The Why of Things: A Novelby Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop
“A fast-paced, entertaining summer read” (People), The Why of Things is a “keenly observed” and “richly drawn” (The New York Times) novel about a family fighting towards hope in the wake of a terrible tragedy.
Since the loss of her seventeen-year-old daughter less than a year ago, Joan Jacobs has/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
“A fast-paced, entertaining summer read” (People), The Why of Things is a “keenly observed” and “richly drawn” (The New York Times) novel about a family fighting towards hope in the wake of a terrible tragedy.
Since the loss of her seventeen-year-old daughter less than a year ago, Joan Jacobs has struggled to keep her tight-knit family from coming apart. But Joan and Anders, her husband, are unable to snap back into the familiarity and warmth they so desperately need, both for themselves and for their surviving daughters, Eve and Eloise. The family flees to their summer home in search of peace and renewal, only to encounter an eerily similar tragedy when a pickup truck drives into the quarry in their backyard killing a young local named James Favazza.
As the Jacobs family learns more about the inexplicable events that preceded that fateful evening, each of them becomes increasingly tangled in the emotional threads of James’s story: fifteen-year-old Eve is determined to solve, on her own, the mystery of his death; Anders finds himself facing his own deepest fears; and seven-year-old Eloise unwittingly adopts James’s orphaned dog. For her part, Joan becomes increasingly fixated on James’s mother, a stranger whose sudden loss so closely mirrors her own.
With an urgent, beautiful intimacy that her fans have come to expect from this “bitingly intelligent writer” (The New York Times), Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop delivers here a powerful, buoyant novel that explores the complexities of family relationships and the small triumphs that can bring unexpected healing. The Why of Things is a wise, empathetic, and exquisitely heartfelt story about the strength of family bonds. It is an unforgettable and searing tour de force.
"Once again, Elizabeth Winthrop conjures light from a dark place in her beautifully constructed, touching novel The Why of Things. Why do some so loved willfully leave us is the question Winthrop sets out to answerand what meaning she renders from this mystery! The book starts and ends at the same quarry's edge, but a quarry changed. Winthrop's quiet magic makes the water's mutable darkness bearable and betternothing to be afraid of, a substance of possibilities."
"Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop is one of the finest writers of her generation. With deeply moving intelligence and a clean, spare style, she gets right to the heart of loss and survival."
“Keenly observed...richly drawn….[Winthrop]’s message, as complex as it is simple, is that the unendurable can and will be endured only if one chooses to go on.”
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
The Why of Things
They stand at the quarry’s edge: Joan, Anders, and their youngest girls, Eve and Eloise, who will not go to bed. The water below them is black and looks thick as tar; reflections of light from the house are wavering rectangles on its surface: window, window, door. Now and then, debris will bob through the light. An empty beer can. A flip-flop. A plastic bag.
“A bubble,” Eve says suddenly, and Joan has seen it, too, a single bubble breaking through the surface. “A bubble!” Eve says again, louder this time. She looks at her parents, demanding, expectant.
Joan touches her daughter’s arm. “Shhh.”
Behind them, in shadow, a handful of policemen lean against an ambulance and mutter, not about the tire marks that lead right to the quarry’s edge, not about the gasoline slowly spreading across the surface of the water, not about flip-flops or beer cans. Joan hears the words cheese steak, and cold one, and then a snuffle of muted laughter. She grits her teeth and digs her elbow into Anders’ side. “This is taking forever,” she whispers.
“Shhh,” Anders hushes her.
“But no one is doing anything.”
“What can they do, Joan? All anyone can do at this point is wait for the divers.”
“It’s been an hour and a half.”
“And it’s nine o’clock, and the dive team is coming from Beverly.” Anders looks at his watch. “Give them time.”
“Time,” Joan murmurs. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other. The day as it had passed seemed nothing but a blur of last-minute packing, of traffic jams and drive-throughs and tollbooths and endless highways that in her mind as the day of departure neared had come to symbolize escape. Now, though, looking back, Joan remembers the day as a detailed series of moments that at the time she hadn’t known she was aware of, and this sudden clarity both surprises and unnerves her, as if these details were presenting themselves now for a reason, for examination.
There is an image in her mind of Eloise standing inside their house in Maryland, silhouetted by the stark sky outside, her little face pressed against the screen door as she watches Anders load the car. Their summer things had been piled on the porch above the driveway, and Anders had carried them down to the car, box by box, bag by bag, one load at a time. All that is left to be carried to the car, in this image, is a dry-cleaned suit, hanging against a column of the porch.
There is an image of Eve sitting sullen on the steps with headphones on, her hair with a hot pink streak that last week was red, the bangs she’s growing out hanging in her face.
There is an image of the Sherpa cat bag by the door. Two bright green eyes blink slowly in its darkness.
There is an image of mist rising from wet pavement.
There is an image of traffic shimmering on the highway, Anders’ hand draped over the steering wheel, and her daughters in the backseat of the car, side by side despite Anders’ attempt to separate them with a duffel bag, which Eve had pushed into the window seat. That was still Sophie’s seat, the girls had said, and both refused to sit there.
Thinking back on the day like this, this morning and Maryland seem like a lifetime ago. Today, as Eve has reminded them several times, is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year; truly, to Joan, it has felt like it.
“Bubble!” Eve says, pointing. “If someone’s down there, time is running out!”
“Evie,” Joan says. “Hush!” though the same has occurred to her, too.
“You hush,” Eve says, and she swivels on her toe. Joan watches her go: she stalks toward the policemen leaning against the ambulance. The doors of their cruisers, which they have driven onto the grass, are open, and radio voices crackle from within. Eve passes through the beam of the headlights and then pauses before the policemen, as if considering whether to speak to them. But she continues past, around the quarry toward the house, which is a large, dark shape among the trees, only a few of the downstairs windows aglow. They hadn’t yet even made it upstairs. Their car is parked beside the house, its tailgate open and the inside lights still on. She imagines she can hear the chirpy ding ding ding of the open door starting to whine as the battery slowly dies, but she is too tired to really care. Anders had been just about to start unloading an hour or two ago, after they’d finally arrived here for the summer, when Eve had called out from over here, where Joan is standing now. Someone drove into the quarry! she called, and of course it had seemed unlikely, impossible, even, but then Eve pointed out the tire tracks that ran over the lawn, and the bubbles, and the things slowly surfacing even as they watched from the shore: a gas can, beer cans, a piece of Styrofoam.
Eve disappears into the shadows by the house, and Joan returns her gaze to the quarry. Another bubble surfaces.
* * *
THE tire tracks that lead directly to the quarry’s edge run between two trees so closely spaced together that Eve would never think a car could fit between them, but the tracks are there, and recent; the flattened grass seems to have lifted itself a bit in the short time since she first noticed them. Eve squats before the larger of the trees, where each summer she and her sisters have upon arriving at the quarry carved their initials and the year. After they arrived tonight, as her father began unloading the car, Eve had gone directly to the tree, as if she thought that perhaps she would find this year’s date already carved, Sophie’s initials fresh in the bark. As if she thought that somehow Sophie would be waiting there inside the house for them.
But of course Eve had found on the tree no new markings other than a nick where she now imagines the side-view mirror bumped against the tree as it passed, and then she had noticed the tire tracks, and followed them to where they ended at the quarry’s edge. No one believed her until they saw the tracks for themselves, of course, probably because they didn’t want to. She wasn’t surprised.
She traces their initials from last year with her finger now. It had been raining when they carved them, she remembers, and the bark had been slick. Sophie had gone first, and then she’d guided Eloise’s small hand with her own. Eve, when it was her turn with the knife, had managed to cut her finger, which though it didn’t hurt her began to bleed so heavily and immediately that Sophie had ripped a strip of material from her frayed cutoffs to wrap around it. Eve can see her sister clearly in her mind’s eye, her thin shoulders hunched as she tied the denim as tightly as she could, her inqusitive expression when she was finished, asking Eve with her eyes, is this all right? Sophie hated pain, her own or anyone else’s.
Eve examines her finger now, the pale indentation of the resulting scar, then stands up. Across the water, her parents and Eloise stand staring into the water, backlit by the headlights of the cruisers. The policemen behind them are vaguely familiar to Eve from encounters in past summers: the breakers-up of beach parties, the dispersers of crowds of kids gathered in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven. Those are the kinds of things they are good at, Eve thinks bitterly; when it comes to anything serious, like cars in quarries, they stand around uselessly waiting for someone else to do the dirty work. She casts an anxious glance in the direction of the driveway, wishing the divers would hurry up and get here.
Eve sighs, returning her attention to the tire tracks beneath her. She follows them back from the trees away from the water to where they disappear on the driveway, which leads out to one of the many dirt roads meandering around the various quarries on Cape Ann, theirs only one of the many silent scars of the granite days, filled with the rain of years, sometimes hundreds of feet in depth. She and her sisters have spent many summer hours on the sunbaked slabs along the quarry’s edge, hazarding gruesome guesses as to what over the years may have accumulated in the deep. Now, their worst imagining has come true, and Sophie isn’t even here to witness it.
Eve wanders down the driveway away from the house, and turns onto the road. She is barefoot, as she makes a point to be in summer, and though the grass of the lawn had felt cool and smooth beneath her feet, she walks gingerly on the road, wary of the pebbles and sticks that have not yet toughened up her soles. Only yards from the house, she finds herself in total darkness. It is not that there are no moon or stars, tonight; as she’d stood at the quarry’s edge moments ago she had noticed Cassiopeia reclining on the horizon, and above it, the moon, and she’d wondered whether it was on the wax or the wane—and she should know this, she thinks now, widening her eyes against the darkness, blinking as if to blink it away. Sophie knew this. But it is one of those things that Eve herself can never remember. When the moon is facing left, is it growing, or has it already been full? She looks up; she can see nothing through the canopy of trees.
Tonight is the shortest night of the year, today the summer solstice. It is Eve’s favorite day, because it’s the longest, and it marks the start of summer, but it carries with it also just a tinge of sadness, because from here on out the days are only going to get shorter, start their slip-sliding decline into winter. This year, the actual solstice, the very moment the sun climbed to its farthest point north of the equator, and, for just a minute, stood still, was at 7:09 p.m. Eve had been anticipating the moment all day, urging her father to drive just a little faster so they’d get here in time to see it, but then, amid the excitement over the tire tracks and the stuff in the quarry and calling the police, she’d entirely forgotten. And now she’s going to have to wait a whole year to have the chance to see it again. She sighs now with frustration, annoyed with herself for being so easily distracted.
It is dark, but she knows this road by heart; she doesn’t need light to walk it. She imagines to her right the boulder that years ago someone painted as a frog, to her left the rusted chain that marks the entrance to a path through the woods. Soon, she knows the road will curve to the right and begin to slope downhill, past the Bakers’ driveway and the edge of the Carvers’ lawn. Eve pauses in the darkness when she hears the growing sound of an engine. The divers, she thinks, pleased at the thought of intercepting them and immensely relieved that they are finally here, but the headlights growing out of the darkness are accompanied by the sound of thudding music, and Eve steps out of the road, into a safe nook between a triangle of trees. Teenagers, she thinks nervously, as if the carload of kids had earned the title through something other than age. She herself will be fifteen this summer, but would never consider herself a teenager in that way.
She stands in the shadow of the front-most tree so as to remain unseen as the car passes, its headlights bright and blinding, illuminating things in flashes as the car lurches over ruts: an overhanging vine, a roadside rock, a cracked and dried-out puddle.
Things are soft in the red glow of fading taillights, and Eve steps out from between her trees. She squints at that rock across the road in the dimming light and steps closer. Three cigarettes lie side by side on the rock, unsmoked. Though not a frequent smoker, she gathers them greedily—they are a rare find—and she has just put them carefully into the front pocket of her shirt when again headlights loom in the darkness.
* * *
“THEY’RE here,” Anders says, both he and Joan hearing the sound of the divers’ truck before its beams come up the driveway. He offers Joan Eloise’s hand and all the sleepy weight attached, and she leads their daughter around the quarry to the house, blinded for a brief moment by the divers’ high beams as they pass. She gestures into the light with her free hand, a vague salute, and for some reason, the image of herself squinting and waving, Eloise in tow, now lines itself up with the other images of the day, the only one in which she is a subject.
She puts Eloise to bed; thankfully despite her adamance earlier in the evening that she not miss out on anything, she’s too tired to put up a fight. Probably the mere possibilities of what might be dredged from the quarry’s depths are terrifying enough; though she acts tough, Eloise is easily frightened, and has sense enough to know when to shut her eyes to things. Don’t leave the house, she implores her mother from beneath her sheets, and Joan promises that she won’t, and the fact of it is that she is glad not to go back, not to have to stand there wondering if Eve is right and there is some poor soul who died down there tonight. Though of course she’s wondering anyway. She watches the scene unfolding across the quarry from afar, in brief glimpses as she unloads the car, bringing in their summer things and piling them in the house, where the furniture is still covered with sheets. The policemen across the water are faceless figures from this distance, the divers bizarre, black, rubber-limbed creatures lowering themselves into the dark water. She doesn’t need to be any closer; Anders and her imagination will fill in the details, both wanted and unwanted, she is sure of that.
Despite the strangeness of this situation, the potential horror, Joan feels oddly detached from it all, even resigned. As they drove the final miles of their journey late this afternoon she had laid out the evening in her mind, the quarry still the refuge at the end of those symbolic highways, a place of normalcy. They would unload the car first. They would strip the sheets from the furniture and open all the windows to air out the house. While she unpacked their clothing, Anders would go into town and pick up a pizza for dinner, and he’d go to the grocery store for the basic things: milk, juice, water, something to eat for breakfast tomorrow. Eve, perhaps, would take Eloise down to the beach.
But then, only moments after they’d arrived, her plans had derailed; somehow, she was unsurprised. Nothing surprises her much, anymore. There is a car at the bottom of their quarry, possibly—likely—with a body inside. And perhaps this happens often—maybe there are cars in quarries all around the cape. They have had no dinner, aside from the saltines and peanut butter she gave to Eloise before putting her to bed, which were leftovers from the car ride. The bags are still packed, and the kitchen is empty. Nothing has gone as planned or imagined, which has only served to reaffirm her sense that it is better never to plan or imagine anything, better never to count on the future.
Sophie died on a Tuesday. The following weekend was Columbus Day weekend, a long one; she and Joan were meant to fly to Boston, rent a car, and drive a loop through New England, touring colleges. Instead, they held her funeral. For Thanksgiving, they had had plans to go to Joan’s cousin’s house in Delaware for a family reunion, which under the circumstances they abandoned, and for Christmas they were going to drive to Anders’ sister’s house in Vermont and ski, which they also failed to do. Joan had vaguely counted on going shopping with Sophie for a prom dress sometime in the spring, had counted on going to her soccer games, and taking her to see the World Cup in June, had counted on watching as graduation caps filled the air, so many black shapes against the sky. There are many things that she hadn’t realized she was vaguely counting on; she has gone through the months since with the sense that she took a wrong turn somewhere, or that in some parallel universe another version of herself is leading the life she had expected.
She brings the last load in from the car: her computer and notes, though she hasn’t written much of late. She had always considered herself lucky to be a novelist, to make a living writing books, but lately she has not been able to find much sense in it. It seems there is enough in the real world to worry about without creating a second one to fret over as well. She doesn’t have the energy left to care about that second world, into which she has come to think she invested too much of herself over the years. Indeed, she’d been neck deep in the final edits of her last book when Sophie died, and up at night thinking about her characters and their problems rather than her own living children.
There is a scratching at the door; Joan looks up at the noise and sees through the screen on the dark porch two green eyes: Seymour. She opens the door; the cat darts inside as if chased. Joan steps out just as a neighborhood dog disappears into the shadows behind the house, the jingle of its collar fading into the distance. She leans in the darkness against a column of the porch, slips off a sandal, and scratches at her ankle with her toe; there are mosquitoes. She hears a shout from across the water. A dark, rubber-clad head surfaces, a bright headlamp attached, and then another and another, and then something else: a body, Joan is sure, though she had hoped and hoped that the car in their quarry was empty, a piece of junk abandoned like so much other junk, put into neutral and pushed. If there is a God, Joan thinks, he treats the world with the same irony as a writer treats her world; it is awful, she thinks, to find herself a character.
* * *
ANDERS watches as the divers leave the dead man on a sloping slab of granite, head side down, while the paramedics get the stretcher. The cops have mounted a powerful light to the roof of one of the cruisers, lighting the whole scene like a movie set. Anders stands near the ambulance, at the edge of the light, his hand on the back of Eve’s neck. Nearby, he can hear two of the divers talking about the stuck seat belt, and how they’d had to cut through it with a knife. Apparently it’s a pickup truck down there, nose down between some rocks. The third diver is sitting on a rock off to the side, his head in his hands.
Eve had escorted the divers in. When their truck finally pulled up the drive, Anders was surprised, when a door opened, to see his daughter emerge. He’d thought she was still beside him at the quarry’s edge; he hadn’t realized after Joan and Eloise had gone inside that aside from the policemen a few yards back he’d been standing there alone. The divers followed Eve up the grass to the quarry’s edge. Anders was also surprised at the sight of them. They were wearing cargo shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops; they were just regular guys, not one of them more than thirty, and they looked almost as if they’d been interrupted from a baseball game or a night at the bar. Anders thought there must be some mistake. He realized he’d half expected them to show up in wet suits and flippers, their air tanks already strapped to their backs. He’d expected divers, not people. They stripped down to the bathing suits they wore beneath their shorts and then pulled on their wet suits wordlessly; they looked afraid, and Anders didn’t blame them. He didn’t envy them their task.
Now two paramedics wheel a stretcher across the grass and collapse it beside the dead man. Silently, they slide a board beneath him, and they seem to Anders as careful with him as they would be if he were alive. They fasten him to the board with straps and hoist it onto the stretcher. When the ambulance had arrived with the policemen earlier tonight, Anders had wondered what the point was, since if anyone was in the quarry, surely they were dead, even as Eve kept pointing urgently to bubbles gurgling to the surface, signs of life! It had already been two hours, at the least. Anders gazes at the dead man now. He is young, like the divers, certainly no more than thirty. He is wearing khaki pants and a white T-shirt that is ripped in the armpit, no shoes. He has been maybe three days without a shave. Or he had been three days without a shave until he died, whenever that was. Anders rubs his chin vigorously; his own stubble is about three days old.
The dead man does not look asleep, as Anders imagined he might have, as other dead people he has seen have looked—his mother, and his father, who had passed out of this world as Anders watched, both of them softly overcome by a quiet stillness. What Sophie looked like he does not know, and it is not something he and Joan have talked about. Joan had had to go identify their daughter’s body alone, while Anders was stuck in the airport in Rome, waiting. He had stared up at the armed guards patrolling on the balcony above him, the melodies of his students’ songs repeating in his head as even at that moment they sang in St. Peter’s Basilica without his direction.
No, this man does not look asleep, but decidedly dead. His skin is a faint blue, and his lips are very dark. His left eye is open just a bit. There is a leaf in his hair. Anders had watched as the divers swam the dead man to the quarry’s edge, had seen that floating leaf catch in the dead man’s hair. This is a detail he will have to remember to tell Joan. He studies the dead man carefully, wondering if he might be familiar in some way from summers past, trying to place him in the land of the living: in the aisle of the grocery store, or pumping gas at the Shell station downtown, or pouring a beer at their favorite local bar. It’s surprising how easy it is to do, animating this lifeless form before him, and he is struck by the familiar bewilderment he feels of late whenever he considers the line between life and death, how permanent, yet how fine.
It is so much harder, he thinks regretfully, to imagine where the living go on the far side of that line—into the nothing where Sophie has forever disappeared.
He looks up from the dead man across the quarry toward their house. The windows are all lit now; the porch is dark but for the glowing tip of a cigarette: Joan, who smokes only when she’s anxious. After the divers arrived and Anders wordlessly handed over Eloise, Joan had tapped her chin nervously, a superstitious tick that annoys Anders only because it makes him nervous, too, even when of his own accord he wouldn’t otherwise be. He had thought that certainly whatever car was at the bottom of the quarry was an empty one, an old one; it is as if Joan worried this young man into it.
* * *
ELOISE has been in bed for as long as it has taken to count to 4,873 before she hears a series of car doors slam and the light that has been casting looming shadows across her wall is finally shut off. Her jaw aches from clenching, and she knows that her fingernails will have left little moon-shaped marks where she has had them dug into her palm. It’s hard to stop herself from counting now, as hard as it had been earlier to get herself to start, afraid that if she did not the fear that had left her voiceless might also force her mind to freeze and forget to tell her heart to beat.
The porch light outside turns on, and just as quickly off; she hears the screen door downstairs open. She waits for the usual sound of the springs slamming it shut, but it doesn’t come. Her father must have caught the door behind him, and shut it quietly. Though he was probably trying not to wake her, the slam that never comes makes her feel even more unsettled, the way she feels when she cannot find an itch. She hopes that at least he has locked the door, locked all of the doors, even though they never lock anything in summer. But someone has driven into their quarry. Someone may have died in their quarry. There could be killers in the woods. Kidnappers. Thieves. Ghosts. Sophie’s ghost, of which Eloise is ashamed to be afraid. There could be anything out in the woods. Anything, it seems, is possible.
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