Katinka O'Toole has discovered that a degree from Harvard does not always lead to fame and fortune. Divorced and struggling to make a living as a writer, the highlight of her day has become the arrival of the mail. Or,
Reminiscent of the novels of Nora Ephron, this brilliantly-written, hilariously touching tale explores a contemporary woman's quirky love life.
Katinka O'Toole has discovered that a degree from Harvard does not always lead to fame and fortune. Divorced and struggling to make a living as a writer, the highlight of her day has become the arrival of the mail. Or, more precisely, the mailman. Yes, she hopes for an acceptance letter, but she also has a fierce crush on Louie Capetti, her gorgeous postal carrier, who she hopes will carry her away to romantic bliss. So while she has taken to receiving her mail in "discount Dior", she also has to deal with her pretentious ex-husband (a noted Joycean scholar), her class-conscious mother, the unwanted affections of a corporate lawyer, and various other roadblocks to true love that plague smart women in today's society.
Katinka O'Toole's life is in a slump: She's living in the same Cambridge apartment she shared with her ex-husband Seamus (a celebrated Joycean scholar she met while taking his Harvard class); she's sending out the same short stories; and she's still bickering with her class-conscious mother over the right kind of man to date. A writer's life revolves around mail, so it's no surprise that Katinka pays particular attention to the mailman, especially when he's the sexy Louie Cappetti. She no longer shuffles out in her bathrobe to collect the mail, but meets Louie dressed in fake Dior. Not surprisingly, the charming Louie is invited to the building's Christmas party, where he meets Katinka under the mistletoe. Coincidentally, her widowed mother also makes a love connection of her own, beginning to date the academically connected Professor Emeritus Haven, who lives upstairs from Katinka. With much speed, the two women are having affairs, though while the mother flouts hers as a promising success leading to marriage, Katinka hides Louie and her own apprehensions about their relationship. And there is soon more than Louie to unnerve her: She is surprisingly handed Seamus's creative writing class when his back goes out. Told in comical, mile-a-minute prose, Katinka's good fortune transforms into a series of dilemmas: How can she deal with a mother who's having sex upstairs in Arthur Haven's apartment? What is she to do with Louie now that he's enrolled in her writing class? And what about the mysterious high school sweetheart he dines with every Wednesday night? Which leaves Katinka with Jake, a previous blind date whom she now finds herself increasingly confiding in. By the end, all problems are solved, though to Medwed's credit quite unpredictably, reinforcing a droll but biting realism.
Thanks in good part to Medwed's lively prose, a great, fun book.
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Read an Excerpt
My mother calls me from Old Town, Maine, at eight in the morning, an hour into my writing time. "You sound grumpy, Katinka," she says. "Did I interrupt something?"
"Just my work."
"As long as it's just your work," she says.
It's her social-whirl voice, her social-work voice. Send this girl to the prom. I sigh. It's my own fault for answering the phone. But what if a publisher should want to ring me up? I turn off my computer. Some days it hums, a companionable sound. Other times it chugs like The Little Engine That Could, an accusatory gasping that seems to imply that all the effort is coming from it, not from me. This morning it's full of complaints. "Can't you write a little faster," it seems to say. "Can't you write at all?"
"Any news?" my mother asks.
Meaning men. "Since I talked to you two days ago?"
"You never know."
I keep silent. What can I tell her, that I think I'm falling in love with the mailman, that the thud of his mailbag in the vestibule makes the earth move to nine point five on my personal Richter scale.
She clears her throat. "You haven't asked about me."
Meaning men. I gird myself. "So?"
"So, I met someone. At the taping books for the blind place. A retired manufacturer. Princeton class of '49."
"Great," I say. I can't help but smile. I'm always amazed at how my mother, who's sixty-three, still defines people by where they went to school. My father, dead for thirteen years, was Harvard '48. My mother still sends in hisclass dues. Her sister-in-law is Mount Holyoke '42. My mother is a graduate of the University of Maine. My grandfather, School of Hard Knocks 1900, didn't have the money to send her to Vassar, whose unaccepted acceptance sits framed on her dressing table beside her wedding picture and me in my graduation robes.
I should have gone to the University of Maine with all my friends from Old Town High. I hated Radcliffe (called Harvard by the time I went, but my mother clung to the R-word: "More cachet," she explained. "My daughter the Cliffie," she'd exult.). Whatever the name, I hold it responsible for both my thirteen-month marriage to my Joyce professor, Yale '60, Oxford D. Phil. '63, and my Crimson-bred arrogance to think I can be a writer. I'd be happier teaching second grade and canning blueberries like my girlfriends from the U of M.
Now my mother and I discuss what she'll wear on her date with the Princeton man.
"Orange and black," I say.
"Oh, Katinka." She laughs and I hear her bracelets clang.
We decide on the navy dress from Neiman Marcus that we bought in Filene's Basement when she visited me last year. And the burgundy shoes. "With the Cuban heels," my mother adds. I look at my sneakers. They are polka-dotted with holes.
"I'll give you a report," my mother says now.
"Go tiger go," I say and hang up.
I turn on the computer. It chugs. I switch it off. I check my watch. The mail comes at eleven. I'm not kidding about the mailman.
When I wed Seamus, my Joyce professor, I looked upon it as the marriage of true minds, granted that one brain had twenty-five more years of seasoning. Besides, he didn't care about my clothes since he was always pulling them off me. We had seven good days, not including our wedding night when Seamus threw his back out lifting my suitcase onto the luggage rack. After that week, what I had imagined as evenings of blank verse before a blazing fire became in reality arguments about underdone meatloaf in front of the stove. What I had imagined as nights of lovemaking before the same blazing fire turned into calisthenics in his orthopedic bed. His back was delicate. His sinuses were unreliable. He piled Ian Fleming paperbacks behind the toilet seat. His sour breath did nothing to fill my heart with poetry. Soon enough I discovered he preferred choruses to Molly Bloom soliloquies. He left me for Melissa and Melinda, sophomores with nothing between them and their Calvins but a little baby fat.
"Imagine, and such an educated man," moaned my mother at the time, "with that Oxford degree."
Unlike my mother, my friends were not surprised. "What do you expect marrying a father figure?" sighed they who'd all taken Intro to Psychology. I'd nodded, summoning up a picture of my father, Harvard '48, who'd died when I was nineteen, found keeled over an actuarial report at his insurance firm with the same lack of fuss with which he'd lived his life.
Like my father, these days I'm pining for a life with little fuss. My time with Seamus, our marriage and his flight from it, left me feeling colorized. In spite of its lofty academic ideals, Harvard has a National Enquirer soul. My fifteen minutes of fame was tabloid stuff. People snickered about Seamus and his M's.
Next week it will be nine years since my divorce. I see Seamus sometimes in the Coop or in Sage's buying wine. He married first Melissa and then Melinda, or was it the other way around? Now he squires a TA in biology named Georgette. She wears leather miniskirts and earrings from whose wires dangle silver skeletons of fish. I bumped into them the other day at a revival of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at the Brattle. I was going in, they were coming out. Seamus didn't seem to recognize me. I don't really think it was a snub. He prides himself on his tolerance for past relationships. He's nearly sixty with a matted Moses beard and glasses faceted like prisms. He has the wild slightly exaggerated look of a bad actor playing a poet in residence. He wears sandals over argyle socks. What did I ever see in him? What does Georgette see in him? The movie was pretty good, though I must admit my capacity for the fey (Is Seamus fey?) is fast diminishing. Georgette, of course, loved it. I heard her telling Seamus it was awesome. Her language, I was pleased to note, wasn't Joycean. She herself is attractive enough if flamboyant.
I, on the other hand, am back to my black and white life. I pass a hermit's days and nights writing, reading, going out for an occasional movie or a dinner with old friends. I'm thirty-one now and ready to make my literary mark. I want to be a writer. My mother thinks it time once more for me to be a wife.
But I've sworn off marriage. I've quit my library job at Widener. My apartment on the first floor of a Harvard-owned building two down from the Fogg Museum was part of my divorce settlement. The money I've saved and my father's bequest helps pay the rent and keeps me in macaroni casseroles. Up to now, things have been going well. I've placed two stories in literary quarterlies whose names you've never heard of. I've received several rejection slips that say Sorry, but please send more. These are signed by real people whose initials I spit on to test whether they blur. Still, if biology is destiny, then hormones at thirty-one (and seventy) seem determined to waylay the best-laid plans. Which takes me to the mailman.
For starters let me explain why I got to know him in the first place. My building's tenants are professors, teaching assistants, grad students, administrators, librarians, and their spouses. In the logic of somebody like my mother, it would follow that because they're Harvard, they're movers and shakers. And it just so happens that by nine in the morning they're all out moving and shaking in their offices and lecture halls. All, that is, except me, who's moving the mouse around my Macintosh, and the super, who's shaking up his rum and cokes in his basement hideaway.
And who's available to accept packages and sign for registered letters? To keep the New York Reviews from being swiped, to protect paychecks and credit cards, to pile up toothpaste samples and upscale marketing questionnaires? Me, of course, whose apartment door is directly across from the wall of letterboxes in the vestibule.
I admit I planned it that way, picked an apartment to be mail-accessible. For a writer, mail is not just a collection of bills and letters and offers to subscribe to Sports Illustrated. It's an umbilical cord, a connection to the outside world, the giver of pleasure and pain. It shapes the day, is the moment, inexorable as the tide, toward which all the hours rise and fall. If to the madras-clad clubman the day crests when the sun has passed over the yardarm to signify the cocktail hour, to the writer the arrival of the mail charts the peak on any graph. It's like sex, the slow building of anticipation, the delivery itself (good news, bad, no news), and the postcoital glow or gloom. And except for Sundays, there's always the Scarlett O'Hara tomorrow bit.
So, within days of quitting my library job, I was out in the vestibule stalking the U.S. Post. I guess I couldn't disguise the mail-hungry look on my face because people coming and leaving the building began to ask me if I'd accept their UPS and FedEx deliveries. I was all too happy. There was life out there in the front hall, grist for the mill. The exterminator confided who had the most cockroaches, who was the biggest slob. The diaper service man for the newborn on the fifth floor flexed his expanding biceps. The cleaner for 3E was hoping to go to community college in the spring. Mr. Sullivan, our former mailman, was having trouble with his bunions and showed me his can of mace, which in twenty years he only had to use once on a German shepherd north of Broadway.
Besides being able to indulge fully in my obsession (and doing good for others at the same time), I was also able to check out the men in my building. Given Mr. Sullivan's erratic delivery schedule, I was eventually able to observe the arrivals and departures of most of them. Frankly, the men didn't amount to much. Distracted scientists with terrible hours, brisk business school types who looked you in the eye and addressed you by name three times in every sentence, the others too old, too young, too married. For a while I had my hopes pinned on an art historian, but he, Mr. Sullivan whispered, lived with Gregory the Florist, who always wore camel hair.
Then Mr. Sullivan's bunions really got bad. Gregory took up a collection, and on a Saturday the building gave him a poinsettia plant and fourteen tulip bulbs as a farewell.
The next Monday was Louie's first day on our route. It was November, a cold morning, and my story about a UPS woman and diaper man wasn't going well. I decided to run around the corner for coffee since even the instant was all used up. I stuffed myself into my down parka. I looked like a sausage. My hair was a mess. "Hi," he said, bounding up the three front steps. "I'm your new mailman, Louis Cappetti." He pronounced it Louie. He thrust out his hand.
I took it. He was tall with a gleam of patent leather hair under his earflaps and a big smile which made his eyes widen not narrow the way most people's do. He was about my age. Maybe a little younger. He had that buttery-olive skin that doesn't wrinkle. "How ya doing?" he asked. The buttons on his blue uniform shone. My stomach did a little jig. I love a man in a uniform my mother would announce, meaning West Point or Annapolis. No matter, he was the best thing I'd seen all year.
Was I holding the mailman's hand too long? I gave a quick squeeze, then let go. "Katinka O'Toole," I said.
"Hey, that's an unusual name."
"The O'Toole's my ex's. Katinka comes from some writer in The New Yorker during the fifties. I hope it's prophetic. My mother had literary illusions," I confided.
He looked puzzled.
I blushed. I was a damn fool. Insular and arrogant. Literary illusion, literary allusion... The lingua franca of Cambridge is the literary allusion. Seamus prided himself on his common touch, which was apocryphal. Like most in our set he was the master of the inside aside.
"I mean," I translated, "since I'm a writer I hope having a writer's name will bring me luck."
"Right..." he said. "Wow," he added. "I don't think I've ever met a writer before. What do you write?"
I lowered my eyes modestly. "Life."
He nodded. Then gave a kind of c'est la vie shrug. "Have you published them?"
The inevitable question, in all languages, across all class lines. "Two," I said. Sometimes I lie and say "a few" or "a couple," which I suppose isn't technically a lie.
"How about that. Where can I read them?"
"In magazines you've never heard of." I caught myself. "I mean, nobody's ever heard of."
"Except me. After all every single magazine passes through the hands of the U.S. Mail."
"I hadn't even thought of that."
"Besides," he added, "wouldn't the library have them?"
My heart lifted. A library-goer! "Probably not. But I'll give you Xeroxes if you're really interested."
And that, Louie, as Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains, was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
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This book was very funny. The writer pokes fun at human interactions. Slightly erotic too. Very enjoyable. A contemporary and intelligent style. I want to read the author's 5 other books too.