Vinegar Hill

( 80 )

Overview

In a stark, troubling, yet ultimately triumphant celebration of self-determination, award-winning author A. Manette Ansay re-creates a stifling world of guilty and pain, and the tormented souls who inhabit it. It is 1972 when circumstance carries Ellen Grier and her family back to Holly's Field, Wisconsin. Dutifully accompanying her newly unemployed husband, Ellen has brought her two children into the home of her in-laws on Vinegar Hill -- a loveless house suffused with the settling dust of bitterness and routine...

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Vinegar Hill

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Overview

In a stark, troubling, yet ultimately triumphant celebration of self-determination, award-winning author A. Manette Ansay re-creates a stifling world of guilty and pain, and the tormented souls who inhabit it. It is 1972 when circumstance carries Ellen Grier and her family back to Holly's Field, Wisconsin. Dutifully accompanying her newly unemployed husband, Ellen has brought her two children into the home of her in-laws on Vinegar Hill -- a loveless house suffused with the settling dust of bitterness and routine -- where calculated cruelty is a way of life preserved and perpetuated in the service of a rigid, exacting and angry God. Behind a facade of false piety, there are sins and secrets in this place that could crush a vibrant young woman's passionate spirit. And here Ellen must find the straight to endure, change, and grow in the all-pervading darkness that threatens to destroy everything she is and everyone she loves.

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Editorial Reviews

Madison Smartt Bell
A brilliant, bitter book...Manette Ansay's prose style cuts with a diamond edge.
Amy Tan
A modern-day Little House on the Prairie gone mad...Manette Ansay is a powerful storyteller with lyrical gifts and a wry, observant eye.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A remarkably well-told tale...that not only rivets our attention but floods our veins with the icy chill of recognition and understanding...Vinegar Hill is a powerful story of a haunting, not by the dead but by the living. It is a haunting you won't soon forget.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A remarkably well-told tale...that not only rivets our attention but floods our veins with the icy chill of recognition and understanding...Vinegar Hill is a powerful story of a haunting, not by the dead but by the living. It is a haunting you won't soon forget.
The New Yorker
Ansay transcends both feminist epic and Midwestern gothic to achieve, finally, the lunar world of tragedy. This world is lit by the measured beauty of her prose, and the book's final line is worth the pain it takes to get there.
Library Journal
Ellen must go with her unemployed husband to live with her in-laws. Their home in Hollysfield, WI, is a place of unrelenting negativity and rigidity. In the early 1970s, when women are just begnning to recognize their choices, Ellen must decide whether she will stick with her marriage or save herself and her children. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060897840
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/11/2006
  • Series: Oprah's Book Club Series
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 382,353
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

A. Manette Ansay

A. Manette Ansay is the author of eight books, including Vinegar Hill, Midnight Champagne (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Blue Water. She has received the Pushcart Prize, two Great Lakes Book Awards, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the University of Miami.

Biography

A. Manette Ansay's first novel, Vinegar Hill, established the writer as a novelist who could tell a difficult story with great grace. Born in Michigan in 1964 and raised in Port Washington, Wisconsin among a huge Roman Catholic extended family, Ansay infuses her fiction with the reality of Midwestern farm life, the constraints of Roman Catholicism, and the toll the combination can take on women and men alike.

Philosophical and cerebral, with a gift for identifying the telling domestic detail and conveying it in a fresh way, Ansay incorporates the rhythm of rural Midwestern life -- the polka dance at a wedding reception, the bowling alley, community suppers, gossip, passion, and betrayal -- into novels that illuminate the most difficult aspects of maintaining any close relationship, whether it be familial or not. In Vinegar Hill, Ansay examines the forces that hold a Catholic woman in the 1970s hostage to her emotionally abusive marriage. In Midnight Champagne, set at a wedding, she focuses her lens on the institution of marriage itself; the story is told through the shifting points of view of the couples who attend the event.

Readers and critics alike have testified to her talents: The New Yorker said of Vinegar Hill, "This world is lit by the measured beauty of her prose, and the final line is worth the pain it takes to get there." The novel was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 1999; Ansay's following book, Midnight Champagne, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Like Flannery O'Connor, whom Ansay cites as an influence, Ansay is concerned with moments of grace in which the truth suddenly manifests itself with life-changing intensity. In the wrong hands, her material could be the stuff of soap operas. But Ansay strives for emotional complexity rather than mere bathos, and addresses both suffering and joy with intelligence and sensitivity.

Ansay's life has been as complex and fascinating as the dramas that unfold in her novels. A gifted pianist as a child, she studied at the University of Wisconsin while still a high school student. Later, while a student at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, she was afflicted by a disease that devastated her neurological system, cutting short her dreams of becoming a concert pianist, and leaving her confined for years to a wheelchair. She had never written fiction before, but turned her disciplined ear and mind to writing, promising herself to write two hours a day, three days a week, the same sort of disciplined schedule she had imposed on herself as a student musician.

Limbo, Ansay's story of her struggle with illness, is as evocatively written as her novels. Ansay never descends into sentimentality, but instead confronts her medical problems – and the limitations they impose – unflinchingly, describing both the indignities that disabled people face daily, as well as how her own illness has become a personal test of faith.

Good To Know

Ansay was still looking for the appropriate title for her first novel when, on the way to a meeting with her MFA advisor near Cornell University, Ansay spotted a street sign with the answer. "I happened to glance up and see a street sign that said "Vinegar Hill." It was perfect," Ansay writes on her web site. "I had never turned onto that street before, and I made a point never to do so afterwards. I wanted it to belong solely to my characters. And it does."

One scene in Midnight Champagne, the air-hockey table encounter, was written for a friend of Ansay's. She writes, "A friend of mine had been musing about sex and literature, and she said, 'Why is it that we so seldom read about the kind of sex we want to be having?' I said, 'What kind of sex is that?' She said, 'Fun sex.' I said, 'I'm writing a scene just for you."'

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    1. Hometown:
      Port Washington, Wisconsin; now lives in New York City
    1. Date of Birth:
      1964
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lapeer, Michigan
    1. Education:
      MFA, Cornell University, 1991

Read an Excerpt

After the dishes are washed and put away, Ellen bundles up James's coat, because it is warmer than her own, and goes into the living room, where he and Fritz and Mary-Margaret are watching TV. It's a comfortable room with moss-colored carpet, Fritz's La-Z-Boy, Mary-Margaret's embroidered parlor chair, and a long rectangular picture of the Last Supper, done in somber golds and greens. Beside the TV, Mary-Margaret's piano shines with lemon oil. Amy and Herbert are sitting on the floor, pretending to do their homework with their books spread out in front of them. But their eyes are wide and glassy. They are staring at the screen. They look down quickly when Ellen appears, shapeless as a boulder, the coat sleeves so long that just her fingertips show.

"I'm going for a walk," she says.

"Why?" Herbert says.

"I need the exercise," she says, although that is not the only reason. She kisses him, and then Amy. Their skin feels warm against her lips. "If I'm not back by eight-thirty, put yourselves to bed."

"But you'll be back by eight-thirty, won't you?" Herbert says.

"I'll try." She leans over to kiss James good-bye and accidentally blocks the screen. He looks at her irritably, then controls himself.

"Have a nice walk," he says, and he lets himself be kissed. Amy looks from Ellen to Mary-Margaret, then back at Ellen. She is built like her grandmother, tall and thin, with long willowy arms and legs she hasn't grown into yet. Over the summer, she shot up three inches; her face lengthened; her freckles lightened to match the color of her skin. Now her braid reaches down to where her waist dips inward, the first suggestion of a woman's graceful shape. Her eyes are James's dark,worried eyes.

"What?" Ellen says. She is sweating in the heavy coat, edging toward the door.

Amy tosses her head and her long braid swings. "Herbert gets scared when you're gone."

"Mama's boy," Mary-Margaret says. "Hasenfuss."

"I'll be back soon," Ellen says to Amy. They both ignore Mary-Margaret, who speaks in rapid German to Fritz, beginning a long complaint that needs no translation.

Ellen almost trips on the threshold in her hurry to get outside. The cold air tastes sweet; she closes the door and breathes deeply, chasing the sour smell of the house from her lungs. These after-dinner walks are the only time she can take for herself, but even so, as she walks down the steep, narrow driveway, she feels terrible, as though she's stealing. By walking, she's not making sure the kids finish their homework; by walking, she's not available to James if he needs her. And she has papers to grade, one stack of them on the dresser at home, another waiting on her desk at school. Her classroom has three tall windows, each with a chip of stained glass crowning the top. She loves to work there in the late afternoons, composing lesson plans as the sun drizzles gold between the hanging plants, the last echoey voices of the children fading toward home. But grading papers depresses her: this far into the year, she doesn't need to see them to know what grade each student will receive. It seems so unfair, so hopeless. Sometimes she buys brightly colored stars and pastes them on each of the papers just because you're all nice people. But the kids don't buy it: nice doesn't get you anywhere, nice doesn't count. Looks count, and the right kind of clothes counts. Two plus two equals four counts.

From the street the house looks peaceful: 512 Vinegar Hill, a pale brick ranch set too close to the street. The lamp in the living room window glows red; an eye peering back at her, curious but calm. The heads of Fritz and Mary-Margaret are just visible, and they could be the heads of any older couple, sitting side by side. They could be very much in love. They could be talking instead of watching TV, discussing Nixon's re-election, the situation in Vietnam, the weather, the supper they have eaten.

That was a good roast, the man might say. Delicious.

Oh no, it was much too dry.

No, really, it was good.

Or maybe the woman wouldn't answer the man. Maybe she would smile, just a bit, just enough for him to see that she was pleased. There would be history in that smile, and he might reach out to touch her hand, to twist the gold band on her finger, and the feeling between them would be so strong that a stranger walking by would notice the pale brick house set too close to the street and, inside it, the backs of two gray heads, and perhaps would imagine the woman's smile.

But there is nothing between Fritz and Mary-Margaret that might cause a stranger to notice, to slow and watch and wonder without really knowing why. At night they sleep in narrow twin beds as neatly as dolls, flat on their backs, chins raised in the air. Often, before they go to sleep, their voices rise and fall in the singsong way of a prayer. Fritz knows something terrible about Mary Margaret that he ultimately threatens to reveal, and this threat end the fight instantly, with Mary-Margaret saying No, no. There are secrets everywhere in this house. Ellen walks around them, passes through them, sensing things without understanding what they mean.

She heads toward the downtown past other ranch-style houses, each centered primly on its rectangular lot. The doors and windows, the chimneys and driveways are all rectangular too, and the quiet streets cut larger rectangles that cover the town like the neat lines on a piece of graph paper. The most easterly line is formed by Lake Michigan; the coast curves gently until it reaches the downtown, where it juts inland to form the harbor. Perched on the bluff, Saint Michael's Church overlooks it all—the harbor, the downtown shops and businesses, the rows of rectangular houses that sprawl to the west for a quarter of a mile—the clock in the steeple like a huge, patient eye.

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Table of Contents

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 80 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(9)

4 Star

(12)

3 Star

(29)

2 Star

(20)

1 Star

(10)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 80 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 3, 2012

    Okay

    I read this book for book club and I found it very sad and depressing. I did finish the book because I wanted to see how it ended. Not one of my favorite books

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 5, 2011

    Depressing, but okay read

    Interesting book in its own way, but not a favorite

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2010

    Only if you wanted to escape to hell!

    Short and sweet!
    Written very well!
    If the author wanted to set you into a tailspin of antidepressants....she succeeded!
    But sickeningly enough, I couldn't put it down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 10, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Wonderful Read Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay tells the sto

    Wonderful Read



    Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay tells the story of Ellen, a young woman who is forced to move in with her in-laws after her husband loses his job. Chastised for wanting a college education and never quite good enough in the eyes of her mother-in-law, Ellen chooses to support her husband by silently accepting the decisions he has made for their family.  Set in the early 1960′s, when leaving a marriage was nearly unthinkable, the reader is able to walk alongside Ellen as she lives day to day with her distant husband, violent father-in-law, and subtly cruel mother-in-law. Although Ellen is the main character, various chapters give the reader a glimpse into the minds of the other characters, including the children, which allows for a bit of balance and empathy for the others.




    When I finished reading Vinegar Hill (an Oprah Book Club pick in 1999), I couldn’t shake the image of a volcano with lava slowly pouring out of it and cascading into neighboring areas. This is not because there are any volcanos or natural disasters in the book, but rather due to the author’s way of telling the story with an underlying heat and a slow and smooth style of writing. At its core, each character is angry and trying to make sense of their current situation. Their angers are bubbling just below the surface and reach out to touch each of the other characters in ways that they don’t anticipate or recognize. Despite each character having their own struggles, they all boil down to their current living arrangements, which has magnified their individual issues into a toxic atmosphere in which each person is feeding off of the negative energy of the others.




    Despite the steady flow of the book, there were a few story lines that were left unfinished. Granted, they weren’t vital to the story as a whole, but they incited some empathy in me for some of the characters and I was left wondering whether my empathy was misplaced. Vinegar Hill is a book that can be read in one sitting, preferably on a cold or rainy day.  It’s melancholy and realistic portrayal of a difficult marriage in the early 1960′s is heartbreaking and, I can imagine for those a bit older than me, a familiar story.




    Side note: After reading an interview with the author, I learned that she was in a similar living situation. This added a depth to the book that was not previously there and made me look back on the book even more fondly.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2012

    Depressing

    This book left me with nothing to feel better about at the end of it, completly disheartening.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2011

    One of my favorites

    Dynamic writing

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 20, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Good, Not Great.

    This was extremely depressing and after finishing the book, I really could not seem to find what the overall message was. Every character in this story frustrated me at some point. I felt if you didn't know what year Ansay was writing about you would think early 1900's with the way everyone stayed in a loveless marriage in the novel. However, the novel was supposed to be taking place in 1972. Some things like the portrayal of the time period, along with certain events in the characters' lives seem unrealistic. I do have to hand it to Ansay for having an eloquent way of writing. Her style of writing was almost like descriptive poetry. I really enjoyed how she ties the chapter's beginning paragraph with the chapter's last paragraph. It's a quick read, but you are constantly waiting for something big to happens which it really never does. I cannot believe this is part of Oprah's book club. To me, this book does not compare with Toni Morrison's works or Wally Lamb's works.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 2, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Good message

    This boook was a good message who are going through things. Even though the plots(story) go back and forth. I understood the messeage in which it presented to other people. It's a good message. It's a good book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2007

    Oprah bookclub pick?

    I wasn't bored reading this. It had all the right factors to make a great book: wicked in-laws, secrets from the past, a marriage in turmoil....Despite this, the author did not bind it all together to make it make sense. I got the point but it just wasn't delivered well. The climax was almost to the end. It took a while to get to the point. Not totally let down but had higher hopes for a bookclub pick.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2007

    A reviewer

    Wicked in-laws...weird,spineless husband...guilty catholics...lively divorced friend...triumphant wife. I liked it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2006

    Read this book!

    This is a truly remarkable debut novel that you won¿t put down until the end. Its compelling theme is masterfully linked to a wonderfully-cast story and complex, interesting characters. Ansay's witty observations cleverly display how so many of us lose our identities in obligatory social roles and hollow spirituality. Although the novel¿s true qualities may escape the careless reader, I highly recommend it to everyone.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2006

    Literary Fiction At Its Finest

    Vinegar Hill is a beautifully written, bittersweet novel of a family paralyzed by a secret that, like the November winds Ansay describes, '...mov[es] over the walls of the house, stroking the windows, trying to coax its way past the curtains to blow the flowers from the napkins and plates, ...: This is a book that you won't want to put down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2006

    Powerful

    I read Vinegar Hill after a friend mentioned that she thought the book is one of Oprah's best picks. After reading it, I believe it is clearly the best Oprah pick to date. Yes, if you are the sort that needs a neat, formulated happy ending, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for an amazing glimpse into the misery suffered by many women, this book does an extraordinary job. Unfortunately, it presents the reality of many in a manner that is striking and will make you think about your own lot in life for a long time. I would recommend this book to everyone.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2006

    Depressing, Wallow in the Dark

    Sorry, this has to be the worst Oprah pick I've read. Depressing is the most uplifting thing I can say about this book. It lacked both plot and hope. I gave it away saying I did not like it and I did not want the book back.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2004

    Torturous~

    What a downer with no redeeming qualities. I'll say it was structurally well-written, but it's definitely not something I'd recommend. I expected better from Oprah's Book Club and even heard someone say it was their favorite book - I feel sorry for that person!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2004

    hit home

    I only finished this book because I am currently living with the inlaws and it gave me some perspective. The story didn't go anywhere, and the characters' pathetic lives didn't interest me in the least.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2004

    Waste of time

    There was no point to this book. Nothing happened and it was just depressing. I don't know how this made Oprah's book club. I would not recommend this to anyone.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2004

    Boring!

    I think Ansay was trying too hard to pour dysfunction into this family and ignored PLOT. I was almost finished with the book and was still waiting for something to happen.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2004

    Not Worth Reading!

    This book was unbelievably dull! Cannot believe Oprah found any sort of interest to actually put this on her list! Did she even read it? It was so repetitive and strange. A lot of it never made much sense and the whole story really had no point at all! My first A. Manette Ansay book and doubt I will read another.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2004

    Cant Belive this made Oprah's Book Club!

    The book was ok but not great by any stretch of the imagination. It was slow and not really about anything in particular. The story dragged and the characters were dull at times.

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