Revenge: A Novelby Mary Morris
Revenge is a compelling and psychologically complex story of female friendship, art, and life. When a young painter moves next door to a world class novelist with writer's block, the two women become entwined in a novel described by Michael Cunningham as "compelling and darkly beautiful . . . Never less than gripping, Revenge builds to the realm of/i>/i>… See more details below
Revenge is a compelling and psychologically complex story of female friendship, art, and life. When a young painter moves next door to a world class novelist with writer's block, the two women become entwined in a novel described by Michael Cunningham as "compelling and darkly beautiful . . . Never less than gripping, Revenge builds to the realm of the genuinely revelatory."
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By Mary Morris
PicadorCopyright © 2004 Mary Morris
All rights reserved.
It is a fall morning and Andrea is getting ready to set out with her dogs. Opening her window, she takes a deep breath. There is a crispness in the air, the smell of burning. Horse chestnuts are on the ground. Her dogs whine at her feet, anxious to be off, but she ignores them. Today she is not in a hurry. She isn't heading out as the sky is turning pale. Already it is light.
Instead she sits at the window and waits. Looking out, she sees the route she takes every day, past the Vitales' and the Partlows' houses down to the end of Walnut, a woodsy cul-de-sac, where there is a path. The path loops into the woods around a large pond that breeds algae and mosquitoes in summer. In winter children skate on it. In the woods she has seen deer, raccoons, rabbits. Once a coyote darted from the bushes in front of her.
Andrea loves this cul-de-sac where she lives — Hartwood Springs. It's something about the way the trees drape themselves across the road and the light streaming through them. Now Andrea sits at her window, a cup of coffee in her hand. She is gazing toward the Partlows' house, which is on a rise. If she leans out slightly, she has a full view of the house, with its many wings, the garden, which is a rainbow of mums. Fall blooms.
She can see into the kitchen where Patrick and Loretta Partlow are reading the paper. He zips through the sections as Loretta reads slowly, one article at a time. Loretta pauses to make notes in a notebook beside her. As Andrea takes another sip of coffee, her dogs peer up at her. She pats their heads to calm them down, then looks around her apartment.
Though advertised as a one-bedroom, it is really a single room. A living room, dining room, and kitchen with a sleeping alcove off to one side. In the alcove, her clothes lie scattered on the unmade bed. The radio is on and in the background she hears the news. There is talk of peace in the Middle East, the economy soaring, a scandal that won't go away.
A few of her early paintings hang on the wall. They are mostly landscapes and one portrait of a nude she did in school. She's been meaning to replace them with more recent work but hasn't gotten around to it. Her eyes travel from her paintings to the photograph in the entryway.
It is a picture taken long ago, of a house in autumn, set against a hillside of blazing color. Though it is faded, Andrea can spend hours staring at it. This was their summer house on Shallow Lake. Her stepmother, Elena, sent her the picture just after her father's will was read. It was the only thing Andrea requested from his estate.
Andrea isn't sure who took it, though she believes it was her father. She may have even been with him that day. She hung the photograph in her entryway so that she sees it every time she walks in or leaves. It is the last thing she looks at before she drifts to sleep. Now she gazes at it once more, then turns back to the window.
Patrick is rinsing the coffee cups in the sink as Loretta tosses the newspaper into the recycling bin. It is almost seven-thirty, time for them to head out the door. Normally by now Andrea would have finished her walk and been on her way home. When she walks, Andrea prefers to leave before six-thirty. If she sets out after seven, she runs the risk of crossing paths with Loretta and her husband.
Andrea does not like to have to stop and make small talk with her neighbors or to relinquish her pace. These walks are her only exercise, her time to think. It is on these morning strolls that Andrea tries to make sense out of what happened to her father. She has worn out her brother, Robby. She has worn out several friends, including Gil Marken, the math professor she's been seeing for the past year. No one will listen to her anymore, though Robby in some ways agrees, and Charlie, her former boyfriend, says she may be right but she has no case.
It is true; there is no evidence. Nothing she can prove beyond a series of hunches. Still, Andrea knows what she knows, and though she tries not to think of it, though she says to herself as she walks, "I will think about something else, I will stop dwelling on this," she does not stop. It is as if her mind can find nothing else to settle on. At times she wonders, If I didn't have this to think about, then what would I? She runs it through her mind over and over again. It is a problem, like a Rubik's cube, that she has looked at from every angle, tried to solve, until the pieces began to fall into place.
In the past Andrea went out of her way to avoid the Partlows because Loretta, whom she scarcely knows, would ask in that syrupy voice with the feigned tone of concern: "How is he doing?" "Is there any improvement? Any change?" Or later, after Andrea's father died, "It was so odd — the way it happened."
She found herself pulling back from these encounters, tightening in the gut. She had a feeling that if she allowed it, this woman would worm her way in. Get under her skin. So she always replied, "Oh, he's the same." Or "Not much change." And she'd watch Loretta's face, the pointy, wily-looking nose, the dark eyebrows that came together, furrowing her brow.
And then, after it was over, after he died, she chose to avoid their questioning stares altogether. It bothered Andrea. The way her neighbor tried to ingratiate herself. After all, Loretta Partlow barely knows her. They know one another well enough to say hello on campus, to exchange cordialities at faculty meetings and greet one another when walking in the woods they share a few miles from the campus.
But when Andrea's father had his accident, Loretta sent a note of concern, an offer to have tea. "Dear Andrea," she wrote, "Patrick and I were so sorry to hear about your father. I can't imagine what it must be like for you. I just want you to know that we are here if you need us ..." The letter went on for a page or two, talking about losses and the nature of grief, well beyond any other condolence note Andrea received.
"I hardly know her," Andrea said, tossing the note across the breakfast table to Charlie. Charlie works in communications. He publishes the Hartwood Chronicle — the newsletter that goes to parents and alumni — and he interviewed Andrea when she first came to Hartwood. He took her head shot as well. Charlie has a good eye for black and white, and Andrea complimented him, saying that his photo of her was her favorite. Afterward they kept running into each other, at the faculty club, at events.
At first Charlie thought Loretta's concern was genuine. "It's a neighborly gesture," he said. But then he asked around. He heard stories about her. A friend once confided in Loretta Partlow that he believed he had been the cause of his mother's suicide. He had left the house one day when his mother begged him to stay, and she had killed herself in his absence. Loretta had comforted the friend, consoled him. She had assured him that his mother was unstable and perhaps would have killed herself no matter what. Then, six months later, a short story with just that plotline appeared in a national publication.
When Charlie heard that, he cautioned Andrea, "Don't tell her a thing. You'll just be grist for her mill."
Andrea had written back — a polite but terse note saying she appreciated the concern, that for the moment she was wrapped up in family matters, but when she had time, in the future, she would let Loretta know.
When Andrea moved into the neighborhood, she wasn't that familiar with the works of Loretta Partlow. She'd read only a novel or two that was required for school, but they hadn't made a lasting impression. But Elena had been amazed when Andrea said she was living down the block from the author of What If? "I loved that book," Elena said.
So Andrea read a few of Loretta's early novels, the ones that won prizes and made it to Oprah's Book Club, and a few of the short stories that were always appearing in magazines. It seemed as if she couldn't open a magazine at the doctor's office or beauty salon — or after her father's accident, in the innumerable waiting rooms where she found herself spending her days and nights, and then in lawyer's offices, and outside judge's chambers — and not find a story or poem by Loretta Partlow.
The ubiquitous Loretta Partlow. Like a new vocabulary word, this woman seemed to be everywhere. Her name sprawled across the front of magazines or The American Review of Books, where her essays and reviews were published. Or in Hartwood itself, where her knowledgeable and amusing syndicated column, "Gardener's Euonymus," appeared.
Andrea liked the poems best. She found them edgy, often cruel, especially those that explored gender issues. ("His sword cuts through me but I am butter ..."). She taped a poem to her refrigerator about a man making obscene phone calls to the wrong woman ("For though he did not know me, /it seemed as if he did./He knew where to place his lips;/how long to linger there").
But the novels seemed excessive, and though friends pressed copies into her hands, saying, "You must read this," Andrea could hardly bring herself to finish them. Some were about families, and she could relate to these. A few posed interesting metaphysical questions about the purpose of life, and she thought these were among Loretta's best. But others were grisly and disturbing and focused on extremes of behavior. Not that Andrea wasn't drawn to extremes. But who could think of such things? Women tied down with Velcro straps. Children tormented in unspeakable ways. Though critics said, "Partlow probes the depths of the human psyche," Andrea felt like a voyeur when she read her novels.
When she first met Loretta, who also teaches at the private college where she has long been its most famous faculty person ("Loretta put Hartwood on the map," Gil Marken liked to say), Andrea was surprised. She had expected a large, imposing person. Not this compact, slightly bowlegged creature. Almost a homunculus, a miniature of a woman, "a pocket Venus," Gil called her, and that big, flushed husband of hers, Patrick, who was like a barrel beside her. An overbearing man with sweaty palms and a weak handshake (Her father always said, "A weak handshake is the sign of a weak man") whose true function, everyone knew, was to stand guard between his wife and the world.
But Loretta didn't look as if she needed much protection. Though she was a small woman, petite with sharp features, her fox-like face made no attempt to hide its intelligence. Her eyes were pale blue and piercing, though at the same time revealing little. As if made of glass. She showed her bones — shoulder, elbow, hip — the way a marathon runner might. Her sleek body seemed to point in different directions. Her gray hair (once almost red and considered her best feature) was blunt-cut and usually pulled back into a short ponytail. A broad smile revealed her white teeth.
One day Andrea spotted Loretta running in the woods and found it almost comical to see the woman who had been called "a national treasure" darting on those thin bowed legs, her ponytail bobbing in the wind as if something were chasing her.
From the window Andrea sees them getting ready to leave. Loretta, dressed in powder blue sweats, goes to the patio tostretch. She stretches like a flightless bird, thick in the middle, but with skinny arms and legs. She flaps her arms, bending to touch her toes. She is surprisingly limber, as she curls her head to her knees. She curves her back like punctuation. Andrea has watched her become a parenthesis, an exclamation point, a question mark.
Patrick comes outside with Kippy, their overwrought West Highland terrier. Loretta claps her hands, and the dog leaps up and down, racing in circles at their feet. Patrick pulls a treat from his pocket, and the dog sits as Loretta completes her methodical series of stretches. Then they head toward the towpath, and Andrea gets ready to leave.
She makes her way down the stairs two at a time. The briskness of the day, its clarity, strikes her. She braces for the chill, zipping her jacket. Then dashes with her two mutts, Chief and Pablo, both border-collie-and-something mixes, past the houses of Hartwood Springs to the towpath. The ground is hard underfoot, but the towpath is soft, coated in pine needles, as she jogs along it. The air is so fresh it stings her nostrils. Tears slide down the corners of her eyes.
Andrea slows down and manages to arrive at the loop through the woods just as Loretta and Patrick do. Her dogs bark and growl, racing ahead as Kippy hunches, tail between his legs. Patrick scoops Kippy up, in case the dogs are vicious. Andrea spots Loretta, who has a slightly dismayed look on her face.
Andrea can only imagine what is going through Loretta's mind as they are about to cross paths. She is thinking: there she is — that girl with her green eyes and sad story. That strange business about the father and an accident that may or may not have been an accident. Though Loretta was once an admirer of Andrea's work, and told her so when she first came to the college, now she would barely know Andrea Geller existed were it not for her story.
But Andrea doesn't really mind. She has begun to suspect that Loretta has a story of her own. Not that anyone really knows it, though her biographers have hinted and her close friends wonder. No one, not even her own husband knows what makes Loretta tick. But in recent months Andrea has made a study of her. She has learned to read between the lines.
In the official story, Loretta grew up outside of Baltimore, a middle child with brothers on either end. In her Paris Review interview and in the one approved biography (with the innocuous title Loretta Partlow: A Writer and Her Work), she describes her parents as simple working-class people. Andrea saw a photograph of the house where Loretta was raised. It showed a front porch and a black person sitting on the stoop next door. A mixed neighborhood.
But Andrea, who has now read all the monographs, the critical essays and Festschrifts, the unauthorized biography, Demon Writer — a book Loretta tried to stop ("rubbish," Patrick calls it) — believes the truth is more complicated. She thinks she has gotten some insight into Loretta's childhood — the father who drank and was known to be violent, who once twisted her left arm (she is left-handed) until it snapped. There is a photo of young Loretta with her arm in a cast. And, the biographer noted, a child with a broken left arm occurs no fewer than seven times in Partlow's fiction, as do many drunken fathers.
Then there are the hands. This Andrea noticed herself. Everywhere in the writing there are hands. Helping hands, hands that tremble, fingers of authority, broken hands. Hands that shake on a bargain, swear to a pledge. Very few hands are held. But many wrists — and faces — are slapped.
Perhaps Loretta made herself a promise when her broken arm healed that she would use it. She would write with it. She'd find the way to get back, the pen being mightier and all. She would pay her father back, and her mother for not leaving him, for staying when she should have gone. It was Loretta who had to leave. She left and never looked back. She was unstoppable. She has been called a diesel engine, a gorgon, a devourer of whatever gets in her way. And this is what Andrea is counting on.
Andrea knows what Loretta thinks when she sees her. It is sad to be someone who is pitied. But Andrea doesn't care. Let her pity me, she thinks. For now. As they approach, Andrea can almost overhear what Loretta is saying behind the hand over her mouth: "There's that girl, the one whose father was in the coma. He had that strange accident ..."
"Oh," Patrick says, clasping Kippy under his arm. "I thought the college had let her go."
"Oh, not yet. I think they plan to, but she's still around."
"Do you want to avoid her?" He leans in to his wife, touching her sleeve.
"No, she's seen us." Loretta smiles at Andrea, nearing. "It's too late now."
Andrea gives a wave as she reaches them, her cheeks flushed, breathless as if she's been running. "I'm sorry," she says, "I hope they didn't startle you." As her dogs race to the pond, Patrick puts Kippy back on the ground. "They're friendly, really," Andrea says.
"Andrea," Loretta says, "it's been so long ... we haven't seen you." She seems pleasantly surprised yet distracted. "I thought you'd moved away."
"No," Andrea says, "I'm still here."
"And you're still at the college?"
Andrea sucks in her breath. She knows this is more a dig at her status than an actual question that requires an answer. She is one of those junior faculty members who just won't, not unless she produces and perhaps not even then, get tenure at Hartwood — a fine liberal arts college (ranked number twenty-one in the country by U.S. News & World Report). A rural campus just two hours north of the city, which is one of its big draws. One of the most respected women's colleges until the 1960s, when it was forced to go coed. Some people still ask if men are allowed.
Excerpted from Revenge by Mary Morris. Copyright © 2004 Mary Morris. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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