Trophy House: A Novelby Anne Bernays
It begins with the construction of a totally inappropriate and/i>
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Trophy House is an extraordinary and complex novel, at one level a romantic thriller, at another a deeply satisfying story about the disintegration of a marriage and the consequences for all concerned -- that rare piece of fiction that is at once thrilling, grown-up and completely believable.
It begins with the construction of a totally inappropriate and enormous house -- a "trophy house" -- which unexpectedly comes to threaten the tranquillity of what appears to be one woman's perfect life and marriage. Dannie Faber has lots of reasons to feel blessed. A children's book illustrator, she shares a loving marriage with Tom, an M.I.T. professor, with whom she divides her time between one of Boston's finest suburbs and a beloved beach house in Truro, on Cape Cod. And then, for reasons she could not possibly have foreseen, Dannie's life begins to unravel.
With Trophy House, Anne Bernays -- author of Professor Romeo and Growing Up Rich -- delivers a poignant, funny, and ultimately wrenching story of adults in peril and the unlikely hope for romance that, in the end, becomes the key to surviving events that are beyond their control. It is a brilliant and moving portrait of a marriage.
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"On the beach there is a ceaseless activity, always something going on, in storm and in calm, winter and summer, night and day. Even the sedentary man here enjoys a breadth of view which is almost equivalent to motion."
Henry David Thoreau,
"To the untrained observer size often appeals more than proportion and costliness than suitability."
The Decoration of Houses
On the Wednesday after Labor Day, when most of the summer people had, thank God, left the Lower Cape, my bosom friend, Raymie Parsons, called me around eight in the morning as she did several times a week before I got down to work. Raymie is a geyser of gossip and hard news, a Wife of Bath; she knows people in high and low places and most of them are crazy about her, although she has her share of enemies, no doubt the result of excessive candor on her part. I keep telling her she ought to write a column for the Banner, but she claims it would spoil the fun, interfere with gossip's ad hoc nature. One of the things she told me was about this great meal she had had at Caro's, a place I avoid because of the noise made by diners ingesting the Lower Cape's priciest food and shouting at each other as if everyone was deaf. I asked her what she'd had. A Portuguese stew with five kinds of shellfish, halibut, sausage, and rice on the side. Then she said her evening was almost spoiled by a man who slipped the headwaiter a bill and thereby got himself seated ahead of everyone else waiting for a table. "It was so out there, so in-your-face. Before you knew it, he had the best seats in the house, you know, the table way back in the corner they reserve for Norman Mailer and Norris. That kind of sleaze really pisses me off. I suppose I should be used to it by now."
They refuse to take reservations at Caro's -- that's another reason I don't go there.
"What's he look like?" I asked her.
"Well, for one thing, he was wearing a suit jacket. Who wears a suit jacket in P'Town in September? And for another, he had one of those trophy wives with him. At least she acted more like a wife than a girlfriend -- you know what I mean, like she was a little bored. She was wearing tight designer jeans that showed off her butt, a skimpy silky top, sort of lime green, and glued hair." I asked her what she meant by glued hair. She said, "I guess it was moussed, not glued, but it looked sticky."
"Probably Manolo What's-His-Name," Raymie said. "Here's the thing. Where have all the artists gone? Where the playwrights and poets? Where's the pastel tourist? This town is being overrun by people whose only claim on real estate has to do with gelt."
I told her she was being naïve and asked, rhetorically, when the world had ever been different. "You told me what he was wearing, but not what he looked like."
"Eyebrows," she said. "They were so bushy they almost covered his eyes. Black eyes. Very white around the pupils, like a kid's. He had one of those aren't-I-groovy five o'clock shadows. Have you ever smooched with a man who hasn't shaved in two days? He had a mean mouth. Look, Dannie, I may be making all this up. I only got a quick look. But the eyebrows -- he puts Miracle-Gro on them and waters them every day."
"But the stew was good."
"Better than good," she said.
The one thing neither of us went anywhere near was that one year ago to the day the Twin Towers had been destroyed in the blink of an eye, sending most of us into a paroxysm of rage and fear and dreams of revenge (sometimes followed by an unexpected sense of guilt: what had we done to make them hate us so much?). I would have mentioned it if I'd had the right words.
Raymie ran one of the very few bed-and-breakfasts in Provincetown. There are a lot of hotels and motels, but only three B & Bs. I've always thought them an awkward hybrid, but apparently enough people want to stay in them to make them profitable. Raymie's divorced; Parsons is her ex's name, but she prefers it to her own, which she claims is too hard to pronounce. I think she secretly hoped that one of her male guests would take the kind of shine to her that leads to the altar. Raymie was fifty-one or -two and looked much younger, thanks to hours working out and eating the right things. She's not deeply into feminism -- at least on the surface. She's always been extremely self-sufficient and opinionated, but she hates most labels, especially when someone tries to stick one on her. The only one she's proud of is "environmentalist." Whenever anyone violates the National Seashore Trust or pollutes -- even by throwing a candy wrapper into the water -- she pounces. She's a bulldog about saving the planet, undoing global warming -- there's just about nothing interesting that Raymie isn't either for or against.
Superficially, Raymie and I are as unlike as Manhattan and Truro. She's a lapsed Catholic from Queens, where she was born and where she lived before her divorce. My New England roots go way back; my mom is fifth-generation, a Yankee who married her second cousin, causing a ripple within the family, but it wasn't enough to stop her. My difficult but admirable father died last year. He was a World War Two vet who lost the power of speech for three months after some harrowing action in Germany, then recovered sufficiently to get a law degree at Yale and use it profitably for thirty years. He left my mom comfortably off, meaning she didn't have to sell either her house in Boston's Back Bay or her place in Boca. She's a good egg, really, never comes to visit uninvited, tries not to tell me how to raise my children, and has no major health problems -- yet. Some people call me a hermit, but I don't like to think of myself that way, mainly because it sounds as if I hate people, which I don't. I just prefer being alone or in the company of my husband, Tom; my children, Beth and Mark; Raymie; and one or two others. I don't much like parties, especially when they're big and noisy. Some people think that if you don't like parties there's something wrong with you.
I often walk around with a twenty-year-old Nikon hanging from my neck. I shoot pictures mainly of things and animals rather than people, who seem to freeze or act silly when exposed to the serious end of a camera. My favorite subjects are pale reedy grasses, dunes whose vegetable cover changes from week to week, houses in the middle distance, where they seem most isolated and, even if they're nothing special in terms of architecture or building materials, assume a kind of stalwart personality. It's like when you take a picture of a man in a roomy overcoat standing quite far off, with his back to you, he looks more interesting than he probably really is.
My husband, Thomas Faber, is basically a gentle, distracted person who teaches anthropology at MIT, an institution famous for its hard sciences, its supertechno-everything. So subjects like the one Thomas teaches are more tolerated than sought after. But it also means that his best students are sort of like members of an offshoot religious sect. They cling together. They have keg parties to which Tom is always invited; they go hiking together in the White Mountains and play penny-ante poker at least twice a month (at which he loses a relative bundle because he doesn't know how to maintain a poker face). Tom often lets one of them crash on our living room couch. They're slightly more polite than our own children, but they eat everything in sight and Tom encouraged them to raid our refrigerator, something that really ticks me off, since I never know when or how many. This freeloading business lurks between me and Tom, and whenever we're tired or stressed, we return to it like an unhealed wound. I accuse him of being thoughtless; he accuses me of being a tight-ass. There's nowhere to go with this. A couple of years ago Tom won the Teacher of the Year in the Humanities Award.
We have an arrangement: I stay on the Cape from late April to November, and he's come and go. He spends most of the summer in Truro, but he also travels a good deal -- conferences, consulting, other professional commitments met, I must say, with lively pleasure. He's not the kind of nature person I am. He likes watching the water come in and go out and he's fairly into birds -- knows the names and identifying features of most of the shore birds that live around here. But he gets antsy after nothing but water and birds for two weeks or so -- and off he goes again. Beth says, "Dad isn't very good at doing nothing." But all and all it works out okay and we have, over the years, trusted each other not to mess with other people. I only did once, after a harrowing trip to the dentist when I was awash in self-pity. If Tom has, he has wisely kept it under his hat.
I quizzed Raymie about the clueless man at the restaurant because I thought I knew who he was. Abstractly, he was the enemy. If I was right about who he actually was, he had built a monster house on the bay side less than half a mile down the beach from our place, a house that was to nearby buildings as an elephant is to an ant. There you are, nestling in an area where the car with the most old beach stickers is considered much higher on the food chain than a new one. Small is precious, and the closer you come to inhabiting a shack, the better we genuine Truroites like it. Most of the older houses are gray and weathered and patched. What passes for gardens used to be the wild-growing rugosa and bearberry ground cover, but over the last few years some people have started planting heather and other hardy plants and flowers -- you can't blame them: The urge to garden grabs you sooner or later -- the need for order and color. The Cape wants color.
Just as soon as I hung up from my conversation with Raymie, the phone rang again. The phone seems to have assumed a major role in the play that is my domestic life and fate. I can't imagine how people managed before the telephone. Your husband went to sea and maybe fell overboard and you wouldn't know about it until a year later and all that time you were writing him letters and knitting him socks and thinking what you would say when you saw him come through the front door and the fire that sex with him would ignite as soon as he took off his peacoat.
This time it was Molly Jonas, a retired New York advertising executive who works in the Truro Town Hall and is almost as good a news source as Raymie. In a small town, rumor and bits of questionable news float about as ubiquitously as those little white bits of fluff in the spring, keeping the populace satisfied. Molly wanted me to know that someone was building a swimming pool next to his new monster house, already in a choice location, overlooking the bay. "Another one of those weirdos, thinking it's going to cut some ice with what passes for society out here," Molly said. I was saddened to hear the swimming pool news, this trend toward big and lavish, toward excess as unstoppable as tax cuts for the rich under the Republicans. Bush fils was the kind of disaster you didn't even want to think about because you can't do anything about it -- like a terminal illness. I told Molly I was getting on overload and besides, I already knew about the swimming pool, which was untrue, but I wanted Molly to believe I had got there before she had.
"I have to get to work. It's late," I said. "I'll see you next week at the Stop & Shop meeting." This is one of our more heated concerns: the huge chain market had threatened to erect one of its stores just off Route 6 in Truro. Most of the populace is outraged by this threat, largely -- ignoring the obvious convenience it would bring to weekly food shopping -- because it would destroy the more or less bucolic nature of this sweet little hamlet. For these people it would be like putting a Wal-Mart in the middle of Yellowstone Park. I have to admit I was partly seduced by the convenience aspect, not having to drive thirteen miles to the A & P, but I joined the protest because my friends would hate me if I didn't.
I'm an illustrator of books for children, books published in New York, mostly by Viking, but some others too. Once, long ago, I thought I'd be a real artist, but I've come to terms with just how far my vision could take me -- though my skills are nothing to sneeze at. I've won a couple of small awards for my work and have more than enough commissions to keep me occupied until my fingers get all gnarled up.
When Molly phoned, I was on my way over to the dining table. This is where I work, because the windows facing north throw the best light into the house, and even though it means that whenever we need the table to eat off of, it takes me at least ten minutes to clear it of paints and pencils and paper and related stuff. I was about to do a first pass at a sketch for a book about a dog and a little girl who get separated in the park -- a tale of suspense that seemed to me as bland as Cream of Wheat when it should at least offer its readers a hefty dollop of salsa.
Molly's characterization of this area as attractive to oddballs was not so far off the mark. A lot of singular types gravitate toward Truro and Provincetown, two communities that are nothing alike and that sort of bleed into each other. The opposite of hibernators, these people tend to stay inside in the warm weather, despising and shunning the trickle of tourists who come here by day-trip boats, partly to gawk at the gays and lesbians and partly to buy saltwater taffy and plastic key rings and teeshirts, and to eat themselves sick on hot dogs, fried dough, and fried clams. It's hard to sound good-natured when talking about tourists, but they do so often seem like aliens -- and I don't mean the kind from third-world countries; I mean the outer space kind. I'm sure if you got one or two alone in a room with you, you'd see what nice, open-minded, humorous people they can be. It's just that I never have.
The singular people who live here are hardly clinical. They just don't always do what's expected of ordinary folks. I think they find the Provincetown and/or Truro air and light conducive to leading somewhat dicey lives. There's Billy Lawton, for instance, a man in his sixties who hasn't left his room on the top floor of a house in the West End for twelve years. There's nothing wrong with his legs, he just doesn't walk downstairs. He pays young boys to bring him meals and take out his garbage. He has a VCR and watches old movies. Billy reads a lot. He's also keeping what he claims is the world's longest diary, which he pays other young people to come and listen to while he reads it aloud. I understand it's quite amusing. Then there's Martha Ulrich, who was convicted of murdering her live-in boyfriend because he poisoned her dog. She served a few years in jail and now operates a one-woman band, very badly, in front of Town Hall where the tourists gather to lick ice-cream cones. You don't want to get into a conversation with Martha. There's a group of teenage boys -- doesn't every community have at least one? -- who go around after dark, beating up and rolling gay men. The police can't seem to catch them, but everyone knows who they are and who their mothers and fathers are. Two Provincetown men recently were suspected of lighting fires in beach-side restaurants for purely personal reasons -- that is, each of them had a competing restaurant and probably figured a little conflagration was an efficient way to get rid of the competition. No one has formally fingered either person because the police are so inept that they don't have a clue as to how to proceed when there are two equally provocative suspects. Does this sound crazy? Out here it's standard. My last example is the shoplifter, Sylvia Marcus. She's disgustingly rich; some people think her money came from a Neiman Marcus connection, but that remains an unproved rumor. Sylvia lives with her boyfriend, a local building contractor, on the ocean side in Truro. She climbs into her Beamer every so often, drives the fifteen miles to P'Town, parks on Bradford Street near the center of town, and makes her way from tacky store to tacky store, helping herself to seashells and combs and ballpoint pens and cheap sunglasses. Like the arsonists, she remains as free as a sandpiper hopping over the sand at low tide. No one wants to lay a hand on her because she supports several arts organizations perennially on their uppers. Wellfleet holds weekly square dances for the entire family on its pier; Truro holds a yearly dance in the dump, the place where Tom and I once watched as a semifamous psychoanalyst up-ended a garbage can into the hopper, then looking down into its depths, made a terrible face, and sent the can in after its contents.
But Provincetown and Truro aren't Sodom and Gomorrah, however often off-Cape people insist they are. It's just that, somehow, pushed to the edge metaphorically, a lot of folks out this way also pushed to the edge geographically and put down what passes for roots on the easternmost point of land in the U.S. Still, eccentrics are in the minority, and most of us just like living here for an assortment of reasons that have nothing to do with breaking the law or pederasty. There are thousands of men and women, retired from a life of hard work. There are men in the building trades, making a shitload of money, and who will go on doing so just as long as our town fathers and mothers refuse to put a cap on the number and size of the structures appearing here with the regularity of six-foot waves in a nor'easter.
I stopped working around noon and took our timid eight-year-old yellow Lab, Marshall, down to the beach for a walk. The sky was as blue as a Delft plate and almost cloudless except for a few wisps near the horizon. More and more people, I realized, were staying on past Labor Day, enough to make me uneasy. Figures, made tiny by distance, walked near the edge of Cape Cod Bay; a couple were sitting on the sand, wearing fleece of many colors. A man with bushy eyebrows appeared from over a dune. At his heels was a black standard poodle, clipped to look like a turn-of-the-century chorus girl. The dog calmly pooped onto the sand and failed to kick back over what he'd left there. The man was wearing one of those Irish tweed hats of the sort favored by Senator Moynihan and what looked like a brand new Windbreaker. He paid no attention to the dog, turned halfway around, so that he was facing the water, unzipped his fly, and peed near where the dog had shat. Marshall started to growl and approach them cautiously; courage is not his principal trait. The poodle barked and showed his fangs. I wanted to say something really nasty about using the beach as a public toilet, but I realized that if you pee in front of a woman you don't know, you're probably not the sort of person who's going to take too kindly to the reprimand of a middle-aged woman with no weapon other than her tongue and a wimpy dog. The man was far enough away so that his features were somewhat blurred. But he saw me and touched the brim of his hat in greeting as if nothing at all had happened, and I was abruptly overwhelmed by the rudeness and selfishness of this man with his shitting dog and his peeing and, above all, his proprietary attitude: This is my beach. I can do whatever I fucking feel like on it. If I hadn't been through menopause, I would have chalked up my sudden crankiness to PMS. But I couldn't do that. Neither could I explain it by blaming the huge house looming nearby that seemed to breathe like a monster with its feet firmly secured to its cement foundation by iron chains. I couldn't insist that it and the others like it had changed me from a nice, affable, quiet person into a curmudgeon. Spiritually, I was feeling off my feed and the man and dog didn't help. Neither did the fact that it was a year since the catastrophe in New York and my unconscious supplied the memory so fiercely it felt as if it had just happened that morning. The air around me seemed to weigh more than usual and the sky began to cloud up. Everything conspired. And, even as I was aware of my superattentiveness and what for lack of anything better I'll call sane paranoia, I knew I was going to have to snap out of it or it was going to hurt me.
As soon as I stepped over the threshold, the phone began to ring; it always knows. This time it was our daughter, Beth, calling from New York, where she's the "Accessories and Makeup Editor" of Scrappy, a magazine for teens. She was making gulping sounds that nearly drowned her words. I finally figured out what she was crying about: she and her boyfriend Andrew had broken up and she was devastated. They had been living together in Tribeca for the last nine months or so and she was counting on their getting married. I asked what happened and she said that Andrew had told her he wasn't in love with her anymore.
"It wasn't even another woman," Beth said. "That makes it so much worse."
"You really think so?" I said. "I'm not so sure. This way you're spared the jealousy."
I heard Beth blowing her nose. "I have to tell you, Beth, I'm not nearly so unhappy about this as you are."
"What do you mean?" she said. "I thought you liked Andy."
"I didn't altogether trust him," I told her.
She said she hadn't realized that and this pleased me: I hadn't let on that I was frightened by his broad selfish stripe and his emotional distance, something Beth had apparently failed to recognize. We see what we want to see. Beth said she had saved up some vacation time and could she come up and stay with me? I love having her and her brother Mark visit, but I find that I use them as an excuse not to work. When there's no one here, I eat in bed, ignore dirt, and let newspapers pile up. So there are two sides to my children's visits. But how could I say no? My poor daughter needed her mom. I told her of course she could come up. Could she bring me some Stilton cheese and a dozen bagels?
Beth arrived the following day. She'd taken the plane to Hyannis, where I picked her up in the Saab. She looked as if she'd been dropped out of a window. She was wearing old jeans, a grimy NYU sweatshirt, running shoes, and a baseball cap over hair that didn't look all that clean either. If she was trying to hide her distress, she wasn't doing a very good job of it. She gave me a loose hug, dumped her duffel bag in the back seat, and got in the front seat beside me. I tried to get her to talk on the way home, but she wanted to listen to her CD player with plugs in her ears and I didn't feel urgent enough to press her, figuring she would talk when she was ready. There were a few snuffles and once, taking a quick look to the right, I saw her palms over her eyes. A mother suffers every pang with her child. It was not a pleasant ride for either of us. But when, almost an hour later, we drew up to our house, she seemed to cheer up a little. "Is Dad coming down on the weekend?" she said.
"I think so," I said. I wasn't sure myself.
Marshall sauntered out to greet Beth, waving his tail, and she bent over to fondle his neck. I took this as a good sign. There was love still inside her; Andy hadn't squeezed it all out.
We went inside and I started gathering up my art things to clear the table so we could eat off it. Beth said I didn't have to do that on her account.
She told me that she'd like to walk on the beach -- by herself. "That's okay," I told her. I knew the virtue of a solitary walk: it does help you organize your feelings. Is it the sea? Is it the sense of the vastness of a horizon that seems to shift when the weather does? Is it the particular kind of sound when the tide is high, and its opposite, when the tide has receded half a mile, leaving the flats, as the beach at low tide is known, like a body with its clothes removed: all sorts of interesting things -- shells, bits of crab, an assortment of seaweed, dead fish, an occasional smashed plastic cup -- lying there, waiting to be covered up again? Whatever it is, I knew exactly what she wanted and it had to be sought alone.
By the time Beth came back from her walk, I had a vegetable soup almost done -- I'm a cook who relies heavily on shortcuts and yogurt. She came bursting into the house. "What's that thing?" she said, pulling off her cap and coming over to stand right next to me -- as if I'd done something nasty to her.
I asked her what thing she was talking about.
"That -- whatever -- that -- I suppose -- house!"
"Oh," I said. "You mean the new house."
"Yes," she said through her teeth. "Who did that? It looks like a halfway house for druggies or something. It's huge. It didn't look so big last July. My God, they moved fast."
"They actually had two crews working on it twenty-four seven," I told her. "That house has kept more tongues wagging than Jellies has." Jellies is the high-end convenience-cum-gourmet store that no year-round person would set foot in except in the direst emergency. They're too high and mighty to sell lottery tickets. The markup at Jellies probably hovers around one hundred percent -- like four dollars and seventy-nine cents for a tube of Crest and five dollars for a slim box of spaghetti.
"I know I told you all about it in an e-mail."
"You did not, Mom, I would have remembered a thing like that. It's disgusting."
"You and I each have a different memory about this," I said.
It was obvious that in spite of her troubles of the heart, Beth was reacting to the house down the beach the same way I had, and the others who live here all or most of the year. To us it was far more than an eyesore. It was so out of scale and style with the older houses around it that it made only one statement, namely, "My owner has shitloads of money." It's a gesture of disdain toward its neighbors. It's the shirtless punk who crashes the formal ball, determined to be in-your-face and to curse while he's being escorted out. It works too -- that's the bitter part. Once the house has gone up and the carpenters and plumbers and electricians have cleaned up the mess that's been a blight on the surrounding area for months, you can't kick it out like you can the young man with his pierced nose and nipple rings and no intention of dancing the waltz. It will be there until time covers it with a shroud of sand.
"They've been working on the place for over a year, but there's still a ways to go." I also told her I'd heard that the owner had built himself a house that was a sister to this one on Nantucket and then, because of it, was blackballed at the Yacht Club. So he sold it at a profit and came here where there are no clubs to be blackballed by. Molly Jonas says they're installing a burglar alarm. Beth asked what for. "Nobody I know even locks their doors."
"I guess to keep burglars out," I said. The whole community had had a not-so-mild case of the jitters since the murder, a year earlier, of Joanne Tinkham, a single mother with a small child, a crime so far unsolved and, from the looks of things, not likely to be, ever.
"You think you told me, Mom, but you didn't."
"Why are we going over this again?" I said, moving toward the pot of soup simmering on the stove. "There's no point in it." This conversation was now about whether or not I told her about the bad house and not about the bad house itself. This was not quite the way I wanted things to go, especially on Beth's first day with me.
"How about some soup?" I said, reaching for two bowls on a shelf above the microwave.
"What kind?" she said, reminding me that one of Beth's tricks is to manufacture tension between the two of us. I think it gives her a buzz.
"See if you can guess," I said. Then she smiled and retreated. "Thanks, Mom," she said. "Andy doesn't do soup."
I had to sit on the words I wanted to say out loud, namely, "Oh, is that so?" or "I care?" But the poor child was pining for her erstwhile love. Who could blame her? Being dumped by a man is even worse than being fired from a job. I'm a feminist and I don't care what other feminists have to say about it -- it leaves a wound.
As we ate -- in more silence than sound -- it occurred to me that the man who had peed on the beach the day before was probably the owner of the monster house. It all fit. The trophy dog and the hat and above all, his attitude. "You didn't happen to see a man when you were on the beach before? A man with hairy eyebrows and a dog. Not a lap dog, a big floozy poodle?"
Beth said she hadn't and wanted to know why I was asking. I told her I thought this man might be the owner of the house she'd seen.
"What's his name?" Beth said. "What do you know about him?"
"I think it's Brenner. He's from somewhere on Long Island. I hear he builds hotels, or maybe it's shopping malls. Everybody loves malls." Beth said that Andy didn't; he wouldn't let her shop at one. Did she realize how bad this guy was for her -- how he was taking small bites out of her? Probably not: I had the feeling that she hadn't entirely absorbed the idea that Andy was no longer part of her life. And for all I knew, maybe he wasn't, maybe he was just playing games with her and he'd be back. I kept my big mouth shut.
Beth wanted to know if there was a Mrs. Brenner. I told her that the word was, there used to be a wife. "They had three or four children together. Now there's a younger missus -- much younger. Like a trophy wife. He's also got a trophy dog."
"Jeeze, don't you and your friends have anything better to do than gossip all day? When that weird woman was murdered last year, that was probably all you could talk about. Like September eleventh."
"I don't know what Nine-Eleven has to do with the Tinkham murder, but why do you think she was weird? How was she weird? I just thought she was pitiful."
Weird, Beth said, because she lived alone with a two-year-old off the main road and went to P'Town bars two or three times a week, where she picked up guys and sometimes brought them back to her house. "I call that weird."
"I call it tempting fate," I said. "And you're right about the gossip. But it happened in our very own backyard. And no one knows who did it. For all we know, the killer may still be hanging out here."
She looked at me as if she thought I was going a little mental. "Well, you never know," I said.
"I don't know what's happening to this place -- these hideous trophy houses and..."
I interrupted her. "Maybe it isn't quite so bad, pet. It's the way you're feeling about your own life that makes everything look so dark."
I had my work to do and Beth's problems were cutting into my psychic energy. That was how it should be, I told myself. This is your only and beloved daughter. But that same day I'd received an e-mail from David Lipsett, the book's editor, asking me when I thought I would have the drawings finished -- in order to keep to their schedule, they had to go into production ASAP. Beth went down the hall to her old room. I could hear her taking stuff off the bed -- I had started to use it as a storage place for some old jackets and sweaters and things like that -- and opening and shutting drawers I had filled with some overflow clothes, mine and Tom's.
I spent about three hours doing dogs and little girls, suggesting a park with a zoo, animals and hard-to-read figures. I thought an impressionistic style would let the book's readers fill in whatever was wanted, from their own imaginations. I climbed into the box that was my work and shut the door behind me so no one could disturb me. I was alone with the silly characters of someone else's story and I felt like I was swimming in happiness.
Around five o'clock Beth said, "You have nothing to eat in the house -- no wonder you look so skinny."
I suggested we drive out to the A & P in Provincetown and restock the refrigerator and cupboards. The shortcut I take goes close to the water in North Truro, a road not very much used, as off-Cape people don't seem to realize it's there. On this one short stretch there are two brazen new houses, twice as big as their neighbors. Beth said, "I can't look. What sort of people have this kind of money? Why would they want to live here? Why don't they go to the Hamptons if they want to show off?"
I told her she'd been away so long she didn't realize what was going on; this wasn't your ordinary secret Eden any longer; it was the Hamptons of New England. "Real estate prices have gone sky-high. We could easily get more than a million for our house."
Beth didn't respond to this, and I figured she must be chewing over the double-edged business of enjoying your plump cushion of money while recognizing, at the same time, how unfair it is to have so much when so many people are poor beyond anything we've ever experienced, poor enough not to eat more than one meal a day and not own one pair of shoes. Maybe it was better to be like the Brenners and not have a clue about the suffering in other parts of the world -- or, better yet, not caring. Just being blithe about your appetites and your comforts. Dividing the world's wealth -- one of the less successful solutions to unfairness.
The slim arc of Provincetown, resting on the water like a baby alligator, came into view as we rejoined 6A. The sun had spread a film of reddish-gold over the town, and houses along the beach were small enough at this distance to look charmed, like a landscape in an animated film trying not for ominous but for romance. "Wow," Beth said. "It never fails to get to you, does it?"
"I'd like to stop in at Raymie's for a minute after we finish our grocery shopping." Beth didn't say anything. I could tell she wasn't all that eager -- probably thinking about how she'd have to explain about the missing Andrew. We had a good time at the A & P, fingering tomatoes, sniffing melons, spooning imitation crabmeat salad into plastic containers from the salad bar. Beth seemed surprised to see a Japanese sushi guy at the fish counter, rolling up rice and kelp. I told her this was simply another indication of the way things were headed. We bought some sushi for Beth. And a boneless lamb leg -- for Tom, who likes lamb done outside on the grill.
In the parking lot, Beth said, "It's late, Mom, do we have to go to Raymie's?"
"I haven't seen Raymie in a couple of weeks and since we're here..." Here meant Provincetown. "I promise we won't stay long."
We stowed our bags of food in the trunk and then headed back toward Truro. Raymie's B & B actually straddles the boundary between P'Town and North Truro and was given the choice of addresses by the U.S. government. She chose P'Town because, she figured, for visitors looking for action no matter how tame, P'Town would be a better draw than Truro, where there's nothing but wind, sand, sky and some old houses. Not even a downtown. People coming off Route 6 drive round and round, looking in vain for downtown Truro. One man was known to have driven around for a day and a half before he was willing to ask someone for directions to Truro, only to be told he was already there.
In 1989, Raymie bought a falling-apart late-nineteenth-century house that looked as if no one but mice and squirrels had lived in it for many years. She got a small- business loan and fixed it up with the help of shelter magazines specializing in before-and-after features -- along with my kibitzing, as she called it -- carefully following good ideas and discarding bad ones. What she ended up with was three bedrooms with queen-sized beds, one with a thin slice of water view for which people were willing to pay twice as much as for those that only looked out on trees and grass. She enlarged the kitchen so that if she's full up the guests can all have breakfast at approximately the same time. She chatted with them at breakfast, gave them tips on what to see and what to avoid, and did the cheerful hostess bit so well that no one could tell when she was blue or under the weather. "It's an act, Dannie," she told me. "But a lot of the time I really mean it. I really like my guests. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't."
We drew up in her gravel driveway and parked alongside a Honda with chipped paint and a dented rear door. It had New Jersey plates. There was another car parked some ways off, a Lexus. As we got out, Beth reminded me that we were only going to stay a few minutes.
"God, am I glad you showed up!" Raymie led us into the kitchen, where she was obviously in the middle of preparing something for dinner. "Can you stay?" she said. "I've made much too much marinara." Beth threw me an urgent look and I told Raymie we had to get home for dinner; I thought maybe Tom would show up; I hoped he would.
Raymie asked Beth a few questions point-blank: What was she doing here? How was the boyfriend? Beth began to squirm and I said quietly, "Beth's taking a little vacation on her own. Can we leave it at that?" Beth sighed.
Raymie stirred her spaghetti sauce with a long-handled wooden spoon, turning her back to us but talking over her shoulder. She complained briefly about not having the cash to fix the roof. Then she said, "I've got a real strange one staying here for two days. He makes me nervous. I haven't felt this way about a guest since that couple from Arizona..."
"The man who was wanted for mutilating sheep?"
"That's the one."
I wanted to know precisely what had put her off about her guest. "Well, for one thing, he didn't have any luggage, just a small backpack, not even a change of clothes, nothing. For another, he smoked nonstop, one cigarette from another. You know I don't allow smoking on the premises, but I'm sure he was doing it anyway. You can smell it." She heard him -- through the door, of course -- talking in an urgent voice on his cell phone late at night. "He didn't want my blueberry pancakes, just asked for coffee, black. He looked as if he hadn't slept more than five minutes all night."
"Something on his mind?" I said. Beth had perked up and was listening with interest. "How old is he?" she asked.
"I'd say mid-thirties. While he was out taking a walk -- he said -- I took a look inside his room -- I had to replace some towels anyway. He's got a detailed map of the Truro area and a pair of expensive binoculars. Maybe I've seen too many movies, but I'm sure this guy is up to no good."
"And what does this all add up to?" I said. I couldn't buy the idea that Raymie's bed-and-breakfast might be the launching pad for someone up to no good. I couldn't share her uneasiness even as I recognized that this person sounded fishy to me as well.
Before we left, I asked Raymie what she was going to do. "I think maybe I'll just give Pete a call, give him a heads-up. Not that anything's happened -- yet." Peter Savage was the man in charge of solving crimes in Provincetown and catching perps. "He knows I have a lively imagination," Raymie said. "But he'll make a note of it. He's very obsessive about things like that, keeping track of phone calls and writing things down that might be useful sometime."
Copyright © 2005 by Anne Bernays
What People are Saying About This
The Decoration of Houses
Meet the Author
Anne Bernays is a novelist (including Professor Romeo and Growing Up Rich) and coauthor, with her husband, Justin Kaplan, of Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York. Her articles, book reviews and essays have appeared in such major publications as The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and The Nation. A long-time teacher of writing, she is coauthor, with Pamela Painter, of the textbook What If? Ms. Bernays currently teaches at Harvard's Nieman Foundation. She and Mr. Kaplan have six grandchildren. They live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Truro, Cape Cod.
- Cambridge, Massachusetts
- Date of Birth:
- September 14, 1930
- Place of Birth:
- New York, New York
- Wellesley College, 1948-1950; B A., Barnard College, 1952
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I have to admit this is a woman's story. Not only mature women, but any woman. We go along and one day find we have somehow lost our way and those around us seem like strangers instead of those who are closest to us. This lesson is done slowly and gives the reality of what would really happen in a life experiencing great change. It was more serious than I expected, but it had some very good lessons to consider at any stage of life.
Like another reviewer, I, too, had seen this book recommended in People magazine. I was rather disappointed in the story, as I thought it was very disconnected, although I did find the prose highly readable. There were far too many references to 9/11 so that by the novel's end their significance (if any) was lost entirely. Basically, I found the novel to be one long rant written against: large beach homes, the 'washabouts' in a small beach town, middle age, solitary life, affairs, second marriages, the 'Vows' page of the New York Times, George Bush, etc. After reading the cover notes, I thought this novel was rather transparent in its agenda given that the author herself has a beach home in Truro. It is amazing to me that one can get an entire book of complaints published, i.e., real estate development in a small beach town, and use it as a personal agenda to attack society, shoobies and politics.
This was a great read that really gave you a sense of place, as well as, stage in life. I am also in my mid-fifties and I have to say that she really captured the feelings that come with that age. You feel like a sage about some things but puzzled about your own life all at the same time. I highly recommend this book.
I bought this book because it was mentioned favorably in People Magazine. It was slow reading, but I remained curious enough about the outcome to continue to its conclusion. However, trying to relate the angst of the characters to 9/11 was a far reach at best and extremely gratuitous at worst. Toward the end of the book, the author was throwing in 'September 11' sometimes twice on the same page, but to what end? The characters were so poorly developed that there was no real insight into what was going on in this family other than pure boredom with each other. And what was the point of the hate crime at the beginning of the novel? It just drifted off into nowhere. I find it astonishing that any reviewer would label this a character study. At the end of the book, I had no idea who the characters were that I had just spent my time reading about.
I have been reading Anne Bernays excerpt, and can't believe how the author weaves politics into her story - First off, she (bernays) is a very wealthy, connected woman, married into a prominent Boston/Cambridge family. Her antipathy towards people who have earned and spent money on things like swimming pools is typical - it's only old money and privilege which she respects - People with years worth of beach or dump stickers. In other words, you will never be as good as she and you will never fit in with the long established insiders. She is the ultimate insider, the ultimate snob, with kneejerk, rather than thoughtful observations. There are, of course, the obligatory swipes at Bush, for no real reason, other than it's fashionable with her crowd - these people hated him before he was sworn in and blame him for everything from inadequate local schools to a Stop & Shop in their neighborhood. I wonder if she'll address the NIMBY issue of wind farms (an alternate energy source) on Cape Cod in this novel. A potential solution to energy production, if only people like her didn't have to catch an occasional glimpse. I think I'll pass on the rest of this novel.
No matter what the reader's political affiliation, I and I bet a lot of other people, don't think a novel is the place to vent your political feelings! That said, I was terribly interested in this book at the beginning - - but it let me down time and time again. The ending dragged on and I felt zzzzzzzzzz
On Cape Cod, the residents are depressed as the one year anniversary of 9/11 occurs. Children¿s book illustrator Danforth ¿Dannie¿ Faber is sad and somewhat guilty because her life is near perfect while summering on the dunes of the Cape. She and her spouse MIT anthology Professor Tom is an ideal couple and their two adult children seem to be doing well. Perhaps the only glooms are that she dislikes the lover of her daughter, Beth and wealthy Mitchell Brenner has built an affluent monstrosity in the middle of Truro.......... However, her perfect life begins to unravel when Beth comes home heartbroken as her lover dumped her. Stunned Beth quit her job as accessory and make-up editor at Scripy teen magazine. An even worse shock is Tom leaves Dannie for someone younger. Upset but refusing to mope, Dannie finds solace with a publishing peer................ TROPHY HOUSE is an intriguing character study that focuses mostly on a middle age woman whose life radically changes when her long time spouse leaves her, but also provides a look at other individuals like a nouveau riche show-off, etc. However, this is clearly Dannie¿s tale. Thus, after the initial shock is over, Dannie begins to regain her equilibrium seeking solace elsewhere. Though action readers need to visit a different house, Anne Bernay writes a fine contemporary fiction novel that stars a strong ensemble cast kept together by the strong lead protagonist................ Harriet Klausner