Suburbanistasby Pamela Redmond Satran
Greetings from New Jersey
Stella Powers is an A-list movie star who has just landed an Oscar-worthy role and a hot new rock-star husband when her mother's death/i>/b>/b>/i>/i>
From the acclaimed author of Younger and Babes in Captivity, a funny and moving novel about friendship, fame, and the fight for one suburb's future!
Greetings from New Jersey
Stella Powers is an A-list movie star who has just landed an Oscar-worthy role and a hot new rock-star husband when her mother's death brings her world tumbling down. Floundering as her life becomes one tabloid horror after another, Stella finds herself stuck in the New Jersey suburb she fled twenty years ago. But Homewood is no longer the sleepy town she remembers: housing prices are skyrocketing and glitzy new stores -- and people -- are moving in. To Stella and her young daughter, this is good news.
Wish you weren't here.
The bad news: Stella's childhood best friend, Mary Jean, who married Stella's old boyfriend and raised four kids in Homewood, can no longer afford to live there. Mary Jean is determined to wrest back the town but needs Stella on her side. The stakes for both women are high, but how can these old friends reconnect after so much time has passed? Or more importantly, how can they not?
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Read an Excerpt
Stella Powers slumped in the backseat of the limo, her eyes squeezed shut in exhaustion. The midsummer sun had finally set on this endless day, which had started thirteen hours and 3,000 miles ago in L.A., and still six-year-old Idaho was bouncing in her seat and chattering.
"Are we almost there yet, Mommy? I think I can see Grandma's house just over the hill. Is that it? Is it, Mommy?"
With considerable effort, Stella lifted her eyelids to half-mast. She had felt the limo turn off the Garden State Parkway onto local streets, but it didn't look like they were in Homewood. There was a Williams-Sonoma, a Gap, a Banana Republic, not the kind of stores that populated Stella's poky little hometown. The driver must be cutting through some other, far posher place.
"A little farther, sweetie," Stella said, closing her eyes again.
"I see a Cold Stone Creamery!" cried Idaho. "Can we stop, Mommy? Can we?"
"Grandma's waiting for us," said Stella, pressing her thumb into the spot where her head was starting to throb. "Now sssssh. Mommy needs a tiny break."
At this rate, Stella was going to be exhausted when the shoot started Monday morning, not rested as she had planned. She knew she should have brought Greta along, but her mother would have considered it scandalously indulgent, not to mention wasteful, to fly a nanny clear across the country to take care of a child whose mother and grandmother would be right there the whole time. And the truth was, there really wasn't room in her mother's little house for all of them. Besides, Stella wanted a chance to tell her mother all about Eddie without worrying that Greta was listening.
"There's the pizza place!" Idaho squealed. "The one you likeded when you were a little girl like me, Mommy! Ve- Ve- Ve-..."
"Vesuvio?" said Stella, coming to attention and peering out the window.
Sure enough, there was Vesuvio's neon volcano, spewing hot pink lava onto the dark sidewalk of Broad Street.
"Damn," said Stella, sitting up taller and looking around. "This is Homewood."
Vesuvio's looked exactly as it had when she and Mary Jean used to go there nearly every day after school in junior high, when Pete kissed her in the pink glow of the doorway for the very first time. But almost everything around it was different, the mall stores and the fancy little boutiques and the Thai restaurants.
Had it been so long since she'd been to Homewood? She'd persuaded her mother to come out to California for Christmas, and had taken her to the Bahamas before that, and before that had been their big trip to Ireland. So it had been at least a year since she'd been here, and then it had only been for her usual quick visit, and she'd spent all her time closeted in her mother's house. As much as she would have loved going down to Vesuvio for a slice or to Cozy Corner for a milkshake, it wasn't worth getting ogled and asked for her autograph a dozen times.
"Turn right here," Stella told the driver, as they reached the corner of the block where she'd grown up.
"This is Grandma's street!" Idaho said excitedly, out of her seat now, her face pressed against the darkened glass of the limo's rear window. "It looks exactly the same!"
Indeed, Stella was relieved to see, her mother's street, at least in the dark, looked exactly as it always had, the small two-story shingled houses hunched close together beneath the towering trees, so full and lush after the relative scrubbiness of California. Her mother's house, painted white as always, glowed like a moon beyond the curve on the right, the climbing bloodred rose vine her mother had been cultivating for nearly forty years covering its lower half like knobby splayed fingers.
"It's so beautiful," Idaho breathed.
To Idaho, New Jersey was the fantasy place, fresh from the television screen. Idaho seemed to feel that this was where she really belonged, whereas Stella had always felt just the opposite, that she was meant for someplace much grander and more glamorous.
But now, as the car glided to a stop in front of her mother's house, the house where Stella grew up, she felt herself getting excited. The porch light was on, as it always was when Stella was out past dark, and as soon as Stella and Idaho stepped out of the car, her mother came out of the front door and hurried down the walk to meet them.
For so long, Stella's mother had seemed to stay the same indeterminate middle age -- not young but, with her tiny figure and quick movements, certainly not old. But in the last few years, she had crossed some line, so that now Stella was always surprised to see that her mother had become an old lady, her white hair thinning, her blue eyes large and watery and vague behind her thick lenses. She was still thin, and there was still a good amount of energy in her step, but her shoulders had curled over and her hands were knotted and weak against Stella's back when Stella bent down for an embrace.
"Don't tell me this big beautiful girl is Idaho," Stella's mother said, setting off giggles in the little girl. "Why, you're practically a teenager."
"I'm six," Idaho said, grinning to show the gap where, until recently, her two front teeth had been.
Stella's mom looked over her granddaughter's head to the limousine, where the driver was struggling with Stella's huge suitcase.
"Eddie," said Stella. "He wanted to be here, but he's been in the recording studio day and night with his band. We decided Idaho and I should come on our own."
"I thought I was going to get a chance to meet him finally."
"I know, Mom, he's looking forward to meeting you too. But he couldn't get away right now, and I wanted to grab the chance to see you before I start the new film. After what I went through to get this role, I can't miss even an hour on the set."
Across the street, where old Mrs. Jackson used to live with her seedy bachelor son, a young woman stepped outside and stared across at them. Stella now noticed that, a few doors down, two teenage girls were standing on the sidewalk, looking their way. Homewood's downtown may have gotten spiffed up, but seeing a movie star was still a major event.
"Come on," Stella said, taking her mother's arm and her daughter's hand. "Let's go inside."
Compared with California, where the nights always turned cool no matter how warm the days, the New Jersey evening felt hot and muggy, and even hotter once they stepped inside the cramped house. Her mother had not, apparently, spent the money Stella sent that spring for her to install central air-conditioning. Then Stella breathed in, and instantly it was evident why the house was so warm.
"Oh, Ma," Stella said, savoring the delicious aroma, her mouth watering even though, five minutes before, she hadn't felt the least bit hungry. "I can't believe you made a pot roast."
Idaho raced past both of them and tore gleefully upstairs to what Stella knew was her favorite spot in the house, the bedroom where Stella herself had slept as a child, with its same white twin beds and pink nylon flounced bedspreads that Stella had picked out when she was nine. All her old books were still on the shelves, her stuffed animals and dolls lined up at the foot of both beds. On her odd visits, she slept in this room with Idaho, with the little girl insisting on claiming the bed that had been Stella's own, and Stella taking the guest bed, which they'd always referred to as Mary Jean's.
"I thought we were having company," her mother said stiffly.
This might be the way other mothers behaved -- angry, passive-aggressive -- but not Stella's mother. Josephine Powers, a nice Irish Catholic girl from Queens who worked as a secretary, had gotten knocked up at forty by her married boss and been kicked out of the house by her shamed parents. Giddy with freedom, she used the money the boss gave her to buy a house in Homewood, even in the sixties known as a place that welcomed less conventional parents and their children: interracial couples, rich blacks, divorcees, blended families before the term had been invented. "You were the best thing that ever happened to me," Josephine always assured Stella, acting as if her daughter were the sun and the moon, never screaming or criticizing or demanding like so many other parents.
And so Stella had trouble believing that she was doing it now. If anything, when her mother disapproved of something Stella did, she'd make one cutting remark and then drop the issue. But Josephine was still glaring her way.
"Mom," Stella said, lowering her voice and crossing the room to where her mother hovered on the threshold to the kitchen, taking both her mother's hands. "I want to explain about me and Eddie."
"Oh, no," her mother said, pulling her hands away. "You don't have to explain."
"No, I do. I'm sorry that we got married in Vegas that way, without inviting you or even telling you. It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing."
"You don't have to report to me on your actions. You never have."
"Oh, come on, Mom. It isn't like I was trying to hide anything from you. I called you five minutes afterward."
Idaho's footsteps sounded on the stairs, which seemed to be Josephine's cue to swivel and disappear into the kitchen. A moment later, the electric mixer roared to life -- the potatoes were being whipped, with hot milk and melting butter and plenty of salt, the way they had been nearly every night of Stella's childhood.
"Ma!" Stella called over the whine of the mixer. "Won't you please let me do that?"
"You can set the table," came her mother's voice, still with an edge to it, from the kitchen.
Without a word, Idaho scurried to the china cupboard in the dining room and dropped to the floor, tugging at the humidity-swollen drawer until it burst open, emitting the sweetish woody smell Stella remembered from childhood. The little girl pulled out place mats and napkins, while Stella took the good dishes from behind the glass doors. Her visits were the only time her mother used the good dishes anymore.
She really did not want her mother to be mad at her. She couldn't stand it. It happened so infrequently, she could recount every single instance of her mother's anger: the time she and Mary Jean jumped from the roof of Mrs. Atanasio's garden shed, the night of the infamous pot bust that marked the end of her long romance with Pete, the day she called from Los Angeles to tell her mother she'd run away to become a movie star.
And even then, after ten minutes of fury, her mother had reverted to being loving and supportive, offering to wire money and urging the seventeen-year-old Stella to audition for only the best parts.
"Don't waste your time going out for toilet paper commercials," her mother had counseled. "Being an actress is too hard to blow your talents on that."
Now her mother appeared in the dining room, bearing the old white chipped platter with the pot roast sliced thinly and arrayed across it, ringed with caramelized carrots and covered with a river of gravy. Stella rushed to clear a place on the table for the big platter, and then sprinted into the kitchen to retrieve the bowl of steaming potatoes, the butter melting in a little crater atop the fluffy white mountain. This meal was a Hollywood trainer's nightmare -- there were more fat and carb grams here than she was supposed to eat in an entire month -- but that was exactly what made it so fantastic. Mashed potatoes were the new cocaine.
Once a year in L.A., usually when the rains came and nothing seemed right with her world, Stella was roused to attempt making a pot roast of her own. She'd call her mother each time and ask to be walked through every step of the process, from what cut of meat to buy to which kind of oil to use for the browning to how much water to put in the pot. "Oh, not enough to cover it," her mother would say. How many onions? "A couple." How long do I cook it? "Till it's done."
Not surprisingly, Stella's pot roast never tasted half as good as her mother's. Now, she piled her plate high and gobbled the ambrosial meat and vegetables, thinking of nothing else, not even the fight that had started, until she noticed that her mother was sitting there, picking at her food.
"Aren't you hungry, Ma?" Stella asked.
"I'm fine," said her mother, propelling a carrot into the wall of her potatoes. "I'm just not used to eating so late."
"I wish you wouldn't have waited. We could have done this tomorrow night."
"Are you staying tomorrow night?" her mother asked, peering at her over the steel rims of her thick glasses.
"Yes, of course," Stella assured her. "We don't have to leave until late on Sunday. I start filming Monday morning."
"Mommy is not going to be the mommy in the movie," Idaho said.
They'd offered her the role of the mother first. At thirty-nine, she was asked to play the mother of a female character who was supposed to be a grown-up. That would have been as good as tolling the bell for Stella's career, at least as a lead actress. Once you crossed over to playing the mother to some young hottie, you might as well move back to Kansas. Or New Jersey.
"I think this is the role, Mom," Stella said, relieved that they were on to a new topic. "The one I've been waiting for all these years."
She'd convinced them to give her the lead by showing up in the director's office dressed like the younger character, her lines already memorized. The director hadn't even recognized her at first, and then had been won over by the acting skill and enterprise she'd brought to what wasn't even an official audition. Even he had said he thought this would finally get her a nomination.
"It's just one of those women's parts that don't come along that often," Stella said. "The character is this strong woman who's engaged in a struggle between the welfare of the town where she grew up and her own ambitions."
"And she's pretty, too," Idaho piped up.
Stella smiled. "Yes, she's pretty, but also deep. I think until now, I was too young to do justice to a character like this." She laughed ruefully. "And now that I'm ready, they thought I was too old."
As her fortieth birthday approached, it seemed as if the entire industry, including her own agent, was giving her up for dead. He'd left her on her own to fight for the movie role she'd landed, though he'd been happy enough to collect his 15 percent. If she got nominated for her performance, she decided, the first thing she was going to do was find a better agent.
"Hmm," her mother said.
Stella cleared her throat. Her mother could usually be counted on to be interested in all the ups and downs of her career, but now she just sat there with her lips pressed together, a faraway look in her eyes.
She must be even more upset about the Eddie thing than Stella had guessed. Stella shot a glance at Idaho, who was crusting her potatoes with salt. It wouldn't do to reopen the Eddie discussion in front of the little girl, who'd barely calmed down herself about him moving into their lives.
"So, what's up with Mary Jean these days?" Stella asked, deciding the best tack would be to change the subject for now.
"She's busy with her children, I suppose. They say Pete might be the next police chief."
That seemed so laughable and so perfect at the same time. Pete Wright, her first bad-boy boyfriend, introducing her to cigarettes in seventh grade, to making out in eighth, to pot in ninth, and to sex in tenth. Pete Wright, whose entire life seemed constructed to stick it to his own father, who himself had been the police chief. And then one little threatened marijuana bust junior year -- Stella had been the one to get caught, while Pete fled into the woods -- had been enough to scare him straight. Poor Mary Jean, married to a man who'd started out as James Dean and ended up as Dudley Do-Right.
Although he'd aged well, Stella had to hand him that, judging from the pictures from the Homewood Herald that her mother had sent her over the years. He looked like a virtuous cop from central casting, with his neatly combed blond hair, his broad shoulders and long limbs in his sharply creased uniform -- like a Ken doll with a touch of goofiness that was endearing because it made him seem more human.
"How many kids do he and Mary Jean have now?" Stella asked. "Six? Seven?" In her mind, Pete and Mary Jean's kids were like rats, twining in and out of their parents' legs in ever-multiplying numbers.
"I think it's four," said her mother. "She had the three big ones, and then she had a late one, a little boy, who must be about Idaho's age."
"Can I play with him?" asked Idaho.
"We don't really know them anymore," said Stella. "Now eat all those potatoes you put on your plate."
In L.A., she never heard her mother's voice in her own, never identified herself with her mother, feeling instead with Idaho like some together but still cool babysitter, without the heavy lifting. She had a real babysitter, Greta, for that. But here, especially here, the parallels became powerful: the single mother and the only little girl, the nonexistent father and the mom carrying all the responsibility on her shoulders.
Stella wanted to be the same kind of mother to her daughter as her own mother had been, though Idaho was already a bafflingly different child from Stella herself. Retiring where Stella had been bold, plain (it had to be said) where Stella had been arrestingly beautiful, even at Idaho's age, with her black hair and turquoise eyes and creamy skin and torso so narrow and elegant people always wondered if she was a dancer, Idaho seemed to need a more tender brand of care.
Now, for instance, following Stella's instruction to eat her potatoes, Idaho's eyes began welling up and she hung her little head, her wren-brown hair dangling straight into the potatoes, her lower lip swelling in defeat.
It had been a long day, and time difference or no, it was going on eleven at night and Idaho should be in bed.
"Never mind," Stella said hurriedly, getting up from her place, silently thanking her daughter for saving her from the hundreds of calories she'd undoubtedly have consumed if she kept sitting there. "It's time for little girls to go to sleep."
Her mother stood when she did, and started clearing the table.
"Leave the dishes, Mom," Stella said, lifting Idaho into her arms. "I'll do them when I get down."
Her mother hesitated.
"Really, Mom. I'll be down soon. We need to talk anyway."
"We certainly do," said her mother, turning away again and retreating to the TV room.
As Stella carried her daughter upstairs, as she helped the little girl retrieve her nightgown from her Barbie suitcase, as she worked her daughter's T-shirt over her head and slipped the nightgown on and smoothed back her stick-straight bangs and kissed her hot, damp forehead, all Stella could think about was her mother's anger. She was desperate to figure out what she could say or do to make her mother stop being so annoyed and be her usual sweet and supportive self.
But at the same time, Stella was angry that her mother was insisting on being angry. Eddie's not being here, them getting secretly married -- all that was so much spilt milk. She had so little time to spend with her mother, she resented having to waste any of it on these pointless arguments.
She listened, half expecting to hear her mother cleaning up despite her strict orders not to, but all was silent downstairs. Interpreting this as yet more evidence of the intensity of her mother's anger, Stella blew on Idaho's neck to cool her off, singing a few lines of a lullaby and then leaning in to kiss the child, relieved to hear the little girl's breath already rhythmic and slowing into sleep.
Coming down the stairs, she saw the dishes right where they'd left them on the table. Her mother was sitting on the couch in the sunroom, staring at the dark, silent television, her hands palm up beside her on the sofa, her knees slightly apart in the way of old ladies in cartoons.
"Mom?" said Stella. "Are you okay?"
Her mother started, as if she was surprised to hear Stella's voice.
"What? Oh, oh yes. It's just the food was so heavy."
"But you hardly ate anything."
"I was nibbling before you came. I have a touch of indigestion."
Stella hesitated. "Can I get you something?"
She'd been lucky, she knew, that her mother had been mostly healthy all these years, had never really needed anything despite Stella's willingness, eagerness even, to give. Stella paid for her mother to visit the best cardiologist in New York to stay on top of her lifelong arrhythmia, tried to hire cleaning people and handymen to help manage the house. But while Josephine consented grudgingly to see the doctor, she refused all offers of outside help with the housework, just as she kept the cashmere sweaters and copper pots and down-filled comforters Stella sent stowed away in their original wrapping. With bigger things, the air-conditioning was typical: Stella would send money for her mother to paint the house or buy a new car or install air-conditioning, and her mother would leave everything exactly as it was. And when Stella asked what became of the money, Stella's mother would only say that she'd tucked it away for a rainy day, surviving, from the looks of it, on her social security.
"No, no. I'm all right."
Feeling all her own annoyance drain away, Stella crossed the room and sat heavily on the couch beside her mother. She hesitated just another moment before leaning over and resting her head on her mother's thin shoulder.
"Oh, Mommy," she said. "Don't be mad at me."
"I'm worried about you, about your future," Josephine Powers said, pulling back, speaking with more energy than Stella would have guessed her mother would have been able to muster. "Why can't you settle down with a normal man? Someone who can offer you security, a real future? This is round three for you, Stella. You can't afford to make another mistake."
Stella felt as good as slapped. She couldn't remember her mother ever talking to her this way. Ever.
"This is not a mistake, Mom. For once I feel like I married someone for the right reason."
As opposed to the first time, when she married her agent for her career, definitely a wrong reason. And the second time, when she got pregnant and married Idaho's British actor father, figuring that having a baby together might make them fall in love. Instead, marriage made him decide he was definitely gay.
"And what is the right reason?"
Stella stared at her mother, stupefied. Well, she thought, her mother had never been married. She couldn't be expected to know this.
"Love, Mom. The right reason is love."
Just thinking of Eddie now, the way he sang to her after they made love, the pressure of his lips against her neck, made her warm with pleasure. It didn't matter that they'd been together only two months; she'd known he was her sexual soul mate the first time she met him, before she even slept with him, before they'd spent so much as a single evening together.
An odd look stole across her mother's face, as if she'd never heard the word love before. Had Stella said something wrong? Did her mother have something against Stella falling in love, against love in general?
"I know that when you meet him, you'll agree that it was all worth it," Stella said, aware of the pleading tone in her voice. "I know you're going to love him too."
But instead of agreeing or saying something conciliatory, her mother pulled away and lurched to her feet.
"I just don't feel well," her mother said.
And then she staggered to the side.
Stella leaped up from the couch.
"Mom," she said, truly alarmed for the first time. "Mom, come here, sit down."
She tried to put her arms around her mother, who was stepping to the side, veering downward, as if she'd been punched.
Then suddenly she fell, her full weight on Stella, knocking Stella backward onto the couch, where she dropped with her mother heavy, even though she couldn't have weighed more than a hundred pounds, on top of her.
"Mom," Stella said, trying to maneuver her mother into a less awkward position, sitting beside her, or maybe lying down.
What was she doing? Stella was confused, trying to cushion her mother and move the right way, trying to talk to her mother and think about the right thing to do.
"Mom," she said, growing more frantic by the second, feeling her mother grow stiff and unmoving. "Mommy."
Her mother's eyes were closed and her breath seemed to be coming slowly but loudly, her mouth open as if she needed the widest possible passageway to accommodate the necessary air.
"I'll get help," Stella said, lifting her mother's feet onto the sofa. Though she was reluctant to leave her mother's side, even for a second, she rushed to the phone and dialed 911.
In her panic, she flashed on the night she left home, her mother upstairs asleep while she moved frenzied but determined through the half-lit downstairs. There was the same feeling that night of urgency, of heightened awareness, of how essential it was that everything go right.
And then she was only in the moment, as she described the problem to the emergency operator, as she tried to clear her mother's airway, tried to pump her mother's chest, resorted to holding her mother while she heard the sirens screaming louder and louder, closer and closer, until her house was filled with strangers and a red light pulsed in an unfamiliar rhythm against the living room wall.
It was only later, when she sat stunned and alone in the dark living room after everyone had left, Idaho slumbering on improbably above, that the memory came back to her. It was like that long-ago night, she thought. One minute, her entire world, everything she'd ever known, was as it had always been. And the next minute, it was gone.
Copyright © 2006 by Pamela Redmond Satran
Meet the Author
Pamela Redmond Satran is the author of Younger, Babes in Captivity, and The Man I Should Have Married. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, who is an editor for Reuters, and their three children. The coauthor of the bestselling baby-naming books Beyond Jennifer & Jason, Madison & Montana, and Cool Names, Satran is a regular contributor to Glamour, Good Housekeeping, and Parenting. Visit her website at PamelaRedmondSatran.com.
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Recently married to rock star Eddie Skinner, movie superstar Stella Powers returns home to Homewood, New Jersey with her six years old daughter Idaho to spend time with her mom before starting her next film. Eddie failed to accompany her as he was to busy with a gig. However, Stella is stunned when her mom suddenly dies. The funeral is a farce with reporters and fans trampling on everything and her husband stays in Hollywood grooving with Idaho¿s nanny while Stella grieves. Her best friend in high school Mary Jean Wright helps her escape the mob, whose despicable actions at the funeral were a disgrace.------ As Stella feels guilt and loneliness, she begins seeing developer Henry Sladowski who wants to convert the small sleepy down into an expensive burb for the rich and famous. This will price Mary Jean, her spouse a cop, and their four children out of the town. However, as Stella begins to understand local politics she becomes involved as any place in which her beloved mom could not call home is not for her.----- Stella will learn that you can go home though it takes the death of her beloved mom and a lesson in civics to do so. She is a fine protagonist who nicely keeps the story line in focus. The cast makes for a fine tale as the war between ¿progress¿ and. ¿heritage¿ though perhaps too simplified, is nicely fought in New Jersey.----- Harriet Klausner