The Beginner's Book of Dreams: A Novel

The Beginner's Book of Dreams: A Novel

by Elizabeth Benedict

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This celebrated coming-of-age novel moves from Manhattan during the early days of Mad Men to the swinging, chaotic 1970s: A sensitive girl burdened with her mother’s drinking and long string of husbands becomes a special young woman when her best friend’s family opens her eyes to art

Esme Singer is a resilient girl from LosSee more details below


This celebrated coming-of-age novel moves from Manhattan during the early days of Mad Men to the swinging, chaotic 1970s: A sensitive girl burdened with her mother’s drinking and long string of husbands becomes a special young woman when her best friend’s family opens her eyes to art

Esme Singer is a resilient girl from Los Angeles, new to Manhattan, who takes better care of her beautiful, alcoholic mother than her mother does of her. A former fashion model and extra in the movies, her mother attracts a series of husbands and boyfriends as Esme watches in fascination and sometimes horror. Esme’s father comes and goes, forever riding the wave of the latest get-rich-quick scheme. As Esme becomes a teenager, she turns to her friend Leah’s cultured, exotic family for inspiration and solace—especially Leah’s father, a well-known photographer who encourages Esme to cultivate her gifts. Might art—and a favorite teacher—become the answer to some of her troubles?

Beginner’s Book of Dreams is an insightful, sophisticated, sometimes wickedly funny, always sharp-eyed portrayal of a young woman inventing and discovering her own independent spirit.

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Meet the Author

Elizabeth Benedict is a novelist, essayist, editor, and creative writing teacher. Her novels include the bestseller Almost, the National Book Award finalist Slow Dancing, and her most recent, The Practice of Deceit, which the Boston Globe called “a wickedly funny literary suspense novel.” In the Chicago Tribune, Anne Tyler praised her second novel, The Beginner’s Book of Dreams, for “the world it spreads before us,” which is “complex, fascinating, bewildering, sometimes morbidly funny, always unlaid with pain. The marvel is that such a sad book could be such a joy to read.” Benedict’s essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Rumpus, EsquireAllureHarper’s BazaarSalmagundi, and Dædalus. She is the editor of two anthologies: Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, and the New York Times bestseller What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most.

Benedict has taught creative writing at Princeton, Columbia, Swarthmore, Massachussets Institute of Technology, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She teaches every summer at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore, and works year round as a writing coach and editor.  Learn more about Benedict and her work at and

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The Beginner's Book of Dreams

A Novel

By Elizabeth Benedict


Copyright © 1988 Elizabeth Benedict
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-2229-2


The Packages You Take with You

This is what they will do, she and her mother. They will watch the skaters and then they will pray. From the landing above the rink they will watch the woman in the center of it spin on the point of one skate, the most perfect pirouette, and then they will cross Fifth Avenue and go into St. Patrick's Cathedral and light candles. Then they will cross Fifty- first Street and go to the Prime Burger for medium-rare cheeseburgers and French fries. They will share a chocolate shake.

This is what Georgia and Esme do most Sunday afternoons. Georgia chooses this time of day, long after noon, to avoid the Mass. She is, or was, some sort of Protestant. No one in her family paid much attention to the distinctions, to the houses of worship, the fine points of the holidays. Nor did they put much stock in where they were from. Her father, born in California. His father before him—no one had a clue. Georgia never saw a Jew until she was nineteen, and married one when she was twenty-two, Esme's father, Meyer Singer.

The man Georgia is married to now, Quinn Laughlin, says to her when they are alone, and when she tells the story in front of guests, "How do you know you never saw one?"

"Because there weren't any in Redondo Beach, sweetheart. They were all in L.A." Her voice is unwavering and deep. If she has been drinking, the words are slurred. Sometimes, some nights, the liquor dulls the disgust in her voice. Other times it sharpens it.

This cold Sunday, almost Christmas, Esme stands on tiptoes at the bright red guardrail, looking down at the skaters, looking across to the beautiful tree. Their first Christmas in New York. She holds on to the rail; her pink angora mittens clash with the red. She is fat. Her pale pink tights keep her thighs from chafing and burning when they rub together, as they chafe and burn in the summer, in any damp heat. The woman in the center spins and spins. Another skater tries to imitate her and falls. Children hobble along the side of the ice in their scuffed rented black skates, gripping the guardrail around the rink. She has never seen snow.

She is obedient. She follows rules, instructions, her mother's wishes, her teachers' orders. But here, in the dark of the cathedral, the blues and reds of the stained-glass windows deeper than any she has ever seen, wishes, prayers, dreams, and memories become confused, become one. Georgia hands her a quarter and says, "Light a candle to remember someone you love." Other Sundays she says, "Make a wish," or "Say a prayer."

Today Esme wants everything. She cannot choose. She drops a quarter into the metal box and picks up a thin wooden votive stick. She points the tip into one of the candles that is already lit and then chooses the candle, in its small glass cup, the rows and rows of white lighted candles, that will be hers.

She looks up at Georgia, who is attentively lighting her candle. One Sunday when she looked up, she saw a single tear running down Georgia's cheek. Esme moves her lighted stick across the row and stops at the candle she has picked out. She holds the flame against the wick. She shuts her eyes and remembers someone she loves. Her father. She wishes. That when he comes to New York he will take her skating. That she will not be fat. That her mother will not get drunk again the way she did last week. Falling on her way up the stairs, mumbling to Quinn as he picked her up, "Goddam duplex, deluxe goddam duplex. Hear what I said?"

"Funny, Georgie. I've got you. Let go of the bannister."

Esme holds out her palm. "Can I have another quarter?"

Georgia moves her fingers through the pocket of her wallet. "I'm all out of change, sweetheart."

Quinn is in television, an executive at one of the networks, in charge of advertising, selling thirty-second spots, package deals for sports specials. He gets tickets for Broadway openings, invitations to parties at Sardi's, the Rainbow Grill. "Was a day—" he loves this story, tells it often to guests, many of whom have heard it more than once—"when a guy who took a date to the top of Thirty Rockefeller—when they got off the elevator and he led her to the right—to the Rainbow Room, instead of to the left—the Grill—she knew he was a cheapskate." This year he has been promised tickets to the Kentucky Derby.

Early Sunday evening in the duplex. Quinn mixes a pitcher of Manhattans. Georgia fixes herself a Dewar's and water and offers Dru and Ted Seaver macadamia nuts in a cut- crystal dish. "God, Georgia, you look terrific. Doesn't she look terrific, Ted?"

"Georgia always looks like a million."

"Try this," Quinn says and hands Dru a cocktail glass.

"What else would you drink in Manhattan?" Dru says.

"We moved here so Quinn would have an excuse to make Manhattans," Georgia says. "A better excuse. Cheers." She holds up her glass, from which she has already taken several sips. "I mean, who in the hell would name a drink after L.A.?"

It's true, she always looks like a million. That's exactly the way Quinn had put it the morning they met, in an elevator at CBS in L.A., in 1958. She was being tested for a pilot. She was to be the pretty girl standing at the counter on a cooking show, demonstrating techniques for dicing, mincing, and pulverizing.

She was sometimes mistaken for Lauren Bacall. "Except for the boobs," Georgia would explain, looking down. "Georgie didn't have any until she was nineteen," Quinn once added. "They came with the Jews." They had been very drunk. Out of earshot of the host and hostess a man had murmured to his willowy date, "How long do you give this marriage?"

Tonight in the duplex. They are tall, stunning, recently married. They are introduced around town as "just in from the Coast." It is 1962.

"Quinn, this is super," Dru says, taking another sip. "But your place—" She casts her eyes around the large living room. "Honey, it looks like Halloween. I mean, black walls."

"The decorator's a fag," Quinn says.

"They both are," Georgia says. "Sy and José. Interior Design, Limited. Sy, needless to say, is a Jew. José's Cuban."

"I thought he was a P.R.," Quinn says.

"He's definitely Cuban." She turns to Dru. "And very upper class. Even for a Cuban. Anyway, the idea is that the maroon wall-to-wall and the wooden beams—" she fans her arm through the air, guiding everyone's eyes toward the dark-stained wooden beams that cross the high ceiling—"offset the black, so to speak, of the black."

"What did you say their names were?" Ted says.

"Sy. Sy and José." Georgia says "José" with what she thinks is a Cuban accent, pretends to struggle with the "J" in a guttural sound, as if she is trying to dislodge a string of celery stuck in the back of her throat.

Esme is upstairs in her bedroom listening to a Beach Boys album and putting on lipstick that she stole the week before from Wool-worth's. It's called Plum Love. She sits before the ornate vanity that was her mother's and applies the lipstick for the third or fourth time, dabbing her lower lip with a Kleenex, humming along to songs about surfer girls and cars. She knows all the words and has a signed photograph from Brian Wilson taped to the mirror of the vanity that is a foot taller than she is. She will turn eight-and-a-half in seven days, on the day after Christmas.

The record skips. She walks across the room to turn it over, looking back once or twice to the mirror. The lipstick is smudged, her cheeks are pudgy. She stuffs them with candy, ice cream, slices of pizza that she buys on her way home from school, that she sneaks from the kitchen, that she eats on the sly. Georgia had told her at dinner recently that if she lost fifteen pounds, she would be svelte. "What's svelte?"

"Svelte. Thin."

"Like your mother," Quinn added.

Georgia turned to him. "That was unnecessary."

"You brought it up."

"Now I'm going to bring it down."

"You can't have it both ways, Georgia. Telling her to lose weight and then—"

"I can have it as many ways as I want: And I didn't tell her to lose weight. I simply told her that if she did—"

"You live your life in the conditional tense."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"If. It's your favorite word. If your mother hadn't. If your father wasn't. If Meyer Singer didn't."

"Leave her father out of it."

"Excuse me, Esme."

"What did my father do?"

"He didn't do anything, sweetheart. Quinn Laughlin has a wild imagination."

Georgia had reached across the table for the bowl of chopped broccoli. She scooped out a spoonful and was about to serve herself when Esme spoke. "Why do you always call him Quinn Laughlin?"


"You never just say Quinn, you say Quinn Laughlin."

"I guess I never noticed."

"Maybe it helps you to remember," Quinn said.

"Remember what?"

"My name."

In her bedroom now Esme picks up the record from the turntable, blows on the needle, and wipes "Introducing the Beach Boys!" with her sleeve. She does not understand why Georgia needs help remembering Quinn's name. Esme has known his name since she was four. She knows the names of Quinn's ex-wife and his two daughters. The girls are Peggy and Linda and they are coming for Christmas. They are very svelte and live in Chicago. They have chiffon dresses and spiked high heels and teased hair and they taught Esme how to do the Mashed Potato. She knows their first names and their middle names and their confirmation names. They took her to church once and taught her how to dip her finger into the dish of holy water and cross herself. They showed her the confessional and said she could not confess her sins because she was partly Jewish. They told her Communion wafers tasted like ladyfingers and then they told her that they were just kidding. They told her that sinners went to hell and that she could shave her legs when she was thirteen.

She slips the record into its cover and counts her stack of forty-fives. Then she goes to the bottom drawer of her dresser, where she keeps all the things she is saving. Two autograph books, a cigar box of shells, a scrapbook in which she pressed an orchid corsage Georgia gave her, in which she pasted a photograph of her friend Elaine, the ticket stub from her first Broadway play, Stop the World—I Want to Get Off, a swizzle stick from Toots Shor's, a postcard from France, a letter she had just gotten from her father: Business is about to boom, if that's all right with you! Love U, Daddy. In the corner of the drawer, in a small plastic bag, is a handful of candy that looks like smooth rocks that Quinn had bought her when they were in Palm Springs the summer before, on the Fourth of July. With Dru and Ted and their kids they had watched fireworks from the patio of the hotel and Georgia had cried in the car on the way to the airport.

"Esmeeee." She hears her mother's voice, her mother's footsteps coming up the stairs. Esme closes the dresser drawer and stands up as Georgia enters the bedroom. She shakes her head and comes toward Esme, holding out her hand to Esme's mouth. "It looks like you've been painting your chin purple. What is that color?"

"Plum Love. Do you want to try it on?" Esme goes to the vanity and hands her the lipstick. "Audrey gave it to me." She speaks the lie quietly, she looks for the truth in it. Audrey Finch had helped her to get it. Audrey had a whole shelf of lipsticks in her bathroom, half of them stolen from the Woolworth's where she had initiated Esme the week before. Audrey had given her the idea, the nerve, the technique.

Georgia reads the label on the bottom of the lipstick. "Sure, I'll try a little. And after dinner I'll show you how to put it on right. We're going to a new restaurant. Something about a dove." Georgia takes off the cap, puckers her lips, and looks at herself in the mirror.

"The Sign of the Dove."

"How do you know that?"

"Audrey and her parents go there all the time. I went with them once. I told you."

"I guess I don't remember." She is leaning close to the mirror, getting ready to apply the lipstick. She says "Jesus" under her breath.

"What's wrong?"

"This damn haircut." She runs the lipstick along her lower lip, concentrating intently. She moves to her upper lip. Midway, still looking at herself, she says, "Let's get haircuts for Christmas. We'll try someplace new. Maybe Bonwit's." Beginning to apply a second coat, she says, "I'd love to see you in bangs."

"I'd look awful in bangs."

"You'd look beautiful in bangs." She turns to Esme. "Precious. Lovely in bangs, sweetheart. The girl who cut your hair last time, she—"

"I don't want bangs and I don't want dinner."

"Darling, you have to have dinner."

Quinn calls from downstairs. "Georgia. Esme. We're ready to leave."

"I'll stay here. If I'm hungry I'll make toast."

"You shouldn't eat so much toast."


Georgia moves toward her, runs her hand over Esme's hair, leans down to kiss her forehead. "Please come with us. You can tell me which dish to order. Which dessert is best." She wraps her long arms around Esme and pulls her close, rocking her as she holds her. Her mother smells of perfume, she smells of mothballs. She holds the girl tightly, desperately. "Please."

Esme disengages herself. "You should go now. Quinn'll get mad."

"The hell with Quinn," she says quietly. She holds her hands over Esme's ears, stroking the sides of her head with her strong fingers. Esme lets her. It feels good. Sometimes her mother needs her, sometimes she needs her mother.

"Are you going to get divorced?"

"We just got married."

"Why didn't you get married before? You haven't been married to Daddy since I was two."

"We wanted to wait." She plays with strands of Esme's hair, she runs her thumb over Esme's cheek.

"For what?"

"I don't know. We wanted to be sure."

Quinn calls their names again. Georgia lets go of Esme and then leans down to kiss the top of her head.

"Sure about what?"

"Esme, sweetheart."

"I'm just asking."

"You have so many questions. Are you sure you won't come with us?" Esme nods.

"Then give me a kiss goodnight." She leans down to receive the kiss. Her perfume is sweet, her cheeks are soft. "We'll be home soon." At the door to Esme's room Georgia turns back and says, "We're not going to get divorced." She blows Esme a kiss and closes the door behind her.

In the car on the way to the airport in Palm Springs when Georgia was crying, Esme leaned against Dru and whispered, "Why is she crying?"

"Because she's sad to leave this beautiful town," Dru whispered.

Quinn had bought her rock candy and they had watched the fireworks and Esme knew, as soon as Dru spoke, that she was lying.

Georgia herself did not know why she was crying. She knew only that it was rare, unheard of, for her to cry when she was, as she was then, stone sober.

Soon after they leave for the Sign of the Dove, Esme goes downstairs and eats what is left of a bag of Pecan Sandies and three pieces of cinnamon toast. She looks for change in the pockets of Quinn's and Georgia's coat pockets in the front hall closet. With the ninety- five cents she finds she can buy three ice-cream cones and two slices of pizza. On the sly.

At the corner table they are drinking champagne, toasting Georgia's birthday a month after the event. She is thirty-two. She never thinks about herself. Everyone is on her list. The closet in her bedroom is crammed with Christmas presents for them. She shops at stores that deliver, that mail anything anywhere. She ignores the signs posted on every floor of B. Airman's: THE PACKAGES YOU TAKE WITH YOU GET HOME FIRST. She calls the salesgirls "Dear" and asks their advice about scarves, belts, costume jewelry, and hose for all the women on her list.

"That son of a bitch thought he could cinch this without me," Quinn is saying as he holds up his hand for the waiter.

"I've worked with him for years," Ted says. "That's not his style. If he's going to take you to the cleaners, he lets you know beforehand."


Excerpted from The Beginner's Book of Dreams by Elizabeth Benedict. Copyright © 1988 Elizabeth Benedict. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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