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Fans of Volk's critically acclaimed memoir, Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family, will be pleased to find her effortlessly amusing and wise voice behind her accomplished second novel. Alice Vogel, a 62-year-old married Upper West Sider (and proprietress of an Upper East Side boutique), meets, for the first time, Nanny Wunderlich, a 59-year-old widowed therapist-turned-real estate agent, when the two are made co-executrixes of their dead friend Roberta's safe deposit box. In it, they discover a letter from an unnamed lover (Roberta was married) and team up to discover just with whom it was that their dear friend had been clandestinely sleeping. Alice and Nanny's sleuthing is perfunctory, and their voices, in alternating first-person chapters (and some in third person), aren't distinct. But the two are still fully realized New Yorkers, and—beyond frequenting Zabar's and the Metropolitan Opera, and using words like "gazillion"—they have real, stinging insights into later life in the big city: "Charles laughs. If smell had form and color, I would be enveloped in puce haze the size of a hassock," says Alice of the husband she loves. It's Volk's easy depth that makes this book, perhaps the first piece of empty nest chick lit, a winner. (Apr.)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Naked Charles pads from his shower to his semainier. He would not dream of turning on our light. Charles assumes I am asleep. After so many years, he senses his way in the dark.
He slides a drawer, raising both pulls so it whispers. He extracts jockey shorts I fold so no seams show, each pair a white tuffet, his small daily gift. When we were newlyweds, Charles stood on one foot, then the other, a flamingo. Now he pulls his shorts up leaning against the wall. Someday he will collapse on our slipper chair, use his cane to spread the leg holes, then inch them up his calves. It is a privilege to watch your partner over time.
If soul may look and body touch,
Which is the more blest?
Charles steers his right foot in. I glimpse the silhouette of his bobbling apparatus. How perverse to cage it in clothes. All that flagrant manhood neatly squared away. He stretches on his undershirt. Watery light sculpts the muscle range of his back. No matter how soft Charles gets around the middle, his bent back stays bandy.
All these years and there’s pleasure yet watching him.
In the kitchen, Charles has put up coffee. I take a cup back to bed. November sun stipples trees along the Hudson. Leaves wink like sequins. Today will be perfect. There are, in a good year, perhaps ten such days in New York. They have nothing to do with temperature. They can come any season. No one can predict them. On these days the air is supercharged. There is more of something vital in it. People breathe deeper, walk taller. They pause to fill their lungs and smile without premeditation. Dogs high-step, their tails thrum. On these days the bus driver keeps the doors open when he spots you running.
Along Riverside Drive joggers wear down-filled vests, no gloves, no watch caps. Wind billows hair but not enough to backhand. I won’t need a coat. The gray cashmere scarf, perhaps. In my date book I check off yesterday:
NOTES W. YUMI
SKIM, COF. FILTERS, COMET
CALL MR. FLEISCHMAN
A slash through each except Fleischman.
Today is wall-to-wall appointments.
10 MR. OLIPHANT: 230 CPS
I’ll have to go downtown, miss my run. Why would Roberta’s lawyer want to see me? Does Betsy need a guardian? Betsy is thirty-one. Jack is alive. Oh Roberta. My poor darling.
11:30 MRS. VANDERVOORT
Mrs. Vandervoort. Normally I don’t open the shop till noon but Mrs. Vandervoort is terrified someone will see her in Luba and her things are awfully good. Luba is about nothing if not discreet accommodation.
How did that happen? Bags of winter inventory up to the ceiling. Here it is, almost December. They should have been on the floor after Labor Day.
She’s due January ninth. Could the baby’s head be down? Oh no. What if they ask us to participate in the birth? Is that an invitation one can decline?
A jam-packed day. Should I cancel the lawyer? Reschedule for late afternoon? Better to get it over with. Surely Roberta didn’t leave me anything else. She gave me a bracelet. Our last lunch at Café on 5.
“Alice.” She undid the clasp. “I want you to smile every time you look at it. You’ve got to promise me. Stop shaking your head, Alice.”
“I don’t want it, Roberta.” I said. “Keep it. Please. You’re going to need it.”
“Right.” She grabbed my wrist with stunning strength. “And O.J. was innocent.”
What would I have left you if I died first, Roberta dear? You coveted my shagreen eyeglass case. You never failed to admire Grand-mère’s lava-cameo bracelet. How I wish I had given it to you.
Gray silk blouse, gray cardigan. I prefer clothes the colors of the inside of an oyster shell. Gray slacks. I will make the most of this inconvenient morning. I will walk over to Broadway, pick up bagels for Mother at H&H, drop them with her doorman, then cut through the park at Seventy-second, take the West Drive, and exit on Central Park South. I’ll bring the puzzle, in case Roberta’s lawyer keeps me waiting. Then catch a Limited bus up Madison and be at Luba in plenty of time for Mrs. Vandervoort.
Marvelous coffee. Italian roast from Zabar’s. One peaked tablespoon per cup. Charles knows how I like it. The beauty of a marriage is its ongoingness. The staying together, the sharing of history, the appreciation of wrinkles and sag in flesh once known in its taut prime. And the longest stretches of all, the plowing comfort of the quotidian, intimacy with all its lows and reprieves. Marriage is like liver. It regenerates.
Chapter Two: Nanny Gets Up
It takes a crazy man to make a woman feel alive.
I roll toward you, launch an exploratory toe.
The sheets are ice.
Every morning it’s news. Every morning is Day One. Not that I dream you’re alive then wake up only to discover. Every night my cerebellum crashes. If you’ve been married to someone for thirty-two years and he’s been dead three, how long does it take to get used to waking up alone? Is there a formula? 32+3–x<365>:58+y=z?
Thirty-two years and you croaked on me.
Something important is happening today. What time is it? What good is a clock without glasses? Why don’t glasses have locator buttons like the phone? You press a button, your glasses beep and . . . There they are—innocent by the toaster. A locator for the phone book too. The cell. One giant locator screwed to the wall so you can locate the locator. The Master Locator. That’s it. I’ll make a mint. Missing glasses, the basic—no, innate—no, intrinsic irony: how can you find them if you need them to see them?
I’m supposed to be somewhere. Something important is happening today. Maybe they’re in the duvet. Shake it and stuff flies out: books, socks, spoons. Our bed, my bed, it’s the office now. Office, dining room, library. If three rooms fell off this place I’d never know. The bed is control central. Everything that matters takes place on it. Except what used to matter.
Bobbie. The important thing has to do with Bobbie.
Think. Take it slow. Rule out places 100 percent the first time so you don’t have to go back. Not on the end table.
End table done.
Think, Nanny. You got into bed at ten-thirty. Finished the Times. Turned out the light. Ah. Still on my head.
I clomp into the kitchen and by the time I reach the coffeemaker my ankles are broken in for the day. While it drips, I wake up my computer, hit the folder marked CALENDAR, and read November 20.
10—Mr. Oliphant—230 CPS. Right.
“Dear Mrs. Wunderlich,” the letter said. “I represent the estate of the late Roberta Heumann Bloom.”
I don’t get it. Why does Bobbie’s lawyer want to see me? She already gave me the bracelet. Who knew she had a lawyer? Who knew she had an estate? Two weeks ago she was alive.
The Glogowers. Got to find them a place. Meredith’s six months. Breaking my heart, these Glogowers.
3:30—the Kleckners—22 E. 87
Ken and Ricki. Royal pain.
Maybe she left me money. Wouldn’t that be something. I was her best friend. Bobbie worried about me and money.
“He’s tapping his TIAA-CREF?” she marveled. “Fred’s taking money out of his retirement fund?”
“He earned it, Bobbie.”
“That’s not the point, Nanny.”
What really made her nuts were our taxes.
“Let me get this straight. He points, you sign? You’re telling me you don’t look?”
And I’d say, “If I can’t trust Freddy, who can I trust?”
“Nanny”—she’d roll her eyes—“trust is not the issue.”
I print out today’s page and put it in my bag. In the bathroom, I wash my face—or, rather, cleanse it. In Makeup Court, soap gets you the chair. According to Flora, you must splash warm water, pat dry, dab on grapefruit cleanser, rinse, pat dry again, follow with kiwi toner to neutralize the pH factor, then study face in a 6X mirror. Not for the fainthearted.
“If no one can see I have one white hair on my chin, why do I have to tweeze it?” I asked my daughter. “Why do I have to see what’s wrong with me six times larger? Nobody looks at me with 6X magnification.”
Daily face inspection. Someone cares what I look like, even if it’s only me. Not that aging is bad. So you worry about a hair on your chin instead of a pimple. So your ankles are a little stiff in the morning instead of cramps five days a month. Aging is merely a substitution of things that alarmed you then for things that alarm you now. All of life has equal alarm weight. What should I be grateful for now that I don’t realize? What am I taking for granted one day I’ll miss? Knees! I never think about my knees! Women my age, women younger, have to ratchet out of a cab.
Bobbie’s lawyer. Jeez, I hope it’s money.
From the Hardcover edition.
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your discussion of the characters, themes, and setting Patricia Volk brings so vividly to life in her novel, To My Dearest Friends.
1. How do the initial portraits of Alice [pp. 5–8] and Nanny [pp. 9–11] set the tone of the novel? What particular details quickly establish each character's personality? What makes their narrative voices distinct? In what ways is the dual perspective appropriate to the story?
2. Why does Volk present Dale's letter to Roberta twice, first interspersing Alice's thoughts and interpretations and then Nanny's [pp. 25–35]? Why is this literary device so effective?
3. Do Nanny's and Alice's attitudes and observations reflect feelings common to many women of their age or do the specific circumstances of their lives set them apart? To what extent is Nanny a “typical” widow? Do her descriptions of her life and emotions [p. 17, p. 71] ring true? How would Alice define her job as proprietor of Luba, her “preowned boutique”? Why, despite her gentle mockery of her clients [p. 37, for example], is the shop important to her?
4. What does the conversation Nanny and Alice have after meeting with Roberta's lawyers show about the way women talk about friendships [p.18–21]? How does Volk capture the rivalries and insecurities that often color even the closest, most trusting relationships? Are women more likely to feel—or express—these complicated emotions than men are? Do you think that the way boys and girls are raised has an impact on the kinds of relationships they form and the assumptions they make about their friends? In what ways are Alice and Nanny's reactions to one another reminiscent of the behavior of girls and of women younger and presumably less mature than they are?
5. Alice and Nanny discuss the consequences of having “information you wish you didn't have” [p. 55]. What beliefs or personal qualities underlie the different positions they take? Whose point of view do you identify with and why? What obligations, if any, does Roberta's message—“You know what to do” [p. 96]—place on them?
6. Discuss the portrait of Roberta as it unfolds through Alice's and Nanny's reminiscences. Is it a clear and consistent picture or are they influenced by the role she played in their lives and by their own needs? Did Roberta present herself differently to each of them, and if so, why? Is her choice of two such different friends unusual? Do Nanny's descriptions of her various friendships echo your own experience [p. 183]?
7. Alice quotes Yeats several times throughout the novel [pp. 5, 61, 88, 111, 166]. What is the significance of her interest in and admiration for the poet? Do the individual quotations offer insights into the themes of the novel?
8. What part does Nanny's training as a therapist play in her decision to seek out Roberta's lover? To what extent is she driven by an emotional commitment that remains strong even after her friend's death?
9. Is the Pennebaker theory—“Self-disclosure boosts the immune system. It reduces shame and guilt” [p. 52]—a valid and helpful guide to behavior? Are there situations in which self-disclosure is more harmful than beneficial? Discuss the possible reasons Alice and Nanny give for Roberta's behavior and motives [p. 53]. Given what you know about Roberta, which theories are the most plausible? What else might explain her decision to let her friends deal with her secret?
10. How would you characterize the marriages described in the book? Which marriage is the strongest? What part do the husbands play in the choices the women make? What do their marriages reveal about the three women's views of themselves and their roles as wives and mothers?
11. Is Alice completely honest with herself about her fling with Mr. Wald [p. 77]? In what ways does her affair parallel Roberta's taking a lover and how is it different? To what extent are their decisions based on dissatisfaction with their marriage and/or sexual lives?
12. What kind of mothers are Nanny and Alice? How does her relationship with Flora deepen your understanding of Nanny? Compare Alice's seemingly off-hand thoughts about her son and the impending birth of her grandchild [p. 7] and her reaction to the baby's arrival [p. 169]. In what ways have the discoveries she's made about Roberta account for the changes in Alice's views of both marriage and motherhood?
13. Flora describes Roberta as “manic” and “manipulative” [p. 97]. What adjectives might Nanny use to describe the same behavior? Are children often able to see things about adults and adult relationships that their parents are either unable or unwilling to admit? To what extent are the criticisms children—including grown children—express about their parents' lives based on their limited knowledge of the way the world works? Does age and experience temper our opinions and make us more forgiving?
14. A discussion about the difference between “privacy” and “secrets” arises during the dinner at Jack's house [p. 107]. How would you define each? Do both words imply exercising a sense of right and wrong or do you agree with Alice that “something private has no moral implications”? Is the avoidance of hurting other people a basic moral principle? Are Alice's affair with Mr. Wald and Roberta's affair with Dale morally justifiable?
15. Were you surprised to discover the identity of Roberta's lover? Did it make a difference to your feelings about Roberta or about the novel as a whole?
16. Volk turns New York City, the setting of To My Dearest Friends, into a character in its own right. Which scenes best convey the excitement and pleasures of living in New York? The downside of life in the city? How does Volk use humor or exaggeration to create vivid and memorable impressions of the city and of New Yorkers? Do you think the culture and situations she describes are unique to New York?
Posted January 30, 2009
I liked the idea behind the story, two strangers coming together to honor a mutual friend's final request, but the story was a bit of a letdown. I found myself skimming across the pages quite often. The overabundance of details that held no value really slowed things down. The flip-flopping between first and third person narrative made my head spin, especially in the beginning chapters. The book had its good moments, too, like the odd friendship between Nanny and Alice and the surprise ending. It made me think about my own friends and how much I really know about them and how much I want to know.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 25, 2008
I love the way the book is written. Each chapter is told from either Alice¿s or Nanny¿s perspective; alternating throughout. These women are so different, and yet they had the same best friend, so they must have similarities. Ultimately, Roberta¿s letter-adventure brings two unlikely women together as friends. Perhaps that¿s the best legacy anyone can leave. Also: Great twist at the end. I thought I had it figured out¿ <BR/><BR/>It¿s a quick read, too. Very breezy at around 185 pages and not too sentimental or syrupy-sweet. <BR/><BR/>In a book club setting, it would be interesting to discuss which character each person identified with more: Alice or Nanny.<BR/><BR/>Also, these questions would be good to ponder: <BR/>How well do you know anyone? Do you really want to know everything about someone, like a best friend or spouse? Because knowing everything would change the relationship ¿ how could it not? <BR/>How much of yourself do you reveal? And to whom? Does any one person know everything about you? Do you want someone to? It¿s okay to keep some parts of yourself to yourself, right? As for the things you don¿t tell anyone: Why don¿t you? Does the reason ¿why¿ matter?<BR/>What¿s the difference between keeping a secret and keeping something private?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 14, 2008
This is a book about a lady who has friends from all walks of life and they do not necessarily know each other. When she passes away, many lives are affected and there are questions that need to be answered. Will two different women who did not know each other but both had a great friend in common work together? Interesting and an unexpected ending for me. I think this is a great book for all women of all ages.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 31, 2008