The Last First Day: A Novel

The Last First Day: A Novel

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by Carrie Brown

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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…  See more details below


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

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.
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
"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

"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."—Carol Gladstein, Booklist

“Concessions have to be made for many things, but concessions made for love are the ones that live on in life and in literature. 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 The Vagrants and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
“In her wonderful new novel, Brown takes on those greatest of human mysteries: enduring love, the long marriage. There’s pathos here, cause for wonder, reasons to believe.”
—Christopher Tilghman, author of The Right-Hand Shore and Mason’s Retreat
“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 Serena and The Cove

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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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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Meet the Author

Carrie Brown is the author of five novels and a collection of short stories. Awards she has received include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and, twice, the Library of Virginia Literary Award. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, Glimmer Train, The Georgia Review, and The Oxford American. She lives with her husband, the writer John Gregory Brown, in Virginia, where she is distinguished visiting professor of creative writing at Hollins University.

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The Last First Day: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Quzygirl More than 1 year ago
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.