Tinderbox: A Novel

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Myra is a Manhattan psychotherapist. But when she learns that her phobia-addled son is moving back to New York with his wife and child, she responds with a mother’s heart rather than the prudence that has guided her career. Myra invites her son’s family to share her brownstone and hires Eva, from a Jewish community deep in the Amazon, as a nanny and housekeeper. Eva seems like the perfect addition, but as she reveals more of herself, the felicitous arrangement turns ominous. Slowly and inexorably, the ...

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Tinderbox: A Novel

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Myra is a Manhattan psychotherapist. But when she learns that her phobia-addled son is moving back to New York with his wife and child, she responds with a mother’s heart rather than the prudence that has guided her career. Myra invites her son’s family to share her brownstone and hires Eva, from a Jewish community deep in the Amazon, as a nanny and housekeeper. Eva seems like the perfect addition, but as she reveals more of herself, the felicitous arrangement turns ominous. Slowly and inexorably, the relationship becomes too close, too entangled—and, ultimately, terrifyingly destructive.

With Tinderbox, the psychoanalyst and novelist Lisa Gornick gives us a gripping story of the tragedy of good intentions—a haunting mystery of hidden traumas and a searingly perceptive exploration of power and love.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This well-crafted novel from Gornick (A Private Sorcery) tells the story of a family knocked off-balance with warm assurance. Myra is the definition of graceful aging, but her carefully structured life is interrupted when her son and his family move back in with her while his wife, Rachida, completes her medical training. At the same time, Myra hires Eva, a Peruvian Jewish woman just arrived in New York, as a housemaid and nanny. Eva is sweet and diligent, but Myra, a psychologist, quickly notices signs of troubling behavior. Eva's issues and their causes hover in the background as the marriage of Myra's son, Adam, sputters and her daughter, Caro, successful in her career but stalled otherwise, tries to work through her own problems. The novel builds to a dramatic crisis, but it maintains a level tone throughout; sometimes this formality or equanimity takes away from the reading experience, as when conversations seem unnaturally articulate, but in general, turning the pages is a pleasure. There is betrayal, sadness, and tragedy, and particular richness in details about the varieties of the characters' Jewish experiences—Eva and Rachida come from communities in Peru and Morocco, respectively, while Myra's family is ambivalent about religion—that provide interest and structure, but apart from all this, it's the realistic portrayal of relationships and personalities that carries the book. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews
A Peruvian maid upends a household in Gornick's complex psychodrama. For Myra, a psychoanalyst, order is the guiding principal of her life. The only child of austere, unloving parents, she has arranged her existence with exactitude. Although her cardiologist husband, Larry, long ago left her for an ever-younger succession of trophy wives, she is now content to live alone in her Manhattan brownstone, where she also sees patients and has recently taken up the piano. Her equilibrium is upset when a stranger--or strangers--comes to town. Her screenwriter son, Adam, his Moroccan wife, Rachida, a doctor, and their son, Omar, arrive from Detroit, and they will live with Myra while Rachida completes a residency. Myra's daughter Caro, a preschool director with an eating disorder, is conflicted about her brother's return. Until his marriage, Adam, who suffers from several phobias, was symbiotically dependent on his older sister. In need of domestic help, Myra hires Eva, recommended by a cousin in Peru. Eva, who comes from an abusive home (just how abusive will be a major plot determinant), is descended from Moroccan Jews, rubber traders who came to the Amazon and married native women. Although raised Catholic, Eva is seeking to reinforce her Jewish identity. Adam identifies with Eva's quest, which jibes with one of his film obsessions, John Ford's The Searchers. Secrets abound: Adam is also obsessed with gay porn magazines. Rachida is carrying on a lesbian affair with a colleague, and Caro still suffers the aftereffects of amorous adventures in Morocco (which led, indirectly, to her brother's engagement). Emboldened by Myra's professional empathy, Eva reveals that her father also loved porn, which prompted his molestation of Eva and led ultimately to her mother's death. When Eva discovers Adam's cache of smut, a catastrophe ensues that explodes the family's carefully groomed complacency. But too many point-of-view characters, some in-your-face symbolism, and a soft-focus, partly redemptive ending dilute the impact of this psychologically authoritative second novel. Flares up but fizzles too soon.
From the Publisher
Tinderbox is a brilliant gem of a novel: a page-turner that reminds us that, while we are never without the weight of our past, we also choose how we carry it. Lisa Gornick mines her characters’ hidden histories and ignites our interest from page one. Absolutely riveting.”—Christina Baker Kline, No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train

Tinderbox will certainly be compared to Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed The Corrections. And it should be, since Gornick creates a world of characters every bit as complex and flawed—and as real—as Franzen’s subjects.”—Jewish Book World

“I clung to every page of Tinderbox....Gornick has translated the very real and tender chaos of family into a novel that’s expertly constructed and engaging.”—Bustle

“I loved this novel—it is deeply intelligent and shot through with suspense....An extraordinary book, written for adults.”—Joan Silber, PEN/Faulkner finalist for Fools and National Book Award finalist for Ideas of Heaven

“This vivid portrait of a family unravelling is perfect for book clubs.”—People, Four-Star Review

“Lisa Gornick is both a writer and a psychoanalyst. Her gifts for seeing beyond the surface, for appreciating and depicting the consequences of unrealized love and psychic pain, for observing with unblinking honesty the dynamics of family life and human foibles, come together in this novel, which starts off like a brush fire and then engulfs and burns with fury.”—Lloyd I. Sederer, The Huffington Post

Tinderbox is the story of a family undergoing seismic changes brought on by a stranger who unwittingly forces her hosts to face themselves. A masterly and dramatic group portrait, drawn with intelligence, precision, and deep feeling.”—Daniel Menaker, author of The Treatment

“A fiery, tender novel about the smoldering secrets that can destroy a family. Lisa Gornick is a psychoanalyst as well as a novelist, and the training serves her well. She exposes her characters with a skilled therapist’s blend of gentility and intensity. She knows just when to hang back—and when to light the match.”—Lisa Zeidner, author of Love Bomb and Layover

“I was gripped from the first line of Lisa Gornick’s ingenious novel to the last. Using a polished prose to scratch hard and deep through the surface of a pristine upper-middle-class Upper West Side family’s life, Gornick’s incisive narrative explores the creepy underbelly of privilege and self-satisfaction.”—Jenny McPhee, author of A Man of No Moon

“What a smart, compassionate novel Lisa Gornick has written! In the first line of Tinderbox, Myra says yes when she should say no, allowing her maternal instincts to trump her wisdom as a therapist. That tension—the tug of war between the advice we give others and the life we actually live—pulls the reader through this wonderful book of family turmoil. Getting to know these characters truly, madly, deeply is as gut-wrenching and joyful as life itself.”—Mary Kay Zuravleff, author of The Bowl is Already Broken

Praise for A Private Sorcery:

A Private Sorcery is a deep, powerful, exciting story that casts a spell on the reader from the opening pages. I was riveted and entranced—and something even more than that: thrilled to be in the presence of an important and authentic new voice.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Slow Motion


“Every now and then a new voice comes along that makes sense of our deep need for stories and their tellers. Lisa Gornick is one of those voices—she manages to match a compelling storyline with a language that is simultaneously intimate, intelligent, and crafted. It’s certainly not easy to make it seem so easy. A Private Sorcery is a wonderfully honest book, deeply felt, with characters carved from the true stuff of what we are. A first-rate novel, all the more surprising since it is Gornick’s debut.”—Colum McCann, author of This Side of Brightness


“An astonishingly good novel and completely compelling, A Private Sorcery is superbly written and sparkles with intelligence and subtlety. I can’t remember a first novel in the last ten years that has impressed me as much as this. The characters are complex and fascinating. The evocation of place and time is vivid and convincing. This seems to me to be a novel for grown-ups.”—Charles Palliser, author of Quincunx and The Unburied

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374277864
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/10/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 272,681
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa Gornick is the author of the novel A Private Sorcery and an award-winning short story writer and essayist. She holds a B.A. from Princeton, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at N.Y.U. and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia. Her collection of linked stories, Louisa Meets Bear, is forthcoming from Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Read an Excerpt





Myra cradles the phone to her ear as she gives the yes that she knows even now, this April Saturday morning, should be a no. Her yes is not even a yes, since Adam, her fragile second child—acrophobic, claustrophobic, equinophobic screenwriter of grade-B Westerns—is too avoidant to make a request, though the request is so clearly implied, it might as well be granted words.

“Rachida’s head was still in Morocco when she chose dermatology,” Adam says in the mumbly voice that has followed him from childhood, muffled now by the scraggly beard he grew at thirty with the hope of no longer being mistaken for a teen. “There, so many diseases present with the skin, dermatology is frontline medicine. Here, in Detroit, with her office in a shopping mall, she feels like a glorified aesthetician. She rolls her eyes when her patients complain about pimples. She scowls when they ask for Botox.”

Pools of gold light spill onto the dining terrace, where Myra has spent the past hour planting terra-cotta pots that by summer will be filled with blooming thyme, Kirby cucumbers, and grape tomatoes sweet as cherries. The loamy scent of potting soil wafts through the open sliding doors into the kitchen of the Manhattan brownstone where she lives alone and keeps her psychotherapy office as she pieces together that her chronically angry Moroccan-Jewish dermatologist daughter-in-law has accepted a one-year respecialization fellowship in primary care at a hospital less than a mile away.

“They offered us housing in the medical student high rises. A junior four on the nineteenth floor…” Adam’s voice trails off as banks of gleaming elevators he would never enter fill Myra’s mind—and then the image of her six-year-old grandson, Omar, trudging on his sturdy little legs behind his panting father up flight after flight of stairs.


Caro studies Myra’s long smooth forearms. Is there a cosmic lesson to be learned in this second year of the new millennium from her mother’s effortless beauty? Does Beauty, outraged by her mother’s indifference, seek her out?

It is Sunday, their weekly dinner at the Amsterdam Avenue macrobiotic place, neither of them vegetarian but neither with a taste for trendier restaurants. Caro spears a wedge of organic yam as her mother places her chopsticks on her plate and folds her hands.

“Adam called yesterday. Rachida is going to do her fellowship here. They’ll be coming at the end of June, as soon as Omar finishes school.”

There is a twinge of discomfort as Caro recognizes that neither Adam nor Rachida has phoned to tell her, a reminder of the excessive reserve she has felt with them since their marriage. A problem, Caro thinks, rooted in confusion over Rachida, not really about loyalties, though it is hard to trace where those lie, but rather about who knows whom best—Caro having met Rachida first, at Rachida’s parents’ home in Essaouira, which Adam, afraid to fly, has never seen.

“Great,” Caro murmurs, the word hollow even to her own ears. But why would she not mean it? Even if they have drifted apart, she loves her brother, her little brother, as she still thinks of him, despite there being only two years between them. Her greater ease at making a way in the world—her Harvard degree and semester abroad, with Adam unable to leave the city for college; her big job, with Adam still scraping by—has so long been the warp and woof of their lives, it has left no room for poisonous rivalry. And how could there be after all those years of Adam’s fears and phobias: elevators, which complicated considerably their childhood in New York City, and airplanes, which required their mother to escort them by train each March to visit their cardiologist father installed in his fantasy casita outside of Tucson, and horses, of which their father and his second wife had kept six. The annual battle between their father and Adam over Adam’s refusal to ride until the wrangler hired to teach Adam sat their father down and said, Doc, you know how to listen to a heart, but me, I know horses and how people and horses get along, and one thing you can’t do is force a human to ride a horse, which is what you’re trying to do with that boy of yours.

Her mother passes her fingers through her gunmetal hair, cut in a blunt downtown way that makes the color look more chosen than fated. “They’re going to live with me for the year.”

Caro holds herself very still in an effort not to react, not to blurt out anything, but it is useless. Her brows knit together, a habit since childhood. Then, her mother would smooth the flat of her hand over Caro’s broad forehead, inheritance from a line of Jewish peasant women with faces round as cabbages that somehow skipped over her and Adam’s sculpted visages. “Poor Caro,” her mother once whispered, “fated to be the most sensible of us all,” as though in Caro’s features her personality is sealed.

“The housing they offered Rachida is on the nineteenth floor. Obviously impossible for Adam. With only Rachida’s fellowship salary and the pittance he got for the option on his last screenplay, they’d have to live in Yonkers or Queens. Where would Omar go to school?”

“Where’s he going to go if he lives with you? Even if they could afford private school, it’s too late to apply.”

Her mother takes a long drink from her glass of triple-filtered water. She fixes her cornflower-blue eyes on Caro’s chocolate-brown ones. “I was thinking that with your school connections you could find them something.”

Caro sighs.

“I’ll handle the tuition.”

Had anyone asked her, she would not have agreed that she is the most sensible of them all. The least squeaky wheel, yes, but not the most sensible. Built like the field hockey player she once was—short, stocky, and a little bowlegged, she has been slender only once in her life: the semester she spent in Paris that rolled into the summer she met Rachida and her family in Essaouira. Now she lives alone, with not so much as a goldfish, the 120 children at the East Harlem preschool where she is the director quite enough company for her, thank you.

“Where will you put them?”

Her mother produces a pale green sheet of paper torn from one of the steno pads in which she keeps her patient notes, a pad for each patient, each tucked like children’s jackets in their assigned slots inside the rolltop desk she locks every night. Under each slot is a label marked with the patient’s appointment time: 8:45, 9:30, 10:15, 11:00. Then, in the afternoon, 2:30, 3:15, 4:00, and 4:45. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Not until Caro graduated from college and returned to New York did she understand that not all therapists keep the same schedule every day and don’t see patients on Wednesdays—not to mention, write every morning from five to eight, walk every noon hour around the reservoir, or take up, as her mother had at the age of fifty, the piano.

On the paper, her mother has sketched her four-story house in cross section. In the front fourth-floor room, down the hall from her mother’s own room in the back, in what had been Adam’s room, there is an O for what Caro assumes will be Omar’s room. On the third floor, in Caro’s old room with the branches from the neighbors’ backyard tree nearly touching the window, there is A&R, in what apparently will be Adam and Rachida’s room.

“In here,” her mother points to the front third-floor room they had called the TV room and that now houses her grand piano, “Adam can set up a desk. I’m never there during the day.”

The parlor level—with the roll-armed couch that once belonged to her mother’s parents and the cream Corbusier swivel chairs and black Barcelona chairs her parents bought when her father got his first job after his residency, in the front by the bay windows filled with the southern light—appears unchanged. Separating the seating and kitchen areas is the weathered farm table her mother found in an antique store in the Bronx before catalogue furniture companies began selling knock-off versions. At the back is the kitchen with the soapstone counters and the dining deck that looks out over the garden her mother created from a patch of torn-up concrete.

The entrance to the garden is through her mother’s ground-floor office, the French doors sketched ajar, as she keeps them when the weather is warm. Summers, on the side table next to the patient chair, a vase of heritage roses sits by the tissue box. Next to the waiting room is a tiny bedroom and miniature bath, which the architect who designed the space called the au pair’s suite, the necessity of which he had insisted, and which her mother has sporadically rented to a graduate student.

Caro studies the sketch. She can find no holes in her mother’s plan. All she knows is that her mouth has gone dry and her mind has drifted to the pint of Chunky Monkey ice cream she will buy on her way home.


Copyright © 2013 by Lisa Gornick

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2013

    Stumbled across this book through a recommendation of a close fr

    Stumbled across this book through a recommendation of a close friend and I was not disappointed. Wasn't sure what I was getting into since I had not read the authors previous book but I soon found myself encased in the world Gornick created. The family dynamic she exposes is comparable with great drama's of the past few years, in print and on television. The underlying theme has always been popular within American pop culture and has gained steam over the past few years and "Tinderbox" seizes upon this and makes for a great read. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a well written, dynamic novel. 

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2013

    Really good book. At times difficult to digest...overall worth r

    Really good book. At times difficult to digest...overall worth reading
    Now I'll check out her first novel 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2013

    Well-crafted and intelligent page turner....detailed and well dr

    Well-crafted and intelligent page turner....detailed and well drawn characters, interesting themes and unique plot turns...
    a fun read, loaded with great ideas and beautiful writing.  Grab it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2013


    This book is very well written, but many of the themes are unexpected and turn out to be very strange. I found few of the characters to be likeable, which made it a difficult read to get through.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2013

    Great Book! Simply put this is an interesting read and I highly

    Great Book! Simply put this is an interesting read and I highly recommend it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2013

    Excellent read. One of those books that makes you want to read i

    Excellent read. One of those books that makes you want to read it from front to back in one sitting. Definitely recommended.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews

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