Year and a Day

( 3 )

Overview

Fifteen-year-old Alice dreams of her first kiss, has sleepovers, auditions for Our Town, and tries to pass high school biology. It's 1975, and at first look, her life would seem to be normal and unexceptional. But in the world that Leslie Pietrzyk paints, every moment she chronicles is revealed through the kaleidoscope of loss, stained by the fact that Alice's mother, without warning, note, or apology, deliberately parks her car on the railroad tracks, in the path of an oncoming...

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Overview

Fifteen-year-old Alice dreams of her first kiss, has sleepovers, auditions for Our Town, and tries to pass high school biology. It's 1975, and at first look, her life would seem to be normal and unexceptional. But in the world that Leslie Pietrzyk paints, every moment she chronicles is revealed through the kaleidoscope of loss, stained by the fact that Alice's mother, without warning, note, or apology, deliberately parks her car on the railroad tracks, in the path of an oncoming train.

In the emotional year that follows, Alice and her older brother find themselves in the care of their great aunt, forced to cope and move forward. Lonely and confused, Alice absorbs herself in her mother Annette's familiar rituals, trying to recapture their connection -- only to be stunned by the sound of her mother's voice speaking to her, engaging Alice in "conversations" and offering some insight into the life that she had led, beyond her role as Alice's mother.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
With impressive attention to detail, Pietrzyk successfully recreates life in the '70s in a small Iowa town. These include summer jobs de-tasseling the corn and the radio advice of "Dotty King's Neighborly Visit," "coming at you live on KXIC-800" with tips on ridding the garden of slugs or a listener's request for "beef stew made with Coca-Cola." There is even a school square dance, "such an organized dance, with the rules and calls and the right way to do things," a progression so delicately balanced that one mistake, "one tiny thing messed up the whole dance until we were just a tangle of partners looking at each other across the square instead of promenading home." The square dance, like life, has rules. And Alice knows without a doubt that one of life's first rules has to be that a mother doesn't kill herself. — Susan Dooley
Publishers Weekly
In this heartfelt if familiar coming-of-age novel set in smalltown Shelby, Iowa, in 1975, Pietrzyk (Pears on a Willow Tree) chronicles a year in the life of 15-year-old Alice Martin after her mother's suicide. "Once you get through this first year, you're fine," the high school principal promises her, reading from a manual. But Alice isn't so sure. Three days after her mother's death, as Alice tries to fill her place by preparing Sunday morning pancakes, her mother speaks to her, providing advice on cooking, makeup and driving, but rarely answering the questions Alice really wants answered: Who is my father? What happened to him? How could you leave me? All Alice and her older brother, Will, know is what their great-aunt Aggy tells them: their mother moved away at age 17 and came back pregnant, with a baby in her arms. Over the course of the year, Alice uncovers secrets, unravels mysteries and finds that nothing and no one are what they seem. Her baseball-star brother runs away to see the Red Sox, Alice herself dallies with the school's bad boy and Pietrzyk allows the reader hints of why Alice's mother might have killed herself. Eccentric mothers and long-suffering daughters are a dime a dozen in recent fiction, but Pietrzyk paints a rich picture of life in rural Iowa, from summer jobs detassling corn to the suffocating force of conformity. As one Shelby housewife advises Alice, "Fitting in is so important. Everything is simpler that way." (Mar. 2) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A few days after her mother's funeral, 15-year-old Alice Martin is told by her school principal (reading from a self-help manual) that she will be okay after a year of grieving. Pietrzyk's second novel (following Pears on a Willow Tree) chronicles that year as Alice, brother Will, and unconventional great-aunt Aggy struggle to come to terms with life after a suicide. Alice begins to hear her mother's voice, Aggy takes up painting bizarre abstract works, and Will runs away. While her mother gives her makeup advice from beyond the grave, Alice slowly begins to acknowledge the depression that hovered over her mother and to learn of the secrets she carried. Never fully giving in to her despair, Alice swings from acts of rebellion-smashing plates, stealing and burying all the frog cadavers from her high school biology lab, and taking up with the high school bad boy-to moments of grace. Pietrzyk realistically captures Alice's confusion, anger, and hope, avoiding glib sympathy or easy answers. Recommended.-Jan Blodgett, Davidson Coll. Lib., NC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An Iowa teenager grows through a year of grieving after her mother's suicide-in a gentle story hovering on the brink of sentimentality. One night in the spring of 1975, Alice's mother Annie parks her car on a train track and waits for the train to hit. Three days later, 15-year-old Alice begins to hear her dead mother's voice. Annie, in fact, fills Alice in on so many otherwise unknowable details about her past that after awhile the voice begins to feel less like a spiritual connection and more like simply a contrivance for getting information across. We learn that Annie left Iowa at 17, heading to New York with a man she met on a train after the man she really loved died. Four years later, she came home with one baby in her arms and pregnant with another. Being the kind of troubled-but-charismatic single mother now almost a cliche of contemporary women's fiction, she was adored by her kids but never did fit back into small-town life. Now, though, Alice, her 16-year-old brother Will, and their guardian-Annie's older sister Aggie-must cope with Annie's death. Aggie turns to art and faces her life-long loneliness. Will, a star athlete too kind and brotherly to pass belief, breaks up with his genuinely nice girlfriend and starts hanging out with sensitive bad boy Joe Fry. It's not long before Alice and Joe make eye contact and Alice soon loses her virginity. Then Alice discovers that class slut Paula-a nicer girl than her looseness would suggest-is pregnant. Heartbroken, Alice assumes Joe is the father, but readers will have already guessed the truth. Sudsy adolescent melodrama is compensated for by a complex portrayal of small-town life, and by the care second-novelist Pietrzyk (Pears on aWillow Tree, 1998 ) takes in developing the little moments that make up Alice's life. Agent: Gail Hochman/Brandt & Hochman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060554668
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/1/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of Pears on a Willow Tree. Her short fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including TriQuarterly, Shenandoah, and The Iowa Review. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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Read an Excerpt

A Year and a Day
A Novel

Bird

1975

Mama came back three days after her funeral. That was my mother, as symbolic as they got. Three days, like she was Jesus Christ himself. "Alice," she whispered as I was frying up pancakes, willing the bubbles to pop so I could flip them, "it's Mama. I'm back."

I reached for the spatula, oddly calm. I'd read the paragraphs in Dr. Spock's baby book about the ways children cope with death. Okay, I was fifteen, not a child, but information was information. He didn't talk about hearing voices. So was this real?

She said, "You've got that syrup turned way too high."

Sure enough, a brown scorchy smell was edging into the kitchen, and the syrup's surface looked sticky and pocked. I turned the gas burner down to that barely steady level where you don't want to breathe because you're afraid you'll blow it out, then I flipped the pancakes. Maybe I should have started to panic. Instead, I stared down at the half-done pancakes, touched one with the tips of my fingers. It was warm, springy, real; I loved the shade of brown pancakes when they were done just right. There was nothing else like that color. That was something Mama had always said: What she liked best was anything there was nothing else like.

Again: "I want you to know I'm right here." Her words floated like dandelion seeds, breathy, shadowy whispers -- nothing like the way she had talked when she was alive, loud and too fast, so I always felt a sentence behind, my ears straining to catch up, not wanting to miss a word she said.

This was crazy. I yanked my germy hand off the pancake, cleared my throat."Okay." My voice felt too big in the kitchen. Maybe this was a dream, though the smell of pancakes, the rising steam, the flour splotches on the counter all seemed real enough. I poked the spatula under the edge of one pancake -- done -- then carefully stacked the pancakes on a plate, draped them with a tea towel, popped the plate into the barely warm oven.

"Aunt Aggy likes bacon at breakfast," she said.

"I know," I snapped. But I'd forgotten about the bacon. Wasn't it enough that I was making pancakes the first Sunday after my mother died? She had always made pancakes on Sunday morning, so here I was. I banged shut the oven door with one foot, then started to cry. My eyes were puffy and sore from nearly a week's worth of crying, and my nose was rubbed raw, so I tried to stop, lifting my elbow to my face so I could muffle the sobs and blow my nose into the sleeve of my brother's old Vikings sweatshirt. I had no pride about that sort of thing anymore. Last night at supper, I'd used the corner of our red-checked kitchen tablecloth after my paper napkin had gotten soaked through into damp shreds.

"Oh, dear." And then she was gone. But how could she be gone if she wasn't really there? It made no sense, like that question about the tree falling in the forest making no sound.

I smeared more tears on my sleeve, ladled batter onto the skillet, waited for the bubbles to pop, a trick Mama had told me. She knew a ton of secrets so her cookies came out perfect and the hash browns never burned, and she was such a good cook she sold wedding cakes to practically every bride in town. None of us needed to learn a thing about cooking because Mama did it all. But now and then I'd help with pancakes. She hardly slept, not like a normal person anyway, and on Sunday mornings she was slow, sleepy, overflowing with yawns and murmurs. I could ask questions that sounded desperate any other time, like, Am I pretty? Who do you love best? Do blondes really have more fun like the TV commercial says? She'd ask me questions, too, not what other mothers asked, like why was I flunking chemistry, and not what adults asked each other, dull questions about Nixon and Watergate, but what did I think was really at the center of the earth and why couldn't it be a gigantic diamond instead of boring molten lava; or how come no one made movies about people living in Iowa like us, and wouldn't a movie about us be interesting, and who would I want to play her and who me and who my brother and who Aunt Aggy? Sunday morning was my favorite time with Mama, the slow swirl of her questions coaxing out my own, worth getting up early for.

Plus now I could make pancakes that even my brother, Will, couldn't tell from hers.

The kitchen door swung open, and Aunt Aggy walked in. She was my mother's aunt, and though technically Mama had inherited this house from my grandmother, Aunt Aggy came along with it, like the brown plaid couch, the dinged-up kitchen table, and the rest of the furniture. She'd lived here when Mama was growing up and had never left. She was tall and thin and when she walked or sat, she leaned forward so much you could almost hold a protractor to her and say, "Eighty degrees." Will and I thought it was strange that Aunt Aggy had never been married even though she was already fifty-two, but Mama had said, "Not everyone fits into a happily-ever-after life." Aunt Aggy claimed she'd broken off six engagements "with the rings to prove it," not that I'd ever seen them.

"Alice," she said, surprised. She tightened the belt of her robe. "What are you doing?"

"Making pancakes for breakfast," I said ...

A Year and a Day
A Novel
. Copyright © by Leslie Pietrzyk. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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First Chapter

A Year and a Day
A Novel

Bird

1975

Mama came back three days after her funeral. That was my mother, as symbolic as they got. Three days, like she was Jesus Christ himself. "Alice," she whispered as I was frying up pancakes, willing the bubbles to pop so I could flip them, "it's Mama. I'm back."

I reached for the spatula, oddly calm. I'd read the paragraphs in Dr. Spock's baby book about the ways children cope with death. Okay, I was fifteen, not a child, but information was information. He didn't talk about hearing voices. So was this real?

She said, "You've got that syrup turned way too high."

Sure enough, a brown scorchy smell was edging into the kitchen, and the syrup's surface looked sticky and pocked. I turned the gas burner down to that barely steady level where you don't want to breathe because you're afraid you'll blow it out, then I flipped the pancakes. Maybe I should have started to panic. Instead, I stared down at the half-done pancakes, touched one with the tips of my fingers. It was warm, springy, real; I loved the shade of brown pancakes when they were done just right. There was nothing else like that color. That was something Mama had always said: What she liked best was anything there was nothing else like.

Again: "I want you to know I'm right here." Her words floated like dandelion seeds, breathy, shadowy whispers -- nothing like the way she had talked when she was alive, loud and too fast, so I always felt a sentence behind, my ears straining to catch up, not wanting to miss a word she said.

This was crazy. I yanked my germy hand off the pancake, cleared my throat. "Okay." My voice felt too big in the kitchen. Maybe this was a dream, though the smell of pancakes, the rising steam, the flour splotches on the counter all seemed real enough. I poked the spatula under the edge of one pancake -- done -- then carefully stacked the pancakes on a plate, draped them with a tea towel, popped the plate into the barely warm oven.

"Aunt Aggy likes bacon at breakfast," she said.

"I know," I snapped. But I'd forgotten about the bacon. Wasn't it enough that I was making pancakes the first Sunday after my mother died? She had always made pancakes on Sunday morning, so here I was. I banged shut the oven door with one foot, then started to cry. My eyes were puffy and sore from nearly a week's worth of crying, and my nose was rubbed raw, so I tried to stop, lifting my elbow to my face so I could muffle the sobs and blow my nose into the sleeve of my brother's old Vikings sweatshirt. I had no pride about that sort of thing anymore. Last night at supper, I'd used the corner of our red-checked kitchen tablecloth after my paper napkin had gotten soaked through into damp shreds.

"Oh, dear." And then she was gone. But how could she be gone if she wasn't really there? It made no sense, like that question about the tree falling in the forest making no sound.

I smeared more tears on my sleeve, ladled batter onto the skillet, waited for the bubbles to pop, a trick Mama had told me. She knew a ton of secrets so her cookies came out perfect and the hash browns never burned, and she was such a good cook she sold wedding cakes to practically every bride in town. None of us needed to learn a thing about cooking because Mama did it all. But now and then I'd help with pancakes. She hardly slept, not like a normal person anyway, and on Sunday mornings she was slow, sleepy, overflowing with yawns and murmurs. I could ask questions that sounded desperate any other time, like, Am I pretty? Who do you love best? Do blondes really have more fun like the TV commercial says? She'd ask me questions, too, not what other mothers asked, like why was I flunking chemistry, and not what adults asked each other, dull questions about Nixon and Watergate, but what did I think was really at the center of the earth and why couldn't it be a gigantic diamond instead of boring molten lava; or how come no one made movies about people living in Iowa like us, and wouldn't a movie about us be interesting, and who would I want to play her and who me and who my brother and who Aunt Aggy? Sunday morning was my favorite time with Mama, the slow swirl of her questions coaxing out my own, worth getting up early for.

Plus now I could make pancakes that even my brother, Will, couldn't tell from hers.

The kitchen door swung open, and Aunt Aggy walked in. She was my mother's aunt, and though technically Mama had inherited this house from my grandmother, Aunt Aggy came along with it, like the brown plaid couch, the dinged-up kitchen table, and the rest of the furniture. She'd lived here when Mama was growing up and had never left. She was tall and thin and when she walked or sat, she leaned forward so much you could almost hold a protractor to her and say, "Eighty degrees." Will and I thought it was strange that Aunt Aggy had never been married even though she was already fifty-two, but Mama had said, "Not everyone fits into a happily-ever-after life." Aunt Aggy claimed she'd broken off six engagements "with the rings to prove it," not that I'd ever seen them.

"Alice," she said, surprised. She tightened the belt of her robe. "What are you doing?"

"Making pancakes for breakfast," I said ...

A Year and a Day
A Novel
. Copyright © by Leslie Pietrzyk. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Introduction

Fifteen-year-old Alice dreams of her first kiss, has sleepovers, makes prank calls, auditions for "Our Town," and tries to pass high school biology. It's 1975, and at first look, her life would seem to be normal and unexceptional. But in the world that Leslie Pietrzyk paints, every moment she chronicles is revealed through the kaleidoscope of loss, stained by the fact that Alice's mother, without warning, without apology, explanation, or note, deliberately parks her car onto the railroad tracks, into the path of an oncoming train.

In the emotional year that follows, Alice and her older brother find themselves in the care of their great aunt, forced to cope and move forward after their catastrophic loss. Lonely and confused, Alice absorbs herself in her mother Annette's familiar rituals, trying to recapture their connection -- only to be stunned by the sound of her mother's voice speaking to her clear as day as she flips Sunday morning pancakes. Driven to understand who her mother was, Alice distances herself from her girlfriends and brother as she engages in "conversations" with Annette. As she works through her grief, Alice slowly begins to see Annette as an individual, separate from simply "my mother" -- and ultimately embraces the bittersweet knowledge that the lives to which we are most intimately connected often remain the most mysterious of all.

Taking its title from the pop-psychology idea that it should only take a year to get over the death of a loved one, A Year and a Day is an intense and deeply affecting portrait of how the human heart counters tragedy and can spin hard won triumph out of the deepest despair. A redemptive, often humorous meditation on growing up and growing into oneself, this is an intimate and heart warming novel to curl up with and to savor.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How did Alice's emotional journey in A Year and a Day remind you of struggles or experiences with coping with loss in your own life? Did you feel that Pietrzyk's portrayal of the stages of grief reflected the emotional impact of loss of an adolescent, or do you feel that a reader of any age could relate to Alice's pain?

  2. Pietrzyk chose a quote from Anne Sexton to begin the novel. How did Sexton's words set a frame through which to view the events of the novel? How did Sexton's words about the circle of life and unstoppable march of time speak to A Year and a Day? What do you think that Alice would make of them?

  3. Describe Alice's and Will's relationship and how it changes through the course of the book. Why do you think this tragedy doesn't draw them closer? Why do Will and Alice have such a difficult time talking to each other truthfully about what they're feeling? How did a journey through grief change Alice's perception of her brother from someone who was "perfect, strong Will" to someone more like herself -- with flaws, and private pain?

  4. What observations can you make about the passage of time in this book? What does the title refer to? How is the title reinforced by the organization of the book and its chapters?

  5. Making pancakes on Sunday morning is one ritual Alice tries to recreate. What other rituals appear in this book? What is the purpose of a ritual; why does Alice think trying to recreate rituals will help her? How do others in the family respond to these rituals?

  6. Why is Dotty King initially so appealing to Alice? How do Alice's perceptions of her change after they meet? How do the other adult women Alice encounters after her mother's death succeed and fail her as potential role models?

  7. Do you agree with Annette when she tells Alice, "Everyone lives their real life in secret?" What are the various secrets that are exposed throughout the book? What are the reasons people have for keeping these secrets? Are they justified? What happens in the book when these secrets are shared with others?

  8. Why does Annette keep insisting that she's "right here" when, in fact, she's dead? Are there ways people remain with us after they die? Mrs. Lane says that death is "the most fair thing there is because we all die." Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

  9. Alice wonders, "Were you allowed to twist everything into a nicer story just because you wanted to?" What do you think? What are the ways various characters throughout the book seek more pleasant versions of the truth? Is this approach helpful for them?

  10. In what ways does Alice try to be like her mother? Does doing things her mother did help Alice understand Annette any better? Compare the reasons Annette wanted to play the role of Emily in Our Town with Alice's reasons for wanting the part.

  11. Alice thinks about her mother: "Who was she before she became Mama, my mother? Had I ever wondered about that?" Do children completely understand their parents' lives? What insight does Alice gain in trying to imagine various aspects of her mother's life? Do you think Alice will ever fully understand why her mother committed suicide?

  12. Why do you think Annette returned to Shelby after she ran away? Why did Will return to Shelby; why did he leave in the first place? Compare their reasons for leaving and returning.

  13. What different "voices" echo throughout this book? Why do you think the author chose to present Annette primarily as a voice that only Alice hears? Do you believe such a thing could happen? Why doesn't Alice tell her brother or her great-aunt about hearing her mother's voice? Why does Alice finally tell Mrs. Lane about hearing her mother's voice? What do you think about Mrs. Lane's response to Alice?

  14. About holding her dead mother's hand, Alice says, " ... though I was touching her, I wasn't; though she was there in front of me, she wasn't. I had never seen so clearly how two opposing things could both be true." What does Alice mean? What are some of the other instances throughout the book where two "opposing things" both seem to be true?

About the Author

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of Pears on a Willow Tree. Her short fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including TriQuarterly, Shenandoah, and the Iowa Review. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 29, 2008

    I didn't want it to end

    I love this book, my mother picked it out for our book club and we kept pushing it back unsure how we would like it, and when we finally started it we loved it! I would recommend it to everyone it's such a great read and a wonderful story. I can't say enough how much I just love this book. As I got to the last couple of pages I was sad to know it would end. Great book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2005

    So amazingly real

    This book is so good. One of those that you get engrossed in. For me, it was because I could relate to some of the thoughts the main character had, its very real. And in the end, it doesn't leave you hanging. It leaves you thinking. It has you questioning the whole idea of life and death.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2004

    Engrossing

    Story is told through the eyes of 15yr old Alice, whose mother commits suicide. You need to suspend belief a little as her dead mother talks to her, but the author incorporates it so well into the story, that you find yourself wondering if its possible. Through the year following her mother's death, we watch Alice search to find what we are all looking for, the meaning of life and death, and the question, will we ever know why?.

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