’re all twentysomethings who foolishly believe money isn’t everything. Just shy of eighty, Gloria doesn’t wish to watch the minutes tick by while the three dither over the issues of their generation—love, meaning, identity. She has summoned them all from New York for a weekend at her palatial home in Santa Fe. She has a single question to ask them: “Which one of you most deserves to inherit my business?” Gloria never anticipates the answer will be “not interested” times three. She created a brilliant, booming beauty business, Glory, Inc., that not only does well, but does good. And they say “no”? What’s so grand about their lives that they would reject such a kingdom?
Daisy Goldberg is not only mad for movies, she’s part of the film industry: East Coast story editor for one of the biggest studios. Her brother, Matt, the über–sports buff, has a great job in public relations with Major League Baseball. And their cousin Raquel Goldberg, half-Latina, all Catholic, is a Legal Aid lawyer. They may like their work, but do they really like their lives? Would they be so foolish as to hold against their grandmother the pain she inflicted on every member of the family? As far as Gloria is concerned, this isn’t about tender feelings. It’s about millions of dollars; it’s about living a life the ninety-nine percent dream of and the one percent know.
The weekend is full of surprises, not only for Daisy, Matt, and Raquel but also for Gloria. Memories have a way of intruding at the most inopportune times. And is Gloria’s tough hide as impenetrable as she has always believed? Susan Isaacs is at her formidable best in Goldberg Variations, a novel that is both wickedly witty and a deeply moving tale of family and reconciliation.
“A deliciously wicked tale of family dysfunction…”
“The women who inhabit Isaacs’ books are smart, sexy, a little snarky, and filled with some serious chutzpah….Goldberg Variations is no exception.”
“Isaacs’ whip-smart, shrewdly scathing, and spirited portrait of a malevolent matriarch worthy of the Brothers Grimm and her Disneyesque coterie of too-good-to-be-true grandchildren is both a saucy satire and a redemptive study of the indelible bonds of families.”
“This wise, witty, relationship-driven novel is a truly original family saga….Readers will find Goldberg Variations enchanting from beginning to end.”
“Always sassy, smart and wickedly witty, Susan Isaacs’ novel is both hilariously funny and a moving tale of family, faith and reconciliation.”
“Isaacs is a master of witty fiction with an undercurrent of emotional truth.”
“Isaacs has created one tough cookie in Gloria Garrison.”
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Read an Excerpt
I am not one of those tedious people who feel compelled to speak in smiley faces. Like: Whenever a door closes, a window opens. Of course they can never leave it at a lone, bubbly sentence. No, gush must follow: Gloria, truthfully, deep down, aren’t you thrilled it turned out this way? You know, it’s always darkest before dawn. But this . . . Oh, God, this is your moment! You get to choose which of these three darling young people is worthiest to inherit your kingdom! Isn’t it like some fairy tale come to life?
Okay, ask. Here I am, pacing from room to room to room—and I am a woman of many rooms—trying to prepare myself for the onslaught. A limo will be here any minute bringing three virtual strangers to invade my house. All right, they are my grandchildren, but I barely know them. Goldberg, Goldberg, and Goldberg. Sounds like some shtick in a Marx Brothers movie.
Except what I’m living through is no damn comedy. More like a tragedy. Not tragedy with a capital T, I admit. The fate of a company like Glory, Inc., which trucks around the South and West demonstrating how to apply false eyelashes, isn’t exactly in the same league as Oedipus, that king who put out his eyes because he slept with his mother. Talk about a classic, though I personally found the play creepy. Also, to be honest, a bit boring. Maybe if I’d gone to college I’d appreciate it on a more profound level because I’d have studied it, not just read it. Maybe not. No, definitely not. By the way, do not get the impression from the above that Glory is in the eyelash biz. That’s only a minuscule part of what we do.
But getting back to tragedy: I understand it, intellectually and personally. I know the definition: the fall of a great person because of a character flaw he or she possesses. Right? For a long time I lied, said I went to college. When I lived in the East, I said Stanford, though at the beginning I was saying Sanford until I read in the Times that John Steinbeck was a Stanford dropout which, needless to say, was humiliating. To make it worse, I couldn’t stop recalling all the times people asked me, “Where did you go to school?” I’d say, simply and slowly, “Sanford.” They must have known. When I moved west, I switched to University of Pennsylvania. No one ever came back with, Yeah, sure. Because I’m so self-educated, I can pass as practically erudite. Well, if I get the name of the college right.
So, no capital T tragedy. Not that I’m claiming greatness for myself, but don’t I qualify as a sort of tragic heroine anyway? Wasn’t it a flaw in my character that caused the corporate cataclysm that led me here, pacing, then eying my watch, followed by a glance up at the TV’s closed-circuit channel with its shot of the secured entrance to Los Ranchos Verdes Estates? The only vehicle that’s come through during the twenty minutes I’ve been watching was a tan van, its windows obscured by road dust. DESERT FLOWER AIR-CONDITIONING painted along the van’s side panel was so faded the entire van almost blended into the air, all shimmery at the edges, like a mirage.
What if one of them is utterly dreadful? Forget something blatant, like rank body odor or an uncontrollable need to detail a friend’s transgender surgery in a loud voice in a restaurant. What if one of them is disgusting in a small way? Half-moons of that blackish-green dirt under fingernails. I’ve never been able to bear thinking about it long enough to figure out how the green gets there. Or instead of holding flatware properly, they clench knife and fork in fists and saw away at a piece of meat until you hear the scream of bone china getting cut by the knife. The boy could leave urine sprinkles on the underside of the toilet seat for the help to clean. One of the girls might have inch-long fake nails painted with tiger stripes.
I detest waiting. I act. I do not get acted upon. Instead of being five miles down the road at my office at Glory, Inc. doing what I always do on Thursday afternoons (checking inventory spreadsheets and confirming with the L.A. stylists what is and is not selling, accessorieswise), I am stuck at home waiting for the arrival of the three lamebrains I barely know. My three grandchildren. Fine, they’re all theoretically smart. I mean good colleges. All gainfully employed, no mean feat nowadays, in respectable starter jobs.
The boy is with the New York Mets. Public relations. The Puerto Rican is a lawyer at Legal Aid in Manhattan. The other girl is number two at the New York office of Paramount which, for all I know, only has two people. But at least they’ve got respectable CVs.
Still, such a profound dread has been pressing down on my skull that I had to gag down two Excedrin. I hate pills. I exercise daily and I’m not on any serious medication except an asthma inhaler, and that’s only once in a blue moon. But who wouldn’t have a headache under these circumstances? I fear that once I exchange about four or five sentences with any of the three, I’ll discover he or she naïve in a unique and hopeless way—and therefore incapable of running a business like Glory that netted eleven million last year. Eleven.
I’ll know soon enough. But though my headache has eased, I feel a little nauseated. The way one does after Belgian waffles. Except all I had for breakfast was two forkfuls of an egg-white frittata. Well, who wouldn’t feel queasy? I’m going to have to choose one of those Goldbergs. But as I wait, I keep returning to the moment when not-Oedipus-but-nonetheless-an-important figure, i.e., me, plummeted from a great height due to her Tragic Flaw.
• • •
Five months ago, I was in my office, a huge square room with French doors at the far end that provided a panorama of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains southeast of Santa Fe. Visitors would gasp, Oh, my God! Whether in sunshine, or in the gray of clouds, made blurry by sand on a windy day, they were always wondrous. When I sat at my desk, however, that heart-bursting sight was behind me. The mountains and the vast sky. Herewith: Gloria Garrison’s Law of Commerce 437: Do not get besotted by nature during business hours. Still, beauty is my business. I needed to look at something nonugly. So my office must not only please clients and colleagues, but it also must rise to the Gloria Garrison taste level. If that makes me sound like an egomaniac, I’m not. I simply know that if something is visually jarring or inadequate, it reflects badly on Glory.
Anyhow, because beauty that’s too familiar loses its punch, the room itself had rotated through the color wheel each time I redecorated. Naturally, I’d had my all-white period, which made everything flawless until one day I walked in and it hit me: This is what evangelicals expect God’s office to look like. Pure and boring. Soon after Goodwill removed the white flokati rug and the rest of God’s furniture, a mostly blue Persian rug moved in, though for the life of me I can’t remember what came with it. Next was the predictable Southwest routine (sage and beige with pops of paled-out orange), then Mexican with stuccoed walls and blue-tiled gas fireplace, followed by Bauhausy, in which the loudest color was tan.
Currently, my office walls are a sky blue I still haven’t tired of: such a clean color. Whenever I more than glance at those Venetian plastered walls, when I really take in the luminosity of their hue, my soul feels cleansed—that sensation of inner peace you get when you’re just out of a shower with a quality Castile soap. The latest redo had been primarily the blue paint job and reupholstery. I kept most of the furniture from my Bauhaus period. Why get new? You come to a certain age and you comprehend the adage “You can’t take it with you” on the deepest level, which is somewhere between annoying and gut-wrenching. Well, someone—I think Jack Benny—was quoted as saying, “If I can’t take it with me, I won’t go.” Amusing, gutsy . . . except he went. You ask yourself, Why buy an eighteenth-century Russian tole tray table even if I madly covet it? I wish, like the ancient Egyptians, I could believe that the furniture I brought into my pyramid would be with me for eternity. Swedish farmhouse-style would wear well. But no pyramid for me. Because there is only nothing to look forward to.
Anyway, my most recent office renovation: As an antidote to the simplicity of the Bauhaus, I did throw in a lot of yellow accessories. Keith remarked that with all that yellow along with the blue walls, I could open my own Swedish consulate.
All right, let me deal with it. With him. Keith Thompson. Until that time five months ago, he was my heir apparent as well as my dearest friend. True, not my heir according to my will, but who knew? Minds change. It could have happened. What was definite, or so I thought, was that one day he would be the owner of Glory, Inc. I was happy, happy to let him buy me out at a nongouging, below-market price. And he wouldn’t have had to wait until I kicked the bucket to take over. It would have been his just two years after the earn-out period.
Keith had been working for me for seventeen years, and still, whenever I pictured him, my mind’s eye saw him at our first interview. In those days, he’d been so stunning you could almost hear people warning themselves, Don’t stare! Just act natural. Not that he’d completely lost his handsomeness over the years. His dark gold hair, now streaked with silver, remained thick and so silky you had to fight the urge to touch it. He’d never developed that middle-aged cordy neck or a jaw compromised by a second or third chin. His azure eyes (very much like the blue color on my walls) shone with such a clear light they mellowed his iron-jawed cowboy looks with a touch of poet.
But nowadays, up close, Keith came across far older than he actually was. He looked more Medicare Man than his real age, forty-eight. Shocking, the change in him. The sharp angles of his cheeks had flattened out about five years earlier, around the time he’d switched from tequila shots to frozen margaritas, as if the overload of glucose was dissolving the calcium in his bones. Overnight, his once-bronzed, supple skin had aged. If I’d touched it, it would have felt like leather from a dried-out riding boot. However, in the seconds before my Tragic Moment, his cracked, brownish visage took on a glow again. Unfortunately, his face was afire with rage.
“Don’t you have one single ounce of decency?” he was roaring at me, though I wasn’t paying as much attention to his words. Maybe I should have. I was too transfixed by his nearness, and it had nothing to do with his being a beautiful man. What good would that have done me? No, it was because tiny explosions of saliva were erupting from his dry lips. I could see every droplet of his spit lit up by the noontime Santa Fe glare. That’s how close he was leaning in to me. His hands were braced on the edge of my desk. His chin was directly above my cup of paper clips. If he tilted in even one half inch more, his next spritz could wind up in my iced tea.
“Did anyone ever have the guts to tell you, Gloria, that you’re an evil person and a complete piece of shit?”
“Of course. Though never in a single sentence.” I admit it: I was overly fond of the sound of my own words, especially when listening to myself saying something cruelly clever. I wasn’t born with a captivating voice. It was still a work in progress. I often listened to myself, which was helpful, but it sometimes made me miss parts of other people’s conversation.
A thousand years earlier, when I was modeling in New York, one of the other girls, Ramona, had advised me, “You could use a little work in the elocution department, Gloria. You’ve got that—I don’t know—Midwest accent and it sort of makes you sound a little like Tilly the Toiler on the Ford assembly line. I’m saying this as a friend. Between you and I, if you want to hook a rich guy, they want to believe you’re the refined type, like you’re a deb modeling for the fun of it. So . . . here’s a quick trick. Make believe you’re Princess Elizabeth when you talk. But also, pitch your voice as low as it will go. Remember: Low is lovely. Except, listen: Don’t try for the British accent. Not to worry. If you’re doing a good princess impersonation, whatever you say will come out classy.” (Another girl came over to me later and murmured, “Gloria, darling, listen to me. The word ‘classy’ is déclassé, just like Ramona. Never use it.”) Over the years, I’d dropped the princess bit. Anyway, soon after Elizabeth became queen she turned dumpy. So I’d created my own personal ideal, which was a kind of female heterosexual Noël Coward. Okay, admittedly I wasn’t such great shakes in the wit department.
“‘Evil person.’” I repeated what Keith had said. “‘Piece of shit.’ How piquant.”
I waited for his customary unwilling smile—You’re a bitch and I’m furious beyond belief but hell you are amusing. Whenever he did that, one side of his upper lip, with its lush brush of a mustache, would rise despite his cheek muscle’s valiant attempt to suppress it. Except it didn’t happen this time.
“Look at you,” Keith kept going, “sitting there like that! An egomaniacal, infantile . . .” He gulped. Using two big words, so close together, wore him out. He stopped to take a deep breath. He’d been playing monosyllabic Western macho man for so many years that despite his intelligence, his vocabulary was shot to hell. Then he swallowed once, twice, and bellowed, “You’re a dribbling old lady who’s got to wear a bib. An XXL bib.”
“It’s not a bib, you ass. And you know it!” I shot back, though making sure to maintain my mellifluous voice. His “old lady” was an attempt to thrust a knife in my heart. I certainly wasn’t going to cooperate and, metaphorically, drop dead.
“Not a bib?” No drip, drip of sarcasm: a torrent of mockery. “Then what is that thing around your neck?”
It’s a goddamn insurance policy, I wanted to scream at him—the “old lady” bit had been a surprise, a smack in the face. As for the so-called bib, I was founder and CEO of a beauty and fashion business. So? Could a CEO of such an enterprise go to her next appointment, a meeting with her banker, with a blob of encrusted chicken salad on her white silk blouse? Could she jeopardize the next meeting on her calendar—an interview with a reporter from the Northwest Arkansas Times—with Coke Zero dribble stains on the teeny knots between her eighteen-millimeter pearls?
Absurd. Which was why I always wore protection when I ate at my desk. Not a bib, not some plastic monstrosity stamped with SPIT HAPPENS. No, the high-priced expanse of white linen tucked into my neckline was a genuine antique, a nineteenth-century damask napkin. The New Orleans linen dealer had told me he believed the dozen “serviettes” I was considering came from a French château that had belonged to a distinguished Huguenot family. The guy made a point of enunciating Huguenot as “oo-gay-no,” practically panting with anticipation for me to show some sign I wasn’t comprehending what he’d just said, but of course I was.
“Can I ask you something?” Keith stepped back and crossed his arms over his extravagantly toned pecs. If he truly believed that working out for an hour and a half every day to maintain a thirty-five-year-old physique was going to make all cute young guys decide, With a body like that, who cares if his face looks like it’s made from hundred-year-old crocodile skin? he was delusional.
Not that Keith was currently in the market for cute young things, I had to admit. His lover/partner of almost twenty years was stretched out on a bed in the ICU at St. Vincent’s Hospital with only a ventilator holding off Death. That’s what was making Keith scream at me.
Not the fact that Billy was dying in a room that, without a doubt, stank from disinfectant and Keith was ultrasensitive to smells. And not that Billy was probably hooked up to beeping monitors with ever-changing green numbers. Even if a miracle occurred and he survived, the from-out-of-nowhere stroke that had hit him had done such damage that his brain would be about as useful as last week’s scrambled eggs—and all this had happened three and a half weeks before Billy’s fortieth. Keith and I had been planning the celebration for months. Not a surprise party. Except it would be. Billy would think it was a small birthday dinner chez Glo, as he called my house, and that the big occasion would come the following week. Except he’d walk in to a thousand candles lighting up a hundred fifty of his nearest and dearest. Surprise! Except the surprise came a month too soon, and it was no party.
But what had turned Keith crimson with fury at me was not random rage at the unfairness of life. It was me: I have to acknowledge that. What got him was that I had not gone to the hospital. And this was after Keith told me for probably the tenth time, “Gloria, you’re like family to Billy and me.” Plus there had been at least five repetitions of “Billy always said, ‘Gloria is my big sister.’” At one point he asked, “Let me be blunt. Do you have some major issue about—I don’t know—hospitals or strokes?” And just in case I didn’t get the hint, not ten minutes earlier Keith had come right out and said, “You know, I put you on the list for the ICU. You can go whenever. Every hour on the half hour, day or night. They only let you stay ten minutes, but . . .”
And then, Tragic Flaw time. Instead of sucking it up and telling myself that sometimes, for the sake of business and/or friendship, you’ve got to make sacrifices, or pretend to be a caring human being, I was honest. Not at first, though. I dropped my voice as low as it could go, which wasn’t so hard when you haven’t manufactured a drop of estrogen in over thirty years. It could barely be heard: “I have to tell you the truth, Keith. I know you’ll think I’m an awful person. But the truth is, I don’t think I can bear to see Billy that way.”
“That’s such bullshit! Come on, Ms. Profile in Courage, you goddamn hypocrite. Say what you mean.”
So you don’t have to waste time reading between the lines, let me be up front about what my Tragic Flaw is. It is losing control and saying what I truly think. And the worst part of it is, I know how dangerous and potentially destructive honesty can be for me. I thought I’d learned not to let anyone goad me into candor. Except the double whammy of seeing Keith with tears of grief in his eyes, as if Billy were already dead, along with the rise of his upper lip, like he was so repulsed by my selfishness that he was going to vomit, was too great a goad.
I reached into my desk drawer and grabbed my pen. Despite what Keith insisted later, I wasn’t brushing him off and going back to work on the spreadsheets. The pen was just a handy object, and I needed something to squeeze in my clenched fist because I was in a pitched battle fighting myself to keep the truth from erupting. I tried with everything I had to subdue my worst self. I couldn’t do it.
“He asked for you, for Christ’s sake!” Keith said.
“He didn’t ask for me,” I told him quite calmly. “You know that and I know that. You were the one who told me: He’s lost his power of speech.”
“Not totally. I’m telling you! He looked at me and said . . .” Keith made a repulsive sound, a mix of gulp and hard g. “It was him asking, ‘Where is Gloria? Why isn’t she here?’”
I said, “Keith, you’re projecting what you want to hear. ‘Guh’ could mean, ‘Get me out of here!’ or ‘God help me!’ Most likely it’s an involuntary sound. I don’t know and neither do you. In any case, the bottom line is this: There’s no way I can be in the same room with someone who is on the verge of dying. Okay? I wish I were a better person, but I’m not. I don’t want to risk seeing anyone who’s actually dead. I don’t go to funerals. And it’s not because I’m in the older range, agewise. I’ve always been this way.” Then I kept babbling on, which I shouldn’t have: “God knows why. Most of the time, I pretend I have food poisoning. Except that excuse doesn’t work when someone has a second death in the family. Then I make believe I have a death in my own family and have to fly out to that funeral. And you know what else gets to me? I’m all for interfaith blah-blah-blah, but the worst thing the Christians ever did to the Jews was to get friendly with them. Now you have to go to their funerals and see their embalmed mothers or husbands with freakish makeup jobs in an open casket. So okay? I hate death. Comas are almost as bad. I can’t look at Billy on a ventilator.”
“Goddamn it! He asked for you! I know what I heard.”
“If you think he really can comprehend, then explain to him, ‘Gloria just can’t handle this, Billy. But she sends you all her love. You’re in her heart.’”
Meet the Author
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.
- Sands Point, New York
- Date of Birth:
- December 7, 1943
- Place of Birth:
- Brooklyn, New York
- Honorary Doctorate, Queens College
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I've liked most of ythis author's books, and this was one of the better ones. A good exploration of family dynamics,relationships, and forgiveness.
I liked this book and at the same time didn't(at parts)this is usually not a genre that I would read but I stuck with it since I was so curious as to what would happen.In the beginning it was hard for me to get into the book. I've never read a book that had four main characters and every chapter was the perspective of another character. At first I didn't like it, but towards the middle of the book I actually started to enjoy it. What I didn't like was there are times when the story will refer to the characters religion(Jewish) and I know absolutely nothing about the Jewish religion so I'm very unfamiliar with it. This being said at some points in the story I was a little bit confused, or just wasn't sure what was really happening (since I'm unfamiliar with it) Anyway. The story is about Gloria Garrison who used to be Goldberg but changed her name after leaving her husband Joe. Her son Travis died, and that was the one she loved the most, or showed most the affection to. Her son Bradley feels like she never loved him. Bradley and his wife Cynthia have two children Daisy and Matt. Daisy is almost thirty, single, and works in the film industry. Matt is dating a woman named Ashley, and works for sports PR with the Mets. Her other son Travis was married to Adrianna who only has one child named Raquel. She is dating a man named Hayden, and works as a Legal Aid.I think its kind of weird that it seems that Raquel has a crush on Matt sort of or did while they were younger. Gloria has the children sent out to her home in new Mexico since she wants to have ONE of them take over the business since shes very old. All three reject very quickly that they don't want it. Then she is stuck with them for the next two days until they go back to their homes. What unfolds over the weekend is something very interesting as it does relate to faith(nothing to persuade the reader), and family. Although the book has it's slow parts I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys humor, some business, and family feuding with a good ending. Stick with it because the ending is something you do not see coming! Thank you Susan Isaacs for giving me a chance to read your book! [this review has been posted on goodreads and amazon]
Mix Gloria Garrison nee Goldberg with her three grandchildren and like oil and water, they just come together. Gloria, the impervious grande dame of GLORY has made over her life and everything is perfect, until her former business partner and asumed heir walks out. So, she calls a summit with her estranged family to determine if any of these three are "worthy" to run GLORY when she passes.But is that all she wants? In typical Issac fashion the story twists and turns and may not end as we think it might. The writing is harsh and beautiful at the same time. But she does something new each time, which is why she's an author of note.
An enjoyable read. I liked the contrast of 20 something ideas and 70 something ideas of style, religion, family, relationships, and work values. The underlying concept that family dynamics influence lives overlaid the point that the personalities of all involved change the message. Even the 2 children in the same household had different reactions to the comments made by their parents while growing up. I understood Gloria's defensive attitude and appreciated the grandchildren's ability to see beyond her shortcomings and stuborness.
I love this author!!!! She is usually very witty and keeps me interested. Sorry but not this time! The grandmother in this novel was no different than mine (mother). She had no redeeming qualities and "frankly I didnt give a damn" Sorry.
Who has instagram!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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I cant even read the reviews without a long winded personel review...makes me not want to read the book..cant you limit the amount of words in a review?