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A Perfect Arrangement

A Perfect Arrangement

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by Suzanne Berne

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Handsome and ambitious, Mirella and Howard Cook-Goldman have it all-two precious children, dual careers, a great old colonial house on Massachusetts's North Shore, a golden retriever. The only thing they lack is reliable child care.

Enter Randi Gill, sent by Family Options, Ltd., an agency specializing in Midwestern girls with teaching aspirations ("Could you be


Handsome and ambitious, Mirella and Howard Cook-Goldman have it all-two precious children, dual careers, a great old colonial house on Massachusetts's North Shore, a golden retriever. The only thing they lack is reliable child care.

Enter Randi Gill, sent by Family Options, Ltd., an agency specializing in Midwestern girls with teaching aspirations ("Could you be Comfortable with Anything but the Best for Your Family?. . . Guaranteed Nationwide FBI Criminal Fingerprinting and Background Checks."). Randi's references are perfect. She's perfect. She cleans, cooks, sews, and makes her own Play-Doh. The children love her . . . almost too much.

Though it's hard for Mirella to watch Randi succeed with the children where she has failed, she can't deny the peace and order Randi has brought to the household. But perfection is a tough act to maintain, and soon enough, there are ruptures. When events force Mirella and Howard to reveal the secrets they've been hiding from each other, the family cataclysm catapults the nanny (who has secrets of her own) into a position of unnatural control.

In A Perfect Arrangement, Suzanne Berne now fixes her sights on contemporary, two-career family life. Overscheduled and overwhelmed, today's parents are desperate for help. Whatever child care they manage to set up, the arrangements are rarely perfect. This suspenseful novel asks a question all of them face: "Is there anyone you can trust with your children?"

Editorial Reviews

...a smart,moving and highly readable book.
People Magazine
Berne nails the messy domesticity that resides where Martha Stewart fears to tread.
New York Times
A probing, intelligent venture into family life today...
Harper's Bazaar
...takes you deep into perhaps the least-traveled territory of all: the complex motives behind everyday human behavior.
Washington Post
[A Perfect Arrangment] shows enormous intelligence about expectations and what people hide from themselves and palm off each other.
Boston Globe
Compelling and disturbingly familiar...it's hard not to be drawn in.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Quotidian details of an apparently perfect domestic life spell suspense in Berne's second novel (after A Crime in the Neighborhood), set in the small New England town of New Aylesbury. Mirella Cook-Goldman works for a Boston law firm; her husband, Howard, is an architect who works at home. Their two young children, five-year-old Pearl and toddler Jacob, mill about their lovely colonial house. But this pleasant surface shows cracks: Pearl is temperamental and Jacob developmentally slow; Mirella and Howard talk past one another he resents her long work hours, and she feels distanced from her family. Both are harboring major secrets. Their new nanny, Randi, is young and energetic she cooks, cleans and devises games for the children. In theory, Mirella and Howard should have more time to spend with each other, but it soon becomes evident that their problems run deeper than lack of intimacy. Things further disintegrate when Mirella and Howard realize that hyperefficient Randi might be too possessive and not quite what she seems. Berne is an assured writer and is at her best with careful, observant descriptions of family life. The novel is less successful at providing an emotional center the characters often seem like studiously drawn archetypes and the jacked-up dramatic scenes toward the end are forced. But a sense of the fragility and also resilience of our everyday existence lingers after the final page. Agent, Colleen Mohyde. (May 25) Forecast: Berne's first novel won the Orange Prize in the U.K., was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times and the Edgar Allan Poe first fiction awards all of which will promote name recognition. Selling to fans of Sue Miller and Alice Hoffman should help build sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Berne's second novel (after A Crime in the Neighborhood) deals with that weak link in the chain that stretches between motherhood and paid work child care. Mirella and Howard Cook-Goldman are fortunate to have found Randi Gill, who seems like the perfect nanny. Not only does she take care of their two children but she also cooks, cleans, and sews. Yet something is wrong with the flawless Midwesterner and her charges. With chilling inevitability, this carefully observed, beautifully written book proceeds to a horrifying finale. Unfortunately, this book may have trouble finding an audience. Young women may dismiss it as fantasy; working mothers, who all have memories nearly as troubling, may not want the reminder; and other will wonder whether the book is arguing that children are safe only with their biological mothers. Despite this drawback, Berne has written a fine book that many readers will find compelling. Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The stress in a modern-day marriage of opposites is exacerbated by the arrival of a seemingly perfect nanny—in a thought-provoking and accomplished second novel by the author of A Crime in the Neighborhood (1997). Lawyer Mirella Cook-Goldman lives in the 350-year-old New England town of New Aylesbury with her architect husband, Howard, and their two small children, five-year-old Pearl and toddler Jacob. With a thriving and demanding practice, a long commute to Boston, a dreamy, unsuccessful husband, a contrary little girl, and a nontalking son morbidly attached to a feathered Indian headdress and a nest he's created in the fireplace, Mirella is clearly overwhelmed. The family has been through two au pairs in as many years, so Randi Gill's arrival is cause for celebration. At first Randi seems to the Cook-Goldmans to be what every 21st-century nuclear family needs: a wife. Under her tutelage, Jacob begins to speak, Pearl becomes complacent and cooperative, the kitchen smells of freshly baked cookies. But Berne skillfully sets up an atmosphere of unease by giving Randi her own chapters, told in the first person from her perspective, that reveal her troubled past and disturbing desire to insinuate herself into the family. Neither parent is paying much attention: Howard grapples with a controversial town project and the reappearance of a young colleague with whom he had a brief affair, while Mirella guiltily harbors a secret pregnancy. But then Howard's old flame exposes their indiscretion, discrediting him at a town meeting, and Mirella discovers that her baby is actually twin boys. "I guess we need to circle the wagons," Howard concludes, and as the bricks start tumblingdown, the process of rebuilding family life begins. A literate and intelligent spin on the evil nanny story.

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Part I: 1
"She sounded cheery but earnest," Mirella told Howard that morning as she pressed a paper towel into a puddle of milk on Pearl's place mat.

"Cheery," said Howard, angled over the newspaper.

Mirella sat back and dried her fingers on her napkin. "A homey sort of voice." She looked at her watch, then checked the old walnut case clock by the fireplace, which as usual was slow. It was one of those sulfurous New England spring mornings that had been forecast to be mild but felt clammy instead, and as Mirella glanced from the clock to the window she found herself shivering.

"Comforting somehow," she said.

The Cook-Goldmans had been hunting for three weeks for a nanny to replace thick-chinned Grete, their second au pair in two years, who had flown home to Uppsala because she missed her boyfriend, Karl. There had been recent letters, sky-blue aerogrammes covered with Karl's blocky print. A midnight phone call, ending in assertive tears. "Karl needs me," Grete had said, her voice tremulous with complacency.

They were trying a new child-care agency this time, Family Options Ltd., which specialized in midwestern girls with teaching aspirations. "Could you be comfortable with anything but the best for your family?" queried Family Options' salmon-colored brochure. "Our nannies are dedicated, trained, and sensitive individuals, subject to rigorous screening and psychological evaluation. Guaranteed nationwide FBI criminal fingerprinting and background checks. Drug testing and CPR certification."

So far Mirella had not been impressed by the applicants from Family Options. It took two weeks for the agency to produce anyone for an interview-there was a waiting list of families desperate for a nanny, all the agencies said the same-then when Mirella asked the first applicant, a plump brunette from New Jersey, why she enjoyed working with children, the young woman burst into tears and confessed to having an eating disorder. The second, a former nursery school aide, a thin exhausted-looking person in a black straw hat, tripped over the doorstep when she arrived for her interview, then asked Mirella how much she had paid for her house.

"Always worry about the cheerful ones." Howard scanned the front page of the paper while snapping Jacob into his overalls. Rain predicted, Mirella read, craning sideways to look at the paper, today and tomorrow. The value of the Japanese yen had plummeted. Independent counsel widens presidential investigation. A shooting at an elementary school outside of Spokane.

Jacob flapped his arms, his Indian headdress slipping over one eye. "Blud-a-bub," he said. Then he grunted and went limp in Howard's lap.

Mirella found the lid to the jelly jar and screwed it on. "She's been working for a family in Brookline and she used to run some kind of Sunday school program at a church."

"Sit up," Howard told Jacob.

Mirella took a sip of milky coffee, pausing to watch Jacob flutter his eyelashes. Blink, blink, pause. Blink, blink. A white crust of milk glazed his chin; an amber nugget of snot lodged in one nostril. Of course she worried. Only a year since that Boston nanny sat in the news day after day, face blank as a dinner roll, beside all those pictures of the poor little boy. Six months before, a mother at Pearl's preschool came home to find their nanny drunk in the TV room, the one-year-old asleep upstairs on the changing table. People were installing video recorders now. Worry didn't come near it.

Mirella cupped her palms to either side of her face and, for the countless time in the last few weeks, considered what would happen if she forgot about hiring a nanny for Pearl and Jacob, quit work, and stayed home. It could be nice, she thought. Block castles, Play-Doh birthday cakes, afternoons at the park. Immediately a Sahara of days spread across the table, burying the castles and birthday cakes, becoming a quicksand of dirty cups and dishes, hours draining into the laundry basket, trips to the park that took so long to prepare for that by the time everyone was ready, no one wanted to go. Back once more to their own yard-that grainy relief and reluctance as she struggled through the front door and into the hall, loaded like a camel with child, bags, dog leash, stroller. Home again, and again. The cloistered smell of the house becoming her own smell: cold coffee, a diaper left in the wastebasket, the glum reek of last night's fish clinging to the broiling pan left in the sink.

She squinted at the finish on the table, stippled with faint gashes wherever the children had drummed their forks and spoons, then looked at her watch again, calculating that she would have an hour to get downtown after dropping off Pearl at preschool. Five minutes to get from her car to the courthouse. Then two meetings after her hearing, tomorrow's deposition to prepare for, Hayman's restraining order to file, a phone conference at three.

Thank God, she thought.

Jacob had stuck his finger in the butter and was smudging his finger along the table; she reached over and wiped his hand with her napkin, then wiped his nose. "Mmff," he said, twisting his face away.

Because the law, unlike her family, was beautifully reducible. The law was simply a set of rules by which human beings governed themselves. That these rules could be complex, sometimes arcane, and-because they were formed out of language-forever open to reinterpretation, accounted for most of their scope and all of their interest. But what Mirella found moving, what had inspired her to become a lawyer in the first place, was the plain human need behind all lawmaking, the desire for guidance and precedent that went straight to a zone that was humanity itself, that might even, she sometimes suspected, be the deepest of all human passions.

Not that she had a chance to reflect on the essential purpose of law very often. Her clients, mostly women, were afraid of laws, which they regarded as punitive; they became restless and embarrassed, swiveling on their padded red conference chairs, fiddling with their earrings whenever she tried to discuss philosophical aspects of the legal system. And who could blame them? Usually the people who hired her were either terrified or confused, people who had disappointed other people, often without knowing quite how-abandoned wives, assaulted girlfriends, fired employees. They wanted clear satisfactions: money, vindication. Sometimes they wanted revenge, sometimes protection. Mostly they wanted Mirella to give them whatever it was they needed, as quickly as possible.

Jacob stuck his finger again in the butter dish. She reached over and gently pushed the butter dish across the table.

Howard was still reading the paper over the top of Jacob's head. "What's her name?"

Mirella shifted in her chair. "Sandy. We said ten. Apparently she likes doing crafts. And the woman at the agency said she loves to cook-"

"She probably has no legs or something."

Blinking herself now, Mirella let the rest of her sentence vanish into the complicated Italian design on her coffee mug.

"I didn't mean that about the no legs," he said.

Which was only his way, she recognized, a fraction too late, of trying to control what she'd arranged, this interview. Though Howard pretended not to believe in bargaining with fate, he did it all the time. Bargaining, as she well knew, forgiving him already, was what a worried person did to stop worrying. At least for a little while.

"Crafts," said Howard musingly.

Mirella put down her cup and looked at the dining room's wide brick fireplace, which was crammed with stuffed animals and a pair of beach towels. "So do you think you could tidy up a little before she gets here? Just the downstairs. I don't want her to think we're a bunch of cave dwellers."

"Cave dwellers were a civilized culture." Howard fumbled with the last snap on Jacob's overalls. "Why are these things so impossible?"

Meet the Author

Suzanne Berne is the author of three novels, the first of which, A Crime in the Neighborhood, won great Britain’s Orange Prize. Her most recent novel is The Ghost at the Table. She lives with her family near Boston and teaches at Boston College.

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Perfect Arrangement 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although not a bad book, the ending left me searching for more. The main character, Mirella is very puzzling. All throughout the book I kept thinking, 'what a lousy mom!' I was waiting for the nanny, Randy, to do something completely crazy since there is such a build up. What happens is barely shocking. I was left really disliking Mirella. The message I got from this book was, 'just because you are a professional and 40somehting with a beautiful house and a husband, does not automatically qualify you to be a good parent.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
While not a bad read, A Perfect Arrangement is not particularly engaging either. The couple in question are not easy to identify with and the issues raised by the book are of limited interest.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I truly enjoyed this book. It was a fast, easy read but had substance and detail. I found myself eagerly awaiting the next chapter. When I read the review, it sounded a bit trite and very 2001. Two working parents, living in the suburbs, stressed out, in search of the perfect nanny. The book, however, was much more than that and went into these issues in depth. It was also nice to read about parents in their 40's (instead of their 30's) with young children, contemplating another child...