The Last First Day: A Novel

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From the author of The Rope Walk, the story of a woman's life in its twilight, as she looks back on both a harrowing childhood and the unaccountable love and happiness that emerged from it.

Ruth has always stood firmly beside her upstanding, brilliant husband, Peter, the legendary chief of the Derry School for boys. The childless couple has a unique, passionate bond which grew out of Ruth's arrival on his family doorstep as a young girl ...
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The Last First Day: A Novel

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From the author of The Rope Walk, the story of a woman's life in its twilight, as she looks back on both a harrowing childhood and the unaccountable love and happiness that emerged from it.

Ruth has always stood firmly beside her upstanding, brilliant husband, Peter, the legendary chief of the Derry School for boys. The childless couple has a unique, passionate bond which grew out of Ruth's arrival on his family doorstep as a young girl orphaned by tragedy. And though sometimes frustrated by her role as lifelong helpmeet, Ruth is awed by her good fortune in Peter. As the novel opens we see the Derry School in all its glorious New England fall colors and witness the loosening of the aging Peter's grasp--he will soon have to retire, and Ruth is wondering what they will do in their old age, separated from the school into which they have poured everything, including their savings. As the novel unfurls, it takes us back through their days and years, revealing the explosive spark and joy of their love--undiminished now in their seventies--and giving us a deeply felt portrait of a woman from the generation that quietly put individual dreams aside for the good of a partnership, twinned with the revelation of the surprising gift of the right man's love, which keeps giving to the end.

This ebook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Glancing at a paragraph or a page of Brown's (The Rope Walk) torpid novel might give an impression of glinting pathos and well-rendered nostalgia, but, though well-written on a sentence-by-sentence level, it falls short as a whole. Ruth, preparing for the last first day of her husband's tenure as headmaster at a New England boarding school, looks back on their life together; their early marriage, their fights, her struggle to fit into her role as headmaster's wife. She reflects on their gradual aging and her resentment over their imminent ouster from the school. In between these reminiscences, the plot crawls forward: it take Ruth 50 pages to progress from dressing herself and readying the house for a party, to leaving the house, another 50 pages to get through the dinner and speech that will precede the party. When hints of tragedy and drama are introduced, they are too late or too overwhelmed to be anything but odd distractions. A later section in the book in which Ruth relates her terrible childhood and her youthful encounters with Peter is much more sequential and successful, but it is not enough to save this novel from the weight of its insistent poignancy. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“Quietly powerful. . . . Exquisitely written. . . . There is lucidity and depth in each observed or remembered moment of their lives, giving an overall view of a beautiful landscape seen through clear water, a scene of truth and transformation.”—The Washington Post

“Beautifully written, with deeply memorable characters, The Last First Day is a powerful examination of love across the years and a heartfelt story of the strength of unbreakable bonds.” —Booklist
“Brown has accomplished one of literature’s most difficult feats—to write compellingly, and convincingly, about human happiness. The Last First Day is marvelous.” —Ron Rash, author of The Cove
“Brown’s writing . . . conveys intense events and emotions with a deceivingly gentle touch.” —USA Today

“[A] difficult but incisive exploration of what it means—and what it takes—to be a woman of a certain age.” —The Huffington Post

“In a beautifully composed novel, Carrie Brown reminds us of the concessions made for love, of hope and fear shared and endured alone, of joy and sorrow as the undercurrents of life. This is an intimate novel to be relished and remembered.” —Yiyun Li, author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

“[Brown] is a novelist who understands that the forest is in the leaf.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“Quiet, understated, and restrained, not without slow moments, but also peppered with beautiful ones. . . . It is a treat to delve into the layers present in this novel, and get to know its multifaceted protagonist at a depth few books ever achieve.” —

“A beautiful piece of writing: bittersweet with nostalgia, surprisingly sensual and sharply nuanced in its depiction of the strains and rewards that shape any long marriage. . . . A restrained yet emotionally powerful portrait of enduring love.” —Kirkus Reviews 

Library Journal
For 50 years, headmaster Peter Van Dusen and his wife, Ruth, have devoted their lives to the Derry School for boys in Maine. There has been recent growing rebellion against the school's original mission—to provide quality education for disadvantaged youth—and as Peter's health fails, younger staff members are nipping at his heels, hoping he will retire. Ruth, who has loved Peter since she was 12, feels the pressure on the two to leave Derry. In language that is atmospherically poetic, Brown moves back and forth through the decades, from the first worst day of Ruth's life, when she first sees Peter, through their love, interrupted by more tragedy and missed opportunities, until they are reunited by serendipity. VERDICT Recipient of a Discover Great New Writers Award for her first novel, Rose's Garden, Brown (The Rope Walk) has written a beautiful anatomy of a strong, flawed couple, bound by love and challenged by life. For those who appreciate a quiet examination of a lasting union. [See Prepub Alert, 3/18/13.]—Beth Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-09-01
The wife of a private school headmaster looks back at 50-plus years of marriage in this restrained yet emotionally powerful portrait of enduring love from Brown (The Rope Walk, 2007, etc.). Ruth's husband, Peter, now in his 70s, has dedicated his life, and hers, to Derry School, a Maine prep school for boys. As the novel opens, Ruth reflects on her life while preparing for the cocktail party she and Peter throw annually on the first evening of the new school year. After receiving his Ph.D. at Yale, Peter rejected seemingly more prestigious job offers because he appreciated Derry's stated mission of teaching indigent boys. Fifty years later, the school has begun marketing to wealthier families to survive, but Peter remains a gentle idealist. Ruth finds Peter's genuine goodness, his belief in God and his genial passivity both enviable and irksome since she remains filled with doubt and inner conflict. Raised by a single father who died in prison shortly after he was exposed as a murderer, Ruth has never found life easy, but she has experienced kindness and generosity, first from Peter's doctor father, who took Ruth in after her own father's arrest, and then from the Yale psychiatry professor and Holocaust survivor who became her closest friend and surrogate mother. Born into middle-class security, Peter has never lost his sense of optimism, not even after his mother's mental illness and the crisis in his romance with Ruth that separated the two young lovers for several years until they reunited as college seniors. They have never been apart since. On the evening of the party, Peter has a stroke. He survives but must retire. That Peter has been beloved by his students has always been obvious, but Ruth finally realizes that her life at the school and with Peter has been richer than she realized. A beautiful piece of writing: bittersweet with nostalgia, surprisingly sensual and sharply nuanced in its depiction of the strains and rewards that shape any long marriage.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307908032
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/17/2013
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 977,633
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.36 (h) x 1.24 (d)

Meet the Author

Carrie Brown is the author of six novels and a collection of short stories. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and, twice, the Library of Virginia Award. She taught for many years at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, where she lives with her husband, the writer John Gregory Brown. She is now the distinguished visiting professor of creative writing at Hollins University

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Read an Excerpt

That morning, in anticipation of the party to be held at their house in the evening, Ruth unearthed the vacuum cleaner from the front hall closet. She had to move aside a heap of belongings to reach it—umbrellas and boots and musty-smelling coats—as well as Peter’s old film projector, heavy as lead in its mossy green case, and half a dozen cartons containing reels of footage from their early days at Derry. A brand-new teacher then, his enthusiasm like a light inside his face, Peter had recorded everything during those first years, endless hours of slow-moving football games, canoe races on windy spring afternoons with the boats shunting jerkily across the lake, the winter evening Robert Frost came to read his poems in the chapel.
Mr. Frost had been aloof that night at dinner, attending vaguely to the conversational gambits offered by the school trustees who had been assembled for the occasion. The meal had been splendid fare by the dining hall’s usual standards, stuffed clams and lobster with melted butter, corn and boiled potatoes, blueberry pie. The evening had been a triumph for Peter, who had arranged it, and an honor for Derry, which then had no real standing among boys’ schools of the day, its pupils drawn historically from poor families rather than the well-heeled aristocracy of New England.
The trustees, already worried about the school’s financial future, however, had begun to entertain ambitions for wealthier students, and even those men who did not read poetry—which was probably all of them, Ruth had thought at the time—understood that Mr. Frost’s appearance conferred distinction on the Derry School, a reputation for intellectual seriousness that the school could not otherwise acquire no matter how much money it raised, or how many prosperous families it attracted. Poetry, the reading and writing of it, was understood to be a hallmark of patrician gentility. It was evidence—however baffling to the practical men of industry and commerce who made up Derry’s board of trustees at the time—of refinement. They were in search of pedigrees and the resources that came with them. If a poetry reading had to be part of the bargain, so be it.
Mr. Frost had eaten his dinner with apparent appetite but without saying much, his head bent over his plate. His face was so shut away and expressionless that Ruth imagined he had suffered recently a personal loss of great severity.
But when he began to read in the chapel later that night, coming up to the podium after Peter’s introduction with the slow steps of a man accompanying a coffin to the grave, his voice was surprisingly strong. Ruth knew that even the philistines among the trustees could not have failed to be moved.
I have been one acquainted with the night, Mr. Frost began.
A light was trained on the page before him, and he put his palm against the open book on the podium as if to crack its spine. He paused. Then he looked up, and he did not look down again for the duration of the poem.
I have walked out in rain, he recited, and back in rain.
When he read the line I have outwalked the furthest city light, Ruth thought that every boy, every teacher sitting in the cold, hard pews of the chapel with its smudged smoke stains on the white walls, and its old glass windows full of air bubbles, and the tall hurricane globes on the altar containing the candle flames—every one of the listeners in the chapel that night—was made aware of the miles of forest surrounding the school, the tumbled, rocky coast of Maine at the edge of the forest and its terminus at the sea, the black restless body of the Atlantic Ocean. Surely they felt themselves at that moment as alone as a man could be, Ruth thought, as alone as the lonely speaker of the poem, unwilling to meet the eyes of the night watchman whom he passes in the dark. Surely they understood that this lonely feeling was inside of them, too, even if it had lain there mostly a thing concealed from them by the blessed ordinariness of their days.
Yet the occasion had been miraculous as well as solemn. The poem reminded them that the world around them lay beneath what Mr. Frost called the dome of heaven; Ruth pictured images from her art history classes at Smith: St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the gilded onion domes of Moscow, their golden beauty. And that night, as if to illuminate heaven and its arch above them, the sky had been filled with a meteor shower, streaks of light descending through the darkness.
Outside the chapel after the reading, in the cold night air that smelled of the pine trees, everyone had stopped to stare up at the sky, some of the boys straying off the path into the snow, where they stood alone, heads tilted back, mouths open, faces upturned toward the stars. They had looked so vulnerable there, Ruth had thought, so faithful and willing, like those sad believers who trudged to the tops of hillsides in their old garments and with their heads shaved, expecting to be delivered up to God.
She remembered Mr. Frost beside Peter, their hands deep in their coat pockets, their faces calm but watchful, everyone silent.
Peter had studied with a professor at Yale who knew Mr. Frost, and it was through this man, actually a childhood friend of Robert Frost’s wife, that Peter had been able to secure the famous poet’s presence at Derry that night. As the assembled school stood there, the sky above them electric with light, Ruth had wrapped her arms around herself inside her coat. She had been absurdly pleased for Peter, as if he had orchestrated the display of meteors as a flattering tribute.
How small she had felt that evening. Mr. Frost had read his poems to them in a voice of judgment, not benevolence; he had seemed in some way hardly to see them at all. Yet she had felt the importance and the beauty of it all, as well, a sense of imminence in the world, something about to happen.
Later, reading in the library, she discovered that the meteor shower, common in December, was named for an obsolete constellation no longer found on star maps. The meteors visible to them that night had been orphan lights, travelers from a vanished source.

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Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide is constructed to help raise issues and encourage discussion about Carrie Brown’s The Last First Day. Carrie’s first novel, The Rope Walk, is also available from Anchor Books.

1. The book opens with a memory of Robert Frost visiting the Derry School, and within the novel there are many references to Keats and Longfellow. What is the author saying about the importance of poetry in our daily lives?

2. In addition to poetry, discuss the role of literature and stories in the novel. How is Ruth’s relationship with reading and books essential to her identity?

3. And conversely, discuss Ruth’s lack of family stories and memories. How do you think her lack of family and family mythology helped form the woman Ruth becomes? After her father is arrested and she learns why she’s had a peripatetic life, how does she find her way out of this tragedy?

4. Why does Ruth later invent stories of her parents and childhood? Can you sympathize or relate?

5. How is the physical environment crucial to the story? How important is the school’s Maine setting? Does this story feel like it could take place only in New England? Why or why not? How did moving around from one town to another in her childhood affect Ruth? Discuss the atmosphere of the various houses in the novel, from the headmaster’s house at the Derry School to Peter’s childhood house to Mary’s house, where Ruth was a teenager.

6. What is the importance to Ruth of never having a house of her own until the very end of the novel? How important is it for you to have a place of your own?

7. Describe the structure of the novel, and why it’s divided into two titled parts. Why is telling the story in this fashion more powerful than a simple chronological order? What emotional impact does this have on the reader?

8. How does the author play with time and memory in the novel?

9. Does the first part of the book, with its focus on a single day complete with flashbacks over the course of Ruth’s life, remind you of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway? Why or why not? What is similar? Dissimilar?

10. What is the importance of family or lack of family, both parents and children, in the novel? Over the years, what does Ruth learn about creating her own family? Who is her true family?

11. Discuss Ruth’s friendship with Dr. Wenning. Why are the two drawn toward each other, and how and why do they form such a strong attachment? What does Dr. Wenning provide for Ruth that Peter doesn’t? Is she more a doctor, mother, or friend to Ruth?

12. What place does Mr. Mitzotakis’s Daedalus story have in the novel? Why does Dr. Wenning share this story with Ruth? Is it a metaphor for something in Ruth or Dr. Wenning’s life? In all of our lives?

13. The man who steals Ruth’s car appears in the novel for one short scene. What is his role in the story? What impact does he have on Ruth?

14. Discuss the line “The beginning of things always contained their end” (page 65).  How does this connect with the title of the novel, and with the novel itself.

15. Ruth “wished she could believe in God. What a relief it would be. But she just couldn’t manage it” (page 274). Discuss Ruth and Peter’s differing views on God and religion. In what does Ruth believe?

16. Compare and contrast Ruth and Peter. What brought and keeps them together? How do they complement each other? Is either one of them the vulnerable one in the relationship? Is either one of them stronger? In what ways?

17. Why does Peter betray Ruth during their teenage years? Does Ruth forgive him? How does he make up for that betrayal after they rediscover and rekindle their relationship?

18. Why does Ruth put aside her dreams of being a writer? How does she come to find her place at the school alongside Peter?

19. Who are the Finneys? What role do Charlie and Kitty have in lives of Peter and Ruth? How does this change throughout the novel?

20. How are Ruth and Kitty similar/different? How will Kitty’s role at the school be different from Ruth’s? What does this have to say about generational differences between the two women?

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted October 25, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The Last First Day by Carrie Brown is simply amazing! The story

    The Last First Day by Carrie Brown is simply amazing! The story innocently invites you in and wraps itself
     around you in a warm comfortable embrace. The story is a quiet one, but powerful. And I have to say, this is
    one my favorite reads of the year.

    It is a love story, it is a story of the reflection of life as one looks back in their twilight years, and it is beautifully
    written. The book opens with the first day at the New England Derry School for Boys, the school where Peter
    and Ruth have spent most of their adult lives, the place where Peter started as an enthusiastic teacher, with
    Ruth as the dutiful wife and where now, as the couple is in their eighties, and Peter approaching the need to
    retire as headmaster, is the place they must learn to live without. As Ruth drags the vacuum cleaner out to get
    ready for the annual first night get together at their home with the faculty, memories slowly emerge. And that is
    how we learn of the love story of Peter and Ruth. Through Ruth's eyes, the story of their lives unfold in perfect
    harmony with the present tense to let us experience their love, their passion, their struggles and commitment
    over the decades. It's also the story of Ruth, how she accepts her life, the role she chose for herself, and the life
     that she had no choice over.

    The book itself is in two parts. The first part is Peter and Ruth on that "last first day" at Derry School, with the
     smattering of memories of their lives. The second part starts Ruth's story from the beginning- from when she
    was twelve, living out of a suitcase with her father, and her first sighting of Peter. We learn so much about Ruth
     in part two and understand her so much better. The love story, of Peter and Ruth, which really emerges from
     its' humble beginnings in the second part of the novel, is sweet & wonderful, sad & devastating, and ultimately
    blossoms into a full shared life together.
    I read this book in a day and a half... This is a story that will linger with me for quite some time.
    I loved the way Carrie Brown made this complex story flow so easily from the page, slowly unfurling & perfectly
     putting the words down on the page. It is honest, it is heartfelt, I thought it was wonderful...
     and I did cry at the end.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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