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"With luminous and graceful prose, Monica Wood has brilliantly captured the human need to love, the heart's desire to nurture, the soul's urge to sacrifice. She has written a novel that is both funny and moving, entertaining yet transcendent. This is a perceptive and loving book."
—Andre Dubus III, author of HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG and BLUESMAN
He came to me first in a dream, as a crippled dog angling down a country lane, puzzled by his sudden age, his bum paw, the dry stick clamped between his teeth. I'd been expecting this dream for a very long time, and I woke up moving.
Not a day later I saw him at the back of the church basement of Trinity Congregational, cluching a cardboard coffee cup hard and close to his chest. The way he held that cup was the way he held everything: his thoughts, his passions, all his ordinary wishes, those poor dry sticks.
He was not a handsome man. Flattened atop his broad, pink scalp were thin filaments of hair that glistened like beach sand. I paused near him, catching the clean scent of laundry from his cotton shirt, pressed and buttoned to the top and tucked so tightly into his trousers that a roll of stomach showed all the way around like a second belt. His tie was the sort you see a lot in this part of Massachusetts, the navy-blue emblem of an accountant or middle manager. Up close I could see that despite his translucent hair and soft waist he was not yet out of his thirties, not much older than me. And yet he seemed old, the way all sad people do.
There are two kinds of people in the world. One kind likes the half-empty glass, the I-told-you-so, the nobody-knows-the troubles-I've seen. John Reed was the other kind, only he didn't know it yet. He had come for an Alanon meeting, not realizing that the Alton town council had kicked the Alanons out for the evening in the expectation of a bigger-than-usual crowd for a zoning hearing. My next-door neighbor, Danforth Outlet Centers, INcorporated, with whom I had a long and acrimonious history, intended to purchase the old ball field and the Osgood block. On all of East Main, my house and beauty shop was the one holdout from the "before" version of Alton, which was in the process of being transmorgrified from an expiring mill town into the outlet-store shopping capital of eastern Massachussetts.
Which is more or less what I was explaining to John Reed as he stood in the back with his cooling coffee. "In other words," I told him, "your meeting is canceled."
"Oh," he said. "Oh, well. Sorry." He put the coffee down quickly, as if he'd stolen it, and made to leave.
"No," I told him, returning the cup to his hands. "Stay," I said. And he did.
I sat down front, next to a woman from one of the real-estate offices that had popped up on every streetcorner since we'd started selling our town brick by brick. It had seemed like good news at first, those engineer types in good suits eyeballing our peeling shingles, our weedy yards, our boarded-up mill. But that was only step one, as it turned out. I had a pretty good idea whose side the real-estate woman was on, so when the call came for comments from the citizenry I leapt to the podium before she could so much as lift an eyelash.
Although the basement of Trinity Congregational is sizable, one of the largest meeting spaces in Alton, from the podium I had an excellent view of John Reed. I looked him over to make sure he was the right crippled dog, which, as we all know, the world is full of. He looked up at me with a face round as bread, his rose-brown eyes squinted ever so slightly above the ample arcs of his cheeks.
"Hello," I said to those assembled, who knew me well from meetings past. "I'm Rita."
"Hello, Rita," John said from the back, very softly, which of course is waht you say at an Alanon meeting, which this wasn't. He blushed to a shade of purple, too mortified even to get up and leave, which was a relief to me.
I tapped my index cards to even them up. "When I was ninth-grader at Alton High," I began, "I took an aptitude test and topped the chart in a category called 'spatial perception.' Back then I considered it a useless skill, but lately it's been coming in awfully handy." A Danforth rep in the second row rubbed his face, his sweaty fingers spreading peevishly through his hair. John Reed leaned forward, gripping the back of the chair in front of him as if he meant to drive it. "I see two towns when I walk these streets," I went on. "It's been long enough now that people can hardly remember what Alton looked like--before. But I can spatially perceive what used to be. I can go to the Broad Street Starbucks, stand on the new sidewalk, and point to the exact spot where the wooden threshold of the sewing shop once met the old sidewalk. And I remember the one worn place in the wood where the door opened and shut a hundred times a day."
I believe John Reed was the only one listening.
"Thank you," said the mayor. The other council members stirred at the table, eager to move on.
"I'm not quite finished," I said. "We can pretend nothing died here, that we're all pioneers on some kind of frontier prepared ahead of time by the hired hands, a pleasant town on a river with lots and lots of ploeasant places to shop, safe from the howl of the city, a bedroom community where people are hardly ever in their beds what with all the meals out and the jogging on the new river path and all that last-minute rushing for the train. But in the mantime, just downriver behind a screen of trees, there's an empty paper mill abandoned in teh weeds like an exhausted elephant left to rot in a field."
For a moment nobody said anything, then the Danforth rep called out, "And our point is?"
"My point is you've taken enough already," I said. "It's wrong to erase things." Before I stepped away from the podium I turned toward the council members and added: "My father made paper her. That was not nothing."
After another pause, I got a smattering of applause. There were still afew of us left.
John Reed was edging toward the door, so instead of resuming my seat I beelined to the back of the room and heaved myself into his path.
"Do you have a name?" I asked quietly. He looked like somebody from the "before" Alton, like somebody I might have gone to high school with.
"John," he murmured. Then he made a sweet kind of bowing motion with his head. "John Reed."
"John Reed." I sidled into the only space between him and the door. The new year had brought in some frigid air that seeped through every door and window, reminding me that January was about the worst time of year to expect people to begin anew, to brim over with resolutions when the earth gave back nothing but naked trees and frozen thermometers. Still, people do. They begin and begin.
I motioned him outside, away from the clabber of voices behind the council table. We stood in the cold street, looking at each other.
"That was, that was a very good speech," he said. "I liked the part about the elephant." He swallowed nervously. "The speeches at Alanon aren't quite as interesting."
"You know, I went to a few Alanon meetings myself right after I left Layton," I told him. "He's my ex-husband."
"Oh," he said. "Well, I'm sorry for your troubles."
"Don't be. Ancient history." I folded my arms against the cold, sizing him up, trying to figure out how exactly he might ned my help. "If you're the Anon," I asked him, "who's the Al? Your wife?"
"It's my brother," he said. "I'm not married."
"Does it help?" I asked. "Those meetings didn't help me much with Layton."
"They help some," he said. He paused. "I just listen. I don't talk or anything He blushed again. "Except for that hello part at the beginning."
"Maybe you should try talking," I suggested. "Might help you get over that shyness."
1. "I'm not a hairdresser, John Reed. I'm a healer," Rita says in the first chapter. Is she a healer? Whom does she heal, and how?
2. Rita also says, "People don't turn into anybody but themselves, I've found." What does she mean, and is she right?
3. Does the book's epigraph, "We don't see things the way they are, we see them as we are," apply only to Rita, or to other characters as well? Do you think this epigraph applies to people in general?
4. Are the Balzanos really "doing the best they can," as John says? Is their hostility justified?
5. What did Rita see in Layton? Is John that much better a match for her?
6. The novel tackles the difficult choice between obligation and desire. How do the various characters--Rita, John, Beth-- struggle with these opposing elements?
7. Rita describes her hometown as "being transmogrified from an expiring mill town into the outlet-store shopping capital of eastern Massachusetts." What is the significance of Rita's quest to save "old Alton"? Why has the author set her story against the backdrop of this vanishing town?
8. In what ways does Mrs. Rokowski mitigate Rita's ongoing yearning for her grandmother?
9. Rita describes one of the cult members as looking "swamp-fed, a tad unformed, the type of person who might like to study slime." Where else does her penchant for speaking in images reveal her feelings?
10. Why is Rita so drawn to Beth? How are they alike despite their outward differences?
11. When Rita hears a "peaceful tolling" in the background at the House of Peace, she says she can "almost understand why [her] sister went there." Is Darla's spiritual search completely misguided?
12. What does Rita's willingness to take care of Darla reveal about their relationship?
13. Rita tells us her "only story." Do the other characters also have an "only story"? The Balzanos? Beth? John? Darla?
14. Do you agree with Rita's decision to sacrifice her own happi-ness for Aileen's?
15. Does Tonya Kurgan evoke your sympathy at the end of the book?
16. "I never intended to become this kind of person," Beth tells Rita after she reveals her secret. Would Beth be different if her life had not been touched by such loss? What kind of person has Rita become as a result of her own losses? Would she be different if she and Layton had lived happily ever after?
Posted September 12, 2007
Stunning. That is the description I feel best describes Monica Wood's prose. She has a disarming way of allowing the reader to empathize with and truly get inside the heads of her characters. I bought this book after having read 'Any Bitter Thing' which I thought was one of the best books I've ever read. Now I have this one to add to my collection. Elizabeth Berg used to be my favorite author (and I read about 1 book a week) but she needs to move to the second chair because Monica Wood is now in the 'first seat.' Thank you, Ms. Wood, for using your gift as a writer to delight your readers. I am now a HUGE fan!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 2, 2001
Posted June 27, 2001
From the moment I picked up this book, I fell in love with Rita Rosario and cheered for her throughout. Each character from John to Rita's sister to her ex-husband to the patrons in the beauty salon was an individual that I wanted to read more about. Monica Wood has written a heartwarming story that will appeal to fans of writers like Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Berg, or Christina Schwarz. Like those authors, Wood's characters leap off the page and fit right into your life and heart. She captures ordinary scenes in extraordinary ways.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 3, 2000
From the very beginning you wish you could walk around the corner and talk with Rita while she fixes whatever is wrong with your hair that day. Everyone should have a Rita in their life. Someone loyal, honest, funny, committed, caring...someone vulnerable who treads lightly on your own vulnerabilities. Wood's concept of an 'only story' coupled with characters and relationships drawn so humanly and humanely -- you just have to talk about them. Read this book and talk about it!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 25, 2000
Bravo! What a wonderful fiction! MY ONLY STORY reads with smooth, long lines punctuated with giggles of inspiration, sweet humor, deeply felt wisdoms, and a charming, easy harmony that made me feel as though I was part of a larger picture that¿s reading in chorus with people I've known the better part of my life. Get this book; you¿ll rediscover the meaning of compassion.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 19, 2000
If you've had Anna Quindlan or Anita Shreve by your bedside lately, don't miss Monica Wood. This story is so satisfying and real, you'll want to buy copies for your sister and your best friend. The image that popped into my mind as I was reading was of a plastic model of the body where you can see all those delicate blue and red lines leading to and from the heart. Wood's writing traces these pulses to and from Rita's heart with that kind of intimacy and accuracy. There is an 'aha' or 'yes!' moment on almost every page. Take this book on vacation - and bring extras for your friends.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.