Terms of Endearment

Terms of Endearment

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by Larry McMurtry

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In this acclaimed novel that inspired the Academy Award-winning motion picture, Larry McMurtry created two unforgettable characters who won the hearts of readers and moviegoers everywhere: Aurora Greenway and her daughter Emma.

Aurora is the kind of woman who makes the whole world orbit around her, including a string of devoted suitors. Widowed and… See more details below

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In this acclaimed novel that inspired the Academy Award-winning motion picture, Larry McMurtry created two unforgettable characters who won the hearts of readers and moviegoers everywhere: Aurora Greenway and her daughter Emma.

Aurora is the kind of woman who makes the whole world orbit around her, including a string of devoted suitors. Widowed and overprotective of her daughter, Aurora adapts at her own pace until life sends two enormous challenges her way: Emma's hasty marriage and subsequent battle with cancer. Terms of Endearment is the Oscar-winning story of a memorable mother and her feisty daughter and their struggle to find the courage and humor to live through life's hazards -- and to love each other as never before.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The New York Times Very special...very winning...it will make you laugh and cry.

The New Republic A vivid and richly detailed novel about ourselves and those we love.

Newsday McMurtry at his best! He is one of the few male authors who can write convincingly from the woman's point of view.

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Simon & Schuster
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From Chapter 1


"The success of a marriage invariably depends on the woman," Mrs. Greenway said.

"It does not," Emma said, not looking up. She was sitting in the middle of her living-room floor sorting a large pile of laundry.

"It most certainly does," Mrs. Greenway said, assuming a stern expression. She tightened her lips and narrowed her brows. Emma was letting herself go again -- a breach of standards -- and she had always endeavored to meet ally breach of standards with a stern expression, if only briefly.

Sternness, she knew, did not become her -- at least it didn't entirely become her -- and Aurora Greenway, as she herself knew quite well, was not one to do the unbecoming -- not unless it was a matter of strictest duty. Yet strange as it sometimes seemed-to both of them -- Emma was her daughter, and her behavior was a matter of strictest duty.

Aurora's face was more plump than not, and despite forty-nine years that seemed to her to have consisted largely of irritations and disappointments, she still almost always managed to look pleased with herself. The facial muscles necessary to a display of true sternness were called into play so seldom that they were somewhat reluctant to stir, but nonetheless, when the need arose, she could be for short periods extremely stern. Her forehead was high, her cheekbones strong, and her blue eyes -- usually so dreamy and, Emma would have thought, vacantly complacent -- were capable of sudden angry fires.

In this case, she felt that only a little narrowing of the brows would be necessary.

"I don't believe there's a decent garment in that whole pile of laundry," she said, with her own lightay?" Emma said, poking in the clothes pile. As usual, several socks had failed to mate.

"Raather vexed," Aurora repeated, on the chance that there was something wrong with her daughter's ears. She had put the full weight of Boston behind her "raather," and was not disposed to have it ignored. Emma, who possessed -- among other unladylike qualities -- an annoying interest in precision, would have insisted that it was only the full weight of New Haven, but quibbles of that sort cut no ice with Aurora. Boston was hers to employ, and the full weight of it was meant to strike thunder. Had they been in Boston, or perhaps even New Haven -- any place where life could be kept in hand -- no doubt it would have; but the two of them, mother and daughter, were in Emma's hot, muggy oversmall living room in Houston, Texas, where the full weight of Boston seemed to strike nothing at all. Emma went on distractedly counting socks.

"You're letting yourself go again," Aurora said. "You're not taking pains with your appearance. Why won't you diet?"

"Eating makes me less frustrated," Emma said. "Why won't you stop buying clothes? You're the only person I know who has seventy-five of everything."

"The women of our family have always prided themselves on their dress," Aurora said. "All except you, at least. I am not a seamstress. I do not propose to sew."

"I know you don't," Emma said. She herself was wearing jeans and one of her husband's T-shirts.

"That garment you have on top of you is so disgusting I scarcely know how to refer to it," Aurora said. "It belongs on a pickaninny, not on a daughter of mine. Of course I buy clothes. The selection of a tasteful wardrobe is a duty, not a pastime."

With that , Aurora lifted her chin. When justifying herself to her daughter she often liked to assume a touch of majesty. Emma was seldom impressed, and the look on her face at that moment smacked of defiance.

"Seventy-five tasteful wardrobes is a pastime," Emma said. "I reserve judgment about the tasteful part too. Anyway, what happened about your female problem?"

"Stop it! Don't talk about it!" Aurora said. In her indignation she not only sat up but attempted an outraged flounce, causing the old couch to creak loudly. It was not merely the moral weight of Boston that she embodied.

"All right!" Emma said. "Good God! You told me you were going to the doctor. I just asked. You don't have to break the couch."

"You needn't have mentioned it," Aurora said, genuinely upset. Her lower lip was trembling. She was not ordinarily a prudish woman, but lately all mention of sex upset her; it made her feel that her whole life was wrong, and she didn't like to feel that way.

"You're absolutely ridiculous," Emma said. "Why do you have to be so touchy? Shall we correspond about it?"

"I am not ill, if you must know," Aurora said. "Not ill in the least." She held out her glass. "However, I should like some more iced tea."

Emma sighed, took the glass, got up, and left the room. Aurora lay back down, almost depressed. She had her strong days and her weak days, and she had begun to feel a weak day coming on. Emma had not anticipated her wants in any way -- why were children so incapable of keeping their minds on parents? She was in the mood for a fit of despond, but her daughter, determined to thwart her at every turn, came back immediately with a glass of iced tea. She had stuck a sprig of mint in the glass and, pe rhaps as a gesture of contrition, had brought a little dish of sassafras candy -- one of the several candies that her mother particularly enjoyed.

"That's sweet," Aurora said, taking a piece.

Emma smiled. Her mother, she knew, had been about to go into a fit -- a lonely-widow, unappreciated-mother fit. The candy had been a brilliant stroke. The week before she had squandered a whole dollar and sixty-eight cents on a variety of it, all of which she had hidden and about half of which she had already eaten herself. Flap, her husband, would not have looked kindly on such an expenditure. He professed strict ideas about tooth decay but would undoubtedly just have spent the money on his own vices, which were beer and paperbacks. Emma was devil-may-care when it came to teeth, and liked to have candy around to stave off fits -- her mother's or her own.

Aurora, her little sinking spell conquered, had already drifted back into happy indolence and was gazing around the living room, hoping to find something new to criticize.

"The reason I brought up the doctor was because I went yesterday myself," Emma said, settling herself on the floor again. "Maybe I've got some good news."

"I hope he's persuaded you to diet," Aurora said. "No one should be so intractable as to reject the advice of their physician. Dr. Ratchford has had long years of experience and except where I am concerned it's been my observation that his advice is invariably good. The sooner you start to diet the happier person you'll be."

"Why do you always make an exception of yourself?" Emma asked.

"Because I know myself best," Aurora said serenely. "I certainly wouldn't allow a physician to know me this well."

"Maybe you've got yourse lf fooled," Emma suggested. The laundry really was depressing. All Flap's shirts were worn out.

"I have not," Aurora said. "I do not permit myself delusions. I never try to whitewash the fact that you married badly."

"Oh, shut up," Emma said. "I married okay. Anyway you just said two minutes ago that the success of a marriage invariably depends on the woman. To use your very words. Maybe I'll make this one a success."

Aurora looked blank. "Now you've made me lose my train of thought," she said.

Emma snickered. "That was thought?" she said.

Aurora took another candy. She looked aloof. Sternness might present problems, but aloofness was her element. Life often required it of her. In gathering after gathering, when her sensibilities were affronted, she had found it necessary to raise her eyebrows and cast a chill. There was little justice. It sometimes seemed to her that if she were remembered at all it would probably only be for the chills she had cast.

"I have often been complimented on the clarity of my expression," she said.

"You didn't let me tell you my good news," Emma said.

"Oh, yes, you've decided to diet, just as I'd hoped," Aurora said. "That is good news."

"Damn it, I didn't go to Dr. Ratchford to talk about dieting," Emma said. "I don't want to diet. I went to find out if I'm pregnant, and it looks like I am. That's what I've been trying to tell you for an hour."

"What!" Aurora said, looking at Emma. Her daughter was smiling, and had said the word "pregnant." Aurora had just taken a sip of iced tea -- she almost choked. "Emma" she yelled. Life had struck again, and just when she was almost comfortable. She sprang up as if jabbed by a pin, but fell back heavily, breaking the saucer and causing her almost empty tea glass to spin around erratically on the rugless floor, like a child's top.

"You're not!" she cried.

"I think so," Emma said. "What's the matter with you?"

"Oh, God," Aurora said, clutching her stomach with both hands.

"What's wrong, Momma?" Emma asked, for her mother looked genuinely stricken.

"Oh, my iced tea jiggled when I fell," Aurora said. "I don't know." Blood was rushing to her head, and she began to hyperventilate. She could only breathe in gasps.

"Of course that's wonderful for you, dear," she said, feeling terrible. It was a shock, it wasn't right -- something was out of order, and she felt confusion closing in on her. Always she fought confusion, yet it seemed to lie in wait for her, no matter where she went.

"Oh, God!" she said, wrenching herself into a sitting position. Her hair, which she had more or less caught in a bun, came completely loose, and she opened the neck of her robe to assure herself more air.

"Momma, stop it, I'm just pregnant," Emma yelled, angered that her mother would indulge herself in a fit after she had been so generous with the sassafras candy.

"Just pregnant!" Aurora cried, confusion turning suddenly to rage. "You...negligent..." But words failed her, and to Emma's intense annoyance she began to smite her forehead with the back of her hand. Aurora had been raised in an era of amateur theatricals and was not without her stock of tragic gestures. She continued to smite her forehead vigorously, as she always did when she was very upset, wincing each time at the pain it gave her hand.

"Stop that," Emma cried, standing up. "Stop smiting your goddamn forehead, Momma! You know I hate that!"

"And I hate y ou," Aurora cried, abandoning all reason. "You're not a thoughtful daughter! You never have been a thoughtful daughter! You never will be a thoughtful daughter!"

"What did I do?" Emma yelled, beginning to cry. "Why can't I be pregnant? I'm married."

Aurora struggled to her feet and faced her daughter, meaning to show her such scorn as she had never seen before, "You may call this marriage but I don't," she yelled. "I call it squalor!"

"We can't help it!" Emma said, "It's all we can afford."

Aurora's lip began to tremble. Scorn got lost -- everything was lost. "Emma, it's not the point...you shouldn't have...it's not the point at all," she said, suddenly on the verge of tears.

"What's the point then?" Emma Said. "Just tell me. I don't know."

"Mee!" Aurora cried, with the last of her fury. "Don't you see? My life is not settled. Me!"

Emma winced, as she always did when her mother cried "Mee!" at the world. The sound was as primitive as a blow. But as her mother's chin be an to shake and pure fury began its mutation into pure tearfulness, she understood a little and put out her arm.

"Who will I ever...get now?" Aurora cried. "What man would want a grandmother? If you could...have waited...then I might have...got somebody."

"Oh, dear," Emma said. "Aw, Momma, stop that." She went on crying herself, but only because she had a sudden fear of laughing. Only her mother did that to her, and always at the most unlikely times. She knew she was the one who ought to feel outraged or hurt -- probably she would when she thought about it. But her mother never had to think; she was just outraged or hurt, immediately, and with a total purity of feeling that Emma had never been able to command. It alw ays happened.

Emma gave up. She let herself be beaten once again. She dried her eyes just as her mother burst into tears. The whole fit was ridiculous, but it didn't matter. The look on her mother's face -- an utter conviction of utter ruin -- was too real. The look might not last five minutes -- seldom did -- but there it was, on a face that Emma felt sure must be the most helplessly human face that she or anyone she knew had ever had to confront. The sight of her mother looking blank with distress had always caused whoever was handy to come rushing up at once with whatever love they had available in them. No one had ever been able to stand to see her mother looking that way, Emma least of all, and only love would change it. She began immediately to make loving sounds, and her mother, as usually, tried to fight her off.

"No, get away," Aurora said. "Fetuses. Ugh. Yick." She recovered her capacity for motion and floundered across the room, waving her hands and making swatting motions, as if she were knocking tiny batlike embryos out of the air. She didn't know what was wrong, but it was a blow at her life. She knew that much.

"See! Now I'll lose all my suitors!" she yelled, turning for a last moment of defiance.

"Now, Momma...now, Momma, it's not that bad," Emma kept saying as she advanced.

When Emma finally cornered her, in the bedroom, Aurora took the only course open to her: she flung herself on the bed, and her light pink garment billowed down after her like a sail falling. She sobbed for five minutes uncontrollably, and for five more with varying degrees of control, while her daughter sat on the bed beside her rubbing her back and telling her over and over again what a dear, wonderful person she was.

"Now, aren't you ashamed of yourself?" Emma asked when her mother finally stopped crying and uncovered her face.

"Not in the least." Mrs. Greenway said, pushing back her hair. "Hand me a mirror."


Emma did, and Aurora sat up and with a cool, unsentimental eye inspected the damage to her face. She rose without a word and disappeared into the bathroom; water ran for some while. When she emerged, a towel around her shoulders, Emma had just finished folding the clothes.

Aurora settled herself on the couch again, mirror in hand. There had been doubtful moments, but her image had somehow struggled back to where she thought it ought to be, and she merely glanced at herself thoughtfully a time or two before turning her gaze upon her daughter. In fact, Aurora felt quite ashamed of her outburst. All her life she had been prone to outbursts, a habit which ran contrary to her preferred view of herself as a rational person. This outburst, considering its cause, or at least its starting point, seemed particularly unworthy of her. Still, she did not propose to apologize until she had considered the matter carefully -- not that her daughter expected an apology. Emma sat quietly by her neatly folded clothes.

"Well, my dear, I must say you've behaved rather independently," Aurora said. "Still, the times being what they are, I suppose I should have expected it."

"Momma, it has nothing to do with the times," Emma said. "You got pregnant, didn't you?"

"Not consciously," Aurora said. "Not with unseemly haste either. You're only twenty-two."

"Now stop it, just stop it," Emma said. "You're not going to lose your suitors."

Aurora's expression was once again a little bemused, once again a little aloof. "I can't imagine why I should care," she said. "All of them are miles beneath me. I'm not at all sure that's why I cried. The shock may have made me jealous, for all I know. I always meant to have more children myself. Is Thomas coming home soon?"

"I want you to call him Flap, please." Emma said. "He doesn't like to be called Thomas."

"Sorry," Aurora said. "I don't like using nicknames, even charming ones, and my son-in-law's is hardly charming. It sounds like part of a loincloth."

Emma gave up again. "He should be here any minute," she said.

"Thomas is not likely to be prompt," Aurora said. "He was late on several occasions while you were engaged." She stood up and picked up her purse.

"I'm leaving at once," she said. "I doubt if you'll mind. Where are my shoes?"

"You didn't wear any," Emma said. "You were barefooted when you came in."

"Remarkable," Aurora said. "They must have been stolen right off my feet. I am hardly the sort to leave my house without shoes."

Emma smiled. "You do it all the time," she said. "It's because all seventy-five pairs of them hurt your feet."

Aurora didn't deign to reply. Her departures, like her moods, were unpremeditated and always quite abrupt. Emma got up and followed her mother out the door, down the steps, and along the driveway. It had come a little summer shower and the grass and flowers were still wet. The lawns up and down the street were a brilliant green.

"Very well, Emma," Aurora said. "If you're going to contradict me I suppose it's a good thing I'm leaving. We should inevitably quarrel. I'm sure you'll find my shoes the minute I'm gone."

"Why didn't you look for them yourself if you're so sure they're there?" Emma sa id.

Aurora looked aloof. Her seven-year-old black Cadillac was parked, as always, several yards from the curb. She had had a lifelong horror of scraping her tires. The Cadillac was old enough, in her view, to pass for a classic antique, and she always paused a moment before she got in, to admire its lines. Emma walked around the car and stood looking at her mother, whose lines, in their way, were also classic. West Main Street, in Houston, was never very busy, and no cars disturbed their silent contemplation.

Aurora got in, adjusted her seat, which never seemed to stay the same distance from the pedals, and managed to insert her key in the ignition, a trick only she could manage. Years before she had been forced to use the key to pry open a screen door, and since then it had been slightly bent. Perhaps by now the ignition was bent too -- in any case Aurora was firmly convinced that the bentness of the key was all that had kept the car from being stolen many times.

She looked out her window and there was Emma standing quietly in the street, as if waiting for something. Aurora felt inclined to be merciless. Her son-in-law was a young man of no promise, and in the two years that she had known him his manners had not improved, nor had his treatment of her daughter. Emma was too poor and too fat and looked awful in his T-shirts, which, had he any respect, he would not have allowed her to wear. Her hair had never been one of her glories, but at the moment it was a distinct stringy mess. Aurora felt inclined to be quite merciless. She paused a moment before putting on her sunglasses.

"Very well, Emma," she said once again. "You needn't stand there expecting congratulations from me. I was not once c onsulted. You have made your bed. You no longer have an open destiny. Besides, you're far too stubborn to be a parent. Had you cared to take me into your confidence a little sooner, I could have told you that. But no, not once did you consult me. You haven't even a proper residence -- that place you live in is just the top of a garage. Infants have enough respiratory problems without having to live with cars beneath them. It isn't likely to do much for your figure either. Children never think of these things. I am still your mother, you know."

"I know, Momma," Emma said, stepping close to the car. To Aurora's surprise she didn't argue, did not defend herself. She merely stood by the car, in the awful T-shirt, looking, for the first time in years, mild and obedient. Emma looked down at her quietly, in the manner of a proper daughter, and Aurora noticed again something she was always forgetting: that her child had the loveliest eyes, green, with lights in them. They were the eyes of her own mother, Amelia Starrett, who had been born in Boston. And she was so young, really, Emma.

Suddenly, to Aurora's terror, life seemed to bolt straight from her grip. Something flung her heart violently, and she felt alone. She no longer felt merciless, she just -- She didn't know, something was gone, nothing was certain, she was older, she had not been granted control, and what would happen? She had no way to see how things would end. In her terror she flung out her arms and caught her daughter. For a moment the only thing she knew was the cheek she was kissing, the girl she was hugging to her; and then, abruptly, her heart settled back and she noticed, quite to her surprise, that she had pulled Emma half through the window of the car.

"Oh, oh," Emma said repeatedly.

"What's wrong?" Aurora asked, releasing her.

"Nothing," Emma said. "I just bumped my head on the car."

"Oh. I wish you weren't so careless, Emma," Aurora said. She had never that she could remember lost so much dignity so quickly, and she scarcely knew what to do to recover it. Ideally she would have driven straight away, but the shock, or whatever it was, had left her shaken. She didn't feel quite up to working the pedals. Even when at her best she sometimes forgot to work them, and did inconvenient things to cars that stopped in her way. Often people shouted at her at such times.

Besides, it was not the moment to drive away. In her panic she felt sure she had given her daughter the upper hand, and she was not disposed to leave until she had it back. She twisted her rearview mirror around until she could see herself in it, and she waited patiently for her features to compose themselves again. It certainly was not turning out to be one of her better days.

Emma watched, rubbing her bumped head. She had gotten her due, more or less, but she could see that her mother had no intention of letting her keep it.

"You don't have to tell your boy friends for a while, you know," she said, "You rarely let me meet them anyway. I could probably have the kid off to prep school before they suspect a thing."

"Humph," Aurora said, combing her hair. "In the first place the child, if there is to be one, will almost certainly be a girl. That's customary in our family. In the second place they are not my boy friends, they are my suitors, and you will please refer to them as such, if you must refer to them at all."

"Whatever you say," Emma said.

A urora had wonderful hair -- it was auburn and abundant, and had always been her daughter's envy. Arranging it invariably left her looking pleased, and soon she looked pleased again. Despite all, she had kept her looks, and looks were a great consolation. She rapped the steering wheel with the back of her comb.

"You see, I told you Thomas would be late," she reminded Emma. "I can't wait any longer. If I don't rush I'll miss my shows."

She elevated her chin several degrees and bestowed upon her daughter a slightly impish grin. "As for you," she said.

"As for me, what?"

"Oh, nothing," Aurora said, "Nothing. You've brought this upon me now. There is nothing more to say. No doubt I'll manage somehow."

"Stop trying to make me feel guilty," Emma said. "I have my rights, and you're no martyr. It's not like the stake and the pyre await you around the corner."

Aurora ignored the remark -- it was her custom to ignore all cleverness of that sort.

"No doubt I'll manage somehow," she said again, in a tone which was meant to indicate that she considered herself absolved of all responsibility for her own future. She was, for the moment, rather cheerful, but she wanted it clearly understood that if anything bad happened to her in what remained of her life the fault must be laid at doorsteps other than her own.

To forestall argument, she started the car. "Well, dear," she said, "at least it may force you to diet. Please oblige me and have something done to your hair. Perhaps you ought to dye it. Honestly, Emma. I think you'd look better bald."

"Leave me alone," Emma said, "I'm resigned to my hair."

"Yes, that's the trouble with you," Aurora said. "You're resigned to far too much. That garment you' re wearing verges on the pathetic. I wish you'd go take it off. I've never allowed myself to be resigned to anything that wasn't delightful, and nothing about your life is delightful that I can see. You must make some changes."

"I think they're being made for me," Emma said.

"Tell Thomas he might be more prompt," Aurora said. "I must sail. My shows won't wait, I hope I don't meet any policemen."


"They look at me wrong," Aurora said. "I really don't know why. I've never hurt one." She took another gratifying look at her coiffure and twisted the mirror more or less back into place.

"I imagine it's that negligent look you cultivate," Emma said.

"Pooh, I'm going. You've delayed me long enough," Aurora said. She dismissed her daughter with an airy wave and peered down the street to see whether any obstructions had been put in her path. A small green foreign car had just chugged past, but that was minor. Probably if she honked loudly enough it would turn into a driveway and let her by. Such cars ought to be driven on sidewalks anyway -- there was little enough room in the streets for American cars.

"Bye, Momma, come again," Emma said, for form's sake.

Aurora didn't hear. She seized the steering wheel commandingly and poked her foot at the appropriate pedal. "Little Aurora," she said fondly as she drove away.

Copyright © 1975, 1989 by Larry McMurtry
Copyright © 1983 by Paramount Pictures Corporation

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
The New York Times Very special...very winning...it will make you laugh and cry.

The New Republic A vivid and richly detailed novel about ourselves and those we love.

Newsday McMurtry at his best! He is one of the few male authors who can write convincingly from the woman's point of view.

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