Laura

( 8 )

Overview

In a captivating departure, Larry Watson, "a writer whose work is worthy of prizes" (Los Angeles Times Book Review), unveils a portrait of faith, obsession, and enduring love — and a work of greater tenderness than anything he has yet written.
Laura
Love captures Paul Finley, in, of all places, his own bedroom — literally waking him from his dreams. The night he discovers Laura Pettit standing at his windowsill, Paul is eleven years old, a boy ...

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Overview

In a captivating departure, Larry Watson, "a writer whose work is worthy of prizes" (Los Angeles Times Book Review), unveils a portrait of faith, obsession, and enduring love — and a work of greater tenderness than anything he has yet written.
Laura
Love captures Paul Finley, in, of all places, his own bedroom — literally waking him from his dreams. The night he discovers Laura Pettit standing at his windowsill, Paul is eleven years old, a boy naturally inclined toward seriousness, precociously adept at the art of watching the world without being watched. Laura is twenty-two, a fiercely passionate and independent poet already experiencing the first flickers of fame, a beautiful woman on the brink of seducing Paul's father. No matter; Paul is smitten. When she leaves him to rejoin the grown-ups' party downstairs, Laura issues Paul a wholly impossible command, one that will haunt and consume both of them for the rest of their lives: "Forget me."
Laying bare the inner life of one man during the course of nearly four decades, Larry Watson delivers a riveting treatise on the excruciating power of love — and two of the most remarkable characters in recent American literature. Infused with breathtaking pathos and delicate grace, Laura is an extraordinary triumph of the novelist's art.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Denver Post Laura is the kind of novel that, once started, is hard to put down.

The Washington Post Powerful and unsettling.

Chicago Tribune Immediately drops the reader into the world of obsession, with all its uncertainties, complications, and longing....A deft double biography.

Book A lyrical portrait of a family unraveled and the manner in which a powerful encounter can resonate through an individual's life.

Kirkus Reviews A finely wrought...tale of enduring passion.

The Capital Times (Madison, WI) Watson brilliantly and compassionately shows how a relationship between two complex people can change (and not change) over time....He tenderly and honestly depicts the relationship between a father who denied himself nothing and a son who denied himself everything. And how both paid the price.

Atlanta Journal-Constitiution An entertaining cognition on how far obsession can twist a person.

Register-Pajaronian (Santa-Cruz, CA) Larry Watson has captured the unforgettable and excruciating power of love gone awry in Laura.

Erin Doyle
Watson's novel traces the relationship between Paul Finley and the fictional poet Laura Coe Pettit. When Paul is eleven, he meets the young woman who eventually becomes his father's mistress. One middle-of-the night encounter is all it takes for Laura to entrance Paul for the next thirty years. At its weakest, this is the story of one man's senseless obsession, drawn out over three decades and sometimes rendered as painful melodrama. At its best, and most of the writing falls at this end of the spectrum, this is a lyrical portrait of a family unraveled and the manner in which a powerful encounter can resonate through an individual's life.
Book
Kirkus Reviews
The story of a man's long obsession with a beautiful woman poet, the latest from award-winning novelist Watson (White Crosses, 1997, etc.). Paul Finley, the narrator, has loved Laura Pettit since the summer of 1955 when he was 11, and she, slightly drunk, came into his bedroom one night to talk to him.The family was spending the summer in Vermont, and Laura, 22 at the time, was already a published poet who had come there to spend time with his father, Robert, a noted editor. Confessing that she can't control what she says, she asks Paul to forget her and everything she's said. But quiet, observant Paul cannot forget, and when his gregarious father divorces his mother, who moves with Paul and his sister to Minnesota, the boy continues to think about Laura. During a visit with his father, the now-adolescent Paul accidentally sees Laura and Robert making love. Naturally, this adds a sexual element to his obsession, which only intensifies when Laura becomes a famous poet and national icon. Paul sees her again at his father's funeral, and then, in medical school in the late 1960s, he learns that she is to be a featured speaker at an antiwar rally in Chicago and contrives to cross her path. Laura, whose entourage includes her current lover and her sociopath brother, asks Paul to drop out of school and join them on a bus tour promoting peace; he's tempted but doesn't. Later, married and practicing medicine, Paul is still haunted by Laura. Convinced that the chest pains currently troubling him are caused by the long repression of his feelings for her, he drives across country to confront Laura at last. A finely wrought, if emotionally cool, tale of enduring passion. (Author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671567767
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 6/26/2001
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 934,018
  • Product dimensions: 0.79 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Larry Watson was born in Rugby, North Dakota, and raised in Bismarck. Honored with the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, a National Endowment of the Arts award, the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association Regional Book Award, and numerous other literary prizes, Watson teaches English at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. He is also the author of White Crosses, Justice, Montana 1948, In a Dark Time, and the poetry collection Leaving Dakota.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In the summer of 1955 New England lay shimmering under one of the worst heat waves of the century. But don't try to verify this in any of the weather annals. No, this heat was intolerable not because of record-setting temperatures but because of what seemed like an unending succession of sweltering days. Swimming pools that summer were so swarming with people you couldn't swim a stroke, and beaches were so littered with bodies you couldn't walk fast enough to let the air move around you. Movie theaters, because they advertised their air-conditioning in icy blue letters, did record business, and stores that sold Popsicles, electric fans, or cold beer were certain to sell out. If you lived in a city and could leave, you left.

In 1955 my family was one of the lucky ones who could escape. My father, Robert Finley, was an editor at Harrison House, and he was not often required to be in his office during the summer. He frequently brought his work home to read and edit anyway. My mother, Doreen, taught English at Westcott College for Women — as it was called then — and always had the summer off. So, after the middle of June, when my sister, Janie, and I finished our week of French camp, our family headed for the cool green hills of Vermont and left behind our fellow Bostonians, stuck to the city and each other with their own sweat. That summer Janie was eight and I was eleven.

In Vermont we rented a large old Victorian house with a huge front porch that tilted toward New Hampshire. The house was in the middle of an empty, sun-struck field, and less than fifty yards away a stagnant pond steamed and stunk in the heat, but my sister and I were forbidden to mention the smell. Trees were ringed all around us, but not one was within a hundred yards of the house. Standing stupidly by itself, the house looked as if everything had been warned away from it.

My parents' friends, however, certainly heard no warning, for they came visiting in droves. From New York or Boston or Philadelphia, they ran toward Vermont and us like animals that know the forest is burning behind them. When they arrived at our house, they put down their bags, sighed, smiled, and set themselves to days and nights of unrelieved, slightly hysterical, drunken recreation.

Most of my mother's and father's friends were writers, artists, and intellectuals, and many of them were younger than my parents. The few who were married were childless. That naturally made Janie and me curiosities, yet still figures to whom obeisance had to be paid. These were people who worshipped the spirit of youth, if not children themselves. So when the visitors arrived that summer, they brought toys, games, or sporting equipment for us. The problem, however, was that these gifts quickly found their way into the hands of the adults. Late into the night they sat around the kitchen table and played with Janie's Chinese checkers; they used my football in the early evening touch football games; in the heat of the afternoon women and men pulled lawn chairs up to the small blue inflatable wading pool Avis Holman brought for us and sat with their feet in the water and sweating gin-and-tonics in their hands; they played badminton with our rackets and croquet with our mallets; three of my baseballs were hit into the pond; and others put as many miles on our bicycles as we did.

In the midst of all those adults having so much fun, Janie and I were never exactly sure of what to do. We were not invited to join in, and it was clear our presence would be inhibiting. Nothing makes adults more self-conscious about playing children's games than children standing on the sidelines watching.

So how did Janie and I behave that summer? Both of us were, to begin with, inclined toward silence and seriousness, and to that part of our natures we drifted even further. Janie began to lower her gaze (my memory of her is always of her walking with her head down), looking away from the faces of people and down to the earth's surface, to the grasses, plants, weeds, and wildflowers growing there. I, on the other hand, developed and practiced a skill that I continued to sharpen in all the years after: I watched others while trying to remain unnoticed myself.

But all this is backdrop and stage-setting, my attempt to set the time and place of that season's essential occurrence: in the summer of 1955 I met Laura Coe Pettit, and the moment of that meeting was the one from which I began a measurement of time. Clocks and calendars can try to convince us that time always passes in equal measure, but we know better. Our thirty-fifth summer passes five times faster than our seventh, and for years my life speeded up or slowed down according to my meetings with or departures from Laura.

In our rented house my bedroom was right over the kitchen, the room where my parents and their partying friends always ended up because it was the one room where air moved — the night breeze from the north blew in through the small window over the sink, fluttered the lace curtains, and fanned out through the big, brightly lit space before traveling out the screen door and past the porch where those people who couldn't fit in the kitchen sat. The scene was always noisy; a porch-sitter would tell a story loudly enough so a cupboard leaner could hear it. Laughter was constant, and ranged from one man's slow bass "huh-huh-huh" (a sound like heavy boots climbing the basement stairs) to a woman's staccato, soprano "ih-ih-ih-ih" (a giggle that reminded me of a birdcall). After the phonograph was moved into the kitchen, it never returned to the living room. Beer bottles clinked, glasses rattled, ice tinkled, the refrigerator door opened and closed, and I did my best to sleep through it all.So why, if I could sleep through that commotion, would someone's silence wake me?

When I opened my eyes she was standing in front of my window, gazing out toward the pond. She was smoking a cigarette, and as she exhaled, the smoke billowed through the screen so it looked as though the night were steaming right outside my window.

Though I tried not to, I must have made a sound — a whisper of sheets as I jerked awake or perhaps my snoring stopped — and she turned to me quickly and said, "Please. Don't tell anyone I'm here." Her voice had that low, reedy sound of exhaustion in it.

Her request was so urgent I immediately told her I wouldn't say anything, though I didn't know whom I could tell even if I wanted to.

"The door wasn't locked," she said. "I just ducked in here to get away from the party awhile. I thought I could hide here without bothering anyone. I didn't mean to wake you."

I was afraid, but I knew I wasn't threatened, so my fear was the type that people — children, especially — feel in the presence of something that mystifies and confuses them. And, of course, I couldn't go back to sleep, so I lay quietly in bed and tried to study this person who had found her way into my bedroom. The moon shone on that warm, clear night, and my narrow, floor-to-ceiling window let in enough light for me to get a look at her.

It's difficult for children to judge someone's height (every adult is tall) without standing next to that person or seeing him or her in a group, but by the way she was framed in my window I could see she was not much more than five feet. I could also tell she was extraordinarily pale because she wore a white shirt and both the shirt and her face had the same bluish-white luminescence in the moonlight. The sleeves of the shirt were rolled to her elbows. Her dark hair was very short, and with the hand not holding the cigarette she ruffled her hair over and over again, a motion so agitated and methodical it seemed she was trying to work an unpleasant thought out of her mind. I couldn't see her features clearly, but I could tell they were small and fine. If it weren't for her voice, I might have thought another child was in the room with me.

She bent over and crushed out her cigarette in the space between the window ledge and the screen. Then, slowly and carefully, as if she were worried that in the dark she might step on a piece of glass, she walked over to my bed.

"Are you Paul?" she asked. "Have I stumbled into Paul's room?"

"Yes," I answered, concerned about how she knew my name when we hadn't met.

"You're going to let me hide in here for a while?"

"Yes."

"Yes, yes, oh, yes — is that all you can say? Are you going to do anything I ask?" She laughed, a low, soft sound almost like a cough.

I didn't want to say "yes" again. "I guess so."

"You guess so. Well, I guess so too. We all guess so." She sighed and sat down heavily on my bed.

Asleep, I had slid down toward the middle of the bed, but now I pushed my way back toward the top, pulling my pillow under my head.

"What's the matter?" she asked when I moved. "Are you afraid of me, Paul?"

"Not really."

"You're not? That's good. I don't want people to be afraid of me. But maybe you should be. Maybe you should be a little afraid. Just a little."

She was drunk. She wavered as she sat on the bed, as if, without something to support her back, her spine couldn't hold her head straight, and her head moved back and forth slightly, nodding in time to music only she could hear. I could smell the liquor on her breath, that heavy aroma like something sweet about to go sour. I had learned to identify the smell from my father. He often tucked me in at night, and as he bent over to kiss me, I would sniff his breath and ask, "What's that?" "A fine scotch," he would say. Or "Gin, clear as water," "Vodka, Russia's only current contribution to civilization," "Beer — and here's one of its kids," and he would belch. To this day I like the aroma of liquor on a man's or woman's breath. For some reason, it reminds me of death, but of a natural, welcome dying, like leaves decaying.

Her speech also told me how drunk she was. I had heard enough examples to know drunken talk when I heard it — the repetitions, riddles, and pointless revelations, the wide loops and short circles of conversation, the way drunks will grab on to your name and wave it around to show how strong their grip is. It was important, I knew, to be patient with them and polite, and soon they would lose interest and leave you alone.

However, I did not want her to leave me alone. As bewildered, apprehensive, and uncertain as I was about her presence, I still wanted her to stay. At eleven, though baseball and the Boy Scout manual dominated my life, another part of me escaped their rule. This was the part interested in, among other things, romantic novels about errant knights and endangered maidens. And I did more than read about the subject. More than once I had climbed the stairs with an imaginary sword in my hand and a cascade of bloodied foes behind me. When I reached the tower (my room) I burst through the door, ready to rescue the diaphanously gowned woman who was lashed to a chair just the way the woman was on the cover of Montaldo's Revenge, a paperback lying around the house that summer. (The ropes crossed her breasts in an X, and high on her bare arm was the red mark of the lash.) No doubt this play was part of my awakening sexuality, but I wasn't yet aware of it. And now a peculiar version of my fantasy was coming true. A beautiful young woman was in my room, though I, without sword or shield, was probably the one in need of rescue. I slept in my underpants, and I tried to pin down the sheet that covered me by unobtrusively pressing down on one of its folds with my forearm.

After peering around the room, she said, "Are we going to keep this in the dark or can we have some light?"

"I don't care."

She reached over to my bedside table and groped around the lamp until she found the little chain that turned on the light. At the sudden brightness, she covered her eyes and turned her head. "Oooh," she said painfully, "maybe that wasn't such a good idea."

Wanting to please, I asked her if she wanted me to turn it off.

"No," she said, lifting her head, "I'll learn to live with it."

When she uncovered her eyes, I noticed something I hadn't seen in the dark. Under her right eye she had a thin red scar, a crescent that followed perfectly the bone of the eye socket. On another face, one not as unlined as hers, it might not have been as noticeable, since it was right where circles form. But on her small, pale, unblemished face it drew my attention and would not let it go. I liked the scar immediately; it was not disfiguring, and it gave her a look of danger and worldly experience. Here was someone, no matter how young she may have looked, to whom things happened, and she had a scar to prove it.

Does it go without saying I was already in love? Why wouldn't it have been so? Consider what elements worked together to move my heart. Here was an adult who had left the company of other adults to be with a child (that was my interpretation anyway). A pretty woman teetering on the ledge of who-knew-what drunken impulse. Moonlight. The sound of revelry below. My near nakedness. Sleep still in the corner of my eyes. How could I have resisted?

"Now that you've got me here," she said. "What are you going to do to entertain me?"

"I don't know." I had reached the point where my tongue-tiedness was the result, not of nervousness at saying the wrong thing, but of the fervent wish to say the right thing. The responses in either case might have been the same — timid monosyllables and phrases of uncertainty — but the motives were completely different, one rising from fear and the other from love. The truth was, I was shy, though that fact usually caused my parents more consternation than it did me. In fact, I had caught on to using it as an excuse to get me through uncomfortable situations. Rather than make the awkward attempt at conversation with people I had newly met, I held my tongue and waited for Mother or Father to say, "You'll have to forgive Paul, he's shy." But, oh, how I wanted now to be one of those unself-conscious, glib children who could yammer his way to endearment.

From the floor beside my bed she picked up my copy of Boy's Life. "Is this yours? Are you a Boy Scout?"

"Yes."

"And are you honest and trustworthy and loyal and true and always prepared, and do you help old ladies across the street?"

"Sometimes. If I'm around, I mean."

"But if you're not around, then they're on their own, right?" She began to page through the magazine.

"I guess."

She stopped when she came to the section in the magazine about a heroic deed a Scout had performed. The feature, printed like a comic strip, was my favorite in the magazine.

"Look at this," she said. "This boy rescued three of his friends when their boat tipped over. Wasn't that brave of him?" She closed the magazine but kept her finger inside on the page.

"Would you do that, Paul? What if I were drowning — would you rescue me?"

"I don't have my Lifesaving Badge." What a terrible answer! Once again, I had allowed my literal-mindedness to get in the way of the heroic gesture.

"So you'd let me drown?""No...I'd try.""What if I pulled you down with me? What if we both drowned? What then?"

I hated the turn this talk had taken. It had become the kind of conversation designed to show children they were wrong to be certain of anything. My father was a master at this — the series of unanswerable questions that left you unsure of your own existence, which was exactly what he wanted.

"There are things you can do," I said, struggling to show her my authority, "if the person you're trying to save isn't...is fighting you — "

She interrupted, "The best thing you can do is let go. Just let go and save yourself." She opened the magazine again and tapped the page where the Boy Scout was saving his friends. "And you can tell them I said so."

She flipped through the magazine until she got to the back pages and the advertisements for official Scout products.

"I love these," she said, pointing to a picture of a canvas belt with a gold buckle that had the Boy Scout fleur-de-lis stamped on it. "Do you have one?"

"I don't have it here. It's at home with my uniform."

"Your uniform? Oh, I bet you look wonderful in it. Men always look wonderful in uniforms. Soldiers. Baseball players...Mailmen...Boy Scouts...Milkmen...Janitors..." She let the magazine fall to the floor. "You can tell I'm running out of things to talk about, can't you?" She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hand, and then she smiled apologetically at me.

Another unanswerable question. "I guess."

"I want to talk to you. I want to be able to talk to children, but I can't, I just can't. I don't know what you care about. I never know." She pushed the sleeves of her shirt further up her arms. "You don't understand what I'm talking about, do you?"

At some point I realized I was, in a strange way, in charge of her and her emotions. With my new power I knew it was important for me to be careful about how I responded to her. "I think I understand," I said. Indeed, I believed I did. One of the ways I thought I was different from other children was in an ability to understand the problems of others, including grown-ups. It was not only a mistaken notion, but also an arrogant one.

"Do you?" she said. "I wish you did, but I don't believe you do. You can't."

Then, to show her I was capable of grasping adult difficulties, I said, "Our cleaning lady told me her husband's an alcoholic. She said he drinks every penny she earns." As I said that I imagined, as I always did, Ray, the cleaning woman's husband, emptying rolls of pennies down his throat.

Solemnly, she asked, "And did you advise her on how to handle this situation?"

"Sort of. I told her she should be patient with him."

"Oh, you did? Well, wasn't that wise. Maybe I should tell you one of my problems, and you can see what advice you have for me."

"Okay," I said.

She sat up primly, folded her hands on her lap, and looked straight ahead. "My problem is very simple. It's this: I came to Vermont to be alone with your father, and I can't seem to manage this arrangement."

She must have seen in my eyes what she had done, because immediately she said, "Oh, Jesus, did I say that? Oh, shit!" For myself, I wasn't sure what she had revealed, but from her alarmed reaction, I knew it must have been a revelation both imprudent and profound.

She slid off the bed — I held on to the sheet — and landed heavily on the floor. She thumped down so hard I thought they might hear her downstairs and someone might come. In spite of everything, I still did not want that to happen. She clapped her hand to her mouth so hard it seemed she was trying to stop her breath.

Then, quickly, she turned to me. "I didn't mean to say that, Paul. Believe me. I'm always opening my mouth and letting the worst, most outrageous things out. Do you know what I think of sometimes?"

I shook my head.

"Have you ever seen pictures of baby snakes? Of those crawling nests of newborn snakes?"

"Yes."

"Sometimes I think that's what lives in my mouth. A nest of snakes. Right under my tongue." She opened her mouth and lifted her tongue. I looked in, not expecting to see anything but wanting to take advantage of the opportunity to peek in where sight was usually not allowed. The talk of snakes and this furtive look into her pink mouth brought inexplicably to my mind blood and heat, the body's interior elements. She quickly popped her mouth shut and then went on talking. "See, I can't keep them from crawling out. Especially when I drink. When I drink I simply cannot keep them in. That's why I write. If I write I can keep them in, or I can let them out one at a time. But you shouldn't listen to me when I say certain things. You shouldn't."

"I won't," I lied.

"I did come here to see your father," she said in a blandly cheerful, unconvincing voice. "But I came because I work for him, in a way. He's my editor. Or he's going to be. He wanted me to come here so we could start working on the book I might do for him." She stopped abruptly and stared down at the floor for a long time. When she looked up again, it was with a different expression, very placid, almost blank. She put her elbows up on the bed like a child saying her bedtime prayers. "I think I'll stop now, Paul. I don't want to say any more, and I don't want to start lying either."

Downstairs someone whooped and shouted, "Azure! Triple word! Thirty-seven!" and I knew they were playing Scrabble, one of the few games I was good at.But right now, my thoughts were hopelessly scattered, like the tiles on a Scrabble board that will not line up to form a single word....

Even if I had the letters, I couldn't have made the word "extramarital" and perhaps not even the word "affair." They were not part of my child's vocabulary or comprehension. Yet for a while I had felt that something was not right in my parents' marriage. Now, with this woman's remark about wanting to be alone with my father and her subsequent consternation over letting that bit of information out, that "not rightness," like a photograph in the first stages of development, began dimly to define itself. I was not sure of the answers, but I thought I knew the questions: Did my father love someone other than my mother? Did he have girlfriends? Was this young woman one of them?

She pushed herself slowly up from the floor and sat again on my bed. She looked carefully around the room as if she had set something down and now couldn't find it. Finally, she looked back at me and let her gaze rest on me for so long I was almost forced into nervous speech.

"You can be quiet," she said softly. "That's good. So many people can't stand silence and they have to fill it any way they can. So we have all this talk, talk, talk." She sighed tiredly. "Don't ever be afraid to be quiet."

I wasn't sure if she was trying to make me feel better about my shyness, or if she was trying subtly to caution me not to tell anyone what she had said about her and my father. I remained quiet.

"Look at your hair," she said. "You must have slept on it funny. It's sticking straight up." She reached out and put her hand on the cowlick at my hairline. She didn't pat the hair or brush it down with her fingers; she simply held her hand there and exerted the slightest pressure. Her hand, like a child's, was small, damp, soft, and cool. I closed my eyes.

She took her hand away and stood up. "I better go downstairs before they start looking for me." She turned out the light. "And you better get back to sleep. Thank you for letting me hide in here."

Before she opened the door, I found my tongue in time to ask, "Are you staying here tonight?"

She didn't give me a satisfying answer; instead she issued an impossible command. "Forget me," she said, her voice even rougher in its whisper. "Forget everything."

* • *

Not knowing that the greatest danger lay in darkness, not in light, I got up early the next morning to protect my family. I wet my hair down so it was stuck to my head, put on a pair of gym shorts and a white T-shirt, and went downstairs. It was Sunday, and everyone in the house was still asleep, everyone except Hal Davenport, who sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee, smoking, and working a crossword puzzle.

The house had that quiet, morning-after-a-party feel that I always loved, perhaps because it meant my sister and I would have the place to ourselves. In the kitchen someone had lined up all the empty beer bottles on the cupboard, and in the bright morning they glistened like brown jewels. On the other side of the sink were the house's ashtrays, all of them full. They were a sign not of slovenliness but of concern. My father would never let anyone dump an ashtray into the garbage before bed. A live ash might begin to smolder while everyone slept. The sink was heaped with dirty glasses, and the room smelled of spilled beer and cigarette smoke.

When Hal Davenport saw me, he said, "Hey, Judge. What's the good word?" "Judge" was my family nickname, awarded to me in infancy because I never smiled.Hal Davenport and my father grew up together in Beckwith, a small town in upstate New York. Hal was starting forward and my father the center of their high school basketball team that took second place in the state their senior year. They were roommates at Dartmouth, and when the war broke out, my father was classified 4-F because of a perforated eardrum, and Hal Davenport was shipped to France, where he lost his right arm in a Jeep accident. After the war he moved to a small town in Maine, where he was sports editor for the local newspaper. "He's a damn good sportswriter," my father often said. "If he'd get out of there, he could do something."

Hal Davenport was one of the few of my parents' friends with whom I felt comfortable. He was talkative, sad, funny, and friendly, and since he didn't fit in particularly well with the rest of their group, he always had time for my sister and me. He wasn't married, and he loved to talk to children in ways that their parents wouldn't approve of, which of course endeared him to children. He had the ability to ask questions that encouraged you to talk about yourself, and he was interested in your answers. And he remembered what you said. If I told him I was playing third base for my Little League team, then the next time I saw him he would ask me how things were on the hot corner.I sat down at the table across from him.

"What's the matter? Couldn't sleep?" he asked. "Was I making too much racket down here?"

Hal Davenport was freshly shaved, and among the room's stale, morning-after smells his aftershave was like perfume. He wore a long-sleeved white shirt, and he had the right sleeve neatly folded and pinned with a small gold safety pin to the front of his shirt. The left sleeve was buttoned at the wrist. On the table next to him were two horseshoes. Even after losing his arm, he continued to play what sports he could; he bowled, he pitched horseshoes, he ice-skated, he even played one-armed golf. When my father introduced Hal Davenport to people, my father called him the world's fastest one-handed typist.

I was tempted that morning to tell Hal Davenport what had happened in my room the night before and to see what advice he had to offer. I decided against it, not because I didn't think he would be sympathetic, but because I still wanted to hoard the experience. Walking about in the sunlight with the previous night's secret gave me a sense of romantic self-importance. I felt very adult that morning, and the scene — two men sitting at the kitchen table with the remnants of the previous night's party all around them — only heightened that feeling.

For a while we talked about baseball, inevitably coming around to our favorite topic: who was the better center fielder — Mantle or Mays? I argued in favor of Mantle; he played in the American League, and I was an American Leaguer through and through. Hal Davenport, a lifelong Giants fan, argued for Willie Mays. "Better arm and more speed on the bases," he said.

Gradually I left baseball in order to creep up on the subject in which I was more interested. (I must have passed, without knowing it, a threshold — something actually interested me more than baseball.) Pointing upstairs in the direction of the household's sleeping occupants, I casually asked, "Who's here?""I'm not sure. I arrived late last night. I had to cover an American Legion doubleheader. The party was already going pretty good when I got here. Some folks were planning to stay over in Hartley."

Hartley, a small resort town, was twelve miles away.

I said, "There were a lot of people I didn't know either."

"That bother you? Strangers in the house?"

"Not really."

"It would me. But maybe I don't adjust as easily as you do."

"There was one person I was wondering about. She was real short...." I tried to say this as nonchalantly as possible, hoping Hal Davenport would answer without thinking there was anything unusual about my inquiry.

"Short, you say?" He was looking intently at his crossword puzzle, and I was afraid he wasn't paying attention to me at all.

"I bet she wasn't much over five feet."

"Uh-huh."

"I never saw her before. I was just wondering if you knew who she was."

"Oh, yeah." He was still staring at the paper.

"You do? You know who she is?"

He set his pencil down deliberately, picked up his pack of Chesterfields, and shook one up to his lips. He took a book of matches from his shirt pocket, bent a match in half, and scratched the match aflame without removing it from the book. It was a routine I had enjoyed watching him perform many times; now it seemed a delaying operation calculated to torment me.

"I think you are talking about Laura Coe Pettit."

He exhaled smoke through his nostrils, and I let her name run through my mind as many times as I could before he spoke again. Laura Coe Pettit, Laura Coe Pettit, Laura Coe Pettit, Laura.

"And," Hal Davenport said, "she will soon be famous across this land, known by everybody. Well, perhaps not everybody. Everybody who reads poetry. A hundred, two hundred people, maybe."

"She's a writer?"

"Not a writer, Judge. I'm a writer. I get paid for what I write. She's a poet.

That's different. Much higher class. Poets don't get paid for what they write, and nobody reads their stuff. You can see what an exalted plain that puts them on."

I must have looked both pathetic and uncomprehending, because he changed his tone and said, "Okay, I was having a little joke. Don't pay any attention. Yeah, she's a poet. Very hot right now, I guess. Big write-up in The New York Times and even an article in Time, and Time never writes up poets unless they're the old, lovable kind. I can't remember the name of her book; Dreams Women Have, or something like that. I haven't read it, but a lot of folks are talking about it."

"She looks so young."

"Well, she is. Twenty-two, twenty-three, something like that. A real child prodigy. And that's what I thought when I first met her — a cute, quiet kid. Then she got into it last night with Leonard Shelter, and that changed my mind about her pronto."

I was eager to hear what happened, yet I was a little hurt, too. I wanted her only performance to have been for me. "What happened?"

"You know who Leonard Shelter is?"

I had a vague recollection of meeting a skinny man with a pencil mustache and a big Adam's apple, but mostly I knew him as a name in my parents' conversation.

"He's a writer too, isn't he?"

"Judge, you know too much. Is your dad his editor? No, that wouldn't be right. Leonard's with Random House." Hal Davenport stubbed out his cigarette and got up to get himself more coffee.

I was always fascinated with the way Hal Davenport did things, how the simple, everyday actions that other people were able to perform simultaneously, he had to do serially: first, put the coffee cup down; pick up the coffeepot; pour the coffee in the cup; put down the pot; pick up the cup. Ordinary routines received a special emphasis when he did them, like someone speaking your native language with a foreign accent. Sometimes when no one was around, I would put one hand behind my back and do everything the way Hal Davenport would.

Back at the table he continued with his story. "Someone asked your friend Miss Pettit if she'd read Leonard's stories. She was standing right over there by the sink. Smoking a cigare

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First Chapter

Chapter One

In the summer of 1955 New England lay shimmering under one of the worst heat waves of the century. But don't try to verify this in any of the weather annals. No, this heat was intolerable not because of record-setting temperatures but because of what seemed like an unending succession of sweltering days. Swimming pools that summer were so swarming with people you couldn't swim a stroke, and beaches were so littered with bodies you couldn't walk fast enough to let the air move around you. Movie theaters, because they advertised their air-conditioning in icy blue letters, did record business, and stores that sold Popsicles, electric fans, or cold beer were certain to sell out. If you lived in a city and could leave, you left.

In 1955 my family was one of the lucky ones who could escape. My father, Robert Finley, was an editor at Harrison House, and he was not often required to be in his office during the summer. He frequently brought his work home to read and edit anyway. My mother, Doreen, taught English at Westcott College for Women -- as it was called then -- and always had the summer off. So, after the middle of June, when my sister, Janie, and I finished our week of French camp, our family headed for the cool green hills of Vermont and left behind our fellow Bostonians, stuck to the city and each other with their own sweat. That summer Janie was eight and I was eleven.

In Vermont we rented a large old Victorian house with a huge front porch that tilted toward New Hampshire. The house was in the middle of an empty, sun-struck field, and less than fifty yards away a stagnant pond steamed and stunk in the heat, but my sister and Iwere forbidden to mention the smell. Trees were ringed all around us, but not one was within a hundred yards of the house. Standing stupidly by itself, the house looked as if everything had been warned away from it.

My parents' friends, however, certainly heard no warning, for they came visiting in droves. From New York or Boston or Philadelphia, they ran toward Vermont and us like animals that know the forest is burning behind them. When they arrived at our house, they put down their bags, sighed, smiled, and set themselves to days and nights of unrelieved, slightly hysterical, drunken recreation.

Most of my mother's and father's friends were writers, artists, and intellectuals, and many of them were younger than my parents. The few who were married were childless. That naturally made Janie and me curiosities, yet still figures to whom obeisance had to be paid. These were people who worshipped the spirit of youth, if not children themselves. So when the visitors arrived that summer, they brought toys, games, or sporting equipment for us. The problem, however, was that these gifts quickly found their way into the hands of the adults. Late into the night they sat around the kitchen table and played with Janie's Chinese checkers; they used my football in the early evening touch football games; in the heat of the afternoon women and men pulled lawn chairs up to the small blue inflatable wading pool Avis Holman brought for us and sat with their feet in the water and sweating gin-and-tonics in their hands; they played badminton with our rackets and croquet with our mallets; three of my baseballs were hit into the pond; and others put as many miles on our bicycles as we did.

In the midst of all those adults having so much fun, Janie and I were never exactly sure of what to do. We were not invited to join in, and it was clear our presence would be inhibiting. Nothing makes adults more self-conscious about playing children's games than children standing on the sidelines watching.

So how did Janie and I behave that summer? Both of us were, to begin with, inclined toward silence and seriousness, and to that part of our natures we drifted even further. Janie began to lower her gaze (my memory of her is always of her walking with her head down), looking away from the faces of people and down to the earth's surface, to the grasses, plants, weeds, and wildflowers growing there. I, on the other hand, developed and practiced a skill that I continued to sharpen in all the years after: I watched others while trying to remain unnoticed myself.

But all this is backdrop and stage-setting, my attempt to set the time and place of that season's essential occurrence: in the summer of 1955 I met Laura Coe Pettit, and the moment of that meeting was the one from which I began a measurement of time. Clocks and calendars can try to convince us that time always passes in equal measure, but we know better. Our thirty-fifth summer passes five times faster than our seventh, and for years my life speeded up or slowed down according to my meetings with or departures from Laura.

In our rented house my bedroom was right over the kitchen, the room where my parents and their partying friends always ended up because it was the one room where air moved -- the night breeze from the north blew in through the small window over the sink, fluttered the lace curtains, and fanned out through the big, brightly lit space before traveling out the screen door and past the porch where those people who couldn't fit in the kitchen sat. The scene was always noisy; a porch-sitter would tell a story loudly enough so a cupboard leaner could hear it. Laughter was constant, and ranged from one man's slow bass "huh-huh-huh" (a sound like heavy boots climbing the basement stairs) to a woman's staccato, soprano "ih-ih-ih-ih" (a giggle that reminded me of a birdcall). After the phonograph was moved into the kitchen, it never returned to the living room. Beer bottles clinked, glasses rattled, ice tinkled, the refrigerator door opened and closed, and I did my best to sleep through it all. So why, if I could sleep through that commotion, would someone's silence wake me?

When I opened my eyes she was standing in front of my window, gazing out toward the pond. She was smoking a cigarette, and as she exhaled, the smoke billowed through the screen so it looked as though the night were steaming right outside my window.

Though I tried not to, I must have made a sound -- a whisper of sheets as I jerked awake or perhaps my snoring stopped -- and she turned to me quickly and said, "Please. Don't tell anyone I'm here." Her voice had that low, reedy sound of exhaustion in it.

Her request was so urgent I immediately told her I wouldn't say anything, though I didn't know whom I could tell even if I wanted to.

"The door wasn't locked," she said. "I just ducked in here to get away from the party awhile. I thought I could hide here without bothering anyone. I didn't mean to wake you."

I was afraid, but I knew I wasn't threatened, so my fear was the type that people -- children, especially -- feel in the presence of something that mystifies and confuses them. And, of course, I couldn't go back to sleep, so I lay quietly in bed and tried to study this person who had found her way into my bedroom. The moon shone on that warm, clear night, and my narrow, floor-to-ceiling window let in enough light for me to get a look at her.

It's difficult for children to judge someone's height (every adult is tall) without standing next to that person or seeing him or her in a group, but by the way she was framed in my window I could see she was not much more than five feet. I could also tell she was extraordinarily pale because she wore a white shirt and both the shirt and her face had the same bluish-white luminescence in the moonlight. The sleeves of the shirt were rolled to her elbows. Her dark hair was very short, and with the hand not holding the cigarette she ruffled her hair over and over again, a motion so agitated and methodical it seemed she was trying to work an unpleasant thought out of her mind. I couldn't see her features clearly, but I could tell they were small and fine. If it weren't

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2002

    UNPUTDOWNABLE!

    From the moment eleven-year-old Paul Finley meets Laura Coe Pettit, he is besotted. The mesmerising young poet will capture his heart and haunt his soul forever. Over the following years, as the awkward adolescent grows into manhood, his life becomes entwined with the enigmatic older woman as their worlds collide and the novel builds towards its inevitable, shattering climax. Larry Watson has written a rich, beautifully crafted story about an obsessive and enduring love that lingers long after the final sentence. Some readers might find Laura a cold, unlikeable character but her selfish-at-times, abrasive attitude is needed to balance out the softer, sensitive Paul who would otherwise be too weak and wimpish. I had never read Larry Watson until I picked up a copy of Laura on impulse. I was drawn by the seductive cover, the back-page blurb got my curiosity, and I was hooked from page one. I really did find it unputdownable!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 5, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Hypnotic

    Watson carefully crafted his characters with depth and charm. Laura's character is hypnotizing and it is easy to see why a boy like Paul fell so deeply into obsession with her. Watson made it easy to feel the feelings the characters were going through. He molded their personalities page-by-page and by the end of the book I felt as though I had lived to see the plight of long time friends. Watson shed great insight into the development of a lifelong obsession. His references to the times were on point. Watson's descriptions paint a seamless setting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2004

    Better For Some Than Others

    This is a well-written book, though not as polished as the creme de la creme. It's great for those who have expeienced the infamous unrequited love. If you're not in that category the emotional impact of the book may be lessened.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2003

    Wow!

    Very well written book. Watson is great. This has to be one of the best books I have read. It's a must read..What a love story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2003

    Amazing literature

    Mr. Watson has created a masterful piece of work with this novel. Through his prolific writing, you're drawn into the story of prepubescent boy's obsession with a woman ten years his senior. The novel, which unfolds over the course of a few decades, never loses its momentum. The prose and the depth of each character, is something to behold. I HIGHLY recommend this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2001

    A haunting novel

    A book that once started, one must read till the finish. The story and characters stay with you for days after. That, in my book, is the sign of an excellent novel. This one has it-great characters, great writing.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent character study

    In the summer of 1955 in Vermont, eleven-year old Paul Finley meets Laura Coe Petit for the first time when she escapes for a breather and a smoke from the party hosted by his parents. Laura, a twenty-two year old rising poet, was smoking a cigarette outside Paul¿s bedroom window when she inadvertently woke him up. They briefly talk and for the rest of his life, Paul knows that Laura is the mark that he compares other people, especially women, and his own sense of essence to. <P>Over the next thirty plus years, Paul and Laura have occasional brief encounters that further destroy any possible relationships the younger man may foster. Instead Paul remains obsessed with the woman he always knew he could never have. From the first time they met when he was a child she planned to seduce his father at that New England party. <P>LAURA is a an entertaining cogitation on how far obsession can twist a person. The insightful story line is well written (as expected from Larry Watson), especially the background historical events that serve as a bigger stage for the meetings between Paul and Laura. The secondary cast provides reflection, impetus, and depth although Mr. Watson never showcases them as he concentrates on Paul¿s psyche. The lead protagonist¿s obsession turns him into something that seems more like a stalker and quixotically, a more humane individual. Mr. Watson shows why he is an award-winning author with this compassionate character study. <P>Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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