Clay's promising if uneven debut scrutinizes the complicated relationship between two very different sisters. Knox Bolling has always resented her beautiful sister, Charlotte, and blames Charlotte for her situation. She's 34, living on her parents' Kentucky horse farm and unable to commit to her boyfriend's repeated marriage proposals. Charlotte, on the other hand, has moved to New York City, where she dabbles in acting and holds a series of dead-end jobs before meeting money manager Bruce Tavert, who, after a brief courtship, proposes. Their intention to start a family, however, proves deadly for Charlotte, who dies in childbirth, leaving Bruce with premature twin boys and providing Knox with an opportunity to explore life outside of Kentucky by coming to New York to help Bruce. Things quickly get creepy as Knox tries out life as Charlotte, and the narrative takes on a stark gothic eeriness. New York is more difficult than Kentucky for Clay to nail down, and some of Knox's late-book behavior verges on Fatal Attraction–type obsession before backtracking into something just short of prudent uplift. It's a strange mix—not altogether unappealing, but not a knockout, either. (Mar.)
In her arresting debut, New Yorker contributor Clay tackles sibling relationships, familial bonds, duty, and honor. Readers meet two sisters with a strained relationship: Knox, who lives on her family's Kentucky horse farm, and Charlotte, who lives in New York City. When the unthinkable happens and Charlotte dies from a hemorrhage after childbirth, Knox leaves her comfortable, familiar life behind to help Charlotte's husband, Bruce, a virtual stranger, care for his twin sons. As they work together through grief, loss, and exhaustion, Knox finds a way to honor the sister she never really knew. VERDICT Highly recommended for those who enjoy themes about family and sibling relationships and fans of women's fiction à la Elizabeth Berg, Anne Lamott, Alice Hoffman, and Jodi Picoult.—Shaunna Hunter, Hampden-Sydney Coll., VA
Clay's debut novel has plenty to say about familial relationships in general and sisterhood in particular. The two sisters in a well-to-do Kentucky horse-raising family couldn't be more different, at least from the perspective of the younger. Charlotte is older, prettier, more daring and impulsive. She sneaks away whenever she can and moves away, ultimately to New York, as soon as possible. Knox takes the other role-dependable, dutiful, solid, yet simmering with resentment at the sister who has aroused her jealousy and left her with their parents. There "was a familiar rhythm between Knox and Charlotte, or had been in the years since they'd become grown women who nevertheless remembered what it was like to hurl childish invective at each other, to love and hate each other so nakedly, and so simultaneously, that the mere existence of the other could serve as an intolerable, maddening offense." Things change, or at least show the potential for change, when Charlotte marries a man she barely knows, "Yuppie Bruce," with whom she experiences a difficult conception and succumbs to complications in childbirth. So both her husband and her family have lost Charlotte, as have her baby twin sons, depriving the novel of the only character who has shown the possibility for dimensions beyond cliche. Flashbacks keep Charlotte's memory alive while confusing the chronology of the narrative, as Knox and Bruce, who barely know each other, stumble toward more reflective insights into themselves, each other and Charlotte. "It was a mystery, having a sister," realizes Knox, now that she no longer has one. Meanwhile, her parents and her fiance (who works for Knox's father and whose affectionate name for her is"Ugly") offer little surprise or revelation. The main problem with this domestic melodrama is that the absence of the title character leaves a big hole not only in the family dynamic but in the plot. Like her family, the reader misses Charlotte. First printing of 40,000
From the Publisher
“Clay tenderly yet honestly navigates this family’s earth-shattering loss. . . . Beautifully composed.” —Elle
“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
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.