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—Kristin Hannah, New York Times bestselling author of Winter Garden
"From the very opening pages of Lorna Jane Cook's gorgeous OUTSIDE WONDERLAND, you realize two things: that you are in the hands of a strong, gifted writer and that you should prepare yourself for ANYTHING to happen in this original, poetic, and riveting story. Those two realizations are affirmed again and again, even to the final page—which I hesitated to turn because I did not want this book to end."
—Katrina Kittle, author of The Blessings of the Animals and The Kindness of Strangers
It always began, and ended, with a gift—a filmy scarf, a box of square chocolates with hand-drizzled icing, and, of course, flowers. Wiser men dismissed the cliché of roses and opted for white freesia or peonies, fat pink blooms like layers and layers of lace—an inverted petticoat, something sweet and old-fashioned, yet hinting of sex. Perhaps it was her own perversion that turned something as innocent as a flower into a come-on. But in Alice’s experience, that was exactly what it was. Admirers sent them backstage, or waited outside behind the ropes and stanchions, clutching bouquets to their tweed or corduroy chests, hoping to elicit a smile at the very least.
“Alice!” they called, as if they knew her personally after seeing her onstage, her name on the posters and marquees: Alice Stone, an Off-Broadway celebrity. A reviewer had said she was destined for greater things, and perhaps because of that endorsement, members of the audience always wanted to see what she looked like up close, “in real life.” Onstage, she was beautiful; in real life, a little less so, though she was curvier than some costumes revealed (she always ate the chocolates); her face more arresting without the makeup.
Alice was amused that adults could have trouble separating real life and fantasy—wanting so desperately to believe in fairy tales, true love, and happily-ever-afters. Women in the plush mohair seats breathed softly when Alice collapsed into the arms of the magnetic lover, the wrong man, the right one, whatever. The men beside their dates or wives simply watched Alice move across the stage, imagining they were the ones grasping her arm, or ripping off her dress. Of course, the latter never happened onstage, but several lovers had acted it out in Alice’s apartment.
Acting was so simple. Alice thought of it like swimming: Dive in and float or thrash about, and then climb back out. Often she was reaching for her regular self like a towel the moment the curtain fell. Other actors—starry-eyed, smitten with theatre—held on, claiming characters had them in their grip for days or even weeks after a play ended. Alice knew it was the other way around. They didn’t want to let go of being Stella or Stanley or Laura or Desdemona or even Puck. It was intoxicating. It was also, Alice thought, childish, though she couldn’t blame them. In a way, she envied them.
Once upon a time, Alice believed in fairy tales. Her mother had recited them from memory on the edge of her bed while Alice closed her eyes and imagined. The night became starrier, the covers silkier, and the wind through the window filtered with magic particles and the whispers of elves beyond the sill. Her mother’s favorite stories were from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. She had named her three children after characters in the books—Alice (obviously), Griffin (modified spelling), and Dinah (the cat).
Then she slipped, as through a looking glass, and disappeared. Off to Wonderland, or Heaven, or somewhere far away and out of reach.
Alice was seven, and sitting four backyards away with a friend, languidly stringing garlands of untrimmed blades of grass and lily of the valley stems—while at home, life as she knew it was ending.
Everything changed the instant Alice’s mother lost her footing on the rubberized step stool in the pantry—while her husband lectured at work; while her baby napped in the crib; while her four-year-old watched cartoons, sucking his thumb; and while Alice, her eldest, crushed fragrant flowers to smell the sweetness in her palm. A neighbor returning a casserole dish happened by the house just after the fall and called for help, but it was too late.
After that, Alice accepted that bad things rose out of thin air, in the middle of normal life—when you weren’t even looking, even if you were being careful, or good. Normal people tripped or had heart attacks in foreign countries. Thus, you could lose your mother—and then, stunningly, also your father. Alice realized that she had a choice: either collapse or brace herself for what might come next. She opted for the latter.
For years, she was careful to the point of obsession—locking and relocking doors, boring her gaze into traffic lights and oncoming cars, consuming only organically grown food, vitamins, filtered water. As a teenager, she’d kept watch over her siblings and Joan, and until she moved to New York after college, where she had to fend only for herself. It was a relief not to worry about the others, but she didn’t feel less anxious. In her early twenties, she went to a kindly but faintly inept therapist, who advised her to “tamp down” her fears, as if they were mere campfires and it was her own fault for letting them flare up. And one day, he actually chided Alice for being “so negative,” and encouraged her to “always look on the bright side of life.” Later, when she heard the Monty Python song, she recognized the line and laughed. There was no end to advice, no matter how absurd the source. Alice left the therapist and never went back.
Besides, on her own she’d found that time had passed and nothing else terrible had happened. She relaxed, a little. Drank, at times, a lot (it seemed to help). And best of all, she discovered acting. Or rediscovered it. She’d always acted, even as a child, playing at being other people, improvising when life called for it. It was, in fact, her calling.
Onstage, in rehearsals or performances, Alice Stone was in perfect control; it was because at the same time she was letting go of Alice Stenen. She disappeared beneath a character’s skin and clothes and had to move only within the orbit of a stage, everything laid out and planned beforehand. Thus she was free, and, as an admiring cast mate had observed, “buoyant.” Buoyancy was not a normal state of being for Alice in real life. She was not good at letting herself go. But she was not good at holding on, either. It was why her relationships were mostly fleeting.
* * *
Standing alone in her dressing room, Alice surveyed her latest gift, already knowing what it meant.
The box was a slender rectangle, as if for a tie, but when she lifted the lid, Alice smiled wryly. Of course, it was a necklace—this one a silver strand, teardrop gem shimmering in the vanity lights—which meant “I can’t live without you,” and “I’m sorry,” and also, inevitably, “It has to end.” For some reason, a necklace was the farewell gift of choice for most; maybe it symbolized a noose.
Without reading the attached note, Alice knew it was from Alex, fifty-four and just through a costly divorce, lavishing his spare time and half of his selfish heart on her. The other half belonged to his college-age children, whom he didn’t wish to hurt. Alice suspected that the ones he really was afraid of hurting most were himself, his bank account, his orderly life. A girl on the side (even a girl of thirty-five) was what kept him sane, and “alive.” As if a tumble in her bed—or on the floor, or the backseat of a cab—were akin to an oxygen mask, or the slap of defibrillators to a chest. Perhaps it was, and Alice had been happy to oblige, to help save a drowning man from a boring life.
Finally, she read the note. Alex—kindly, greedy, charming, needy Alex—was calling it off: “I actually love my wife” (What happened to the “ex” part?), “and I can’t risk losing everything.” It occurred to Alice that she could use the note as blackmail if she wanted to. But she had no desire to turn someone’s life upside down. Men like Alex could do that all by themselves.
Alice sighed and slipped on the necklace. Maybe she’d wear it for tonight’s performance. The necklace would be perfect, the gem catching the overhead spotlight and glinting like a diamond. She inspected. It wasn’t a diamond, but pale bluish green. Amethyst? Quartz? The setting and the silver looked expensive, but it could be something Alex had found on a quick run-through at a department store. Yet even if he had bought it with care at Tiffany’s, the implication was the same: Here. I’m going. Get lost.
Alice stuffed the box and note in the trash and turned to get dressed, ignoring the chatter of the other actresses crowding the mirrors, singing and shrieking their lines to warm up and calm nerves. By the time she stepped onstage, diving effortlessly into character, Alice had left Alex far behind on the shore.
The audience that night was spotty, many rows empty, but Alice attributed it to the day and the weather—Wednesdays were always slow, and cold, torrential rain didn’t help. Who would come out on such a night to see a play about a dysfunctional family, even if it was by Tennessee Williams? Which it wasn’t. It was a small, experimental two-act play written by a talented but mostly unknown playwright whose following so far consisted of friends and admirers.
Afterward, the other actors invited Alice out for drinks. Creatures of habit, they liked to convene at nearby bistros or bars and rehash the night’s performance. Five of them were gathered on the sidewalk now, lighting cigarettes underneath umbrellas while someone hailed a cab.
“I’ll think I’ll pass,” Alice said, huddling inside her coat.
“Come on, Alice,” implored Janine, a baby-faced newcomer who played the younger sister of Alice’s character. “We’re going to have champagne to celebrate ten weeks. You have to come!”
“No, thanks,” said Alice. “I’m really tired. And if it really has been ten weeks, I think you’re going to need something stronger than champagne.”
Janine laughed. “But it beats Cats, right?” She kissed Alice on the lips, impetuous as usual, and skipped away through puddles to join the others.
Alice pulled her collar tighter against the rain and headed in the other direction. Her apartment was a thirty-five-block walk to the Upper West Side, but she’d lied—she wasn’t tired at all. She needed to breathe. And she needed to vent.
She hated to admit how much she had allowed herself to care about Alex, how hurt she was, preferring to think about how predictably callous and selfish he’d turned out to be. As she walked up Amsterdam, she decided to work through the alphabet: asshole, bastard, coward, dickhead, effing asshole, fucker. She felt a little better by the time she reached l (liar, limpdick).
She thought of her brother and Theo, so perfect together. And her sister, Dinah, with her quaint, old-fashioned approach to romance. As far as Alice knew, Dinah was tirelessly monogamous, and believed in true love. Sometimes Alice envied her. Dinah didn’t take careless risks and she was patient and loyal, even though, at the moment, also single. Alice had the impulse to phone her sister when she got home, to commiserate, but knew it was too late. Even if Dinah were awake, their grandmother, Joan—with whom she still lived in Takoma Park, Maryland—would be asleep, lunging for the phone with panic in her voice.
It was after midnight when Alice reached her building and trudged wetly up four flights of stairs to her apartment. When she reached the door, touching her key to the lock, it opened without resistance, the heat rushing to engulf her. She gasped, jerking her keys away. The doorknob dangled, clearly jostled loose.
Slowly, Alice backed away, heart pounding. Carefully, she closed the door behind her and then raced back down one flight of stairs and knocked on the door of Mr. Sechenov, an elderly friend. He always liked to hear about Alice’s latest roles, and she gave him free tickets to her matinees, mainly so he would get out now and then. He had a prosthetic leg he kept propped by the door just for outings, and when he opened the door now, he was in pajamas, leaning on his cane, one-sided.
“Oh, hello, sweetheart,” he said, his face lighting up.
“I think I’ve been robbed,” Alice blurted. It occurred to her as soon as she spoke that she was crazy to call on a defenseless old man. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Sechenov, I shouldn’t have woken you,” she said. “But do you mind if I use your phone?”
“Of course not, doll! Come inside.” He hopped out of the way and waved her in, glancing anxiously toward the hallway before bolting the door.
The apartment was just like Alice’s, only reversed—the kitchen to the left of the door instead of to the right, windows facing east instead of west—and it smelled faintly of old age. But he had the same square living room, with a false fireplace and parquet floors. Alice had noticed before that his phone was even on a table in the same place she had hers, and that he also piled take-out menus there and kept pens in a drinking glass.
Alice dialed the police, then sat down to wait. “I wonder if I should go back up there,” she said.
“No, no! You should stay. We’ll hear the police when they come and we’ll go up together, okay?”
Alice nodded. She perched on the edge of the olive corduroy sofa, its back covered touchingly with lace doilies. Remnants of the late Mrs. Sechenov, probably. There were no other signs of a shared life—a single chair was pressed up to the table, a small pile of books braced the sofa, and only wing tips waited beside the door, one attached to the leg. Mr. Sechenov had lost his wife many years earlier, but Alice had learned that he didn’t like to talk about her. When she’d started to ask once, his eyes had watered and he’d waved the question away like smoke.
Mr. Sechenov handed Alice a towel for her drenched hair, and offered tea and then water and then “a cordial,” but Alice shook her head each time. She had had his tea before and it tasted oddly like dust. She thanked him, apologizing again for the late-night intrusion.
“No, don’t worry. You can always count on me,” Mr. Sechenov said, sitting down opposite Alice in a tweed La-Z-Boy. “It’s not easy living alone,” he added, his brow furrowed. “You never know what could happen to you.”
Alice wasn’t sure if Mr. Sechenov was referring to her or to himself. He seemed even more rattled than she about the break-in, but then, he was old, and disabled.
“I’m sure it’s no big deal,” Alice said, continuing to downplay her own fears to allay his. “Maybe I forgot to latch the door completely when I pulled it shut. Someone probably just found an open door and got lucky.”
“I hope it wasn’t one of those delivery guys. They make me nervous—all those tattoos, and that one from Thai Palace with the pierced lip? I don’t understand that at all.”
“Neither do I,” Alice said. She didn’t mention that she once had had a boyfriend with a lip ring and rather liked it.
“Aren’t you scared, hon?” Mr. Sechenov asked.
“No,” Alice said, “thanks to you.” She smiled. “And it was probably nothing—you know, these things happen sometimes.” She supposed it was just her time; everyone in the city was robbed or mugged or worse at some point. She should be glad it wasn’t worse.
“Someone new just moved in next door,” Mr. Sechenov said suddenly, brightening and tilting his head toward the wall at his left. “A young man, your age.” Alice half smiled, half listening. The old man went on, mindlessly rearranging some newspapers on the floor with his bare toe. “Might be nice. Hard to tell from a brief meeting, but he was friendly. Had a lot of books, looked like, and CDs. And a child.”
Alice heard the last part and laughed a little at the afterthought. She felt antsy, though, and had to resist the urge to get up and pace, trying to be polite.
“I don’t think there’s a mother in the picture,” Mr. Sechenov mused. “Far as I can tell. They seemed close, chummy, you know. Like they have a bond. That’s always nice to see in young fathers, I think.”
“Mm,” Alice said. In her mind she was going through her apartment and wondering what she might have lost. She wasn’t really attached to material things, but she loathed the idea of someone rifling through them. The more she thought about it, the more she tensed, and then seethed. It was so utterly invasive. How dare they?
“I have to go,” she blurted. She jumped up and went to the door, unable to sit still and do nothing. She would deal with it herself, she thought, if the police wouldn’t come.
She nearly collided with them in the hallway, caught by the arm by an officer who merely said a soft “Whoa,” as if nothing ever surprised him, and held her like a wild pony.
“It was my apartment,” Alice said impatiently, breaking loose and rushing ahead up the stairs. “I’m the one who called.”
“Yes.” She kept running.
“Wait,” came the insistent response as they followed her.
There were two officers, the cowboy who’d roped her and the other, darkly handsome and close-shaven as a marine, both of them freckled with raindrops. Alice felt better with them at her heels, in their authoritative navy blue, knowing that whoever was in her apartment would have a fight on his hands, if he was still there.
At the door, the marine firmly held Alice back as his partner nudged it open with a nightstick and flipped on the light switch. They went inside and were out of sight for several moments while Alice paced in the hallway. She started when she heard thumping on the stairs, but it was only Mr. Sechenov coming up to check on her. He had thrown a coat over his pajamas and attached his prosthetic leg with its shoe, though his other foot was still bare.
“Did they catch him?” he whispered loudly.
“I don’t know,” Alice said.
The marine reappeared in the doorway. “You can look around and tell us if anything in particular is missing.” He glanced at the old man with his mismatched feet. “You’ll have to wait out here, sir.”
“It’s okay, Mr. Sechenov,” Alice said. “You can go back to bed now.” She gave him a little hug, and he turned to go back downstairs, looking slightly disappointed to miss the drama.
Inside her living room, Alice surveyed the damage. The television and stereo were gone. Probably some jewelry, too, from ex-lovers, though Alice didn’t even bother to look. It was beside the point. She suddenly felt as if she were standing in someone else’s apartment; her home had been invaded, and thus nothing looked familiar, or safe. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to relax and kick off her shoes. Now she would have to be alert, always—just like before.
The cowboy prompted, “Anything missing? Valuables?”
Alice murmured, “An old TV that hardly worked and the stereo. It was cheap.”
The marine said, “Well…” and then hesitated. He didn’t need to say it probably was a waste of the thief’s time, and a waste of the officers’ time to investigate such worthless losses, though of course they were glad to do their job. The cowboy in particular looked in no hurry to leave; he stared openly at Alice now that he had nothing else to do.
His partner turned to Alice. “Do you have some other place you could stay tonight, Miss Stone?”
She nodded. The cowboy put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “It’s always hard when there’s a break-in,” he said, keeping his arm around her. “Makes you feel vulnerable. You really should stay with friends tonight, if possible.”
Alice gently shrugged him off, and he politely stepped back.
The marine put in, “I hate to tell you, miss, but there are hundreds of these cases, just someone slipping in and hoping to find stuff to pawn or whatnot, then rushing back out. There’s not much we can do except run a check on prints, though the petty ones usually don’t get caught. I’m sorry. You should change your locks, by the way—this was way too easy to crack.”
The two officers waited while Alice made a phone call and then followed her downstairs and hailed her a taxi.
She had thought about asking an old boyfriend to come for her—there were at least two she could think of who wouldn’t hesitate—but she didn’t want to deal with the implied expectation. And she couldn’t impose overnight on Mr. Sechenov. Instead, she had called Janine, who had just come in from dinner and sounded slightly drunk on the phone but told Alice to come right over.
On the cab ride to Chelsea, where Janine lived beside a busy fire station, Alice began to regret her decision. She rubbed her head, which was throbbing, knowing she wouldn’t sleep, no matter where she spent the night.
* * *
I find James staring at the Parthenon, his favorite vision. It blooms up now and then in its chalky perfection, every column and frieze intact, flowering vines curling toward the peaks. James has met some of the builders, and an artist whose vase he once handled in shards at Akrotiri. The man smiled when James told him; he reminisced about the coolness of the red clay when it had dried, the bottomless black of the ink. He was delighted that it had lasted millennia. Not everything lasts, obviously.
After spying Alice, James is contemplative. It’s like that for a lot of us, whisked off in the middle of life. He wishes he could help her, wishes that he could tell her he’s sorry he had to leave her—all of them—like that. (Not that it was his fault.) It is why Alice arms herself for the worst, then faces it down, a regular Joan of Arc, telling herself she can take the heat.
“When she was twelve,” James says to me—and I light up. He often tells stories about our children’s lives in the years after my “unexpected absence” (he euphemizes still, to my amusement), and every time a little puzzle piece clicks into place.
“There was a thunderstorm one night,” James goes on. “Joan was out of town with the church choir, and I had a faculty meeting running late, so Alice was left in charge at home for a few hours.”
The children later told him that the power went out, the house went dark, and they all gathered in a corner of the living room. Though she normally disdained babysitting, Alice knew it was up to her to keep her younger siblings calm. She lit candles, and then told them the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, improvised from memory. Alice acted out some of the parts and made up lines, flitting around like Titania or Puck, in her element.
I see her through James’s memory as if on a flickering screen, her wild hair tied with a shoelace, her newly adolescent body silhouetted in the eerie glow of candlelight, a mesmerizing fairy.
Suddenly, there was a loud clap of thunder and a crash in the kitchen. The younger kids shrieked, but Alice maintained the presence of mind to investigate, flashlight in hand, and returned to report that it was “just a little wind” knocking into the window. “So where was I?” she said, as if nothing had happened.
“I had left my meeting at Georgetown as quickly as I could when I realized the children were probably frightened home alone in the storm,” James says. “Rushing into the dark house, I was surprised to find Griffin and Dinah in a festive mood. Then Alice came up behind them, white as a sheet but smiling gamely. And when I went into the kitchen and saw the window gone, glass all over the place, and a branch halfway through the room, like a javelin thrown in, I realized how scared she must have been. But I also realized that she could act the part required of her, and it alarmed, as much as impressed, me how naturally she did it.”
“Deep down, she’s always still a little scared,” I say. “She just never lets on.”
We watch the grown-up Alice in the taxi disappear around a corner in lower Manhattan amid the faint wail of sirens, and then out of our sight.
Soon the Parthenon will disappear again, too; even Here things come and go, though wondrously. If you missed something on Earth—the Pyramids, say, or glaciers, or the Sahara, Belize, the Ohio River from a tree-lined bluff, a white Christmas, the Louvre—you can take a tour and catch up, though the experience is fleeting, a kind of fantastic mirage.
When the entire Acropolis is gone, slipped away as into fog, James strolls along a path toward some new-fallen snow petals, and I walk with him.
“You know, he’s lucky,” James says.
“The old man. Mr. Sechenov. He gets to see Alice anytime, and have tea with her, comfort her.”
I smile. “I think she comforts him more.”
Then James says, “You know that day in Athens—”
“When you died.”
He looks at me, rolls his beautiful eyes. “Yes, okay, died. It happened so fast.”
“I know,” I say. It happened twenty years ago, but also, really, just yesterday.
“We can’t—she’ll figure things out.”
“I know,” James says, and smiles. He knows the boundaries between Here and There. The ones left behind are on their own (but not entirely), because once one crosses over, there is no going back. And so we walk on, arm in arm, kicking up snow and then flowers in a fantastic pink froth.
Copyright © 2011 by Lorna Jane Cook
Posted October 9, 2010
Alice, Griffin and Dinah are siblings orphaned at a young age. Their paternal grandmother raises them. Fast forward 20 years; their parents watch from There, where they have gone after death, as the children who are now adults live their lives as best they know how. This is a delightfully well-written novel about the choices people make and where it takes them, the struggles we all face, and finding the path of our futures.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and had a very hard time putting it down. The author does a wonderful job of character development and as a reader I really connected with them. You follow each sibling's story one at a time until they begin to intertwine in a delicious medley that pulls your heartstrings. I highly recommend picking up this book when it becomes available.
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Posted July 26, 2011
After another day of unsuccessfully trying to find a job, when I thought I had found one. I decided to get a book to read, and I happened upon this book, I could not put this book down and I was so engrossed in the story, I didnt think of my situation for awhile, the characters in the book are so interesting and the story flows easily, highly recommended!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 6, 2011
I am one of those people who hardly ever finishes a book, but when I read this book, I COULDN'T put this book down. It keeps you on edge making you wonder whats gonna happen next. If you are looking for a good book that keeps you guesing and makes you want to keep reading every second without wanting to sleep almost cause you love the book, then I highly recomend this book to you.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 13, 2011
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Posted May 1, 2011
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Posted March 22, 2012
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