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Clara Sverdlow's father, Viktor, was a Russian political prisoner in Auschwitz. He was involved in the camp underground, "organizing" much-needed goods to help the prisoners. But he also ...
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Clara Sverdlow's father, Viktor, was a Russian political prisoner in Auschwitz. He was involved in the camp underground, "organizing" much-needed goods to help the prisoners. But he also worked on the train ramps and helped to guide thousands of innocent victims to the gas chambers. The guilt and horror Viktor still carries with him are part of his daughter Clara's natural composition, something she doesn't understand and yet accepts as one would a congenital illness. It shapes her every action, and is at the root of her every phobia. Mark has his own demons - a brother dead from a drug overdose, and connections to his hometown heavies - from which he can't seem to break free.
Yet together they have found a fragile grace. With a miracle baby, they are trying to forget the past and learn to live normally in the world. But Clara's stalker Niko Kamenski secretly insinuates himself upon their lives, with disastrous consequences. Clara and Mark's only hope is to address the past, and confront the present situation before it's too late.
Clara regained consciousness on a train, as if she'd been floating below the surface of a dark, stagnant pond and suddenly broke through to air and light. She blinked and glanced around with aching eyes and recognized the interior of a Metroliner and the blurred landscape rushing by, familiar from myriad trips home to her father's house. She had no idea what day it was. A businessman across the way was reading a New York Post. She strained to see the date: Friday, March 17, 1995.
She remembered arriving at The Refuge House yesterday at nine a.m., her usual time. Two social workers were standing nose to nose in the hall outside her office, yelling at each other, gesticulating wildly. At The Refuge House, the social workers, including Clara, seemed to take every case study personally. There were fifteen abused women and their children living at The Refuge House, in fifteen apartments of varying sizes. The eight-story building on the Lower East Side had been a sex education center and birthing hospital for poor women in the thirties, organized and funded by a Margaret Sanger organization. It had pock-marked marble floors and high, vaulted ceilings, smoked glass sconces on the walls. The doors were thick and heavy, and intricate circular designs adorned the molding. The entrance onto the street had a metal door, which couldn't be opened except electronically, by a guard on the inside, who had a surveillance camera. You could keep the bad guys out; but keeping the women in was another matter entirely. As Clara stumbled upon the two social workers arguing, she felt that horrible aching churning feeling in her gut and her mouth went dry, and for a moment she wanted to run home, crawl back in bed, and pull the covers over her head.
As the train surged forward, she checked the floor at her feet and saw that she had no overnight bag, but thankfully she had her handbag. It was behind her back, the long strap crossed over her chest. She pulled the bag around and opened it to see if she still had her wallet. She found it, along with a fifth of vodka and prescription bottles of Percocet and Valium. The bottles were about half full, which didn't help her since she had no idea how many pills they'd contained the day before. An upswell of nausea forced her to close her eyes and breathe. The train rocked and the world swirled around her and she felt as if she were being tossed inside a dark vortex that was pulling her slowly down.
"What's going on?" Clara had asked the two social workers.
Tava, who was Refuge's case manager, and Jackie, a case worker, fell silent and turned to Clara, then began talking at once. They tried to tell her, cutting in on each other with conflicting details. The gist was that last night, Joanne Attanasio, one of Clara's hand-picked Refuge residents, had broken curfew.
Joanne was from Bensonhurst and had a four-year-old child. Before coming to Refuge, she'd spent two months in the temporary women's shelter where Clara had found her. Clara had fought for Joanne, requesting special permission to move her name to the top of the waiting list, because Joanne showed special promise. She was strong, determined, focused, and most importantly, she'd been ready to make the break from her violent husband.
But last night, no one knew why, Joanne had left her little girl alone, locked in the apartment, and gone to find her husband. She'd returned only this morning, convinced that her husband really meant to change this time. Tava and Jackie had tried to talk to her, but Joanne was already packing.
Clara and the case workers ran up the stairs. By the rules, Joanne would have to leave, but Clara was trying to think up a way to bend the very rules she'd created in order to keep Refuge a safe and well-oiled machine, a place with the same boundaries and regulations for every resident in the program.
The door to Joanne's studio was open. She was shoving the last of her toiletries into a stained plastic bag carried over from her days in the shelter, where the homeless had to use clear bags so the contents would be visible to the staff. Clara, forgetting herself, begged Joanne not to go, to reconsider. The little girl stood behind her mother, keening loudly.
Joanne pushed the child away, turned to Clara and the case workers and said, "He promised he'd get a job. And he promised to go back to counseling. He swore to God he'd never hit me again." Joanne pulled the wailing child by the hand and shouldered past the social workers crowding the narrow hallway. They followed Joanne out into the main hall, where three other doors were now open and women and children peeked out, their expressions curious and afraid.
Tava, Jackie, and Clara followed Joanne along the hall and down a flight of stairs. Clara's training had taught her to remain calm, non-judgmental, and persuasive in a logical way - but she felt betrayed, almost like a woman who's just found out her husband is having an affair. She burst into tears. "He's going to kill you, Joanne. Don't you understand? He's going to kill you!"
Joanne turned in the stairwell, looked up with heavy eyes at Clara and the two case workers behind her, and murmured, "He needs me. He says he can't live without me."
Clara spun on her heels and fled, past the social workers and back up to her office. She slammed the door and locked it, then sat down behind her desk. Her mouth was so dry her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. I'm overreacting, she thought. I'm out of my mind. In her handbag, she searched for her vial of Valium. For emergencies. She threw two ten-milligram pills into the back of her throat and forced them down with warm Diet Coke from yesterday. Tava knocked on the door, calling to her.
"I'm fine," Clara answered, her voice shaky. In a few minutes, she began to calm down, the world's painfully sharp edges beginning to soften. I'm a failure, she thought. I need to get out on the street, get some fresh air. As soon as she was certain that Tava and Jackie had returned to their offices, she grabbed her purse and her coat, and left. She walked three blocks up First Avenue, telling herself that a little air was making all the difference, and turned right abruptly at a sign with a green shamrock that said Sligo Inn. One little drink, she was thinking, and I'll be all right. The first crisp icy sip of Stoli and immediately relief coursed through her veins. She saw a photo of handsome Yeats above the wall of shiny bottles, and she saw no reason why she shouldn't stay there for a while. She talked to the old Irish bartender about this and that, and then the blackness closed in.
How many hours had elapsed since then? She figured close to twenty-four.
She saw her reflection in the window, her pale face superimposed upon a long line of conifers speeding past. Her hair was up in a tight ponytail, and she was not wearing yesterday's casual charcoal-gray linen suit, but jeans and a loose black cotton sweater. How strange, she thought, even in a complete black-out I can dress myself, comb my hair, put on my boots.
Fairville Station, the conductor called out over the loudspeaker. Fairville Station. Well, she was here now and didn't have a choice, so she stepped off the Metroliner and chose a pay phone from a row on the platform. She was assailed by a wave of nausea so strong that she had to stand perfectly still and breathe slowly for several minutes. She closed one eye in order to press the telephone buttons but her hand was shaking so badly that she dialed the wrong number and had to dig another quarter out of her bag.
In ten minutes Viktor, her father, pulled up in his manually controlled station wagon, with Tyotya Anya in the passenger seat, the shiny steel spokes and rubber wheel of his folded wheelchair visible through the back window. Her father sat in the idling car in the handicapped space at the bottom of the steps while Tyotya Anya climbed quickly to the platform. Her gray eyes were tense with worry, her mouth a thin line.
Tyotya Anya took Clara's handbag away and gripped her by the upper arm, the way she had when Clara was a little girl in trouble. Her father did not seem to notice that she was stumbling on her way down the steps.
Tyotya Anya opened the back door and shoved Clara in. Viktor was all good humor and lightness, his Russian accent barely noticeable unless you were looking for it. He'd been in the US fifty years. "Clarya, what a surprise! It's so good to see you, milaya moya."
As soon as they reached home she told them she didn't feel well and went upstairs to bed, in her little girl room with a frilly bedspread and her abandoned stuffed animals staring at her with gloomy black eyes.
She tossed and sweated and shook in her childhood bed and listened to her father and Anya downstairs, arguing in Russian.
Tyotya Anya shouted, "Vitya, she needs a doctor. She needs help. This is because of us -"
Her father interrupted in a calm, well-modulated tone: "There's nothing wrong with Clara. She works too hard. She needs to rest, that's all. She's always been high-strung."
"You know perfectly well she drinks too much. You know perfectly well"
"Be quiet, Anya," Viktor said without rancor.
"No, I will not be quiet. The child needs help, and you and I can't provide it."
The child. Clara's mind laughed ghoulishly. She was almost thirty-five. And helpless as an infant.
"You can try to stop me, Vitya," Anya said, her voice suddenly dead calm, "but God help me, I'll knock you right out of your chair."
Viktor said not another word but wheeled himself into his ground-floor study - also his bedroom since the car accident that had shattered his spine - and slammed the door.
Clara was dimly astonished by Anya's outburst. Anya's position in the household had never been clearly spelled out. Viktor and Anya had never been lovers, had never considered it, according to them. Anya was not a wife, nor was she a servant. She was not a blood relative. Yet she played all these roles, deferring to Viktor on all matters concerning Clara.
Clara heard Tyotya Anya muttering in English on the kitchen phone, conspiring with God knows what strangers. Clara didn't have the strength to get out of bed, much less to fight her. After a little while, she heard Anya calling to Viktor through the study door: "I'm taking her to Pennsylvania in the morning. The Josephine Stillwell Rehabilitation Center."
Viktor was swearing but Anya went right on, "It's the best on the East Coast, Vitya. The best. That's what the man from Alcoholics Anonymous said on the phone."
"Alcoholics Anonymous! Alcoholics Anonymous! Woman, you've lost your mind!" Viktor shouted through the door. But he stayed in his room, and Clara heard nothing more.
At dawn, Tyotya Anya, who had a driver's license but hadn't been behind the wheel in close to twenty years, dressed Clara as she had when Clara was a child, wrapped her in a blanket, and practically carried her down the stairs. Clara tried to run but Anya's grip felt like steel on her arm.
"I'm not going!" Clara shouted. "You can't make me go! This is all your fault anyway. You're insane, both of you."
Viktor opened his door and rolled himself out into the vestibule. Clara turned to stare at him, her face contorted with rage. There were tears streaming from his eyes. The anger, which had felt like a balloon stretched to its limit inside her chest, deflated in one exhalation of breath, and she was left with an unbearable feeling of emptiness.
Tyotya Anya led her out to the old family Buick that no one drove anymore but Clara, when she came home on weekends or holidays. Clara curled herself into a corner of the backseat, wrapped in the blanket. Anya slid in behind the steering wheel but could barely see over the dashboard, her back bent forward and her hands gripping the wheel so tightly her knuckles turned white.
On the highway cars flew past, blaring their horns.
"You're going to get us killed," Clara said from the back.
"You're killing yourself anyway," replied Tyotya Anya. "A little slower, a little faster, what difference? Me, I am living on stolen time for fifty years. I now realize I am not dying any time soon, so I am looking for a husband. Got any ideas?"
"I tried to fix you up with my neighbor, Mr. Goldman."
"I never met a nicer old man than that," Tyotya Anya said.
"He's two years younger than you."
They both laughed emptily and fell silent. A wave of nausea swept over Clara and she opened the car window, allowing the cold air to slap against her face. A vague recollection forced itself suddenly upon the screen of her mind and she sat up with a start: She'd been sitting on a bar stool, not at the Sligo Inn but a different bar uptown. A blast of cold air hit her back as the door swung open, and suddenly, there he was, standing just behind her left shoulder like a demon whispering temptations in her ear. Him. Niko. She hated to even think his name. Fragments of their exchange came back to her and a sharp taste of bile rose in the back of her throat. She did not remember his clothes, only his fair hair, tanned face, and intense, shadowy eyes.
Hey, Clarya. His voice lulling, suggestive. Sweet as treacle.
Don't call me that.
What a coincidence. I was just having a bite at that French place across the street ...
With you, Niko, nothing ever happens by coincidence.
Ah, come on, Clara. I have those top-shelf Quaaludes, stamped, you know the ones.
... Please go. Or I'll call the cops.
You're drunk. They're not going to listen to you.
They will when I tell them the history.
Clara tried to fill in the holes. What scared her most was that she'd seriously contemplated his offer - for several interminable seconds. Her pull to him at that moment had been stronger than her fear or her fury. She'd been feeling lonely and misunderstood, that her life held no promise, and suddenly he was standing beside her - he who despite all the harm he'd done her, had been the only one in the entire world to understand her, to anticipate her needs and desires, whose love seemed so unequivocal and overpowering it was like a tidal wave, wiping out everything in its path. Ah, to be loved like that ... She tottered at the edge of that cliff, then stepped back with a jolt. She'd seen over and over again how far women would go, how much they would take, believing till the bitter end, even with a gun pointed at their heads, that it was love. Look at Joanne Attanasio.
She pressed a hand to his chest and pushed him away. Go away, Niko, she said to him. Go away and don't ever talk to me again.
Then the bar door swung open, letting in another blast of icy air.
Tyotya Anya turned on the windshield wipers and sang in a staccato rhythm as they swung back and forth, Il etait un Petit Navire, a song about a doomed little ship on which the starving crew decides to eat the smallest sailor.
Excerpted from Speak Now by Kaylie Jones Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Kaylie Jones is one of those authors who, once you read her, you know you're going to go back to her books again and again. Jones has a knack for creating such believable characters you'd swear you knew them in real life. Jones's novel, SPEAK NOW, is the story of Clara, a woman fresh out of rehab who struggles to maintain her sobriety in a complicated world. She fights to save women from battered relationships while her own stalker continues to haunt her. Raised by a father who's guilt-ridden over surviving the Holocaust, Clara dares to believe it's possible for her own child to overcome the family's patterns of self-destructive behavior. SPEAK NOW is a compelling novel that's sure to stay with me for a very long time.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
This literary novel explores universal themes of guilt and redemption while at the same time delivering a tale suffused with tension and suspense. Each of the novel's three main characters labors under a legacy of cruelty and shame that has left them broken and angry. Although they share common ground, each takes a different path as the story unfolds; Clara and her new husband, Mark, to sobriety and atonement, Niko to obsession and destruction. Jones is especially adept at capturing the rawness and fragility of the recovering addict. The writing here is clean and powerful. Nothing is overdone but the novel is rich in razor-sharp details and wonderfully descriptive metaphors. Clara's despair over parting from a man she has met in rehab is described as if there was "a shot glass of tears stuck in her throat." While the story barrels to its conclusion, in the end it is the complexities of the characters and their struggles to establish a beachhead of normalcy that resonate long after the last word is read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 6, 2003
Kaylie Jones has written a breathtaking tale of suspense about a young wife and mother stalked by her high school lover and the desperate efforts of a handful of people -- her husband, her father and aunt, and a district attorney -- to save her from a stalker who changes identity. An electrifying literary thriller with exotic locales, intimate intrigues and the mysteries of the human heart. Kaylie Jones has created the most ruthless and powerful killer in recent memory -- a predator so ingenious he finds a way to infiltrate the private lives of his victims, without their knowledge. Ms. Jones delivers her darkest, most troubling tale of murder, accidents of fate, and the stories we tell ourselves when we try to make sense of the unthinkable. A masterful storyteller and as original a voice as any writing in America today.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 1, 2003
This novel is both moving and suspenseful. The characters are well-drawn and fascinating in their humanity--including a truly frightening villain, who will, nevertheless, evoke sympathy in the reader. This book examines the far-reaching and corrosive effects of unspeakable horror, but it also deals with courage and dignity, realistically and unsentimentally. I also loved how well the ambience of Manhattan is captured. There are some wonderfully poetic passages, one of my favorites being a character's view of sunrise over Queens from a hospital window. This is a book to reread and savor.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 4, 2003
Novels dealing with alcoholism and drug abuse often end up glamorizing the addictions of their characters, with descriptions of narcotic states and the mansions of drug lords that verge on the poetic. To her great credit, Jones avoids this Hollywood treatment in a novel that gives an unblinking look at the struggle of a young New York couple to remain sober while dealing with the continuing consequences of their prior addictions. While Clara and Mark may have turned their backs on their former lives, they continue to be pursued by sinister figures from the past, and Jones crafts the story of their recovery into a nightmarish, suspenseful narrative that never tries to find simple answers for the complex of factors that underlie the motivations of its characters.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 13, 2003
In a time when literature seems divided into two classes¿the literary and the popular (or, more appropriately, the literary versus the popular), it is refreshing to read books like Ms. Jones¿ new novel, SPEAK NOW, as they mark, perhaps, the next evolutionary step in literature¿a union between the gripping, suspenseful story that is so popular today, and the timeless importance of writing that brings a reader back not only to recapture a few good thrills, but also because he or she wants to admire, for a second or third time, how authors like Kaylie Jones are able to craft a story and it characters. SPEAK NOW is, among other things, the story of addiction¿addiction to drugs and alcohol, certainly, but more importantly, our strange addiction to suffering, whether it be through reliving past sins, or enduring the touch of a dangerous and manipulative lover. It is a story of abuse of others, and of the abuse we inflict upon ourselves through guilt and the fear that we do not deserve the blessings that we have. This idea is offered masterfully, through the kind of temporal weaving that only an experienced and talented author can conceptualize and execute. Here, in SPEAK NOW, Jones seamlessly takes us through three distinct time periods¿the present, in which Clara Sverdlow struggles to rise above her addictions and find the courage to hold on to those she loves; Clara¿s youth, wherein she meets the man who will haunt her for years to come; and finally, the distant past, in which we learn of her father¿s role in the concentration camps during World War II, of his eventual escape from those nightmares, and finally of the effect that his experiences have had on Clara. As a result of her thorough research, the author is able to create scenes and characters that shine not only because of the writing or the action, but also because of myriad interesting facts, placed as purposefully and artistically as ornaments on a Christmas tree. We learn of little details¿the clear plastic bags that people in shelters must use, so that the shelter can see the contents within¿and appreciate such details not only because they are new and interesting to us, but also because, in many instances, such details support the invasion of privacy motif that runs throughout the novel. Her characters are equally well researched, the greatest example being, perhaps, Niko Kamemski. Here, Jones has created a sort of distorted Jay Gatsby, a man who is convinced that he has found his love at a tender age, that, by destiny, she belongs to him, and finally, that he must use any means of building up wealth and power to secure her for himself. He is an obsessed and driven man, and he¿as well as the women who have suffered abuse from other men in the novel¿is crafted honestly, and much to the author¿s credit, without judgment from the writer herself. Also concerning Niko, it is interesting to point out that his occupation and his own addictions make him not only a physical threat to Clara and her new family, but also a source of temptation¿a temptation to return to the old habits that slowly kill us, offering us a dark place that is, at least, familiar. SPEAK NOW is a fast-passed read filled with details that are fascinating, but that stay in the shadow of the story, where they belong. It is a story driven by characters with whom we sympathize and admire as they struggle to attain one of the simplest, but most difficult of virtues: the ability to accept the past¿to look back, but not stare.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 17, 2003
This does work as a suspense novel--an effective one--and as a meditation on the corrosive and far reaching effects of unspeakable horror. The real gold is in the depiction of the ennobling struggle of some people to create better lives for themselves after the tragedy of their earlier lives. The master stroke in this book is in how the reader feels real empathy for the villain and for the tragedy of his life. This is one satisfying book that readers will return to again and again.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 9, 2003
This gripping novel has wonderfully drawn characters, beautiful prose, social significance, AND all the suspense of thriller. The villain is so charming and engaging, you understand exactly how he draws in and dupes the other characters. The suspense at the end is brilliantly paced and very scary. Yet, at bottom, this is a book about how tragedy and its aftermath twist the psyche and damage the soul, and what it takes to overcome its pain.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.