Outside the Ordinary World

Outside the Ordinary World

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by Dori Ostermiller

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Sylvia Sandon always swore she wouldn't become her mother. But one August morning she finds herself walking the same path as the fervently religious yet faithless Elaine…into an affair she feels powerless to resist.

Against the backdrop of California brush fires in the 1970s, twelve-year-old Sylvia had agreed to hold a secret that would devour…  See more details below


Sylvia Sandon always swore she wouldn't become her mother. But one August morning she finds herself walking the same path as the fervently religious yet faithless Elaine…into an affair she feels powerless to resist.

Against the backdrop of California brush fires in the 1970s, twelve-year-old Sylvia had agreed to hold a secret that would devour her family's dream of happiness. Now struggling to create a better life in small-town New England, Sylvia nonetheless feels caught in the coils of history: she confronts the embers of her dying marriage, the all-consuming needs of her two daughters and her faltering artistic career. Then Tai Rosen—the father of a student—ignites an unexpected passion and a familiar betrayal that could illuminate the past, even as it jeopardizes everything dear.

Outside the Ordinary World reveals what lies beneath the surface of infidelity. But at its heart, it is the story of the powerful, sometimes disturbing bond between mothers and daughters, and the shimmering line between self-revelation and self-destruction….

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We'd been riding west in the green-paneled station wagon for the better part of three days when our cargo trailer came unhinged. We saw it overtaking us in the right-hand lane.

"Look, that car's passing on the wrong side of the road," announced my big sister, Alison, who at eight was old enough to know. "And look—no one's driving, and it's going all wild!" We gawked, openmouthed, at the trailer shimmying beside us, swaying like a drunk. Fiery sparks kicked up where the metal hinge scraped hard over asphalt.

"Holy cow—our things!" my mother gasped. "Our whole life, Don. It's getting away!" Her hands fluttered to the half-open window, as if she might be able to reach out and stop the runaway trailer with her bare fingers.

We were driving on Interstate 80, well into Nebraska. A few miles back, my father had swerved left, to avoid three enormous hay bales bouncing off a truck. Apparently our trailer had come loose from the jolt, passed us on a decline.

Now it was a good bit ahead of us, threatening to rear-end a blue VW bus. My father veered into the right-hand lane behind the trailer and blared his horn until the bus jerked out of the way—-just in time, before the trailer would have smashed into it. After that, there was nothing to do but tail it and wait for the worst.

"Keep your distance, Don." My mother's voice was as taut as a telephone wire. "The darn thing's going to crash. It's going straight into that cornfield!"

"Cut the hysteria," muttered Dad. Mom fell silent then, clenching her eyes and knitting her fingers together while Ali and I, perched on the edge of the backseat, vied for the best view between our parents' headrests. We hadn't had this much fun since we'd left our apartment in Chicago. I slid my hot pink Calamity Jane hat back on my forehead and held tight to my sister's knee.

We jostled onto the shoulder of the road, about twenty feet behind the trailer. Dust swirled around us, obscuring our view, and our father suddenly threw back his head and let out a high-pitched cowboy whoop, so unlike him that Ali and I burst into giggles.

As we watched the highway bend ever so slightly to the left, the trailer broke free from the asphalt and bounded over the shoulder of the road. It smashed clean through the corner of an old wooden shed before careening into a cornfield, disappearing from sight.

"My new bike's in there," Ali wailed.

"The wedding china," whispered Mom, placing her hand on Dad's thigh.

"Yep—everything." He slowed to a stop, the cloud of dust rising around us and filtering through the windows. Some of it landed on the skin of my bare arm, coating the thin blond hairs. Midday sun glared through the windows and we were quiet, each of us staring at the gap in the cornfield that had just swallowed our possessions. There wasn't much: my wagon with the peeling red paint, our bulky winter clothes and photo albums, some treasures from Mom's wealthy parents, Dad's fishing gear and medical books. We'd left all the ratty, secondhand furniture behind, since it had come with the apartment. The idea was we'd buy all new stuff when we got West. We were starting over with a better house, better furniture, better climate, better schools. We were going back to California, where we came from—like the song said—in search of the good life, just as the pioneers and our grandparents before us had done. At least that's what Dad kept saying. But this didn't seem to comfort Alison any; she burst into tears at the thought of losing her new bike.

"It's all right." Dad draped his arms over the steering wheel, the wild cowboy spooked out of him. "If we're going to be pioneers, then we gotta be tough, right?"

I loved the idea of being a pioneer, or better yet, a cowgirl. I could imagine ditching the old trailer and the station wagon, donning a pair of chaps and riding a wild palomino filly across every wide-open acre between here and Los Angeles. I didn't remember much about California, being only two when we left, but I knew plenty about Annie Oakley and Dale Evans, and I figured a girl should be able to get her start in one of the westernmost states of the country.

"Well, we'd best get out and see what damage there is," said my father, opening the car door. And then we heard the sirens.

Half an hour later, Ali and I sat on the bumper of the Ford watching as the tow truck hauled our trailer from the cornfield, as the police lights flashed and spun, as the brick-faced farmer, flanked by officers, barked words I couldn't understand. He wanted collateral. There'd better be reparation. And why in hell hadn't the chain been fastened on the goddamn hitch? His hands dove like angry crows around my parents' faces until one of the policemen placed a restraining paw on his forearm. I couldn't quite fathom all this fuss over a rickety old shed, a few dozen rows of corn. But clearly we were in trouble.

Dad gripped Mom's bare shoulder. He stood weirdly erect in his blue plaid shirt; even so, he was scarcely two inches taller than her. We were fully insured, he insisted, squinting into the glare. He was terribly sorry. In their hurry to get on the road, he must have overlooked the chain. The tall officer wrote things down while the other just stared at Mom, his gaze sliding over her green sleeveless sweater, down the slim length of her khaki pedal pushers. I could have sworn he even winked, after which Dad tightened his hold on her, the dark circles expanding beneath his armpits. I was pretty sure I'd never heard my father apologize before, and I elbowed Ali in the ribs, wanting her to take notice.

"At least they're not arguing anymore," she noted then sighed, nudging me back. "Move over, Sylvie—you're hogging the whole car." She was in a better mood now, having discovered that her new bike was still intact, little pink basket and all. Our things had been spared, in fact, except for a few glasses and the wedding china. When Mom picked up one of the boxes, heard the faint tinkling inside, she'd bit her lip, eyelids fluttering, while Dad patted her wrist bone.

Now Ali hoisted herself onto the hood for a better view, and I wondered if she was right—if the accident had put an end to our parents' bickering. Perhaps this was why God-allowed it. I was six, and still believed God was in charge, directing the show like some capricious old ringmaster—allowing this disaster but not that one. This was God's Plan, I decided while Dad explained to the officers, pointedly massaging the back of Mom's neck.

"It won't happen again," he was telling them. "I assure you."

Still, it didn't take long for the bickering to resume once we were finally back on the highway, our dented trailer secured behind us. My mother argued, in her clipped, quiet way, that we needed a break, that we girls had been traumatized. The accident was a reminder to slow things down, she said, rethink our priorities. We ought to stop for some lunch, maybe end the day early and find a Travel Lodge with a little pool.

"It's hot, honey. You're expecting too much of them," she continued.

"We'll stop at supper time," Dad said, reminding her the accident had just cost money we didn't have, that we were now two hours off schedule, our budget blown to hell.

"There's no need for language. The girls will pick it up."

"And what are they picking up from you? That there's money to burn? You know we can't afford fancy motels—not yet."

"What about the park? You did promise." She was whispering, as if she actually believed we couldn't hear. Ali and I had started our own silent war in the back, over where the imaginary line between us was supposed to be. We'd moved on from gentle shoving and were grinding our knuckles, hard, into each other's bare thighs. In the course of our short stint as "pioneers," we'd learned how to practically kill each other without making a sound—stomping each other's defenseless toes, suffocating one another with our blue bears. We knew if we got wild, made too much noise, we were asking for it. Usually, it was me who got it. Maybe because I was easier to yank out of the back, throw against the hot metal side of the car. Two days back, in Iowa, I'd gotten a mouthful of roadside dirt for calling Ali a farty old pig's ass. So now I relented, slipping out of the game as it got too rowdy. But Mom wouldn't relent.

"It was all this rushing that got us into a fix." Her shoulders were creeping up around her ears. "Besides, you promised them."

"That was before we had to buy a damn shed."

"For heaven's sake, don't curse."

"Why didn't you use some of that feminine charm to get us out of a ticket?"

"I haven't a clue what you're referring to."

"I mean, if you're gonna flirt, may as well make it useful."

They ended by falling into a bulky silence, Dad drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, Mom heaving exhausted little sighs and turning her face to the window. After a while, she doled out stale peanut butter sandwiches and dill pickles without saying a word.

For the past four years we'd been living in the damp three rooms of an apartment in one of Chicago's shabbier suburbs. We'd been sleeping on someone else's mattresses, eating at someone else's green Formica table, watching someone else's black-and-white TV on their ratty polyester sofa with the stuffing spilling out one seam. Mostly, my mother and sister and I had been doing these things while Dad worked, completing his medical internship, taking most of his meals at the hospital, because he could. Sometimes, he didn't come home for three nights running. When he finally appeared, Ali and I were usually in bed. I'd hear bits of his talk as my mother poured him a drink, asked about his day as if she were entertaining an important stranger. I knew I wasn't allowed to go to them, no matter how many dark blue bats startled through my nightmares. I feared and longed for that prohibited after-bedtime world, ice clinking in his drink, his voice—as strange and ubiquitous as the moon.

I often wonder if her restlessness took root there, shut into three rooms during those Midwestern winters, caring for us by day, typing medical reports by night. She was new to the city and didn't have a car. She loved Dad, but how lonely it must have been in that apartment when we were tiny and whiny and underfoot, clinging to her knees. How relentless it must have seemed, one baby crying on her hip, the other running wild, tossing Tupperware into the toilet and trying to cut her bangs with the nail scissors, no husband in sight.

What else to lean into but the secret, infrequent lunches with her "special friend"?

A few days before we left Chicago, we had the last of those lunches, my mother, Mr. Robert and I, at a Big Bob's on University Ave. I wasn't supposed to mention Mr. Robert, with his gap-toothed smile, his Broadway songs and wavy, silver-streaked hair. During that last lunch, he bought us ice cream sodas, as usual, and we ate them with the heavy, long-handled spoons I loved. Then I colored on the place mat while they talked in somber tones.

"So you're really going next Sunday?" Mr. Robert asked.

"Sunday, that's right." My mother stared into her lap.

"Well, I have to admit, I won't be sorry not to make this trip every few months."

"I thought these trips were all about business, Robert."

"Now let's just quit being silly, Lainie. Just tell me the town, for God's sake."

"You know I'm not telling you this time. I'm just not." They were quiet for a while. My mother's breathing reminded me of the ocean at Goat Rock, when we'd last visited Gram and Poppy. Finally looking up, I was startled to see a single tear glittering along the side of her nose. She glanced at the people in the next booth, the bluish office buildings outside, traffic lurching past in the summer afternoon—she was looking everywhere but at Mr. Robert, who suddenly reached out and wrapped his meaty fingers around her wrist, as if to take her pulse.

"Is this your friend Sammy's silly advice? Why don't you just quit this game?"

"We need to let it go. Don't you see? This is a chance to—" She faltered, hugging herself as if she were cold, though the afternoon was humid as a gym sock.

"What? A chance to be foolish? Miserable?" Mr. Robert's voice seemed thin and stretched now, a balloon ready to burst. I wondered why Mom was being so difficult. I wondered why she didn't want Mr. Robert to find us, when he was so nice, and bought us ice cream sodas, and made her laugh like a man—mouth wide, head tossed back. I'd never seen her laugh that way for anyone else.

"You know I'll find you," he whispered.

"We need to let it go," she repeated after the waitress brought our check on the little red tray. Mom extracted her dark glasses from her handbag, slipped them on. I loved her in those glasses, which were huge and round, and made her look like Jackie Kennedy.

"I will never let it go," Mr. Robert said in a thick, radio-announcer's voice, as if he wanted the whole restaurant to hear. Into the startled silence that followed, he hummed a tune, his fingers beating out a cheerful rhythm on the linoleum tabletop. "Lainie, Lainie, 'give me your answer, do. I'm half crazy all for the love of you,'" he sang. Then he winked at me, as if somehow, we were in this together.


The next time I saw my mother's secret friend, I was nearly twelve, and had just learned that Jesus would come on a cloud shaped like a man's fist. I learned this from the Sabbath School teacher at our Seventh-day Adventist Church, Mrs. Sullivan, who kept her black hair wrapped around her head helmet-style. My sister and I called her Iguana Woman—she seemed that scaly and cool, skin pale as plaster behind her bright makeup. Her voice was reptilian, too, as she whispered about the Last Days, about fire and falling boulders as if these things were secrets she wasn't supposed to tell. In the car on the way home, Ali and I would sometimes roll our eyes and snicker at Mrs. Sullivan's grim predictions. But I never forgot the image of that cloud, its silent, impossible fury, the way endings could surprise you like that—with a crack and a flash when you least expected it.

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Outside the Ordinary World 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
SuzanneStrempekShea More than 1 year ago
This novel is outside the ordinary for a whole lot of reasons, the first being the memorable world Ostermiller creates. I love the visual when I read, so I was grabbed right off by the early scene of the trailer full of belongings becoming detached from the family car and actually passing it on the road. I wanted the family to catch up with it, and I found myself reading faster and faster, as if that might have helped. That's how engaged I was in the story, and that's how engaged you'll be. As a former bookseller, I'd especially recommend this to book clubs - much well-woven fodder here for discussion of mother/daughter relationships, family dynamics, and morals and secrets.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Family secrets....coming of age....marriage woes....sisters....loneliness.....boredom.....curiosity....affairs....safety....complicated....intriguing.....sex.....loyalty....this book has it all. My first, but not last!, read from Ostermiller.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I received this book in the mail having won it in a contest and didn't immediately start it but once I started reading I knew this was an exceptional writer that had a style all her own. The story centers around Sylvia growing up in California and trying to keep her mother's secret of infidelity away from her father but over the years and as a young mother living on the east coast she finds herself in the same situation as her mother only under different circumstances. A book about mother-daughter relationships which will make a great book club read. Looking forward to this author's next book!
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Heart2Heart More than 1 year ago
Sylvia Sandon is hoping that this isn't the case. Remembering back on her not so happy childhood days, she spent many of those years moving from place to place while her father completed his residency program to become a doctor. When they finally did settle down in California they began with a dump of a duplex and along the way upgraded into a custom 5 bedroom home through hard work and her father's eventual graduation of becoming a doctor. Through her childhood she remembers her mother, Elaine and her "secret friend," Mr. Robert that would take her and her sister for cream sodas while visiting her mother. They were told never to mention this times to her father and even after moving away to California, Mr. Robert told Elaine he would find her no matter where she went. Sure enough, years later one afternoon at a church potluck, Mr. Robert walked back into her mothers life pretending like nothing had happened at all along the way. Even though it appeared to her that her mother spent countless nights and days alone waiting on her father, she didn't seem like the kind to cheat and she certainly had no plans to follow in her mothers footsteps. Now that she is grown, married and has children of her own, Sylvia is beginning to walk those very same footprints as her mother. At a local coffee shop one day, her daughter Emmie accidently spills coffee on a younger man named Tai and she finds herself agreeing to meet him again for coffee if only to sell him another one of her painted landscapes. Will she wind up exactly like her mom? In the book, Outside the Ordinary World by Dori Ostermiller, the reader is transported back and forth in Sylvia's memories from present day to childhood and see just how her path parallels her mothers along the way. This book shows the effects that infidelity can have on the entire family and not just between the couple involved. I received this book from TLC Book Tours for my honest review and even as a Christian, I found the book honest as it portrays the self-destruction that can come from illicit affairs among married couples and not like the happily ever after version that Hollywood would have us come to believe. I think most readers would find this book a great read to be able to see things from a different perspective and see just how affairs begin with the innocent offers of coffee. I chose to give this book a 5 out of 5 stars for it's ability to show things from both sides of the fence.
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Lynie More than 1 year ago
Sylvia Sandon and her sister Allison grew up in California in the '70s in a home filled with lies and deceit. Their mother's long-term affair threatened their stability throughout their childhood. The last thing Silvia ever wanted was to be like her mother. Fast forward to a grown up Sylvia, married with her own family and living in New England with a very distant relationship with her mother, both emotionally and geographically An artist, she finds herself unable to focus on her art, except for the portraits she commissions to keep her family above water financially. Her husband, Nathan, is completely obsessed with renovating the county home they bought almost ten years ago while the family continues to live in a rental. His time and their money are invested in the house while Sylvia's discontent grows. It seems that history is repeating itself when Sylvia's own daughter discovers her attraction to Tai Rosen, a local landscape designer. Sylvia finds herself in a struggle to balance her own happiness with the needs of her children and the future of her own family. OUTSIDE THE ORDINARY WORLD is nice women's fiction. Lynn Kimmerle
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
dhaupt More than 1 year ago
Sylvia Sandon is a complicated woman, which stems from her complicated childhood. Married with two daughters of her own she finds herself following in the footsteps of her mother, footsteps that she doesn't want to walk in and yet seemingly without conscience thought she's doing. The secrets of her past have found their way into her present and by reliving them finds herself on a precipice she would rather not straddle. Dori Ostermiller gives us a remarkable and unforgettable story of family crisis, family failure and possible triumph and she does it with her amazing skill of storytelling. Her eloquent prose like dialogue takes us deep into the psyche of a troubled woman and the people who surround her. She's not afraid to use hard language to tell us her tale and yet at the same time uses literary phrases to describe a scene or thought that enables her readers the ability to visualize her words. Her characters are all well thought out, three dimensional and all totally necessary to the novel. Her protagonist Sylvia is an exceptionally portrayed character and readers will find themselves entranced by her and will share in her sorrow and cheer in her triumphs and at times will want to slap her silly. This is no romance but there is a thought provoking love story here, one that will make her audience sit up and take notice, one that will resonate within all of us, especially those of us who like me can relate to it. The love scenes are creative and thoughtful and here is where you'll find her most imaginative prose. Outside the Ordinary World is a masterpiece of the written word. It's a hard story to tell and yet one that needs to be told. So if you're looking for a world class piece of literary fiction, a story on the dark side of family turmoil with that all elusive light at the end of the tunnel, then give this wonderful novel a try. It's not an easy read but it's one that needs to be read. So if this is the kind of tale that floats your boat believe me you will not be sorry that you took the plunge. It's bound to get critical accolades, it's that good.
Coastal2 More than 1 year ago
I knew I was in the hands of a strong and confident writer from the very beginning of Outside the Ordinary World. I am fascinated by the indelible stamp of family trauma and how it hangs on like toxic sludge and obviously, so is the author. The main character in Ostermiller's book thinks that a geographic solution (moving 3000 miles from her family)and seeking the polar opposite of her parents will somehow save her from the pain of repeating a disaster. Ostermiller takes us below the surface of relationships and into the danger of nuance and desire. This is a skillful writer and great story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago