Midsummer

Midsummer

5.0 3
by Marcelle Clements
     
 

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"Clements's second novel is one of those rare, satisfying books in which nothing much happens and yet nothing is left unchanged."—The New Yorker

The setting is a ridiculously grand Hudson River estate, shared by a group of friends for the summer. At first, Susie's idea is to cheer up her old schoolmate, Kay. She invites an ex-lover, Dodge, who brings

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Overview

"Clements's second novel is one of those rare, satisfying books in which nothing much happens and yet nothing is left unchanged."—The New Yorker

The setting is a ridiculously grand Hudson River estate, shared by a group of friends for the summer. At first, Susie's idea is to cheer up her old schoolmate, Kay. She invites an ex-lover, Dodge, who brings in Ron, a comedian. On impulse, Susie also invites a woman artist she knows only slightly. Everyone looks forward to a respite from Manhattan but each privately anticipates something more. The landscape is inebriating; the relationships intense. Over the course of the summer, attraction and withdrawal succeed one another at an astonishing pace. When the party is crashed by Susie's ardent and surprising twenty-four-year-old son, as well as by the exhibitionistic au pair next door, the summer turns into a study of desire—its charm, its futility, and its power.

"A book full of a rose garden's suggestive stillness, heat, and cultivated beauty . . . A beautiful book, light in tone as summers and gardens often are, but not at all light in its lasting effects."—O, The Oprah Magazine

Marcelle Clements was born in Paris and moved to New York at age ten. Her previous books were a collection of essays, The Dog Is Us; a novel, Rock Me; and a nonfiction book, The Improvised Woman. Her articles and essays on culture, politics, and the arts have appeared in many national publications.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR MIDSUMMER
“Marcelle Clements, in her fine, graceful Midsummer, has given us a book full of a rose garden’s suggestive stillness, heat, and cultivated beauty.”—O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE
“Midsummer is a novel of haunting beauty and almost terrifyingly acute perceptions. By the time I reached the book’s subtle, devastating closing lines, I actually gasped at Clement’s command of comedy and pathos, and her ability to chart their endlessly intermingling.”
—MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM, a u t h o r o f THE HOURS
The New Yorker
"One of those rare, satisfying books in which nothing much happens and yet nothing is left unchanged."
Library Journal
A beautiful estate overlooking the Hudson River. Six single New Yorkers sharing the house for eight lazy, sensuous summer weekends. Clements's second novel (after Rock Me) sounds like a contemporary update of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but the disappointing result is more Much Ado About Nothing. Having recently ended her longstanding relationship and deciding that she is comfortable being alone, 45-year-old costume designer Susie Diamond invites a few friends to share a summer rental upstate and to "maybe have fun." Her guests include her best friend, Kay, still recovering four years later from a post-breakup miscarriage; Dodge, Susie's sexy ex-lover and a successful artist; Ron, Dodge's anxious and obnoxious comedian friend, who doesn't understand why he can't make it with women; Elise, a struggling artist jealous of Susie's relationship with Dodge; and Billy, Susie's handsome 23-year-old son, who is attracted to Elise. Over eight weekends, told in separate chapters from each character's point of view, the housemates swim, sunbathe, eat, drink a lot, and talk constantly about life, love, and sex. After a while all this self-pitying navel-gazing by a bunch of self-absorbed New Yorkers gets wearying, and the reader finishes the book wondering what all the fuss was about. Only for larger collections.-Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Middle-aged New Yorkers share a Hudson River country house in a second novel from Clements (Rock Me, 1989). Susie, Kay, Dodge, Ron, Elise, and Susie's son Billy (he's 24) arrive, settle in, and lounge around in wicker chairs until someone makes the inevitable comparison to a Chekhov play. Then someone else discovers that insects are crawling around. This topic quickly exhausted, it's time to resort to the sophisticated city dweller's stock complaint: the futility of life and love. Yes, this weary band has been disappointed many times, and no one knows what it all means. Yet Susie is happy enough with her maternal improvisations on behalf of Billy, and she realizes that being single has its advantages. Tick-tock, the sound of a biological clock interrupts the balmy summer eve: Kay, after a traumatic miscarriage following a break-up, still yearns for a child. But Susie's former lover, sexy, motorcycle-riding Dodge, an unrepentant womanizer and noted painter, stares at eggs, not Kay, and thinks deep thoughts. His sidekick, the vaguely comedic Ron, frets silently and wonders why the women ignore him, even though Elise, the youngest, obviously has no money and no man. Back to Susie, who wonders sophomorically if fantasies are more attractive than reality: "It was odd: she still had desire for desire, but almost never desire itself. But that was interesting, in a way." Her other note to self: "It was amazing how much everyone in this house thought about sex and how there actually was no sex." To alleviate the ennui, the author thoughtfully throws in a few locals to give at least the appearance of temptation-the sinewy carpenter swings a hammer, the nubile au pair stretches in the sun.There are card games, lap swimming, and a trip or two to the tavern to play pool, leading to a brawl with more colorful locals. Still, nothing happens. Billy and Kay begin a brief, poignant love affair. And then, more nothing. Summer ends. Pointless and generally unfunny, from the hipper-than-thou Clements (The Improvised Woman: Single Women Reinventing Single Life, 1998, etc.).

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780156029650
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
05/17/2004
Edition description:
First Harvest Edition
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
1,178,309
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

TUTTI

FOURTH OF JULY WEEKEND

Thursday

The rose garden needed watering. By midday the ground was parched and the fullest, heaviest blooms seemed to be waiting for the wind to rise and scatter all their petals. Impossibly open, already a little seared on their edges, they yielded the last of their beauty to the sun. To be beautiful a few hours more or less, what does it matter to a rose?

As if they had noted the lack of shadow on the old sundial, the birds and the butterflies had all left for their naps. Only one inebriated bee, on his way to the hive, still zigzagged greedily from flower to flower. Then, all was still, save for the perpetual trickling of a fountain: For the last hundred years the trio of bare-breasted naiads had been about to dive into the alabaster pool below, forever ready to frolic, forever unreasonably young and desirable (taunting thirsty roses for all eternity).

And the truth is the fountain really should have been drained and cleaned, but never mind that for now. From the mansion's big parlor casement windows, Dodie glanced down toward the rose garden again and made yet another mental note-she never wrote anything down and it must have been the thirtieth time she reminded herself-to call the landscape guy, remind him the summer people were arriving tomorrow. Dodie sighed. Her husband was supposed to do the watering, but who knew where he was.

The house was ready. She had checked and double-checked the upstairs. There were ten bedrooms. Ten! Although there would only be five tenants, or maybe six if the son came, all the rooms needed to be ready, just in case. All week, during daylight hours, the rooms had been aired, doors and windows wedged open, breezes vigorously communicating, lifting a white piqué curtain here or the corner of a dotted-swiss bedspread there, caressing the matelassé coverlets spread over two chair backs, while on the beds, mattresses and pillows brazenly sprawled, stripped down to their striped ticking. Now each room was done, its door primly closed.

Well, if you weren't super-rich, that's probably what it took, was five of you to rent this place, thought Dodie. I don't know, maybe ten of you. They may have gotten a discount because one of them, Susie Diamond, was a friend of Mr. Durrell's. Or Bennett, as he seemed to think Dodie should call him, though she never would if she could help it. The only thing she knew about Susie Diamond was that she was a costume designer in the theater. Mr. Durrell had been living in Italy for the last ten years, and when he came to New York it was usually to go on a talk show, so he stayed in Manhattan at the Carlyle and never came upstate at all. When they had established their arrangement, a decade ago, Mr. Durrell had explained that he wanted the house kept just so and that he might be back at any time. But he never returned. Dodie thought it was perhaps because the young man who had lived here with him had died, early in the AIDS epidemic, but of course that's not something Mr. Durrell ever mentioned.

One spring, in the course of their quarterly transatlantic phone call, when Mr. Durrell confirmed decisions about upkeep and repairs, Dodie had pointed out that it was difficult for the house to be in really good shape if there was never anyone in it. "Ah," he had said. "Yes."

"Are you going to sell it?" she had asked, baldly. She'd been worried about it and just wanted to get the conversation over with.

"Sell it?" he asked, as if bewildered. "No, of course not. I don't know. Would you like to live there as a caretaker?"

"No," said Dodie. She had already worked this out. It would be too far to get the kids to school and she couldn't trust Joe here, anyway, was the truth. Who knew when he'd go on a bender and trash the place. "No, but thank you very much, Mr. Durrell," she said.

"Please, call me Bennett," he said.

"Thank you, Bennett," she dutifully responded.

"Maybe we'll rent it for the summer," he had said.

"Good idea," said Dodie.

She had assumed nothing would come of the conversation, but, on the contrary, two weeks later Mr. Durrell had called and said a family would be arriving on Memorial Day weekend. Could the house be ready by then?

Two young girls from town had come to help Dodie. She'd had the same ones for three years running now. At the beginning they were real cutie pies, who took instructions well. This year one of them had purple-and-orange hair and the other one was pregnant and Dodie's proportion of the work had risen. They weren't all that interested anyway since, as a rule, the summer tenants had small children, which was a windfall for the girls, who took turns baby-sitting. This year, if Dodie understood correctly, it wasn't a regular family; it was five single people.

Usually it was a mother and one or two or three children. They arrived promptly on Memorial Day to stay for the summer and the husband would come on weekends, bringing guests. This year, for one thing, they'd be coming late, not until the Fourth of July. For another, it was three women and two men, who were all friends but none of them was married, Susie Diamond had told her.

"On some weekends my son may also be there," Susie Diamond had said.

"Will you need baby-sitting?" Dodie had asked.

Susie laughed. She had a very good laugh. Dodie laughed too. "No," Susie said. "My son will be twenty-three in July."

"Oh!" said Dodie. "You don't sound old enough to have such a grown-up child."

Susie laughed again. "Thank you," she said. "What about you? Do you have children?"

"Yes," said Dodie. "Three boys. Eight, six, and four."

"Goodness!" exclaimed Susie.

"But don't worry. They'll be with my mother."

Their deal was that Dodie would come every afternoon on the weekends, to prepare dinner and tidy up. The teenagers would be by during the week-Supposedly! thought Dodie-to help with the heavy cleaning. "Everything will be ready for you," Dodie said. She paused, and then added, "You'll have a wonderful summer." That sort of thing didn't come easily to her, but she felt it was necessary.

Susie laughed again. "Really?" she said. "Yes, you're right, I'm sure we will."

Friday

They were more than halfway there. Susie was driving. All three of them had been in excellent moods, summer-is-starting kind of moods, even Kay, but when Susie announced they had just driven past the halfway mark, Kay sighed. Billy noticed and smiled at her. She smiled back.

"What?" said Susie.

"I'm getting hungry," said Billy.

"We just ate," said Susie. At the sound of Susie's voice, the dog barked and unsteadily rose on Kay's lap to stare at Susie.

"Hi, poochie. Hi, sweetheart," said Susie. She stretched her neck toward him, and the dog immediately began to lick her mouth and chin.

"Watch it," said Billy. "You're drifting."

The entire back of the car was so loaded with their summer things that the rear mirror was useless. Though he knew them well, Billy had been flabbergasted by how much the two women had brought with them.

The dog hobbled over across the emergency brake to Susie's lap. He settled down in a more or less perfect circle and Susie set to driving with one hand, so she could pat and caress him with the other.

"The kids get a puppy!" announced Susie, who had this spring developed a strain of humor that consisted of proclaiming topic sentences which might have served as captions for illustrations of nineteenth-century children's books.

Susie had bought the dog, a couple of months ago, on impulse. On her way uptown, striding by a pet shop window on her way to a meeting with a director-she was ambivalent about whether she wanted the job and she was already late-she had happened to have made eye contact with a very young husky. Her meeting over-she had taken the job-she had returned to purchase him. She had immediately named him Otto. When she had gotten home, the puppy had bounded onto the couch where Billy was lying, smoking a cigarette with his eyes closed.

"Whoa!" Billy had called out. "Well, and who are you?" The puppy was already vigorously licking his face.

"I'm calling him Otto," Susie had said. "He looks like an Otto, doesn't he?" she had asked Billy.

"Yeah, right," Billy had said. They hadn't had a dog since he'd gone away to college. His very first week away, their ancient spaniel had contracted some rare form of canine leukemia-As if he couldn't tolerate Billy's absence? they had both secretly wondered-and within thirty-six hours, in a taxi on the way to the vet, had expired in Susie's arms. "Now I'm really alone," Susie had told the taxi driver, and then had to endure a lengthy conversation, stuck in traffic during the ride back to her place after they'd dropped the corpse off at the vet's. Despite Billy's emphatic recommendation, Susie had refused to get another dog, saying it didn't go with her life anymore.

Nearly five years later, when introduced to Otto, Billy prudently refrained from expressing any direct verbal approval for his mother's action. She was so oppositional that he often feared supporting any sound point of view, unsure that it wouldn't send her off on some peculiar circumvention. But he had gotten down on the floor and rubbed his forehead against the puppy's, who, on cue, wagged his tail. "I don't know about whether he looks like an Otto, but he looks like a winner."

"By the way, why are you smoking?" Susie had said.

"I'm stopping tomorrow," Billy had said.

Indeed, Billy hadn't had a single cigarette all day, and it was difficult not to constantly be thinking about smoking.

It was July 3, Billy's twenty-third birthday. Susie had given him a Gibson electric bass at the end of the school year, but he knew-because he'd been looking for something else in her bedroom and had come upon his presents, waiting to be wrapped-that he would soon be in possession of the new Proust translation and a fine sweater in an exquisite encre de Chine color, so close to black he would actually wear it.

In the car the three of them had eaten turkey sandwiches out of wax paper and shared two bottles of beer, intending to celebrate more elaborately once they got to the house. A rubber band secured a plastic bag around the neck of a bottle of Moët & Chandon.

There was very little traffic, there was no wind, and they had a boom box and a shoe box full of cassettes, including every album Roy Orbison had ever made. They had decided to be on a Roy Orbison kick.

In Susie's old Saab, Otto had at last come to rest. The Taconic had narrowed. There were more and bigger trees, more green, more sky. All three drifted into a reverie until Otto licked Kay's ear and she gasped, startling Susie and Billy.

"Otto!" said Kay. "You rascal."

"This dog's a thief of hearts," said Susie.

"Even Kay's," Billy pointed out, "Kay's solemn heart."

"You're becoming pretty solemn yourself, Billy," said Kay.

"He's beginning to resemble you more than me," said Susie.

"That's because no one can compete with you, Susie," said Kay, more or less by way of a joke.

"Maybe he's growing up faster than I am," said Susie.

"No doubt about that," said Billy.

"Well, there's some doubt," said Kay. "There are different ways of growing old. Susie, I think, will be eternally young."

"I'm getting more and more stupid, you mean," said Susie. "And more and more guilty of the sort of triviality that passes for the lightheartedness of youth."

"I don't think you're ever trivial," said Kay.

"You're not trivial, you're zoned," said Billy.

"That's what makes you seem so incredibly youthful," said Kay.

"Phew," said Susie, her eyes on the road. "I guess that if I've made it this far and I can still create that illusion, I must be in good shape. Or does it mean I'm in terrible shape?"

"And what about you, Kay?" Billy asked. "How young are you?"

"Terribly old." Kay laughed. "Terribly, terribly old."

"Not true," said Susie. "You're much younger now than a couple of years ago. You just need to be tricked into being your younger self."

Kay had had one of those catastrophic breakups, four years ago, complete with public infidelity with an obnoxious tart, betrayal, deceit, and humiliation. Several weeks later Kay miscarried while, at the restaurants and at dinner parties she now carefully avoided, the obnoxious tart was constantly sighted, conspicuously and radiantly pregnant, in the company of Kay's ex-boyfriend. The numerous friends who encountered the new couple here and there around town and who turned out to be meticulous reporters of such matters informed Kate that the ex-boyfriend seemed very peppy.

"What are you going to do about it?" Susie had asked Kay.

"Do?" Kay had said. "What is there to do?"

Susie had tried to talk Kay into starting out on some new, energizing project, but instead she had gotten a call from Kay the next day to say that their conversation had led her to realize that she had to leave New York as soon as possible and that she had decided to take advantage of an offer she'd rejected some time back to write a book that would require a good deal of research at the Library of Congress.

"Washington!" Susie had exclaimed.

"What's the difference?" Kay had said.

Kay's friends wondered to one another how long it was going to take to recover and lately had begun to consider what was going to happen if she didn't. Four years. Did people's lives get ruined, just like that, because some lowlife wanted to get laid? Maybe. The truth is that Kay seemed totaled, erotically.

Susie, for her part, had recently broken up her own long-standing relationship and, for the first time in her life, had no plan to replace it. She didn't even know why, exactly. It wasn't a policy decision, but she suddenly realized that she felt comfortable alone.

"Isn't this odd?" she'd say to Kay in the course of one of their frequent New York-D.C. phone visits.

"Yes," Kay would say.

Susie balked at spending a lot of time in Washington, but she had managed to convince Kay to come into New York at least a weekend a month and, one evening this spring, on impulse, had persuaded both Kay and herself that it would be a splendid idea to get a few friends together and rent a place in the country for the summer and, as she put it, "maybe have fun." Susie and Kay alike were still somewhat in a state of disbelief that Susie had actually seen the plan through, gathered the friends, found the house, and here they were, on their way up, more than halfway there.

Kay was apprehensive. She had sublet her place in Washington and, unlike the others who would be commuting from Manhattan on weekends, she planned to stay out at the house for the summer. It had seemed like a good idea at the time she made the plans. Perhaps she'd do some writing, she thought. She had imagined herself, with great relief, in peaceful rustic solitude. However, in the last couple of days she had begun to feel extremely anxious about the idea of spending the weeks alone in a remote place where she knew no one. But Susie had said she hoped she could stay out part of August. "And I've no plans for the summer, or for the rest of my life," Billy had pointed out-he himself was hoping for an invitation beyond this weekend which, thus far, had not been forthcoming from Susie, Kay noted with amusement. In the car with Susie and Billy she had cheered up and, of course, the puppy made it almost impossible to stay worried and somber.

Both Susie and Billy were extremely gratified by the fact that the puppy's charms had been irresistible even to Kay, whose dignity was, in their view, pleasantly compromised by Otto's frantically affectionate bonding maneuvers. When she turned her face away, he licked her jawline with tremendous intensity for a few moments and then settled down droopily on her lap again.

"Yes," she said, "I have to admit it, he's adorable."

"Almost as adorable as Billy," said Susie. Both women looked at him, smiling.

Susie turned her eyes back to the road. "Isn't he beautiful?" she asked.

"Yes," said Kay.

"Oh, Jesus," said Billy.

"Though he's so young it's possible that he may truly feel his beauty is an inconvenience," said Kay.

"You're so excessive in your compliments," said Billy to Susie. "Don't you know it screws up my sense of self?"

"I'm entitled to some excess as a mother," said Susie.

"No, you're not," said Billy.

They all three laughed. They were in very good moods. "Yes, she is," Kay said.

Roy Orbison was growing on Kay. There was one funky old cassette that had a ridiculous amount of hiss on it, but Susie played it over and over again, and by the time they had heard it five or six times, they could sing along with it.

"Well, I've been traveling night and day..."

Susie said to Kay: "Do you remember my dream?"

"Yes," said Kay.

"What dream?" said Billy.

"I told you," said Susie. "The melody-in-the-forest dream."

"I had a horrible dream last night," said Billy.

"What?" asked Susie and Kay together.

"I don't remember," said Billy.

"Those are bad," said Kay.

Billy dimly tried to recall his dream. Along the highway the trees were growing still taller and darker green, the sky cerulean. Billy tried to let his mind ease enough to recapture even a single image of the dream, but the landscape was overpowering. There were fewer, simpler shapes now, a little enchanted seeming in this light. Finally he gave up. Maybe it was just as well not to remember.

When they pulled up to the house, Kay opened the door on the passenger side and Otto gingerly alighted, then stood his ground next to the car, barking passionately at the house. Finally he galloped away, in all-out pursuit of something small and furry.

"Should I hold him?" Kay asked, too late, distracted by the very grand facade. "Oh," she exclaimed. "This is unbelievable."

The house was quite as spectacular as Susie had described it. An Italianate limestone edifice whose impressive structure couldn't be divined from the driveway, it was framed by weeping willows and blue pines. The Hudson lay beyond, opulent, shimmering blue satin.

"It's all right," said Susie. "He won't go far. Yes, oh my goodness, this house!"

"Shouldn't he be on a leash?" asked Billy.

"Yes," said Kay.

Otto gamboled back toward where all three still sat in the car, contemplating the house. "Wow," said Billy, forgetting for once not to show he was impressed. "Unreal."

"It's summertime!" Susie announced the latest caption.

Otto ran in a squiggly circle as they got out of the Saab. He ardently dashed back in their direction as they climbed the tall stone stairs, and when Billy pushed the rather large, creaky door open, Otto was the first one into the house.

They walked, all together, through the mansion-the vast hall, studded with paintings of someone's ancestors, a formal dining room, a drawing room that could easily accommodate thirty for tea, a small, paneled library, a huge white turn-of-the-century kitchen into which new appliances had been inserted, an enclosed patio at the back of the house that looked out on the lawn sloping to the river. To the left was the pool. To the right were the gardens.

Susie had been right, Kay was thinking as they reached the patio from which they could see the path that led toward the rose garden. The patio was a semi-octagonal room, wainscoted in green, with its own dormered ceiling. The walls were mostly glass.

"This is where we'll have our drinks," said Susie.

"This is unbelievable," Kay said.

"Yes, it'll do," said Billy.

"Every day we'll have cocktails as the sun sets and we'll talk about love," said Susie.

"Oh, please," Kay said.

"I have nothing to say about love," said Billy.

"That's because you don't know enough about it yet," said Susie. "You'll learn from us."

"That's what you think," said Billy.

"Why, do you think you have nothing to learn from us?" Kay said.

"No," said Billy. "I mean that's what you think that I don't know anything."

"Look, we've started already," said Susie. "But without drinks. Let's go upstairs and see the rest and then come back down and have our drinks."

"And celebrate Billy's birthday," Kay said.

"And celebrrrrate," sang Susie. It was a Purcell ode she and Kay had learned in school. "This glo-o-o-rious day."

Otto galloped in. "Hello, sweetie. Hello, handsome," crooned Susie as she swept the dog up in her arms.

"There's one certainty about this summer," said Billy, "which is that this dog is going to get spoiled."

Upstairs, bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms, absurdly ample linen closets, weird crannies and niches succeeded one another according to an indecipherable plan. When one looked down any hall, up any staircase, there was a zany prospect. Each ceiling was of a different height. Each room was of an unpredictable shape. Suddenly there'd be the hollow of a gable or the unexpected wall of a chimney, all in seeming disarray or disposed according to some vastly complex design that could not be inferred on a first visit. Indeed, the loony Gothic inside of the house bore no relationship to the gracious Palladian exterior with its stately columns, its elegant fenestration, its insistently noble proportions. The place had been gutted late in the nineteenth century by moneyed aesthetes who found the Greek revival style old hat and were willing to indulge their preference for the Victorian without any reservation. Agitated ornament, wooden bas-reliefs, coffered ceilings, mosaics, torches, bronze, gilt, brass, and velvet abounded. It all made the classical exterior of the mansion seem like a joke on those who had entered it.

"Wow," said Susie when they ended their tour by examining the two dozen-Billy counted-pen-and-ink ruins hanging in proud incongruity on the red-and-black raised leaf-pattern wallpaper of the landing. Kay, face upturned to the ornate boiserie of the ceiling, said, "Really..." Billy shook his head.

They each picked a bedroom. Kay's and Susie's looked out over the patio, toward the rose garden and the river. Billy's was a small corner room, which faced both the gardens and the lawn. He opened the window and leaned out for a moment. The light was sultry and carried the odor of phlox, jasmine, pine, grass especially, but also an ineffably lovely, unidentifiable aroma composed of innumerable plants' final exhalation of the day.

In her room-chosen because the wallpaper featured fat mandarins in pink pajamas-Susie lay down and closed her eyes for a moment. She breathed deeply. She felt immense relief.

In Kay's room there were white piqué curtains on the window. The room was papered with large blue roses; there was a bureau, a dressing table, an armchair adorned with antimacassars that someone had darned here and there with a meticulously small stitch, a lovely faded Persian on the floor, a sleigh bed covered with a white piqué spread that matched the curtains. She stood in the middle of her room, her arms crossed, gaze lost in the Persian's pattern.

In his room Billy turned away from the window. It was almost too intoxicating. There was a print on the wall and he drew nearer to look at it. It was an engraving of the abduction of Helen of Troy.

"But if Helen was that thick waisted and bulbous breasted, it's hard to see what the fuss had been about," Billy said to Susie and Kay when they gathered on the patio again, drinking their champagne at last and recounting their impressions.

"I don't know anything about Helen," said Susie.

Kay squinted at the light.

"But then there used to be a different idea of beauty?" Billy suggested.

"Of course," Susie and Kay said at the same time.

Each of the women mused for a moment.

"It's so exhausting to think of beauty," said Kay.

"Really? I find it restful," said Susie.

The sun dropped below the clouds. Kay looked at Susie and Billy. Mother and son looked beautiful in the falling golden light. Kay shivered.

"What's the matter?" said Susie.

"Nothing," said Kay. "I don't know."

"A ghost," said Susie.

"Yes," said Kay.

"Helen didn't have to be so beautiful," said Billy. "It isn't beauty that makes men crazy."

"But it helps," said Susie. "What is it that makes men crazy?"

"Desire, of course," said Billy. "But beauty doesn't provoke it, it only reminds you of it."

"Is that true?" said Susie to Kay.

"I don't know," said Kay.

"Well," said Susie. "Theoretically, that might be true."

"Structurally," said Billy.

"Psychoanalytically," said Kay.

"Well, I don't know," said Susie. "Some people say the love of beauty is a defense."

"Idiots," said Billy.

That night they ate some cold chicken Susie had brought from New York-not realizing that Dodie would have stocked the fridge-while Otto begged, whined, and attempted to climb on the dining-room table. In lieu of a birthday cake they finished with an apricot tart. Here in this place, the fruit seemed almost intolerably delicious. The crust was flaky and delicate; the apricot very slightly stinging, soft on the tongue; the cream just sweet enough. Mmm, they kept saying, or yum. They each had two pieces. They finished the champagne. Billy became melancholy, but no more than was appropriate. Susie drank exactly the right amount of champagne, she declared, and felt perfect. In fact, she did have a moment, immediately after she said that, of actually feeling perfect.

Kay went in and out of feeling connected, but the others didn't expect much more. Susie and Billy were discreetly solicitous, that most soothing act of friendship, not imposing any consolation on her. But Susie thought Kay didn't seem as heavyhearted as she had been all spring.

Billy must have had one glass of champagne too many because as the conversation swung back to the subject of the summer, he suddenly pleaded: "Oh please let me stay here with you this summer!"

"You're welcome to come any weekend you want," said Susie, surprised.

"No, no," said Billy. "I want to come every weekend, all summer, with you. Don't worry, I won't be in the way."

Both women laughed. "Never in the way," said Kay.

"In the way!" Susie said. "Why, you'll be the belle of the ball."

"Well, no, thanks," said Billy. "I'll have the last of the apricot."

"You're embarrassing him with the gender confusion," Kay said to Susie. "He's too young to be relaxed about that."

"That's what you think," said Billy. "You're projecting because you're stuck in your fifties inhibitions."

"Sixties," said Susie.

"That's what you think," said Billy. "You think it's sixties but it's fifties. You just happened to have spent the decade of your adolescence trying to obliterate the lessons of your authentically formative years."

Susie laughed. "Whoa," she said. "That's a hefty retaliation for the belle-of-the-ball remark."

Kay felt sympathy for Billy. She'd always wondered whether, for all of Susie's charm, it might not be difficult sometimes to have her as a mother. If so, Billy never had let on, at least not to her.

"It'll be wonderful to have you here," she said with precision. "It's been a long time since we were in a summer place together."

"Eight years," he said, with precision. "Belle Isle."

"Is that true?" Susie said to Kay. "Was it really eight years ago that we had that house?"

"It's amazing," said Kay. "I can't believe it. It feels like, say, three years or five years. Or else, I don't know, twenty years."

"I don't believe how fast time goes," said Susie. "It's terrifying. Terrifying."

"You had a red-and-white striped bikini," Billy said to Kay, "that summer."

Susie and Kay laughed. "You're blushing," Susie said to Kay. "Isn't he cute?"

Billy looked up to the ceiling. Kay laughed. "I'm not blushing," she said. "I just can't believe I ever wore a bikini."

"It was five minutes ago," said Susie.

"Yeah, right," said Kay.

"So who are these people?" said Billy. "Why do we have to have them?"

"Well, you remember Dodge," said Susie.

"All too well," said Billy. "Even in the glorious pantheon of your old boyfriends, he stands out as one of the most annoying."

"The most talented," said Susie. "The best painter, anyway."

"I remember him as very talented at seduction," said Kay.

"Perhaps he's mended his ways," said Susie. "Though I doubt it-so at least he'll still be fun to have around."

"Didn't Dodge get married?"

"Yes," said Susie. "He was married a long time. And had a daughter."

"How old is she?" asked Billy. Kay looked at Billy and smiled.

"I don't know," said Susie. "Six, or seven, maybe. I've never met her. He just sees her on weekends or something. And then there's his friend, Ron Reiser. I am a little fuzzy if he is a comedian, or a comedy writer, or a lawyer who wants to be a comedy writer. Something like that."

"Oh god," said Billy.

"And Elise Dubrovsky is a sculptor," said Susie, "but lately she makes sort of falling-apart constructions."

"Oh god, oh god," said Billy.

"She's a little younger than we are," said Susie.

"But just a tad plump," said Kay.

"Why, Kay!" said Susie and Billy simultaneously.

"I can't believe I said that," said Kay.

Susie said, "This is going to be great. You'll see. Dodge is such an entertaining character. And Elise..."

"I'm a little worried about her," said Kay. "I recall her as rather wobbly. But I barely remember her."

"You're always worried," said Susie.

"I fear the worst about this summer," said Kay.

"It could be anything," said Billy.

"Well, whatever," said Kay. "I wish there were more apricot tart."

"Oh no!" said Billy, with loud operatic remorse.

Otto, who had been napping, picked his head up and howled, and they all laughed.

Looking back, let's be easy markers and say these three were happy.

Copyright © 2003 by Marcelle Clements

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address:
Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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What People are saying about this

Eric Bogosian
This book is terrific. It covers all the bases on the logic of obsessive love and the alchemy of romance and regret. I read it cover to cover in four days. It's one of those books you think about when you're not reading it, wishing you could just get back to it. Clements knows everything about sex and longing.
Anne Beattie
I couldn't put this book down. It's a present-day, imploding "Midsummer Night's Dream" whose mix-ups are most certainly not played for laughs, as the characters seem to exist, increasingly, in a state of lucid dreaming. Seen from the outside, these characters in their summer house are all internal life, as if Keats had chosen to reveal the figures on the urn by letting them express their innermost thoughts. In the very best way, the novel is extremely disconcerting. The timing (and truth) of one of the character's questions, "Why aren't we in Tuscany or something?" is both hilarious and a wake-up call for the reader. We aren't, because this is America."

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