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On the cusp of thirty, Phoebe has fled the high life and, ultimately, the no life of trying and failing to “be somebody” in Manhattan. She returns to her parents’ Depression-era bungalow across the river in New Jersey, the house she grew up in, to lie low with the crabgrass and dust bunnies and memories of her childhood, and perhaps just be...
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On the cusp of thirty, Phoebe has fled the high life and, ultimately, the no life of trying and failing to “be somebody” in Manhattan. She returns to her parents’ Depression-era bungalow across the river in New Jersey, the house she grew up in, to lie low with the crabgrass and dust bunnies and memories of her childhood, and perhaps just be herself. Easier said than done. Once resettled, Phoebe hatches a plan to resell her neighbors’ garbage on eBay, begins work on a solo album for electric violin and voice called Bored and Lonely, and accepts a date with the conductor of the Newark Symphony Orchestra, Roget Mankuvsky, a man with acid-washed jeans and a mysterious past. And so, with the hope of progress on both fronts, Phoebe’s search for a good way to make a living and a good man to make a life with continues.
In this second installment of Phoebe Fine’s life story, author Lucinda Rosenfeld raises the emotional and romantic stakes. Though still consumed with appearances, including her own, Phoebe now has serious grown-up issues to deal with—her mother’s illness, a hostile and competitive older sister with marital problems, and a moral and financial crisis involving a viola that may be worth millions of dollars. But the comic notes prevail. The question is, will Phoebe?
From the Hardcover edition.
“Jesus, Dad!” Phoebe had cried, even though they were both secular Jews.
“Sorry there, folks.” Leonard had sounded incongruously cheerful after veering out of danger.
“Trying to give us a scare there, Lenny?” the flutist had asked. “Anyway, as I was saying, apparently Trudie Fisher is now playing third chair at the Pops, if you can believe it. I really can’t. The woman is always out of tune.”
“It’s amazing there’s any air left to breathe in this state,” the cellist had muttered to himself.
Leonard’s driving didn’t improve much after they got off the highway and made their way through downtown Newark. After almost shearing the door off a parked police car, he just missed mowing down a group of teenage boys playing stickball in the street. Eventually, to everyone’s relief, they arrived at the auditorium. Leonard found a parking place just around the corner, in front of a boarded-up crack house, and the four of them dispersed—the musicians through the stage door and Phoebe through the main entrance into the lobby. There, she spent the fifty minutes until showtime skimming a work of “women’s fiction” from the 1970s she’d grabbed off her parents’ bookshelf before leaving—to her surprise and chagrin, she was unable to locate a single sex scene—and perusing the arriving crowd, who were mainly old and feeble and white-haired (if they had any hair at all) and were yelling “Whaaat?” at each other as they futilely adjusted their hearing aids. There weren’t too many of them, either.
Indeed, as she settled herself into the first row of the mostly empty balcony, Phoebe was distressed to discover that, with the orchestra and the full chorus, there were twice as many people onstage as there were in the audience. Even more depressingly, a high percentage of those in attendance were probably nonpaying friends and relations of the musicians, such as herself. She hadn’t always empathized with her father’s setbacks. During her college years a decade earlier at Hoover University, when she saw the world primarily through the lens of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation (mostly her own, but still), she had even reveled in the NSO’s consistently paltry turnout, since the orchestra bore the name of a predominantly Hispanic, Arab, and African-American city, despite being an almost exclusively Asian and Caucasian organization. Never mind the fact that the music they played had all been composed by dead European males. Or that the structure of the orchestra was, by design, inegalitarian. Or that the house auditorium was, in fact, a converted mosque.
More recently, however, Phoebe had decided to try and bolster her father in the twilight of his musical career—a career that was already, by nature of the kind of music he played, obscure. In addition to having trouble blowing into his oboe, Leonard was finding it difficult keeping time and, by association, track of where he was in the score. While he’d never been a virtuoso—never been that good—it physically pained Phoebe to imagine her father lost in a sea of notes. She found his incompetence a little pathetic, just as she had always found everything about her father simultaneously endearing and exasperating. At the same time, after a lifetime spent dreading his classical music concerts, she had begun to look forward to them, if only for the opportunity they provided to sit in a chair doing absolutely nothing for two hours and not feel guilty about it. (Domestic plane travel, she’d found, offered similar comforts.)
One glance at the evening’s program changed her feelings on the subject. First up was Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony in D minor. If Phoebe remembered correctly from her teenage days playing second violin for the All County Orchestra, it was a bombastic monstrosity. Back then, of course, classical music had only been a burden, a built-in inadequacy, a zombie motion she went through to please her parents. It had never entirely lost that quality, though it had gained others as well. In Brahms, she had come to hear the tragedy of it all; in Chopin, the excruciating tremolo of lust in the spring. But there was something so inescapably pompous and irritating about the whole penguin-suited business. It was only in the dark, or when she closed her eyes, that she could even hear the music—the mystery and beauty that had outlived its own century.
Still, she was curious to lay eyes on the NSO’s new conductor, a certain Roget Mankuvsky. According to the program notes, he was not only the youngest conductor ever to perform with the NSO, he had studied with the great Uli Rindfleisch in Vienna, followed by the lesser-known Heinz Zimmerfenster in Berlin. Barely two years later, Mankuvsky became the assistant conductor of a small early instruments consortium in Lausanne, Switzerland. Then, at just thirty, he had been appointed the musical director of the Cherry Hill Community Orchestra. To Phoebe, who at twenty-nine had not yet decided whether she was a breakfast person or a lunch person, Mankuvsky seemed like a prodigy. (The verdict: neither and, at the same time, both.)
At two minutes past eight, a flock of late-arriving concert-goers having failed to materialize, the NSO’s slinky Japanese-American concertmistress, Nanette Yamaguchi, appeared onstage in a wraparound dress that gave full play to her protruding clavicles. The way she swung her hair around while bowing the tuning A showed that she lorded her power over the other orchestra members. That could have been me, Phoebe thought to herself, while also realizing how glad she was that it wasn’t. Mankuvsky came out shortly afterward. He was short, dark, stocky, and not particularly handsome, with bulging eyeballs and a mashed-in nose. He bounded onto the podium in brown shoes, his ruffled shirt only half tucked into his concert tails, his spiky hair sticking out of his head. From the back, he looked like a sea anemone.
His conducting style, as it soon emerged, had more in common with the bat-trapped-in-the-attic type of flailing made famous by Leonard Bernstein than it did with, say, Fritz Reiner, the old conductor of the Chicago Symphony, whose hand movements were so miniaturized that it was once said, “When he reaches the third button, it’s a downbeat.” (For her twenty-ninth birthday, Phoebe’s parents had presented her with a gossipy book about the great conductors.) But Mankuvsky’s gestures were so overwrought as to make even Bernstein seem repressed. While the cymbals clashed and the triangles dinged, he manipulated his body into strange pretzel shapes. His need to express himself wasn’t limited to body language, either. While the guest soprano strained for an F sharp, Phoebe could have sworn she heard the words “fucking migraine” wafting off the podium.
The audience sat politely and with limited squirming for the entire symphony, causing Phoebe to wonder if they weren’t just deaf but dead. On the other hand, they performed the usual number of holus-bolus coughing fits between the symphony’s five movements, thereby demonstrating that they were still breathing. Phoebe also wondered why it was that the sound of one person exorcising phlegm incited others to do the same. (Of the many things that baffled her about this world, that one ranked in the top ten, along with how all those plastic bags wound up dangling from trees. Seriously, who put them there?)
It seemed to take a lifetime to get to intermission, and the second half of the concert seemed just as long. It was an arduous journey through late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Czechoslovakia, beginning with the dissonant strains of Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dances” and ending with an orchestral suite from Janá?cek’s infrequently performed (for a good reason) opera, The Cunning Little Vixen.
At the end of the evening, the applause was tepid, ex- cept from a community college music appreciation class seated downstairs in the orchestra section. They howled with approval—probably out of relief that the show was over, Phoebe thought. Still, she was thankful that her father had made it through the program without incident, taking his entrance cues when necessary from his far-younger deputy, Benson Smith. With a shudder, she remembered the time, a year before, when Leonard had lost his place playing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf—the stun-gunned look that had overcome his face and hands, his eyes buggy, his mouth frozen around his mouthpiece. Phoebe hadn’t been sure if the conductor had noticed or not, but Benson surely had. He could have removed a finger from his keys long enough to point Leonard to the right bar, but he hadn’t bothered.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Almost thirty, with her work and love lives stalled, Phoebe Fine moves back to her parents’ suburban home with precisely no plans for the future. A creative, intelligent woman from a loving--albeit eccentric–family, why can't she seem to settle into adulthood? Does she expect too much from life? Not enough? More generally, by Phoebe’s age, do most people know who they are and what they want–or do we spend our whole lives trying to figure that out?
2. Phoebe wants to be supportive of her mother, who has cancer and is receiving chemotherapy treatments, but there are times when she shrinks from the very sight of Roberta’s “awful auburn wig with the short bangs.” In what way is Phoebe’s reaction to (a family member’s) illness true to life? In what way is Phoebe especially selfish? How does Phoebe’s mother invite a lack of sympathy? How does that dynamic change by the end of the book?
3. Phoebe and her sister’s rivalry and antagonism date back to early childhood. Why can’t Phoebe seem to let go of her envy of and anger at Emily? Is it Phoebe’s fault for caring so much, or Emily’s fault for being so hostile? What is it about sisters in particular that make them so competitive? How does Phoebe come to understand Emily differently by the end of the book?
4. In Chapter VI, Phoebe returns to New York City for a night out with her girlfriends. Why does she suddenly long to be “trapped in her junior-sized trundle bed” in New Jersey? And what does she mean by questioning Manhattan’s “dogged insistence on existing in the present tense, above and beyond history”? To what extent can a place be said to live in any tense? More generally, by retreating to the suburbs, do you think Phoebe is escaping life or trying to build a better one?
5. What does Phoebe mean by questioning Manhattan’s “dogged insistence on existing in the present tense, above and beyond history”? To what extent can a place be said to live in any tense?
6. Phoebe slowly becomes attracted to her father’s orchestral conductor, Roget, who is nothing if not rude. What is Roget’s appeal to her? Is Roget an example of Phoebe’s taste in men maturing or continuing to fail her? In Chapter I, Phoebe wonders if she’ll “ever love another man as much as she did Leonard Fine.” How is Phoebe’s choice in romantic partners connected to her love for her father?
7. In Chapter 1, Phoebe wonders if she’ll “ever love another man as much as she did Leonard Fine.” How is Phoebe’s choice in romantic partners connected to her love for her father?
8. Considering Rosenfeld’s earlier novel, What She Saw . . .—in which every chapter recounts Phoebe’s experiences with a different boy or man—how has Phoebe changed as a character? In what ways has she stayed the same? To what extent is she still dependent on men and male attention for her sense of self? How have her views on sex changed? How has her definition of “home” changed?
9. At the end of Chapter XV, Phoebe realizes that “she had come back to Whitehead not so much to care for her mother as to have her mother care for her. So she could imagine that she was still someone’s daughter, still young and sweet and untarnished and in need of protection. . . .” Why has Phoebe been reluctant to grow up? How has this changed over the course of the book? Do we ever really stop thinking of ourselves as young? As someone’s daughter/son?
10. Also at the end of Chapter XV, Phoebe decides that: “Wherever you were in life, the baggage simply followed you there–if not on your own flight, then on the next one in.” Do you think this is true or false? More generally, how much about your life can you really alter by moving locations and /or making other external changes to your situation?
11. The classical music world of New Jersey is the book’s unlikely backdrop. What role does classical music play for Phoebe? How do our parents’ professional lives inform our own? How do they exert pressure over us?
12. Author Bliss Broyard comments, “Why She Went Home’s candid take on family values couldn’t come at a better time.” What does she mean? How do the unique qualities of the Fine family parlay into a particular set of Fine family values? On the other hand, do you think there are universal values that should apply to every family?
13. The tone of WHY SHE WENT HOME is decidedly comic. How does humor serve to enhance or take away from the seriousness of the subjects that Rosenfeld takes on, from illness to aging to loneliness? Can a book be tragic and comic at the same time? In what ways is life tragic and comic at the same time?
14. According to the old adage, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Why is “Dumpster diving” so exhilarating for Phoebe? There’s the suggestion that this could be Phoebe’s new vocation. How might it suit Phoebe better than her office/media job in Manhattan? Is it more likely to make her happy?
15. In Chapter 15, Phoebe lists “Ten Reasons Why Sex Is Overrated.” Do you agree that sex is overrated? If you agree, can you expand on Phoebe’s list? If you don’t agree, could you make a counter-list of your own?
16. In Chapter 7, Phoebe wonders, “When had money become the object of her frustrated ambition . . . ? Once upon a time, not that long ago, sex had been her obsession.” How can money replace sex? Are Phoebe’s money issues resolved by the end of the book? What is the relationship between money and happiness, in general?
17. Do you think Phoebe and Roget have a good shot at “happily ever after”? Why or why not?
18. Can you imagine a third book in the Phoebe Fine Chronicles?