Spilling Clarence [NOOK Book]


After a fire at the local pyschopharmaceutical plant, an ominous cloud spreads over the town of Clarence. Very soon, its inhabitants are flooded by their memories--some soothing, some terrifying, many bittersweet. In this witty and beguiling first novel, Anne Ursu introduces us to a variety of exquisitely-drawn characters and takes us on a journey into the heart of being human.

Read More Show Less
... See more details below
Spilling Clarence

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
BN.com price


After a fire at the local pyschopharmaceutical plant, an ominous cloud spreads over the town of Clarence. Very soon, its inhabitants are flooded by their memories--some soothing, some terrifying, many bittersweet. In this witty and beguiling first novel, Anne Ursu introduces us to a variety of exquisitely-drawn characters and takes us on a journey into the heart of being human.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In 2001, a truly innovative movie was released, entitled Memento, in which the subject of memory, and how it is framed in our psyche, was explored in a thoroughly unique way.

In her debut novel, Spilling Clarence, author Anne Ursu also approaches the subject of memory, and the ways in which it is repressed. Set in the fictional town of Clarence, Minnesota, this insightful tale begins when a local pharmaceutical plant specializing in the production of psychiatric drugs catches fire and issues a Code 121, indicating "likely airborne dispersal."

The fire is brought under control, and the incident is downplayed until the denizens of Clarence begin to experience some strange side effects. Through their contact with a particular chemical, they begin to remember all the things they have chosen to forget over the course of their lives -- scenes of love and death, war and childhood -- and find themselves overcome by the weight of their recovered memories. "Perhaps the mind's ability to make the past malleable is essential for our survival…. What would it do to us if we remembered our childhoods, our whole lives, every day?"

In Spilling Clarence, Ursu has created a thought-provoking and timely tale, liberally seasoned with charm and good humor. This is a fiction debut that challenges readers to think about the past and their memories as never before. (Winter 2002 Selection)

New Orleans Times-Picayune
Anne Ursu's first novel is a heartbreaking trip down memory lane . . . Ursu does a wonderful job in this imaginative and charming novel, a must for fans of such writers as Anne Tyler and Alice Hoffman. She knows that the best we can wish for her characters -- and ourselves -- is a life without regret.
St. Louis Post Dispatch
It has competence and style - light, wry, dreamlike, almost cartoonlike at times.
Philadelphia Inquirer
Warm, playful, and magical.
Janet Steen
Anne Ursu’s first novel revolves around a wonderfully original premise: What if the vaults of memory were suddenly opened, and people could recall everything that had ever happened to them? In the fictional townof Clarence, Minnesota—an altogether bland and ordinary place—a fire at apharmaceutical factory releases a chemical into the air that triggers powerful memories in all the inhabitants. A kind of mass melancholy settles over the community as people tumble back in time and recollect long-buried episodes from their lives: A man remembers every nuance of the wife he adored and lost in acar accident; a World War II veteran relieves a traumatic combat experience. Even the animals of Clarence become unglued. Gradually, though, the pain of these suppressed memories gives way to something transcendent as the townspeople begin to share their experiences with one another. Evoking the workof Anne Tyler and Alice Hoffman, this whimsical, bittersweet debut suggests that the stories of our lives are what save us.
Us Weekly
Carlin Romano
Slowly, charmingly, painfully, Spilling Clarence unfolds dimensions of how our pasts and presents intermingle, how our dreams and memories feed off one another. No scalpel can touch the truths Ursu locates, from "the specific kind of hope that comes before love," to an old man's worry "about how dry and rough his lips must be, how wiry his hair is, how aged and desiccated his face must feel when held against the hand's memory of another face."...Some first novels read like homework exercises assigned by an aesthetic ideologue. Reel off 33 sentences in a row without a passive verb! Pack so much "inventiveness" into your first chapter that the assaulted reader yells "Uncle!" or "Genius!" Insist on the brilliance of your private vision regardless of whether any normal page-turner could share the precious sensibility.Other first novels flow as naturally as a mountain rapid, splashing you enough to drive home the certainty that there's much more to come - insights that make sense, issues and instincts real enough to demand that you stay alert."Counter vague ideas with sharp images," director Jean-Luc Godard urged artists. Anne Ursu counters vague longings with sharp afterimages. When Harris Jones reopens its plant, officials assure one and all that the deletrium spill will have "no permanent effects." You can't say the same about Spilling Clarence, which lingers.
Philadelphia Inquirer
Publishers Weekly
First novelist Ursu comes off as an Alice Hoffman wannabe who doesn't quite make the grade. Like Hoffman, she creates a small community here, the fictional Midwestern town of Clarence and describes a dramatic event that causes several characters to undergo life changes. When a leak at a psychopharmaceutical factory spills a drug called deletrium into the atmosphere, strange psychological reactions afflict Clarence's residents. One by one, they are traumatized by memories of the past that they had previously buried. Bernie Singer, a widowed psych professor at local Mansfield University, is forced to remember the auto accident that killed his wife and left him to raise alone his precocious daughter, Sophie, now nine years old. Bernie's mother, Madeline, a well-known novelist who is now blocked, is disturbed by memories of her relationship with her dead husband. Susannah Korbet, who works at Madeline's retirement home, must deal with her guilt about her mother's illness, while her fianc , a grad student whose specialty is memory studies, undergoes his own crisis. Ursu's what-if scenario is diverting to some degree, but the paint-by-numbers plot development soon becomes labored, and the relentlessly perky prose style calls attention to itself with too arch irony. The characters speak like robots who've never used a vernacular contraction, stiffly uttering "cannot" or "will not" or "do not" even in relaxed conversation, and the repetition of almost identical sentence patterns echoes the sing-song cadences of children's books. While the story is lightly engaging, Ursu never establishes the suspension of disbelief that Hoffman accomplishes with such dexterity. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This gentle first novel explores what would happen if you could remember everything that ever happened to you: every triumph and tender moment, every snub and indignity, every torment and terror. Would the bad outweigh the good? How can we live without forgetting life's daily hurts and injustices? Clarence, MN, is a bucolic college town until a fire at the pharmaceutical factory "spills" deletrium (a fictional chemical) into the atmosphere. Suddenly, Clarence's unsuspecting citizens are overcome by a flood of powerful memories. The former theater critic for Minneapolis's City Pages, Ursu is a writer who cares deeply about her characters, and her descriptions of Professor Bennie Singer's haunting flashbacks of his wife's fatal car accident and his tender interactions with his daughter, Sophie, are very moving. Other players include Singer's mother, who must reconcile an unsatisfying marriage and open herself to the possibilities of new romance, while her crush, Calvin, is literally floored by vivid images of war. Lots of pop-culture references to life in middle America lend a comic touch. Recommended for all public libraries. Christine Perkins, Jackson Cty. Lib. Svcs., Medford, OR Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A semi-successful debut tells the odd tale of a town afflicted-after an accident at the local chemical factory-with the burden of complete memory: it will disable its residents for days.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • BN ID: 2940011505102
  • Publisher: Anne Ursu
  • Publication date: 9/6/2011
  • Sold by: Smashwords
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 775,871
  • File size: 585 KB

Meet the Author

Anne Ursu

Anne Ursu's most recent book is BREADCRUMBS (HarperCollins/Walden Pond Press), a modern–day fairy tale for middle grade readers. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," BREADCRUMBS is a story of a Minneapolis girl who follows her best friend into a strange fairy-tale woods, and discovers there that fantasy is no escape.

Anne is also the author of the Cronus Chronicles (Atheneum), a middle grade fantasy trilogy about two cousins who unwittingly fall into a battle with Greek gods. The three books are THE SHADOW THIEVES, THE SIREN SONG, and THE IMMORTAL FIRE. In addition, she has written two novels for adults: SPILLING CLARENCE and THE DISAPPARATION OF JAMES (Hyperion). She teaches at the Hamline University's Masters of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Anne lives in Minneapolis with her young son and neurotic cats.

Read More Show Less

First Chapter


Clarence, Before Spill

The break room microwave is dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. It has been in the process of dying for a great many years; for the psychopharmaceutical factory employees, the chunky box has always acted as an orangy-brown reminder of bygone decades.

Through the years, the appliance's failure to shuffle off this mortal coil (never mind the management's refusal to replace the thing) has slowly changed from seeming absurd to downright inspirational. As a result, people have been using it less and less, and recently the brave factory workers who have attempted to cook food in it have done so surreptitiously, lest they be identified as the one whose ultra-lite popcorn finally did in their Saiushi EZWave 4000. So, now, with the break room empty and the hallways clear, one of the secretaries turns the primeval knobs to the appropriate settings, then scurries out the door. Thus, nobody is in the room to hear the prophetic crackle crackle pop as the magnetron tube bursts, or to notice the smoke rising, or to see sparks come out of the thick black umbilical cord. The microwave sighs its last sigh and the break room quickly transforms into a funeral pyre.

The fire alarm shrieks and wails, and as workers begin to proceed in a calm and orderly fashion out the door, the sprinklers activate throughout the Harris Jones psychopharmaceutical factory. It does not take long for the old old sprinkler system to short out the old old electrical wiring. Just as the plant safety engineer takes the massive Emergency Procedures binder off the shelf, a red light on his operations panel begins to flash, foretelling the demise of the refrigeration system. As he skims the index of the manual, the blue light that monitors the supercooled chemical tanks begins to blink frantically. As he flips to page 34, the molecules of the liquid chemicals in the refrigerated tanks begin to excite and expand, ready to transform into a new state of matter and reach a higher plane. The safety engineer finds the appropriate code, and as the tanks swell, he turns to his old old computer and punches in Code 121: Fire in the Factory. Likely Airborne Dispersal.

Then he calls his wife and tells her to get out of Clarence, pronto. And take the cats.

It will be a few more minutes before the sound of the civil defense sirens startles the customers flipping through books and sipping lattes in the town of Clarence's new Davis and Dean superstore. For now, though, it is commerce that is airborne. Through the currency of bright smiles and swooshes of credit cards and thank-you-for-shopping-have-a-nice-days, capitalism foams and bubbles over like frothed milk. Booksellers beam at bookbuyers, cash registers pop open, receipts churn and coil, bags blouse, doors revolve -- the people of Clarence enter and leave inexorably, accompanied by noncontroversial jazz and humming air-conditioning. It is a perfect sixty-eight degrees in the store, and Clarence wants to buy.

Bennie and Sophie Singer sit in the bookstore's cafe today, as they have every Friday since the Davis and Dean was built. Friday has been Bookstore Day for the two of them ever since Sophie learned to read. Lizzie, actually, started the tradition, back before there was a Sophie. Bookstores with cafes were a rare and wondrous phenomenon back then, and the newly wedded Ben and Elizabeth McCourt Singer would sit at a table every Friday afternoon reading the magazines they couldn't afford to subscribe to. Lizzie would pore over women's magazines -- her secret obsession -- gleefully searching for tropes, discourse, and dogma, and Bennie would read newsweeklies searching for nothing in particular. One Friday, he reading The New Yorker, she studying advertisements in Elle, he picked up her hand, almost knocking over her coffee.

When we have a child, we will take her to the bookstore every Friday.

Lizzie looked up from her magazine and beamed.

Bennie blinks the memory away.

Bennie and Sophie Singer sit in the cafe today, as they do every Friday. Bennie will schedule no students, attend no meetings, allow no exceptions. I have a standing date, he explains to the sputtering cognitive behaviorist as he shuts his office door and scurries out of the psych building to pick Sophie up from school. We'll do it on Monday. I'm here late on Mondays.

It's not as if the department could like him any less.

Bennie is the token Personality professor at Mansfield University, and is thus looked upon with some derision by those who think an understanding of the human psyche is best achieved through close interaction with rodents and computer simulations. Bennie, in turn, despises the notion that human behavior can be explained through the interplay of impulses and neurons, chemicals and electricity, mice and mazes. If humanity is really so base, what is the point of living? What is the point of experience? What is the point of the mind? At Mansfield, psychology students dissect and experiment. They will be excellent researchers, yes, but who will treat the patients?

Sophie can buy one book a week. She always knows what she will buy as they enter the store; she spends her time amongst the stacks categorizing and prioritizing for weeks to come. Then, after Sophie has finished crawling through the kids' section, the two retire to the cafe. Sophie has an Italian soda. The first Friday of the month she has cherry, the second orange, the third raspberry, and the fourth lime. If there are five Fridays in a month, then she has strawberry kiwi, which is her favorite. Bennie has the coffee of the day with three to four packets of artificial sweetener.

Now, Sophie sips her raspberry soda and flips through books from children's reference while Bennie wishes thoughts away. Sophie eats these books up every week, washing facts down with neon soda. She will remember them all. Sophie remembers everything. She knows countries and capitals, states and dates. She knows wars and treaties, tribes and tributaries. She knows Greek gods and Roman hills. She knows Tippecanoe and Tyler too; she can list First Pets, First Ladies, and even some of the mistresses.

It awes Bennie. Did he ever know this much? Could he reel off the posts of the Cabinet and the ranks of the British peerage system fueled only by childhood alacrity and a sugar high?

I don't know, sweetie, he smiles as she quizzes him. You tell me. I'm getting old, sweetie. Bennie gave up on history long ago, but when did it give up on him? When did all the facts leave him? Where did they go? Sure, there are remnants. Mnemonic devices still linger. Every good boy deserves favor. Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally. My very earnest mother judiciously served us nine potatoes. King Peter came over from Germany seeking fortune. The phrases rattle in his head, but Bennie can't remember what they are for -- random keys cluttering a drawer and he has no idea what doors they unlock. Stripped of their meaning they become surrealist mantras. His own Dada manifesto. Art for Art's sake. Meaning is dead. Facts are a lie. His little girl can list off Great Lakes, types of rock, and geological eras, while he struggles every night to recall the smell of his wife's hair.

He would have killed himself if it hadn't been for Sophie. There's no doubt about that.

Sacred Fridays with Sophie give respite from real life days of blue books and department meetings and nights of clammy sheets and irrevocable dreams. He has given his life to his daughter, and now there is no going back. The agreement is unspoken, unconfirmed, but six years ago when Bennie chose Sophie's nascent life over his much desired death, he made a bargain with his toddler daughter: I, Benjamin, will live for you. In turn, you, Sophia Madeline, must never leave me.

Couldn't the world freeze, and he always be sitting here with Sophie with eyes as bright as her soda, so full of Lizzie? It is absurd, impossible, he knows, but why not?

"Hey, Soph..."


"Do you remember that story I used to read to you? About the magic watch?"

She sighs and looks up from her encyclopedia. "Which story?"

"You know, the watch that controlled time. There were trolls and they had this watch and they would speed time up, stop it, send it back, stop the world."

"Dad, they weren't trolls, they were elves. The girl elf made a wish. The genie heard. She got this watch."

"Elves. Yes, that was it. That was one of my favorites."

Sophie tosses her thin blond hair. "Yeah, it was okay."

Bennie leans in. "Wouldn't it be nice if it were true? If we could wish a genie down here, if he could give us a magic watch. We could just sit here and you could read your books and drink your sodas as long as you wanted."

Sophie sighs again in the way she sees on TV and closes her book. "Dad, you should know better than that."

"Oh, Soph, it's just pretend."

"Yeah, but didn't you learn anything from the story? Don't you remember what happened to that girl elf? That's the way it always happens in stories -- wishes seem like a really good idea but then you get your wish and things get all messed up. That's what wishes do. That's the way stories go. That's the whole point."

Sophie smiles at her father compassionately and opens her big white book back to "Flags of the World."

The civil defense sirens will go off in another two minutes. For now, Bennie Singer sits in the caf;aae and stares at the wall and wonders at how still the world has become.

The Davis and Dean superstore sits equidistant from the psychopharmaceutical factory and Mansfield University. Walk outside the bookstore's revolving doors. Stand on the sidewalk. Turn your head to the right, and you'll see the three smokestacks on the horizon. Turn to the left and you see photo-perfect towers and spires. The effect is off-putting, the dissonance dizzying. Look again. And again. And again. The factory and the university face each other warily, and you, caught in the middle, do not know which way to turn.

Harris Jones Pharmaceuticals is owned by HJ Medical Systems down in the Cities. The company's particular specialty, and the Clarence factory's niche, is the mind. Harris Jones dedicates itself essentially to treating the modern condition; their medications attack such ailments as anxiety, distraction, depression. Their stock is on its way up, and you might consider making a small investment.

Occasionally there is some grumbling among the factory workers of Clarence about the nature of the drugs made at their plant. After all, the economy of the town is based on the factory, but anxiety, sleep, fear, depression, and despair are not the town's problems. (At lunch, a worker points at the photo-perfect towers and spires to indicate just whose problems these are.) The people of Clarence make drugs for outsiders to take. They work day and night making drugs for rich people. What kind of medications are these anyway? Medications are for sickness. For life and death. Not for mood. What kind of people have the need and resources to medicate their mind?

Shouldn't their livelihoods be based on something they can use? Harris Jones worries about insurance, losses, reputation. Who will take care of Clarence? What if something should happen? All those chemicals...

If there were any poetry at all in Clarence, there would be a great river running through the town. The river would bisect Clarence perfectly; factory on one side, college on the other. Time card punchers on one side, dentists on the other; American cars on one side, foreign on the other. If there were any poetry in Clarence, the river would divide the town's two worlds with a deft blue stroke manifesting the bifurcation in perpetual motion. If Clarence had poetry, there would at least be some good old railroad tracks to give the town its proverbial right and wrong side (which is which would be depending on your point of view, of course).

Clarence has no poetry, though. Clarence has Bargain Barrels, Krazy Savers, Dollar Hutz, and Pizza Domes. The division, then, must remain invisible. Theoretical. Philosophical. Literary. Like the international date line or the boundaries of good taste.

The best anyone can do is invite you to take a tour. Visit some restaurants and compare -- say Vinnie's, then Tandoori Jewel. Bob's Bar, then Strange Brew Cafe. Susie'sm Secondhands and The Closet. Contrast the crowds, the clothes, the conversation. Hairstyles. Accents and accessories. Study. Use what you have learned. Go to the common grounds -- gas stations, grocery stores, fast food restaurants. Guess who is from which world. There. You are able to begin drawing the line yourself. A deft stroke in perpetual motion.

The Davis and Dean superstore has tried valiantly to bridge the gap. The Clarence store is an experiment after all, and harmony is essential to the experiment's success.

A few years ago, the Davis and Dean muckety-mucks met to discuss the next phase of the war between D&D and its nemesis, Vanguard Books. The combatants had already consumed and exhausted the cities and suburbs and exurbs; there needed to be a new battleground. Thus was born Operation Hinterland. D&D would strike in the less populated areas. Where men wear flannel shirts and smell like a hard day's work. Real People. America's heartland. Mom, Pop, Apple Pie, Bait and Tackle, and the Good Lord. Research teams and focus groups led Davis and Dean straight to Clarence -- home of Mom and Pop, and of Mansfield University. Thus, there would be deportees from the city -- with their proven able brand recognition -- to lead the way through the store's doors.

Clarence's mayor has a strong sense of capitalistic duty, and the experiment, to be sure, would be talked about in all the trades and business weeklies. People would be watching closely. Other progressively minded nationally sanctioned companies might come. The economy would soar. Clarence would soar. So when Davis and Dean officials came to the mayor carrying proposals and compensations and all kinds of charts with towering majestic columns and bright happy graphs with arrows going up, up, up, the mayor in turn said, Yes. Please. Come. What shall we knock down for you?

There were a few protests of course. A Chamber of Commerce splinter group called Stop National Chains in Clarence (SNCC) held a Breaking the Chain rally on the front lawn of the city hall steps with folksingers and a bad sound system. The rally was small; many of the Clarence elders thought that they could not possibly support anything that involved folksingers. Those who did march on the town hall spoke passionately of a desire to keep Clarence without those nasty big city chain influences coming in to homogenize and desensitize. What would separate Clarence from any other city, now? What good are these corporations? Who will watch out for Clarence?

But in a few weeks everyone stopped caring, as is the general way of things. Hands were shook, documents signed, announcements made, ground broken, espresso imported, and Bingo! Clarence joined the Davis and Dean empire well before Vanguard could move their troops into the hinterlands.

And the experiment is working. D&D has become a community center. A piazza. The factory worker and the college professor sip coffee side by side. And since the store was built, no aimless Mansfield humanities graduate has ever been in want of a job. You know this place. You may be there now. And we have a good place to begin our story.

As bennie finishes the last gulp of his coffee, the safety engineer's wife and her two cats get on the freeway leading straight out of Dodge. Police sirens sound quietly in the distance. Add fire trucks. Ambulances. One screech after another joins the chorus and the sirens crescendo, grow more immediate. The emergency is close. And getting closer. One after another, people in the store look up, look out the windows, joke nervously and laugh like choking.

Is the store on fire? Heh heh. Heh. Heh...


Then the cacophony passes by and fades off into the distance. Someone else's emergency. The bookstore exhales and the air returns to normal --

-- and then the emergency alert sirens go off.

There is silence in the bookstore. Customers and employees look at each other. Nobody moves.

Is it a test?

It's not the right time of the month.

A tornado this late in the year?

A man peeks out of the window. The sky is smoky and yellow.

"Look at that!" he yells. Everyone looks.

The stillness grows. The sirens blare on. Everyone watches eachother watch everyone else. Bennie is frozen. His mind flashes to his yearly freshman psych lecture on the bystander effect; after Kitty Genovese was killed on the streets of New York while an entire neighborhood watched and did nothing, a group of psychologists ran an experiment: In a room where students are taking a test, smoke pours through the vents. If a person is by himself, he will pull an alarm, call someone, leave the room. If the person is in a group, smoke will fill the room and he will glance around, cough, wait for someone else to act.

Bennie has always given this lecture with a degree of arrogance, of reassurance. I am a psychologist. I know the urges. I understand the nature. I will be better than this.

But in the face of all this stillness he finds himself frozen. His lungs constrict. The sirens burst in his ear.

It is not until Sophie looks at him, big eyed, her body shrinking into the chair. "Daddy -- ?"

"It's okay, sweetheart," he whispers, and smiles, then announces to everyone, "Perhaps we should turn on the radio?"

The black-haired girl behind the cafe counter emerges from the back room with a small radio. Sophie smiles at her father worshipfully. The sirens continue to wail and with a twist and click, the radio begins to harmonize.

This is the emergency broadcast system. This is not a test. All residents of Clarence are asked to stay where they are. Repeat, stay where you are. This is not a test. All residents of Clarence, stay inside. Stay tuned to this station for further instructions.

Davis and Dean employees begin to bring other customers to the cafe. A man in a cartoon bird tie introduces himself as the manager. "We'd like to ask everyone to stay in the store. We're bringing down more radios."

He smiles nonthreateningly, and the relief among the customers is palpable: It is all right. Someone is in charge here. We have a manager. He will tell us what to do.

Outside of the window of the store, creatures covered in yellow billowy plastic begin to appear, carting road blocks.

The customers in the bookstore start.

What the --

Yellow guys do not just happen. Yellow guys are not in my life. Yellow guys do not just emerge out of thin air. Yellow guys are in the movies. Yellow guys are not real. Yellow guys are for Chernobyl, not Clarence. Why don't I have a yellow suit? I do not have a yellow suit. Where the hell is my yellow suit? I quite clearly need a yellow suit.

People begin to stare at each other more frankly. They appraise obviously, guiltlessly. Their eyes ask, Who are these people? Is one of them responsible? Are they all bystanders too, hostages in a movie, trapped in an elevator, on a bus with a bomb? Will we be huddled here, days later, on the floor, dirty and thin? One person always dies. One is always afraid. One is brave and sneaks through the vents and frees us all. The rest are extras, with muddy, panicked faces, providing occasional squeals and moans.

And through the room, the thought passes: I am an extra. The time has come, and I am just an extra.

This is the emergency broadcast system. This is not a test. All residents of Clarence are asked to stay where they are. Chemical accident. Possible toxic exposure. Stay inside. If you are in your car, park, close the vents, and stay where you are. Stay tuned to this station for further instructions.

"It's the factory."

People nod their heads.

"Goddamn chemicals."

"What's going to happen to us?"

The room is as close and shrill as the sirens.

Bennie turns and glares. Be quiet. Everyone. Can't you see there's a little girl here. Can't you see my daughter is young. Can't you see my Sophie is scared. Take a deep breath, everyone. Remain calm. Panicking is human instinct but we can overcome it. Mind over matter.

Bennie cares about three people in Clarence. There is his accidental friend, Phil, Contemporary Studies professor. Phil will be at the university, working. Phil will be all right. There is his mother, Madeline, in Sunny Shadows, Clarence's retirement community. She will be there, in her apartment. They will have procedures for this sort of thing. They have people in charge. Fire exits, tornado cellars, bottled water and canned food. Mother will be all right. There is Sophie, shrinking, withering, here. Sophie has only him.

The manager fingers his tie nervously. He whispers to the cafe worker, Lilith, who begins to cut up scones and muffins from the cafe. The radio blares on.

There has been a fire at the Harris Jones pharmaceutical factory. Barrels of chemicals have exploded. There has been a deletrium leak, repeat, deletrium leak. Possible harmful exposure. Chemical spill. Stay inside and await further instructions.

"What the bloody fuck is deletrium?" a bookseller mutters. The manager glares at her. But nobody minds. Everyone shares the sentiment.

Sophie says in a small voice, "My dad will know. He's a professor. Don't you know, Dad?"

Heads turn. Bennie blushes and shakes his head. Sophie looks down at the table. Bennie grabs her hand.

Susannah Korbet sits in the cafe tugging at her brown ringlets, absorbing other people's panic, and thinking about her fiance, Todd. Todd will be working at the school lab. Todd wouldn't leave anyway. Todd may not even hear the sirens. But Todd would know what deletrium is. Todd would know exactly what this does. Todd would look it up on his computer, print out fact sheets, conduct his own experiments. Todd would have multicolored easy-to-read charts printed up. Todd would stand in the center of the room humbly stating his graduate student credentials and would make a presentation that would both soothe and edify. Half the girls in the room would develop a crush on him. The men would cede the title of alpha male without complaint.

There was a time when Susannah would think about this with pride. Now she feels nothing but blame. If something happens, it is because Todd brought her here. If something happens, he will probably be immune.

Before the sirens, Susannah Korbet sat in the bookstore cafe twirling her masses of curls in her fingers, trying to discern any differences between the mural on the wall here and the one in the D&D cafe by her home one thousand miles away. She thought she could almost be there. If you added diversity, urbanity, and fashion sense to this small-town bookstore crowd, Susannah could have pretended she was back home.

Now, sirens blaring, things become more urgent for her. If she closes her eyes and concentrates on the mural, she could be transported back to that D&D. Holes in the stores should open up, and she should be able to move through them effortlessly, one to another in a blink and a click of the heels. Away from sirens and away from Clarence.

The radio continues to proclaim, the manager continues to smile, and everyone's thoughts continue to run on the same current: Is this the moment when everything changes? Will my life thus far be thought of as Before the Spill? Ah yes, that was Clarence, Before Spill. You're referring to Clarence, B.S.? Will we be those people, those people on the news and on miniseries who lose all of life as they know it? Will our children have six heads and bad dispositions? Are we living a disaster movie? Where is the ominous music? Where are the heartfelt declarations? There must be more than the radio, pieces of currant scones, and these billowy yellow men.

A dozen lives flash before a dozen pairs of eyes, and the reckoning begins: Nothing. I've done nothing. I am nothing. I am a waste. It has all been wasted. I could have done so much. I would have done it all differently. Now I become a cancerous blob with a tail and too many toes, a living hideous monument to failure and regret.

But our heroes do not reckon. Reckoning is for people whose lives have motion. Susannah Korbet and Bennie Singer look at their lives at the same moment and find that they feel nothing.

Of course, they look at the present. They stalwartly refuse to awaken what lies in memory.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 17 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2011

    ONE WORD: (

    This book takes a good idea and bashes it to the ground. Like that movie, in time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2007

    A long slow read...

    I kept waiting for the storyline to get better but, it never did - this book is a huge downer - if all at once one could remember every event, every emotion ever experienced and not one person in an entire community has anything positive to relive? share? This could bring a town to its knees 'thanks to a local spill' and there is nothing from each life worth reliving full throttle? A very sad depressing read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2006


    This book is too slow to engage the reader. I never got hooked and never came to care about the characters. There are no transitions from one thought to another, so it is really disjointed. I finished because I finish every book I start, but it was not easy or fun.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2005

    A horrible 1st novel

    This book is written poorly and the entire 270+ pages can be summed up in 1 sentence. A chemical spill makes people remember lots of stuff, they remember sad things, then the chemical effects wear off, they get better and live happily ever after. After 50 pages in I wasn't even close to being hooked, after a total of 150 pages in I wanted to give up but had read so much I kept going, at page 230 the most ridiculous thing happened that made me so made that I skimmed the rest of the 50 pages left. All in all this book is horrible. There is no plot. There is no action. The book moves incredibly slow.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2003


    After reading the online reviews, I was so excited to read this book; however, I am about halfway through it and I don't think I'm going to make it through the last half. While I think the author has a beautiful writing style, there is way too much narrative for me. I like a little bit of dialogue in my fiction. The book also skips around a great deal--one minute you're reading about the present, and the very next you're reading about the character's past or dreams. It's not always easy to keep it straight. Sorry, but it's doing nothing for me.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2013


    Thats funny how the bad comments are at the top but shen you go down more there a good comments about the book. Lol. One star never read the book never will

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2013


    My mom is good friends with Anne Ursu's brother. Its really rude to sat bad stuff about these books on here. They are able to go onto the Barnes and Noble website and check out what comments they have gotten on their books! Imagine if you just wrote a book and it was selling on e readers. And you were really proud of yourself. You look on the website and see a bunch of comments trash talking your book. You would be bummed.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2003

    Wonderfully moving

    Ms. Ursu does an amazing job of crafting a story about the after effects on small town inhabitants after a pharmaceutical factory's explosion and subsequent spill. The circumstances which follow are profound and heartbreaking. A beautifully written novel centered among memorable salt-of-the-earth characters.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2003

    Wonderful Book!

    I could not put this book down. I had to know what was going to happen to Zana and Todd, Bennie and Sophia. Ursu makes you really think about what you may have or be taking for granted. Excellent read. I am a fan!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2002

    WOW, what a story!

    I couldn't put it down, and i didn't want it to end. I paused for a day at the final pages just to make it last. Ursu creates characters of amazing depth and originality. She crafts a place that is at once unique and familiar. It's a completely spellbinding and magical read. You do not want to miss this.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2002

    Can't believe this is a first novel...

    I picked this book up yesterday based on its review in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I haven't put it down since then. Awesome. As its review stated, Anne Ursu does not try to show you just how brilliant and uniquely sensitive she is; instead, her images, insights, and instincts are natural and inviting. If I were the King of the World, all first novelists would have to read Anne Ursu first!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2001

    You'll wish every book you read this year is as good as this one!

    SPILLING CLARENCE is a wonderful story -- a story that comes from an intriguing (and timely) idea and is told in the many voices of the citizens of Clarence, MN. A story about people facing a world they no longer understand, but must embrace because it is the only world they know. But to only speak of the story is to miss the wonderful wit and wisdom of this book. Rarely is a first novelist so lucid with her prose -- slying picking at the weak spots of the human condition, but creating a world with such care and compassion that you can't help but wanting to be a part of Clarence, if only for a short while. I can't say enough how much I enjoyed this book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2001

    Caring and joy in the face of human sorrow

    A wonderful novel for the first post September 11 holiday season. What can speak to us now in the midst of our continuing trauma and sadness? By offering us a careful blend of human sorrow, resilience, joy, and redemption. Spilling Clarence offers a perspective on what is meaningful in life that is rooted in the tradition of Dicken¿s Christmas Carol and Capra¿s It¿s a Wonderful Life. Displaying a breathtaking grasp of language, character, nuance, a delightful sense of humor, and a unique, modern voice, Ursu delivers a hopeful message about the ascendance of love, caring, and joy in the face of inevitable human sorrow. Spilling Clarence is a great read ¿ booklover¿s book and a gift for the season.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2001

    Discover Anne Ursu

    This book is quirky and moving--a great combination. It is also very funny. This is also somehow a sort of tonic for the dark days we live in, but it's not escapism either.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2001

    Totally original wit

    This book is so funny--sometimes laugh-out-loud, sometimes intelligently understated--but the humor is sustained. The humor never comes off as an ironic defense mechanism of the author; that is, it is never a sort of detached, almost meanspirited, irony that I've seen a number of lesser new writers use. That is the impressive thing about Anne Ursu, she has an amazing wit, but with heart. She is like David Sedaris in this way--as funny as both are, they show love and respect for their subjects.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2001

    Entirely Original Premise, Richly Drawn Characters

    When an accident at a pharmaceutical plant envelopes the small town of Clarence, Minnesota, in a cloud of brain stimulants,a funny and heartbreaking series of events follow. Three generations of Clarencites cope with near total recall. While it may sound like a pleasant bit of nostalgia, remembering each and every detail of your own past - with the same emotional instensity that you felt at the time - can make the present unbearable. What Ursu has done is create a wholly original and thought-provoking premise that calls into question the reliability of what we think we know to be true and the role that memory plays in shaping our present-day lives. This funny, touching debut is peopled with all-too human characters doing their best to move forward when their own pasts are staring them straight in the eye. Highly recommended.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2001

    Evocative and brilliantly written

    A spellbinding story about a wonderful cast of characters who, because of a mysterious chemical leakage, are given the 'gift' (or the curse) of remembering everything--the loves we'd all like to remember every second of, and the losses we'd all love to forget. The book examines the way memory can shape a life, and it's written in pitch-perfect prose, with characters that still haunt me. Witty, wise, heartbreaking, brilliant. What a talent!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)