Losing Charlotteby Heather Clay
'A moving debut from a writer of powerful descriptive range.'
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Born and raised on a thoroughbred horse farm in the green hills of Kentucky, Knox Bolling has grown up steeped in the comforting rhythms of family life. Deep ties bind her to this safe, predictable existence, but Knox knows the world has more to offer - excitements
'A moving debut from a writer of powerful descriptive range.'
Born and raised on a thoroughbred horse farm in the green hills of Kentucky, Knox Bolling has grown up steeped in the comforting rhythms of family life. Deep ties bind her to this safe, predictable existence, but Knox knows the world has more to offer - excitements that her tempestuous and beautiful older sister, Charlotte, seems to have within her grasp when she marries and moves away to Manhattan's West Village.
Then disaster strikes. Nothing could have prepared Knox for the loss of her sister. But the powerful bond remains, and she finds her loyalty to Charlotte tested more profoundly and fatefully than she could have imagined. As she starts to come to terms with her elusive sister's life, Knox learns deeply moving lessons for her own . . .
'Heather Clay is a graceful and assured new writer with a great gift for character: the people in her fiction are as complex, beautiful and real as they are in life. Losing Charlotte is a spellbinding first novel.'
Lauren Groff, author of The Monsters of Templeton
“What happens when the person closest to you is suddenly gone? This heart-wrenching story explores the bond between two sisters—one charmed and rebellious, the other a good girl—after a tragedy changes their family forever.” —Glamour
“A breathtaking novel about loss and healing. . . . Even the moment most likely to be played for tears . . . is done with a remarkably efficient realism; not until I finished reading those pages did I realize that I’d been holding my breath the whole time.” —Emily Freeman, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Clay’s writing style is dreamy, elliptical . . . she describes moments with beautiful precision and aptly relays the murky, battering numbness of grief. . . . Lovely.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Friction between sisters has served as a plot staple since the dawn of the novel. . . . Handled properly, it provides a near-perfect occasion for exploring the societal and familial expectations placed on young women, as Heather Clay does in her introspective first novel. . . . Clay beautifully portrays the awkward dynamic of family gatherings. . . . Bold and confident.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Heather Clay is a graceful and assured new writer with a great gift for character: the people in her fiction are as complex, beautiful and real as they are in life. . . . A spellbinding first novel.” —Lauren Groff, author of Monsters of Templeton
“How far would you go for family? Clay’s heart-wrenching debut novel will spur you to wonder. . . .Clay’s characters are flawed yet fun, and her storytelling style is as endearing as an old friend’s.” —SELF magazine
“The family in this novel is so vividly imagined that I am still thinking of them: not as characters but as real people.” —Ann Packer, author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier
“Sets up [a] situation with clarity and care, then works it through with subtlety.” —The Boston Globe
“Lovingly observed. Clay knows how to craft a realistic plot and characters who, under pressure, change in believable ways.” —The Columbus Dispatch
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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- Random House
- NOOK Book
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- 2 MB
Read an Excerpt
The summer that everything happened was the hottest summer Knox could remember. Heat pooled around them all, a soft, wet heat that nobody talked about. It was just what was.
Her students didn’t talk about it, but stumbled out the side doors of the center when it was time for their breaks and stood mutely in twos and threes that didn’t correspond to any friendships or alliances that Knox knew of but seemed the result of an uncharacteristic economy of movement. Stood with whomever they happened to find themselves next to, blinking, kicking occasionally at pieces of gravel, until they were called inside. On the farm, the foals stood the same way in the fields, unless they had shade or water to retreat into, in which case they drew together with their mothers into a mass of shifting rumps and bobbing necks, sometimes lowering themselves onto their sides, one by one, until the ground was piled with shapes that panted so slowly that Knox would fret about death, respiratory failure, pulmonary arrest if she watched too long, and so turn from the kitchen window of her cabin, or walk on.
Dumbstruck. Struck dumb. Knox could describe almost anything this way, on the hot days. The town and the farms that spread around it were quieter now that the July sales were over and the buyers had flown away. The land seemed to buzz like the insects did, with vibration rather than sound. Felt, not heard, its tongue thick in its mouth.
“He calls you Ugly?” Marlene said. Her mouth was half full of sandwich, so calls came out callfz. They were sitting in the lunchroom, watching the students through the large window that faced onto the courtyard of the learning center. Nine more minutes until break was over, according to the wall clock above Marlene’s head.
“Well,” Knox said, eyeing Brad Toffey as he stepped onto a picnic bench and seemed to ponder whether or not to jump off it, then stepped down and sat heavily on the ground, staring into the middle distance, “yeah. But it’s just a nickname. I think it’s funny, actually. He’s always called me that.”
Marlene chewed, her eyes fixed on Knox’s face. Knox looked back at her and smiled, knowing that it would be long seconds before Marlene could swallow her bite and respond, that the delay was killing her. Marlene, forty-six and well into her second marriage, liked nothing more than to discuss Knox’s lack of savvy when it came to “relationships”—or, more accurately, the one relationship she’d ever had. Marlene’s hair was frosted and faded into overlapping patches of white, russet, and dark brown and shook a little as her mouth worked.
“Take your time,” Knox said. “Wouldn’t want you to choke, Mar.”
“Screw you,” Marlene mumbled. A fleck of mayonnaise dropped onto her chin, and she scratched it away with a manicured nail. “I don’t understand it. You’re not ugly. At least, not most of the time.”
“It’s a nickname, Mar. Not important,” Knox said.
“Mmm,” Marlene said, squinting at her. “I guess.”
Knox shifted in her plastic chair, trying to work some feeling back into her legs and lower body. Last night, Ned Bale had proposed to her again, in his way, as they lay on a quilt at the music festival, finally cooled by the dark and the beer they had drunk while they listened to the amped-up Dobros and fiddles. Jerry Douglas was on the stage, plucking the melody for “Wildwood Flower” over a steady line of bass notes, when Ned rolled toward her and said, “We should do it, Ugly. I mean, why not?”
That was how he asked.
Knox had been watching an old man dance on a toting board near their blanket. He was wearing a T-shirt that said badass from skeleton pass and jerking a little mountain clog, keeping his torso rigid and still, his hands limp at his sides, his face impassive, his legs flailing quickly like a marionette’s. His shorts hung so low that Knox could see the exposed jut of his pelvic bone when he kicked his foot back and slapped it with one of his hands in response to a high whoop from the second picker. The woman with him—a wife or daughter, the bloat on her face making it somehow hard to tell which—lolled on her side in the grass beside the board, as still as the man was lively. Knox briefly wondered how far they had come for the music; Skeleton Pass was surely one of the holler towns far to the east. She knew she shouldn’t be wondering anything about anyone’s driving distance—she should only be reacting, plumbing for words, using them or not, moving toward Ned or moving away.
She made herself say: “I love you.” Then she said: “Ned.”
It was true that she loved him, she thought. And she did appreciate Ned asking the way he had. The impossibly vague it. She considered its imprecision appropriate. How could one better capture the cloudy concept of “making a life together”? It was a fine word. It also allowed her to rationalize, while she kept her breaths shallow and her eyes on the dancing man, that Ned might have been talking about going somewhere for the weekend, or trying the new Indian restaurant on Vine. She’d told Marlene this, at least.
“I’m just talking,” Marlene said, rolling the top of her pretzel bag closed with a clip she kept in her lunch pack. “But I want you to do what’s right for you. You’re getting well past thirty, and this guy’s been hanging around for half your life. What the hell are you waiting for?”
“I don’t know.”
Marlene sighed. “Did he press you to say anything else?”
“He just said I should think about it.” Knox tried, unsuccessfully, to picture something other than Ned’s face just after he said this. He had been rubbing at his glasses with the corner of their picnic blanket, his eyes cast down, when his mouth flashed into a little smile. He had looked apologetic, as if he were telling the glasses to be patient, that in another moment they would be clean.
Knox concentrated on Brad Toffey as he stood and began swinging his arms in wide circles. Round, round, round, faster and faster. She allowed herself to be lulled into imagining that it didn’t matter what she did, really, and wasn’t this the chief beauty of her life? It traveled in concentric circles around her, like orbiting matter, and her job was to stay put, stay fixed, and let that happen. Look at Marlene—did she really care what Knox’s reply to anybody’s proposal might be? She was zipping the pretzel bag into her lunch pack, along with her balled sandwich wrapper and empty Diet Coke can. In thirty seconds she would be smacking a Winston out of the pack she kept in her skirt pocket, offering Knox a cigarette of her own, which Knox would refuse. The information they traded with each other was immaterial compared with the fact that they were simply placed in proximity to each other in the universe and found the proximity pleasant. Marlene’s husband’s colon cancer scare last year could have been a heart murmur; Knox could be holding forth on the fallout of a one-night stand or the progress of a lesbian courtship right now, instead of on Ned Bale’s ongoing . . . pursuit of her. The events she hauled in from the outside like lunch could be real or not real; what was important was the cadence, not the content, of the babble between them. Actually, this wasn’t altogether true—Knox had risen and fallen according to the daily news of Jimmy’s recovery from surgery and felt deliriously buoyant when Marlene told her the tumor was officially benign. She hoarded specific details about Marlene’s life: the hell-raising, punked-out daughter on scholarship at Wake Forest, the cardinal at her kitchen window that Marlene believed was an emissary from her dead Papaw. It was just that Knox sensed she could be whoever she wanted to be, expend as much or as little effort as she chose, and their break time companionship would not oxidize with untruth or neglect. It would simply . . . remain.
“Did Brad take his medication this morning?” Marlene asked. She was peering out the window. Outside, Brad lay on his back in the bleached grass, bicycling his slender legs at the sky.
“He did,” Knox said. “He’s just being Brad, I guess.”
“I don’t know how he moves in this heat.” Marlene looked at her. “You want a cigarette?”
“No thanks, Mar.”
“Well. I guess I’ll call everybody in,” Marlene said, fiddling with the matchbook in her palm. “Unless you want to give me any more gory details.”
Knox did want to. She wanted to tell Marlene about the dancer, how she had seen something magnificent in the way he pounded on the board with his slight feet, their tops corded with tendons and flashing pale, even in the darkness—and in the way he had stood between acts, looking wildly expectant, one hand pressing at the small of his thin back, two fingers of the other hand thrust between his lips. He’d blown a wolf whistle that knifed the air so cleanly, without reverberation, like a child’s scream. She wanted to tell her about driving home with Ned, how they had talked and laughed together about the usual nothings, and how, once he’d parked his truck, Knox had entered his house without asking and taken the toothbrush she always used out of the bathroom cabinet and begun to brush her teeth with it when Ned came into the bathroom and put his arms around her waist and pulled her backward against him, more roughly than he might have on another night; but she didn’t comment, only swallowed the bits of foam and water in her mouth and let him turn her to face him, let him pull her shirt over her head and scratch her breasts with the stubble on his cheeks and chin as he sank lower until his tongue was circling one of her nipples, then the other. How she watched him work from above for a moment, and ran her fingers through his hair, making little tents with it, until Ned pulled her onto her knees and she knelt, facing him, while he unbuttoned her shorts with such concentration that Knox wondered if he might be deliberately avoiding her gaze. How she placed her hands in his hair again and felt the smooth knobs that his skull made behind his ears, and then moved her hands onto the back of his neck and guided his head toward hers, so that they were both closer together and blurred to each other. That had seemed a kindness, to let herself be blurred for Ned, so that he wouldn’t have to watch her watching him.
But there was no way to tell Marlene these things. Knox pushed up from her chair now, said, “I’ll call them in, you just enjoy your smoke,” and leaned out the lunchroom door to yell “Time for class!” into the heat, so loudly that it startled her.
From the Hardcover edition.
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