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Iron Shoes

Iron Shoes

3.0 3
by Molly Giles

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Kay Sorenson is stuck. She is forty years old and still trying — and failing — to please her glamorous, willful, and indifferent parents. She abandoned a promising music career, settled into a loveless marriage, became a careless mother, and began to drink, smoke, and daydream too much. But when her mother dies, Kay is left without her lifelong crutch


Kay Sorenson is stuck. She is forty years old and still trying — and failing — to please her glamorous, willful, and indifferent parents. She abandoned a promising music career, settled into a loveless marriage, became a careless mother, and began to drink, smoke, and daydream too much. But when her mother dies, Kay is left without her lifelong crutch and is finally forced to take her first tentative steps toward becoming the woman she wants to be.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Giles may be known to a few from her acclaimed short-story collections, Creek Walk and Rough Translations, but her first novel is a masterpiece. In Iron Shoes, Giles introduces forty-year-old Kay Sorensen, one of the more compellingly drawn characters we've met-and one of many in this extraordinary debut. Beaten down by life and barely limping along, Kay does the best she can to care for her ailing, yet domineering mother, Ida, her disinterested health-freak husband, and her son, Nicky. Trying to wean herself off the comfortable haze induced by alcohol, Kay turns to her eccentric and troubled friend, Zabeth, for advice and comfort; and obsesses over the mysterious Charles Lichtman, who frequents the library where Kay works.

But Kay is stuck. Not who she wants to be, certainly not who her mother, father, or her husband want her to be, Kay is the black to her family's white. Her mother is (or rather was) a glamour-puss. Kay, by comparison, is heavy-set and ungainly. Her father dreams of Kay's illustrious, and now lost, career as a concert pianist, while Kay sweats over a local concert at a nearby church. Her husband, Neal, obsessed with taking the correct vitamins and ingesting only the proper foods, watches in horror and disgust as Kay lustily consumes quantities of dairy and meat, and more than her fair share of alcohol. But when her mother truly begins to die, Kay must face the music of her life-and either do something about it or continue to wallow in the mire, no hand in sight to pull her out.

A deeply honest look at a woman weighed down with the concerns of others, Iron Shoes is a dramatic and deeply moving first novel.

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
This "intense," "well-written, humorous, and touching" debut novel by an award-winning short-story writer tells the "depressing" story of one woman's painful search for identity and meaning in the wake of her family's disintegration.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Though they are monstrously selfish, Ida and Francis McLeod, the aging parents of the middle-aged protagonist of Giles's haunting first novel (after her short story collection, Rough Translations), are drawn with such nuanced understanding that one ends up as sorry for their shallow lives as for their daughter's crushed and battered psyche. The glamorous, alcoholic, self-indulgent Sorensens are too immature to be parents. They have cowed their daughter, Kay, once a promising pianist, into a frantically abject servant to their many whims and demands, to the detriment of both her own marriage and her abilities to nurture her young son. Over the years, Ida has suffered many "accidents" that have resulted in injuries and crisis surgery (her second leg has just been amputated), a perverse form of punishment of irresponsible Francis and of servitude for Kay. An assistant at a small local library in Northern California, Kay endures her mother's vicious asides and blatant manipulation, as well as her father's sarcastic wit. Unwittingly, Kay has married another cool, distant man; Victor, her husband, stays away from her in bed and refuses to engage in conversation. It's no wonder that she conceives a crush on a hunk, a painter whom she meets at the library. After her mother's medical condition goes downhill and her husband becomes even more remote, Kay smothers her feelings in alcohol, sweet foods and cigarettes, only dimly aware that she has willingly assumed the "iron shoes" she describes in a fairy tale she tells her son. Giles's psychological portrait of Kay is completely credible; it's easy to see Kay's lack of self-esteem as a reflexive response from her to chronic emotional abuse. None of this is as lugubrious as it sounds, because Giles's narrative is animated with zesty prose, whip-smart observations and a refreshing roster of minor characters. In spite of the dark terrain this novel navigates, it is a sparkling and witty account of one woman's belated coming-of-age. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Kay, 40, drinks too much and works in the smallest branch of her California county's library system. Her husband celebrates Valentine's Day by buying her one, count 'em, one ticket to the ballet. Her architect father scorns and mocks every aspect of her life, disappointed that her potential as a concert pianist amounted to nothing. Her mother, Ida, is disappearing into her illness. Losing first one leg, then the other, Ida, who is bitterly helpless as the cancer decimates her interior, is fueled by her inventive, relentless attacks on her daughter's sense of self. In piercing, fresh language, Giles draws the reader compulsively into this tale of familial cruelty that knows no limits. Desperate to please and be loved, seemingly unsuccessful on both counts with all who are supposed to matter to her, Kay finally has as epiphany, a do-or-die proposition. Giles, whose first collection of short stories, Rough Translations, garnered her a Pulitzer nomination and whose second, Creek Walk and Other Stories, is a first-time novelist who must do it a was a New York Times Book Review 1996 Notable Book, is a first-time novelist who must do it again. And soon. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/00.]--Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor District Lib., MI Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
[A] funny, well-constructed first novel...Giles, the author of two previous short-story collections, is a gifted writer -- she's witty, with keen comic timing and a graceful sense of economy.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Award-winning storywriter Giles (Creek Walk, 1997, etc.) shows that she can extend her gift to the longer form, in an edgy debut novel. We first meet 40-something part-time librarian Kay Sorenson when she's visiting her mother Ida in the hospital following a second leg amputation. Sounds dismal, but Ida, glamorous and larger-than-life even without her legs, is as brave and funny as she is difficult. Kay is dutiful yet wary, and with good reason: Ida's illnesses have been the defining ritual of Kay's life. Ida has been falling and breaking bones since Kay was born, a pregnancy, Ida later reveals to Kay, she tried to abort. Nevertheless, Kay has stuck close to home, so eclipsed by her mother's histrionics and her father's inscrutability, and so uncertain she and her brother, Victor, were ever truly loved, that she can barely acknowledge her own arrested development. Kay's romance with the mythology of her parents' cracked devotion to each other makes her life with her son Nicky and health-obsessed husband Neal, whose best shot at comfort is a stingy, "Oh, babe," seem as warm and safe as an empty bank vault. So, to stave off the encroaching chill, and to delay her inevitable reckoning with the truth, Kay, like her mother and father, cracks jokes and drinks. Paradoxically, as the story unfolds, alcohol will serve everyone as both the potion of illusion and, after Ida dies from cancer, of clarity. The magic of this tale lies in Giles's exquisite prose (a scent, a sound on every page without strain), her willingness to lay bare her characters' warts with equal parts of mordant humor and affection, and in dialogue that sounds overheard insteadofcreated. While Kay's midlife dilemma is not uncommon, Giles's handling of this endearing heroine's shucking off her "iron shoes" to navigate the terrain of a new life is an uncommon beauty.

From the Publisher
Barbara Sutton The New York Times Book Review Giles...is a gifted writer — witty, with keen, comic timing and a graceful sense of economy.

Karen Karbo San Jose Mercury News Giles is a darkly funny writer — one is reminded of Carson McCullers — and her dialogue is sharp enough to give you whiplash...[a] tough, brilliant little novel.

Kate Flatley The Wall Street Journal Molly Giles is a cut above....With tart humor and sharp wit, she makes her characters boldly three dimensional.

Jean Thompson author of Who Do You Love Iron Shoes is fierce, funny, always exhilarating. This is comedy with an edge to it, and grief that sees with clear eyes.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.96(w) x 8.76(h) x 0.91(d)

Read an Excerpt

Kay hurried down the hospital corridor, trying to balance the bag of gifts in one arm and the bouquet of flowers in the other. Her shoulder purse banged against her hip as she half-walked, half-jogged toward her mother's room, and her hair spilled out of its pins, wispy against her flushed face. Hastily she rehearsed the rules she had set for this visit: she would be light and charming; she would not complain about her husband nor brag about her son; she would not cry -- as she had after the last operation when she saw what was left of her mother's leg -- and she would not tell a single lie unless she had to. She checked the number inked on her wrist to make sure she had the right room, tucked her bunched blouse back into her skirt, and raised a hand to knock. The bag immediately slipped, tore, and spilled out of her arms. Not fair! Kay thought. The hangover she had been fighting all day kicked in and her throat watered with savage longing for a cigarette. She gathered the things, straightened, took a deep breath, and knocked again.

Ida, propped on pillows in a gold satin bed jacket, did not turn. She was staring out the window. "You took your sweet time," she said.

"Sorry." Kay tried to think of an excuse that would work. There was none. "I left work late. There was a lot of traffic. I got lost."

Ida turned and looked at her over the tops of her glasses. "You got lost coming to the hospital?"

"No. I got lost in the hospital. Don't look at me like that. It's a big hospital."

"You've been lost all your life."

"Sorry," Kay repeated, adding, "How are you?" which was the wrong thing to say. She braced herself, expecting to hear, "How do you think I am? I just had my last leg cut off. How would you be if you just had your last leg cut off?" But Ida only said mildly, "Fine. Except it seems I've caught bronchitis."

"Can you 'catch' bronchitis?"

"I don't know. One of the surgeons was sneezing all over me. Oh what are we talking about? Come give me a kiss. Christ! Don't sit on the bed."

"I wasn't going to."

"You most certainly were. You were going to knock me off balance."

"No, I was..."

"I have no balance at all. I roll around like a papoose. How would you like to be me?" Ida stared at her, glittering. How beautiful she was, Kay thought. Even now. Those huge eyes, dark as the sapphire on her clenched hand. The creamy skin. Cleft chin. Valentine mouth. The heavy diamond earrings were in place, only three days after surgery, and the surgical cotton dabbed with L'Heure Bleue was secreted somewhere inside the silk bed jacket; the whole room reeked of it.

"I would not like to be you," Kay said.

"Right. Do you know what Francis calls me now? Humpty Dumpty. Can you believe it?" Ida's eyes were full of tears and something else, some lit and sparkling secret life. Laughter, Kay thought, shocked. "I better not fall off any walls," Ida said gaily.

"A wall ought to fall on Dad."

"Oh he can't help it. I wish he'd call though. I haven't heard from him all day. What did you bring me?"

"Just these." Kay unfolded the sheath of flowers. They looked battered; not the brave flags she had seen in the florist's window, nothing but a bunch of bent and broken stalks. She tried to smooth them straight. "Gladiolas," she apologized. "They reminded me of you."

"They're lovely, darling. What color would you call that?"


"Let me see. No. Bring them closer. I can't come to you. You may not have noticed, but I don't have any legs. And not in my face! I'll get pollen up my nose! Can you believe this? Bronchitis? Did you bring a vase?"

"I'll ask a nurse."

"I wouldn't if I were you. The nurses here are all dykes."

"Maybe there's one in the bathroom."

"Oh they're all over."

"I meant a vase."

"There might well be a vase in the bathroom. I wouldn't know. I can't go to the bathroom, Kay. I can't walk. Remember?"

"Yes, well, I'll go down the hall and find one. Here, Nicky made you a card. And I made macaroons. And here's a new novel from work I thought you might like."

Ida picked up each item and studied it closely. "There's been a mouse in the pantry," she said, shaking the cookie bag. Kay licked a crumb from the inside of a tooth and shrugged. I'm forty, she thought. I need to eat. She watched Ida examine Nicky's card. It was one of his nicer ones. Or was it? She leaned forward. Oh-oh. It showed a little boy with no hands running from a house on fire. "Don't Be Scarred" was crayoned on top. "I wonder why you let him use gilt," Ida said. "It makes such a mess."

Kay looked at the festive salting of gold and silver that had fallen from Nicky's card onto her mother's hospital sheet and let her eyes finally move past the lap to the two short lengths of thigh and then to the flat empty place where the rest of Ida's legs ought to be. There. She had looked. A roar of pity thundered in her ears. She had loved her mother's legs, their angles and curves, the saucy way they kicked out when Ida danced, the way they dovetailed together when she arced off the diving board. She had loved the sheen of the ivory-colored skin after shaving, the hard knees with their freckles, the strong square toes with their bright red polish. It had been hard to accept the loss of the first leg, a year ago, but this second loss was worse. Oh, what was the matter with Ida? Why couldn't she follow the diets, quit the cigarettes, do the exercises, forgo the martinis? Why did she have to lurch out of the wheelchair, slip in the bath, fall off the commode? Every time she hurt herself she got gangrene and every time she got gangrene she had another amputation. It was endless. "Mom," she said, "oh Mom."

Ida, ignoring her, picked up the novel and studied the author's photo on the back. "She's about my age, isn't she? Maybe even older. And this is her first book? Well! There's hope yet!"

"There's always hope."

"Easy for you to say." Ida set the book down. "Do one thing for me? Bring the phone a little closer? Just in case Francis calls while you're out finding that vase?"

Kay moved the phone as far as the cord would stretch and escaped.

Ida watched her leave. Then she rubbed her sapphire ring against the sheet to make it shine and rested her head back against the pillows. This morphine was stronger than the last time. She felt about six years old and it had been hard not to let Kay know that she was hallucinating. She turned her head -- it felt as light and breakable as the bowl of a wine goblet -- and looked out the window again. The horse was still there. Mr. Know-It-All. Bright blue. He had spent the morning advising her on flight. How it would feel, how she would do it. She would want wings, nothing fancy, the horse had said, but serviceable, strongly feathered wings; her own arms were too puny. She would have to strap the wings on, wheel herself to the window, and hoist herself out. Once out, she would fall -- not far -- a floor or two, and then she would rise. She would ride a wind current home. It would be hard sweaty work but she had never minded hard work and she would soon see her own house, tucked like a glass castle in the green folds of the mountain. She'd knock on the skylight and Francis would look up from his crossword puzzle and smile at her the way he used to, as if she were the most delightful creature in the universe. And then she'd settle down with Coco barking welcome and she'd float through the front door. And once I'm home, she hissed to the horse, you'll be gone. And once you're gone, I'll be all right.

Meet the Author

Molly Giles teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas. She has won several short fiction awards, including the Flannery O'Connor Award, the Boston Globe Award, and the Small Press Best Fiction Award.

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Iron Shoes 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A good read and interesting tale of a woman feeling the pressures of feeling stuck in a rut. A lot of us may feel like life handed us the short end of the stick, but if we don't look in the mirror and figure a way out of that feeling, we stay there forever. Kay's journey to find her own life is one we can all relate to at one time or another. I recommend this book to anyone that doesn't mind if things don't turn out exactly perfect in the end, but come out real. Would like to see a sequel to this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I discovered Molly Giles through her stories--first Rough Translations, then Creek Walk--and Iron Shoes was a departure: an old-fashioned, immersive "family novel." That is, the sort of novel that examines the most intimate (which often means the ugliest) workings of a family. The hatred, resentment, and also the blinding love. It's not a long novel but it has heft. It's an experience. Sometimes the characters will tire you out. That's not a weakness, it's just the way people are, and Molly Giles writes people. (The stories are more after the manner of, say, Joy Williams--perfect distillations of moments and feelings that can only be described in one particular way.) I like to read at least a few novels like Iron Shoes in a year. Other examples that come to mind are Halfway House, by Katharine Noel, and Long for This World, by Michael Byers. Look, I hate writing reviews, but Iron Shoes deserved a higher "average star rating" than 2 1/2. Come on.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was just plain slow! It seems all she did was complain and take a lot of verbal abuse from a lot of people. It was very frustrating for me to see her just stand for all of this and not do anything about it except complain all the more.