Ship Made of Paper

Ship Made of Paper

3.4 24
by Scott Spencer

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Daniel Emerson lives with Kate Ellis, and he is like a father to her daughter, Ruby. But he cannot control his desire for Iris Davenport, the African-American woman whose son is Ruby's best friend. During a freak October blizzard, Daniel is stranded at Iris's house, and they begin a sexual liaison that eventually imperils all their relationships, Daniel's

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Daniel Emerson lives with Kate Ellis, and he is like a father to her daughter, Ruby. But he cannot control his desire for Iris Davenport, the African-American woman whose son is Ruby's best friend. During a freak October blizzard, Daniel is stranded at Iris's house, and they begin a sexual liaison that eventually imperils all their relationships, Daniel's profession, their children's well-being, their own race-blindness, and their view of themselves as essentially good people.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
With his eighth novel, A Ship Made of Paper, Spencer reprises the theme of consuming love, but this time he makes his lovers adults in their late 30's. They are Daniel Emerson, who lives with his wife in all but name, Kate Ellis, and her daughter, Ruby, and Iris Davenport, married to Hampton Davenport and mother to Nelson, all residents of Leyden, N.Y., a Hudson Valley town where some of Spencer's other books have been set. Daniel is white and Iris is black, but race is less a subject of this book than a device it uses, as is the O. J. Simpson trial, compulsively followed by Kate, who writes magazine articles condemning Simpson as a murderer. Ostensibly, ''A Ship Made of Paper'' examines the consequences of Daniel and Iris's love and asks if it is worth the suffering it causes to those around them. In actuality, the book contrives its own kind of trial. The defendant in the case isn't love and its heedless imperatives, but the world itself, brought up on charges of being anti-ecstasy and deaf to ''the poetry that we are all capable of writing, if we can find the goddamned courage.'' Be warned, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: this contest is rigged. — Laura Miller
The Washington Post
This latest book in Spencer's long career is not his best. That honor still belongs to the nearly quarter-century-old Endless Love — despite its bad title and worse movie adaptation — with Waking the Dead a close second. Those books were like sustained fever dreams, nervy and hypnotic, while Spencer presents Daniel's obsessions in A Ship Made of Paper in a distinctly cooler tone, often with more telling than showing. Still, there are many compelling echoes of those earlier novels here. Few writers are more proficient with a simile (ears "as bright as freshly boiled shrimps"; eyes "as expressive as thumbtacks") or the perfect character-defining detail. And in a literary environment in which few male writers can deliver a decent sex scene, much less offer a fully fleshed romance, Spencer can do both with ease, making him both a writer's writer and a poster child for sensitive men everywhere. — Donna Rifkind
The Los Angeles Times
At bottom, A Ship Made of Paper is a John Updike book: a story of adultery among affluent East Coast people who may be lustful and selfish but are too civilized to do grievous harm. In fact, Spencer's prose tends to imitate Updike's — the local detail, the wit and irony, and the leisurely pace (which, without Updike's lyrical gift, often seems downright slow). But Spencer's intention, it appears, was to write a Joyce Carol Oates novel instead — a novel in which things go bang, in which real disaster is possible, in which romantic passion is indistinguishable from madness. — Michael Harris
Publishers Weekly
Spencer's latest novel should cement his reputation as the contemporary American master of the love story. Daniel Emerson is a New York City lawyer who has returned to his hometown of Leyden, N.Y., a picturesque Hudson Valley village, with his girlfriend Kate, a novelist, and her daughter, Ruby. Kate drinks and obsesses about the O.J. Simpson trial instead of writing fiction. Daniel finds himself falling in love with Iris Davenport, an African-American grad student at the local university. Iris is married to Hampton Welles, an investment adviser. The book records Iris and Daniel's affair from both perspectives and poses the question, is their fleeting happiness really worth so much ruin? For ruin there is a-plenty: Daniel thoroughly humiliates Kate, destroys his financial status, becomes a subject of gossip in the village and inadvertently mauls Hampton in an accident with a roman candle, making it almost impossible for Iris to leave him. Spencer is an unerring writer. He describes the two couples at a local concert: "From time to time, Kate must glance at Daniel. His eyes are closed, but she's sure he's awake. Hampton takes Iris's hand, brings it to his lips, while she stares intently ahead. And then, Kate sees Daniel glancing at Iris. Their eyes meet for a moment, but it has the impact of cymbals crashing. It is a shocking, agitating thing to see. It's like being in a store with someone and watching them steal something." Kate's violated sense of order is captured in perfectly chosen metaphors. This book, in which matters of sex and race are treated with unusual frankness, could well be both the critical and commercial surprise of this spring season. (Mar.) FYI: PW will run an interview with Spencer in March. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Daniel Paris returns to his hometown with his partner and stepdaughter to escape big-city life. Once there, he begins an affair with a married African American woman whom he meets when dropping his stepdaughter off at daycare. What starts as soulful attraction turns into sexual addiction, and Daniel throws himself into the affair while throwing away everything else in his life. The interracial aspect allows Spencer, author of seven critically acclaimed novels (e.g., Endless Love), to explore both subtle and overt forms of racism among liberals and conservatives and the heavy burden of living with a consciousness of race and the responsibility of setting an unimpeachable example. He contrasts this to the mostly unacknowledged luxury of being white and representing only oneself to society. The novel is a page-turner, with crises scattered throughout, but it is also peopled with well-developed characters who live in a carefully depicted rural college town. Exhausting in its intensity, this well-written novel is recommended for public libraries.-Rebecca Stuhr, Grinnell Coll. Libs. Grinnell, IA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From Spencer (The Rich Man’s Table, 1998, etc.), a rich and highly textured account of life, love, envy, and disappointment in a Hudson Valley town. Leyden, New York, is one of those quaint little burgs with the good fortune to have been dirt-poor for so long that no one ever bothered to put up strip malls or subdivisions nearby. Hotshot lawyer Daniel Emerson was born there, but he made his reputation and fortune in Manhattan and never intended to move back—until he lost a case defending a black drug czar and found his life suddenly in serious danger. So he dropped out of the fast lane and settled into a sluggish small-town practice in Leyden, moving into a house with his writer girlfriend Kate Ellis and Kate’s young daughter Ruby. At Ruby’s preschool, Daniel meets Iris Davenport, a young black graduate student whose son Nelson is one of Ruby’s classmates. Iris is married to Hampton Welles, a prosperous black investment banker who spends most of his time in Manhattan. Daniel, at 36, is getting a head start on his midlife crisis, and the first symptom is Iris, with whom he becomes quickly infatuated. That Kate is an old-style southern racist (she’s now covering the O.J. Simpson case for several newspapers), and that Hampton is an insufferable prig capable of detecting racism in the way Leyden’s traffic light changes, help make an affair inevitable. And, shall we say, trouble ensues. Amid it, we also meet an insolvent patrician, his New Age wife, a blind art historian, two runaway juvenile delinquents, and a crooked cop—in other words, the people of your typical Hudson Valley town. What they all have to do with one another isn’t obvious at first, and it’s to the author’s creditthat he manages to connect their lives in a way that seems almost self-evident by story’s close. Subtle without being obscure, a splendidly intricate tragicomedy of manners in the tradition of Saki—full of horrible, delightful, and vivid eccentrics.
The beauty of this novel lies not only in the telling but in its commitment to the passionate life.
“A searching study of the chaotic side of love.”
“A Ship Made of Paper” rocks with suspense and daring.
Chicago Sun-Times
“Here’s a love story that you can recommend, without blushing, to other adults.”
Anne Tyler
“Spencer is a magnificent writer.”
Oscar Hijuelos
A Ship Made of Paper is an engagingly written, wickedly insightful, and passionate novel about desire, race, and fate.
Francine Prose
Scott Spencer has a genius for observing dramatic everyday moments.
People Magazine
"A searching study of the chaotic side of love."

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Ecco Paperback Edition
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.82(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Ship Made of Paper
A Novel

Chapter One

Daniel and Hampton were paired by chance and against their wishes. They were not friends -- Hampton did not particularly like Daniel, and Daniel had every reason to avoid being alone with Hampton. But Daniel's girlfriend or partner or whatever he was supposed to call her, Kate, Kate went home to relieve the baby-sitter who was minding her daughter, and Hampton's wife, there was no ambiguity there, his wife, Iris, with whom Daniel was fiercely in love, had gone home to look after their son. Daniel and Hampton stayed behind to search for a blind girl, a heartsick and self-destructive blind girl who had run away from today's cocktail party, either to get lost or to be found, no one was sure.

The searchers, fourteen in all, were each given a Roman candle -- whoever found the lost girl was to fire the rocket into the sky, so the others would know -- and each of the pairs was assigned a section of the property in which to look for Marie.

"Looks like you and me," Daniel said to Hampton, because he had to say something. Hampton barely responded and he continued to only minimally acknowledge Daniel's nervous chatter as they walked away from the mansion through an untended expanse of wild grass that soon led into a dense wood of pine, locust, maple, and oak. Aside from the contrast of their color -- Daniel was white, Hampton black -- the two men were remarkably similar in appearance. They were both in their mid-thirties, an inch or so over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, reasonably fit. They were even dressed similarly, in khaki pants, white shirts, and blue blazers, though Daniel's jacket was purchased at Macy's,and Hampton's had been sewn specially for him by a Chinese tailor in the city.

Two years after he was kicked down the stairs of his apartment building in New York City, which shattered his wrist, chipped his front tooth, and, as he himself put it, broke his heart, Daniel Emerson is back in his hometown, driving Ruby, his girlfriend's four-year-old daughter, to her day care center, called My Little Wooden Shoe. The drive is ten or fifteen minutes, depending on the weather, and though Daniel is not Ruby's father, nor her stepfather, it usually falls to him to take the little girl in. Daniel cannot understand how she can so willingly and unfailingly absent herself from the beginnings of her daughter's day; Ruby's mother, Kate Ellis, cannot bear to rise early in the morning, nor can she bear the thought of having to deal with Melody, or Tammy, Keith, Tamara, Griffin, Elijah, Avery, Stephanie, Joel, Tess, Chantal, Dylan, or any of the other Wooden Shoers, not to mention their fathers and their mothers, a few of whom Daniel knew thirty-two years ago in this very town, when he was Ruby's age.

It's fine with Daniel. He welcomes the chance to do fatherly things with the little girl, and those ten morning minutes with dear little four-year-old Ruby, with her deep soulful eyes, and the wondrous things she sees with them, and her deep soulful voice, and the precious though not entirely memorable things she says with it, and the smell of baby shampoo and breakfast cereal filling the car, that little shimmering capsule of time is like listening to cello music in the morning, or watching birds in a flutter of industry building a nest, it simply reminds you that even if God is dead, or never existed in the first place, there is, nevertheless, something tender at the center of creation, some meaning, some purpose and poetry. He believes in parental love with the fervency of a man who himself was not loved, and those ten minutes with Ruby every weekday morning, before he drops her off at My Little Wooden Shoe and then drives over to his office, where he runs a poorly paying, uneventful country law practice, in the fairly uneventful town of Leyden, one hundred miles north of New York City, those six hundred sweet seconds are his form of worship, and the temperamental eight-year-old black Saab is his church.

Or was, actually, because, unfortunately, this is no longer the case. The drive is still ten minutes, Ruby is still snugly strapped in her child safety seat in the back of the car, her sturdy little body encased in lilac overalls, her short-fingered, square hands holding a box of raisins and a box of grape juice, and today she is commenting on the familiar landmarks they pass -- the big kids' school, the abandoned apple orchard where the wizened old trees wreathed in autumn morning mist are so scarily bent, the big yellow farmhouse where there is always some sort of yard sale, the massive pasture where every July the county fair assembles, with its cows and snow cones, Ferris wheels and freaks -- but today it is all Daniel can do to pay the slightest bit of attention to Ruby, because his mind is seized, possessed, and utterly filled by one repeating question: Will Iris be there?

Daniel has been carrying the unwieldy weight of this desire for months now, and so far his behavior has been impeccable. When it comes to Iris the rules he has made for himself are simple: look but don't touch, long for but don't have, think but don't say. All he wants to do is be in the same room with her, see what she is wearing, see by her eyes if she has slept well, exchange a few words, make her smile, hear her say his name.

Until recently, it was a matter of chance whether their paths would cross. Iris's deliveries and pickups of Nelson were helter-skelter, one day she'd have him there at eight o'clock, and the next at nine-thirty -- it all depended on her class schedule at Marlowe College ...

A Ship Made of Paper
A Novel
. Copyright © by Scott Spencer. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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What People are saying about this

Francine Prose
Scott Spencer has a genius for observing dramatic everyday moments.
Anne Tyler
“Spencer is a magnificent writer.”
Oscar Hijuelos
A Ship Made of Paper is an engagingly written, wickedly insightful, and passionate novel about desire, race, and fate.

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