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Faith and Connie endured the same childhood as daughters of egocentric, semi-famous actors who can scarcely take care of themselves. But the two sisters could not be more different. Connie learned to beg for attention, clamor for approval, and fill the silence with words. Faith turned inward, shrinking from the tender emotions that make up an ordinary life. Despite their differences, the sisters came to rely on each other exclusively. But lately, after years of quiet connection, Faith and Connie seem to have lost the ties that once held them close. Faith has a home and two growing sons, but is still unable to fathom unconditional love. Connie, a flight attendant, is always searching, ever-expecting to find her true place in life at the end of each long flight. But a series of shocking, revelatory events will bring the sisters back to each other—and forever alter how they define love, fulfillment, and most importantly, family.
“What happened to that other house?” she asks Faith.
Connie is three. Faith is big; she’s five.
“What house?” Faith says. She is sitting on the dull floor, her legs splayed in front of her, reading a book with butterflies on the cover.
“That house where it snowed and had pink flowers.”
“We didn’t have a house like that. Flowers don’t grow in snow.”
“Oh,” Connie says. She waits a minute. “Where’s Grammy?”
Faith looks at her book, hard. “In heaven,” she says. “I told you.”
Connie knows Faith won’t talk to her anymore now that she has mentioned Grammy.
“Grammy took care of us when I was one,” Connie says, but Faith won’t answer. “I was one years old.”
The house is silent and too small. The other house was big.
“Fix my pants,” she asks Faith.
Faith puts down her book with the butterflies. Connie trails her to the bathroom, yanking her rubber pants and wet panties down to her knees, walking bent over her bare feet.
“Did you go number one or number two?” Faith asks, stepping onto the toilet to reach the sink.
Connie lies on the bathroom floor–her ruined pants next to her in a shameful heap–and watches Faith wet a washcloth. Faith’s hair has a snag in the back, but the rest of it is combed just right. Faith knows how to do everything. She steps off the toilet, one hand on the sink for balance. “Go like this,” she says, wiping Connie’s bottom. Connie does, then Faith wipes her again and dries her with a towel.
Connie stays on the floor while Faith gets clean panties. “Can I have powder?” she asks, hoping she doesn’t sound too much like a baby. Faith shakes some on. She puts Connie’s feet through the legs of the clean panties and pulls them up, then follows with the same pair of rubber pants. “All done,” she says, and goes out to find her book.
Connie’s rubber pants smell funny but she doesn’t care. She follows Faith, remembering that other house, the one Faith says they never lived in. But they did. Connie remembers everything, even the flower smell of Grammy’s lap, and the stories Grammy used to over and over from grown-ups’ books, and her songs about animals. Billy says Grammy used to sing like a rusty hinge, but she didn’t. Billy and Delle sing all the time in bird voices, tall, mean, beautiful birds. Sometimes they sing their own names–Billy and Delle, Billy and Delle–up and down the scale. Connie wonders if everybody’s mother and father sing like that.
Faith tips her head up. “What.”
“Look at me.”
But she isn’t really, and her head tips down again into her book. Connie wishes she could read. She stares out the window over the bumpy lawn. That other house had pink flowers, and snow. She knows it did.
Connie has trouble with time. She always has to stop and think a minute: how old is she now? Is that smell in the air winter coming, or spring? Faith always seems to know, though her life is the same as Connie’s: back and forth to theater towns all over. The same dingy food, the same noisy sidewalks, the same cramped suites in the same hotels, too cold or too hot. Nothing moves forward. Sometimes they go to school, sometimes not, though they always have books to read: big packets of books that Armand sends them in every city. Armand is Billy and Delle’s lawyer, the only person they know who likes children.
The hotel they’re in now, where they are watching Billy and Delle run lines, is hot. Not because of the weather, which is cold, but because of the steam heat they can’t control. This is Cleveland, or Columbus–Connie keeps forgetting. Next comes New York, Broadway, weeks and weeks in the worst hotel of all, the noise of the city battering the windows and walls.
Connie can remember being here in Columbus or Cleveland once before, with a different show, when she was seven, or five. She remembers the lady downstairs who does nothing all day but suck on lollipops and smile politely and check people in. She likes Connie and Faith, brings them sandwiches when Billy and Delle don’t, tells them all about her romantic husband. Connie also remembers this sofa, its lurid orange flowers. Today it feels like wet sweaters. Faith is shifting next to her, lifting her sticky legs.
“Charmed,” Billy says from the exact center of the room, extending his hand. He is a count who can’t remember where he hid some important papers; Delle is the countess. Her amber eyes slide over.
“Enchanted,” she says. She rises from a chrome chair she retrieved from the kitchenette. In the play it’s a red velvet divan.
Billy filches a pitch pipe from his pocket, blows one note, and they begin to sing. They sing two verses and a chorus, then break to perform a complicated two-step, counting softly as the imaginary orchestra plays. Connie thinks she can hear it. The song picks up again, then fades off the ends of their voices, the harmony lingering.
Connie doesn’t clap until Faith does. Billy and Delle bow deeply, showing the hard gleam of her teeth. For an instant Connie is flattered by this extravagance, but she senses their looking beyond, sees their eyes sweep past her and her sister into the imaginary second balcony.
“You balled up that same line, Delle,” Billy says. Connie hears the huff of the couch as Faith drops back against it. Billy and Delle are nervous and high-strung because the tour is going badly. They are the same way, only more, when a tour goes well.
“Well, listen to you,” Delle says. “You haven’t had a new line in three weeks.” Connie watches her mother’s neck redden, blushing up into her cheekbones. She is beautiful.
“Don’t start, Delle.”
“How many times can they rewrite this part?” Delle says. “My God, Garrett can pick some losers. What does he care, he gets his cut.” She gathers up the script in a messy heap and shakes it at him. “You think the Lunts would take a dog like this? You think Helen Hayes would look once at this thing?”
“So Garrett’s a bastard.” Billy ticks the edge of Delle’s script with his thumb. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Delle sighs theatrically, her chest heaving with the effort. “We won’t last a week in New York.”
Billy smiles the thins smile that means trouble. “Not unless you get top billing, Countess?”
Delle holds up her finger as if it could shoot a bullet. “Don’t give me that. Don’t you give me that.”
Connie is invisible, silent on the sofa, next to her invisible sister. Her parents begin to fire words back and forth. Their voices pick up, their faces pulse blood, the words they use sound whipped and snapped and dirty.
A flutter of paper explodes from Delle’s hands, and now they’re screaming at each other amidst a tornado of pages. Connie freezes. The speed with which these storms start and stop always shocks her. She thinks her parents might have some secret mechanical parts, so that when they talk of pushing each other’s buttons they mean real buttons.
Faith is on the floor, gathering the spilled script one page at a time. Connie slips off the sofa and crouches next to her, imitating her precise movements. At the toe of her mother’s white pumps, cold, black typed lines of dialogue stare up at her, their composure marred by smeared crossouts and writeovers in different colors of ink. She takes the sheets between her hands and taps them against the clammy carpet, listening hard.
Everything goes quiet, except for another burst of steam from the radiators. Delle is at the window, seething, her jaw tilted out toward the street; but her carriage the subtle turn of her shoulder, shows her to be fully tuned, wholly there. She’s wearing a navy blue dress with a boat neck and fitted waist and tapered skirt. Her ears are dotted by white button earring. Billy goes to her, his stride effortless, as if the horrible air weighed nothing at all. They murmur to each other, then kiss deeply, for an embarrassingly long time. He touches her shoulder near the neck and she lists into his hand, a tableau they’re known for on the stage.
Finished, they cross to the sofa, where Connie sits with Faith, the rescued script between them in a stack so even it might have been run through a paper cutter.
“We’re going to the Stardust for a bite,” Billy says. Connie’s cheek is warm where he holds it.
“Can’t we come, Billy?” she asks. She is hoping so hard it feels like a little animal is in her stomach.
“It’s a bar,” Delle says. “They don’t allow children.” She smiles hugely, as if to make up for not inviting them. Her hair is chestnut red, piled up on her head. Her mouth is also red, but deeper, bloodier.
Billy runs a hand over his forehead. “Jesus, I have to get out of this heat. It feels like goddamned Cuba in here.”
“We’ll be quiet,” Connie says. She turns to Faith. “Won’t we, Faith?” She can almost hear the turn in Faith’s stomach. Faith hates to beg.
Faith moves to the window and sits on the wide, low sill. She isn’t going to help.
1. When Faith remembers her wedding, she believes "that if she had only been able to warm herself, if she had only stayed inside her body as she pledged forever and true, she might have learned to live with a man like Joe, a man who loved her." What is Faith acknowledging about herself here? Does it seem like a fair self-assessment?
2. Why is it so hard for Faith to be part of her husband's family? After Joe confesses his affair, Faith speaks of an "unpleasant but strangely welcome feeling: her old, frozen self, finally delivered from the terrible trouble of love." Why is the feeling unpleasant? Why welcome? What has been troubling, for her, about the love that Joe--and the Fullers--seem to offer and, perhaps, demand?
3. What kind of mother is Faith? What kind of sister? What kind of wife? What kind of love is she adept at? What kinds of love mystify her?
4. What characters seem to speak a "secret language" in this book?
5. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy holds that art is the means of transferring feeling from one man's heart to another. Where does Wood best convey the feelings of her characters?
6. A pleasure of fiction: We can understand another person's version of the world, even if it isn't our own version of the world. When did you trust a character's version of the world, even if you didn't agree with it? Did you ever fail to trust a character's version of the world when you disagreed with it? I.e., did your disagreement ever make you feel that the character wasn't believable?
7. What does Isadora James mean to Connie? To Faith? How do you interpret Isadora's interest in finding her half-sisters and maintaining a relationship with them?
8. Faith and Connie are clearly damaged by their past. What, exactly, is it that they can't seem to escape about their past? Are they doomed to re-enact the past forever, or does the story suggest a way to move beyond childhood damage?
9. How would you describe Connie and Stewart's relationship?
10. Connie and Faith are very different people, yet Connie, too, struggles with love. What is hard for her about love? Faith, we know, fears love, as if it might kill her. Does Connie have a similar fear?
11. When Connie is in the hospital, Isadora whispers to Faith, "I wish I had to be here, Faith. Some burdens are good." Given Isadora's later behavior, it is hard to take this sentence at face value. Is Isadora in earnest? Does she seem to be speaking the truth, whether or not she means it?
12. Secret Language circles back to memories of Granny (memories of Granny's home start the book and memories of Granny seem to resolve the sisters' altercation in Part VI) and to significant performances. (Part I ends with the line, "It is opening night," and Part VIII is titled "Opening Night.") Why does the novel circle back this way? What does the novel seem to be suggesting about memory and the influence of the past?
Posted March 12, 2006
I happened upon this book in the sale annex of Barnes and Noble. This book is one of the best books I have read in ages. I couldn't put it down. I have just ordered all of her other books. The minute you pick it up and start to read the characters are a part of you. I have never done a review before but this boook merits one!
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