The Absent Womanby Marlene Lee
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A divorcee mother travels beyond the confines of her life in search of herself. The main character in the novel The Absent Woman, suffering from an unhappy marriage, leaves her family in Seattle and travels north to live alone, study piano with a gifted musician, and discover the significance of one of the rooms she sublets from “the absent woman.” In the small fishing town of Hilliard, Washington, at the edge of Puget Sound, Virginia Johnstone learns to live a life quite different from the one she has been accustomed to. In so doing, she retains her relationship with her sons and solves a personal dilemma.
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The Absent Woman
By Marlene Lee
Holland House BooksCopyright © 2012 Marlene Lee
All rights reserved.
"She collected starfish?"
"Starfish, shells —"
I imagined sour-mud-and-vegetable smells at low water; I didn't want rooms that smelled like a tide pool.
"— and rocks and feathers," he said. "You name it, she collected it." Specimens ascended the old staircase in an unbroken line of flora and fauna.
"Do you want to go up?" he asked, pulling a key from his pocket. He looked well-off, dressed in tailored slacks and cardigan. Not the type to mess about with broken-down Victorian buildings. Probably waiting for a developer. Or maybe he was the developer.
"No. No, thanks," I answered, backing away from the beveled glass door at street level. "It's not what I had in mind."
"Pretty lonely," he admitted as we walked through the vacant lot between the abandoned hotel and the hardware store. In back, a spindly fire escape staggered up the old brick flank. Someone, probably the starfish collector, had hung red curtains at the windows.
"You're not from around here, are you?" he asked.
"And you want to move up here?"
"I'm seriously considering it."
"I like the town. It's — on the edge of something. You know, before you get to the islands."
He laughed politely.
Behind the hotel we pushed through died-back weeds and remnants of a concrete foundation, viewing his tall, narrow, derelict building from all sides.
"You sure you don't want to go inside?" I surveyed once more the aged brick facade, weathered cornices, the rippled glass in the high, old windows.
"I'm sure," I said.
The landlord unlocked his Buick. "What was it you said you were doing up here?" he asked, one foot in the car.
"A three-month project," I said. He looked at me one last time and drove away. I stood for a moment in his exhaust and contemplated the street and my answer, both empty. If only there was a three-month project. And if only the vague dissatisfaction I felt could actually be cured in three months. I needed something to devote myself to. Something that takes a lifetime to work on. A hobby that becomes an obsession. Seashells, rocks, and dried flowers assembled in a scientifically labeled procession up an endless flight of stairs. Great Books. Piano lessons. World peace.
How could I tell people who exclaimed, "Surely you didn't leave your husband and children for a hobby!" that I had a passion to become passionate about something? That I felt buried in deadening comfort? How could I say out loud that marriage and family life bored me?
I bought a paper at the corner tavern and began climbing High Street. At a stoplight, I turned and looked back toward the water. Hilliard sloped uphill from the bay. Below me, rough docks led to commercial fishing boats. Around the curving shoreline, a well -maintained marina served pleasure craft. Above it all, casting an aloof, disinterested shadow over the harbor and town, a mountainous crag patrolled the little world. In Europe there would have been a castle on top, enduring slashing rains, disfiguring fogs, summer heat through the centuries. But here in Hilliard, instead of a castle, were handsome Victorian houses built by sea captains and boat manufacturers in the last century.
The light changed. Three blocks up I stopped at Mom's Restaurant, windows filled with ornamental food that might fade but never rot: wax apples, peppers, eggplant, and plastic grapes that swayed above commemorative plates. My ex-husband and sons would hate this place. Inside, under a doily anchored by a spotted-cow cream pitcher, I found a table. A gray-haired waitress plodded toward me. She smiled tiredly, possibly sapped by so much decoration.
"Coffee and toast," I said. On her next slow pass through the diner I held out my cup.
"Cold today," she observed.
I nodded and studied the cream pitcher. "Is there a trick to this?"
She picked up the cow, sighed, and shot a stream of milk into my coffee. "New In Hilliard?"
She glanced at the paper lying open to the classifieds.
"I may be moving here," I added.
"Where you from?"
She fiddled with her hairnet. "Why would you want to move up here?"
"I've always liked Hilliard" was all I said. "The ferry, the fishing boats, the —"
"You probably need a rest," she offered. "Boy, I know I could use one."
"That's it," I agreed. "I need a rest."CHAPTER 2
"I feel flat," I tried to explain to my friend Jerry the day after I'd seen the old hotel. "I want adventure. I want to accomplish something. I want to live in a fishing village at the edge of the continent. Make mistakes and recover from them. Depend on myself. See what I can do."
Jerry's laugh was without amusement. "No one leaves their husband, their kids, their job because of flatness. That's self-indulgent, Virginia. Adolescent. A luxury most of us cannot afford."
"Well, maybe it's a luxury you don't choose to afford," I replied. We'd been watching the late news at my house, the small 1930s bungalow Ron and I had bought as a rental before the children were born. Jerry spent one night a week with me there, beginning to settle in; I had begun to feel I was merely settling.
He pulled away. "You throw away one blessing after another, don't you?"
I'd never heard him use the word 'blessing'. It clashed with his style: always smooth, always current. The word must have come from a childhood saturated in church attendance. Baptist, maybe. I stood up from the sofa.
"Why did you get married in the first place?"
"I was trying to do all the right things," I flared. "I loved Ron. I thought I was supposed to get married."
"You're a good-looking woman," he continued. "You went to college."
"You're a terrific piano-player. You have two wonderful kids. What is your problem?"
I had no answer.
"Why don't you go back to school or something if you're bored?"
"I went to court reporting school," I said, proud of at least that decision. "I'm a court reporter."
"Maybe you should have gone to law school."
I'd considered it. But I'd been afraid to compete.
"It would have been a better-paid adventure," he added. "A better-paid blessing." He paused and overcame what I saw in his eyes: the wish to hurt me. "Why don't you relax and — enjoy yourself?"
The fight went out of both of us, but there was no rising sap to take its place. There never had been much rising sap between us. After a few more words and ragged silences he went to the closet for his raincoat, stepped out onto the porch, and snapped open his umbrella. A gust of wind spattered the windows. His lean, crisp body, protected from weather by clothing made from lamb's wool and sold through high-end catalogs with addresses in the Pacific Northwest islands, was too perfect. He could have been a male model in one of those catalogs, lounging near a woodburning stove, wearing the perfect flannel shirt. His loafers had tassels. I didn't like those tassels nor the fact that he never forgot his umbrella.
He turned on his heel and walked to the street. As he drove away in his BMW, I stood at the edge of the dark porch and let the rain dampen my hair and face. I didn't mind the rain. I didn't mind that the four-month relationship was over.CHAPTER 3
My sons lived with their father in a drafty Victorian house we'd bought ten years earlier, not far from the university: a house whose high-ceilinged rooms and wainscoted walls had heard little honest talk between Ron and me. Once when the children were eight and nine I expressed a thought I'd always been careful to contain.
"My life is flat," I said to Ron. "I think I was created to do something wonderful, but I'm not doing it."
"Matt and Lawrence and I aren't wonderful enough for you?"
"It's not that. You have your teaching, and the boys don't need me as much as they used to."
"That's what you said before you became a court reporter, Virginia. I agreed to your going back to school. You did it. Now you're a court reporter. Isn't that enough?"
"It's good, but —"
"You bet it's good." Before he stepped into his study he looked me in the eye. "What do you really want, Virginia?" He turned and shut the door behind him. Through the transom I heard the clicking of the computer keyboard.
It wasn't that I wanted to be a dissatisfied person or an emotional hypochondriac. I wanted to be fulfilled by my family and job and I was ashamed of my self-centered ambitions. Ashamed of my longing for something more. Still, the yearning grew like a weed, and the weed put out large, glossy leaves that began to crowd out the smaller, tamer plants Ron and I were tending. We tried to ignore it, tossing there at the edge of the garden, choking out pleasure and blocking the light, as if it had sprouted from a seed dropped by a bad bird. But it would not wither or die back. It grew like a beanstalk.
A year and a half later, I climbed it.
"I have to leave!" I cried on our last night together. "I can't go through the motions anymore!"
He struck the headboard with his fist. "Then go! But the boys stay with me!"
At the top of the beanstalk I reached, not fulfillment, but a world of anxiety.CHAPTER 4
I pulled up in the driveway for my Wednesday-night dinner with the boys, feeling, as always, disoriented when I looked at the steps and sidewalk I'd swept for years. The giant potted jade, still watered regularly, flourished without me.
I set the brake and waited in the car for a moment, trying to pretend I didn't remember the kitchen curtains, the front door latch, the way the daylight touched the boys' faces when I woke them for school.
I stepped up onto the porch and rang the bell. Matt and Lawrence came to the door in their soccer uniforms.
"Did I miss a game?" I asked, digging in my purse for the soccer schedule.
"No. We got our uniforms today," said Matt.
Ron came up behind them. "Out of the uniforms, boys."
"But can't we wear them to dinner?" They turned the question to me.
"You look terrific, but do what your dad says."
The boys went upstairs to change clothes.
"I've got a lecture to finish," Ron said.
"Night class this semester?"
He nodded abruptly and turned toward his study off the hall. The front door remained open. Standing there, surrounded by damp cement smell of porch, it occurred to me it really didn't matter where I lived: I was either in or out of this house. Lights came on in the upstairs bedroom. The boys would be dropping their soccer clothes on the floor about now. A neighbor's dog barked in the dusk. Ron's hedge clippers lay under the Douglas fir; it wasn't like him to leave something out in weather.
An impulse seized me and I stuck my head into the empty hallway. "Can I take all of you to dinner?" It was my night with the children, but who was to say we all couldn't eat together now and then?
"I'm busy," Ron replied from his study.
"Pizza!" shouted Lawrence, running downstairs.
"Hamburgers!" cried Matt from the landing.
"We'll discuss it," I said, edging backwards off the porch. To Ron I called out, "I'll have them back by bedtime." The boys spilled from the house around me, running ahead to the car and plunging in, one in front, one in back. Tonight they didn't fight over who would sit where. But since they couldn't agree on the kind of food they wanted, I decided for them.
"We'll eat at the Mexican restaurant on the Avenue." I ruffled Lawrence's hair and turned to look into the eyes of Matthew a fraction of a second before he glanced away. Lawrence bent toward the console and turned on the radio. While they listened to a rock group, honing their tastes for adolescence, my thoughts drifted back to Hilliard — shoreline, docks, steep rock without castle — and came to rest on an old hotel with starfish-studded steps and bright red curtains at the windows.
"We have to be back in time to watch 'Wonders of Science' with Dad," said Matt.
"Yeah," said Lawrence. "Tonight it's dinosaurs."
"What time does it start?"
"We'll make a point of it." I sounded cheerful, but a pang of loneliness penetrated the thin protection I'd grown since the divorce.
"Tyrannosaurus rex?" I asked. "Remember the library books we read when you were little? Tyrannosaurus rex, stegosaurus, brachiosaurus .. ."
"Those books weren't scientific," Matt said critically.
"The program isn't for kids," Lawrence said.
"Still, I liked the books," I insisted, at the moment unable to remember the pleasure. "The pictures were nice. At the time, you liked them, too."
I drove up and down the steep hills of my former Queen Anne neighborhood while the abandoned hotel insinuated itself into my thoughts. I looked at the clock, the speedometer, the gas gauge, in an effort to be practical. The rock group was screaming "You! You! Yes! You! You!" Even assuming it was a plan, not a daydream, why should I consider a broken-down hotel for a temporary home? At the least, it would draw the contempt of Ron and the kids, and confirm their opinion and my suspicion: something is wrong with Mother.
"We're playing East Hill," Matthew yelled above the radio.
"When is that?" I yelled back.
"Could we turn the music down?" I asked. Lawrence lowered the volume.
"I want to discuss something with you," I said, not planning to say that at all. But why wait till dinner, a stage with a stage setting, forks and knives for props, the table to put the elbows on? "You two know life changes, don't you?" I began awkwardly. "Already you know that, right?"
Stillness and silence from the boys.
"I'm thinking of staying in a town called Hilliard. It's sixty miles north of here," I said. "For a while."
"You're moving?" Lawrence asked, shocked.
"Not for very long. Just three months. I'll still see you twice a week."
"Three months?" Matt said. "Did you tell Dad?"
"Not yet. I want your opinion first."
Matt reached between the bucket seats and turned up the radio. Rock music rolled over us again, urban and distressed. The boys withdrew into themselves, I withdrew into myself, and here we all were, apart and withdrawn on one of our few evenings together. God, I wondered, how long does it take for divorce to be final? Again, in spite of myself, I was climbing the hotel steps cluttered with remnants of nature. Now I wanted to see the rooms upstairs. What else had the starfish woman done besides hang red curtains at the windows?
In front of a sidewalk flower shop I pulled the car over to the curb and turned off the ignition. Blood-red and rust-colored chrysanthemums stood in tubs of water; it was autumn, the short -lived golden season. I rested my left arm on the steering wheel and turned to the boys.
"Since the divorce I don't know how I'm supposed to live." They sat still, embarrassed and curious. "I feel there's something I'm supposed to be doing, but I don't know what it is."
"Like what?" asked Lawrence, fiddling with the radio dial, knowing it wouldn't come on without the ignition.
"I'm not sure. Maybe something hard, or maybe something simple that I haven't paid enough attention to." They looked puzzled. "Maybe a change of scenery will help." I thought of a comparison: "Like Dad's sabbaticals."
"But he teaches college!"
"So? I'm a court reporter!" Irritation felt blissfully ordinary. "If you tell me you don't want me to go, I'll think harder about it."
"If you want to do it, go ahead," said Matt after a long silence.
"Yeah," said Lawrence. "You will, anyway."
At dinner we talked about school, their soccer teams. I asked about the neighborhood kids I'd known from years of carpools and birthday parties. But gradually we stopped talking. On the way home they moved away from me; turned their heads toward the windows of the car; diligently studied the stores along the avenue, the apartment buildings, and finally the turn-of-the-century houses of Queen Anne Hill. When the car stopped in the driveway they gave me a perfunctory kiss and rushed away. Their father was home. He would always be there.
I drove through the dark, hilly streets of Seattle to my small house in Magnolia filled with books and deposition transcripts, the piano, photograph albums of the children and Ron when we had all appeared happy together. And maybe that's what happiness is, I thought wryly as I threw my coat on a chair. If things appear happy, maybe they are.
Excerpted from The Absent Woman by Marlene Lee. Copyright © 2012 Marlene Lee. Excerpted by permission of Holland House Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Marlene Lee has worked as a court reporter, teacher, college instructor, and writer. A graduate of Kansas Wesleyan University (BA), University of Kansas (MA), and Brooklyn College (MFA), she currently tutors in the Writing Center at the University of Missouri. She has published numerous stories, poems, and essays, in the Indiana Review, Descant, Orange County Illustrated, Maverick Press, Autobiography, Calyx, Other Voices, roger: a journal of literature and art and Blue Fifth Review. She won first prize in the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference Novel Contest, and first prize in the University of Kansas Poetry Contest.
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Reviewed by Maria Beltran for Readers' Favorite "The Absent Woman" is the story of a woman's journey to find herself. Virginia Johnstone seems to have it all: a beautiful family, a job and a comfortable life in Seattle. She is, however, bored with her life and the urge to give it a meaning drives her to divorce and to an old hotel in Hilliard, a harbor town. An accomplished piano player, she finds a teacher in Hilliard and things begin to unravel. Twilah Chan drives her piano playing to a new level and her son George becomes Virginia's love interest. At the same time, the story of the absent woman who used to live at the hotel is revealed as Virginia herself feels like the absent woman in her children's lives. Marlene Lee's novel "The Absent Woman" tries to dissect the phenomenon of women who seem to have everything but find out that there is something important that is missing in their lives. This is actually what the title suggests and the book also follows through with this assumption. In simple words and trying not to be prejudicial against men, the author succeeds in exploring the thoughts and emotions of Virginia objectively. She leaves it to the reader to come up with their own ideas and insights. This is the reason why Virginia's story is thought-provoking and interesting. Drawing in part from her own experience, Marlene Lee has been able to paint a portrait of today's women who feel trapped in their marriage and situation. Using her gift for dialogue and description, the author effectively draws her readers to turn the pages of the book and follow Virginia as she tries to look for herself.