A Small Indiscretion

A Small Indiscretion

by Jan Ellison

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Overview

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE • With the emotional complexity of Everything I Never Told You and the psychological suspense of The Girl on the Train, O. Henry Prize winner Jan Ellison delivers a brilliantly paced, beautifully written debut novel about one woman’s reckoning with a youthful mistake.

“Part psychological thriller, part character study . . . I peeled back the pages of this book as fast as I could.”—The Huffington Post

At nineteen, Annie Black trades a bleak future in a washed-out California town for a London winter of drinking and abandon. Twenty years later, she is a San Francisco lighting designer and happily married mother of three who has put her reckless youth behind her. Then a photo from that distant winter in Europe arrives inexplicably in her mailbox, and an old obsession is awakened.

Past and present collide, Annie’s marriage falters, and her son takes a car ride that ends with his life hanging in the balance. Now Annie must confront her own transgressions and fight for her family by untangling the mysteries of the turbulent winter that drew an invisible map of her future. Gripping, insightful, and lyrical, A Small Indiscretion announces the arrival of a major new voice in literary suspense as it unfolds a story of denial, passion, forgiveness—and the redemptive power of love.

Praise for A Small Indiscretion

“Ellison is a tantalizing storyteller . . . moving her story forward with cinematic verve.”USA Today

“Rich with suspense . . . Lovely writing guides us through, driven by a quiet generosity.”San Francisco Chronicle (Book Club pick)

“Delicious, lazy-day reading. Just don’t underestimate the writing.”O: The Oprah Magazine (Editor’s Pick)

“Rich and detailed . . . The plot explodes delightfully, with suspense and a few twists. Using second-person narration and hypnotic prose, Ellison’s debut novel is both juicy and beautifully written. How do I know it’s juicy? A stranger started reading it over my shoulder on the New York City subway, and told me he was sorry that I was turning the pages too quickly.”Flavorwire

“Are those wild college days ever really behind you? Happily married Annie finds out.”Cosmopolitan

“An impressive fiction debut . . . both a psychological mystery and a study of the divide between desire and duty.”San Jose Mercury News

“A novel to tear through on a plane ride or on the beach . . . I was drawn into a web of secrets, a world of unrequited love and youthful mistakes that feel heightened and more romantic on the cold winter streets of London, Paris, and Ireland.”Bustle

“Ellison renders the California landscape with stunning clarity. . . . She writes gracefully, with moments of startling insight. . . . Her first novel is an emotional thriller, skillfully plotted in taut, visual scenes.”The Rumpus

“To read A Small Indiscretion is to eat fudge before dinner: slightly decadent behavior, highly caloric, and extremely satisfying. . . . An emotional detective story that . . . mirrors real life in ways that surprise and inspire.”New York Journal of Books

“If you liked Gone Girl for its suspenseful look inside the psychology of a bad marriage, try A Small Indiscretion. . . . It touches many of the same nerves.”StyleCaster

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812995442
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/20/2015
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jan Ellison is an O. Henry Prize winner and a graduate of Stanford University. She left college for a year at nineteen to travel and work in Europe, taking notes that two decades later became the germ of A Small Indiscretion. Ellison lives in California with her husband of twenty years and their four children.

Read an Excerpt

A Small Indiscretion

A Novel


By Jan Ellison

Random House LLC

Copyright © 2015 Jan Ellison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8129-9544-2


CHAPTER 1

London, the year I turned twenty.

I wore a winter coat, the first I'd ever owned—a man's coat purchased at a secondhand store. I wore it every day, along with a silk scarf tied around my neck, imagining I looked arty or sophisticated. Each scarf cost a pound, and I bought them from an Indian woman who kept a stall in the tube station at Victoria, where I caught my train to work. They were thin, crinkled things, not the sort of scarves that ought to be worn to work in an office or that offered any protection against the cold. But I could not resist them, their weightlessness and soft, faint colors. The money I spent on them, and the habit I adopted of wearing a different one each day, seems to me now a haphazard indulgence, an attempt to prove that I was the kind of girl capable of throwing herself headlong into an affair with her boss—a married man twice her age—and escaping without consequence.

"Church," he said, the morning I arrived at the address the woman at the agency had printed out on a card. "Malcolm Church."

He extended his hand, and right away I was struck by a certain contradiction in him—the impressive height and mass of him in opposition to his stooped shoulders, his hesitant manner, his unwieldy arms and legs. He had a square face and round brown eyes and brown hair streaked with gray, but his features were mostly overwhelmed by his size, so that all I remembered afterward was the pleasing sensation of feeling small, by comparison, even at five feet eight. He had a strange way of talking, his head tucked into his neck and his eyes fixed in the empty space beyond, as if something were suspended there, ripe fruit or a glimmer of light, as if he were not quite brave enough, or perhaps too polite, to look a person in the eye.

He asked me how long I was available. I told him I planned to be in London three months, but that my work permit was good for six, through March of next year. I'd intended to claim I was available indefinitely, since the position was listed as full--time permanent, and I was entirely out of money and badly needed the job, but something had stopped me. Not a sense of right and wrong or fear of getting caught, but a hard center of self--importance I had not lived long enough to shed, the notion that I would offer myself on my own terms or not at all. And I was buoyed up by my typing speed—eighty words per minute—about which he never even inquired.

"That'll be fine," Malcolm said, staring intently over my shoulder as he proceeded to explain that his work was in structural engineering, and that he was currently preparing a bid for the new Docklands Light Rail station at Canary Wharf. The London Docklands, he explained, was an area in east and southeast London whose docks had once been part of the Port of London. The area had fallen into disarray, and in the seventies, the government had put forward plans for commercial and residential redevelopment. Malcolm had been involved in the early phases of the project. Now he was hoping to work on the renovation of the original rail station.

There would be dictation and word processing, he said, a little research and generally helping to set up the office and assemble the bid. The office was a single room upstairs from a sandwich shop near Bond Street, with two desks, industrial gray carpet and two folding metal chairs. On one desk was an unusual photograph of a woman and a baby, a posed black--and--white image with a startling play of silver light and shadow set against a background of trees and sky. A single smudge of pink had been hand-painted over the baby's lips. It was Malcolm's family—his wife, Louise, who would feature so prominently in my thoughts, and their infant daughter, Daisy, who was by then ten years old and away at the boarding school in the north that Louise had attended when she was Daisy's age. I was to learn later that the photograph had been taken by a young man named Patrick Ardghal, the son of an old family friend of Malcolm's, who was living in the cottage out back of Malcolm and Louise's house in Richmond. He'd taken the photo a decade earlier, when he was in art school.

In the photo Louise had blond hair and a fine straight nose and a smile with a hint of impatience in it, perhaps not with the baby per se, but with the general condition of motherhood into which Louise had finally plunged. It had taken them seven years to conceive their daughter, Malcolm told me later. By the time they became parents they had already been married a decade, and Louise had not wanted another child. She didn't have the temperament for it, Malcolm said. It overwhelmed and exhausted her and the delivery had nearly killed her, the baby, Daisy, having inherited from her father a rather large head.

I moved from a youth hostel in Earl's Court to a boardinghouse in Victoria. The building was five stories high, made of gray stone, on a block not far from the tube station. My room was ten feet square with bright--blue walls, a laminate desk and a hard, narrow bed covered in a thin white spread. There were bathrooms down the hall. There were no showers, only a single tub and a hose you attached to the faucet for washing your hair. There was no lock on the room with the bathtub, so I made a habit of propping a chair in front of the door for privacy. The chair, as I recall, did not stop Patrick Ardghal. Nothing much stopped Patrick when he had an idea in his mind. He simply shoved the door hard, and I welcomed him, I suppose, as I always did, and he undressed and climbed in. Our wet bodies were awkwardly entangled long enough to please him—then he left, as he always did, taking my heart with him.

My rent was sixty pounds a week, including breakfast and dinner. The meals were served buffet--style in the dining room downstairs. There were eggs and toast and stewed tomatoes for breakfast, meat pie or fish and chips or baked ham for dinner. It was a source of solidarity among the other boarders to complain about the food but I could not in good conscience join in. I loved those meals, the bounty and efficiency of them, the thick gravies, the custards and puddings and soft, fat rolls. It seemed a small miracle to me, to have so much available and to be paying for it all with my own wages. It pleased me, too, each time I handed over a pound coin in exchange for a scarf, and when I purchased, at the secondhand shop in Notting Hill, the winter coat, a full--length single-breasted gray tweed with covered buttons and a wide collar that could be turned up against the cold. I wore my coat and scarf and descended the escalator into the bowels of Victoria Station, emerging again into the dense, unyielding energy of city life feeling brisk, and stylish, and superior to the person I'd been when I'd left home. I was taken over by a sense of liberation and possibility. Any false steps I made now would be mine alone. Any foolish moves would be private business that had no bearing on the hopes and dreams of others, and that would not later be a source of remorse or reckoning or pain.


* * *

What a shock to discover, some twenty years later, that exactly the opposite was true. To learn, in the aftermath, that I hadn't known the half of it. To stand in my San Francisco kitchen last June and slip my finger through the flap of a white envelope, and to find a black--and--white photograph of myself in that tweed coat, standing on the chalk down of the White Cliffs of Dover, waiting to board a ferry to Paris.

It was a photograph innocent enough to anyone unacquainted with its history, its treacherous biological imperatives, its call for reparations left unpaid. It had been solarized, just as the photo of Louise and the baby on Malcolm's desk had been. It had been subjected to a light source in the darkroom, causing a reversal of dark and light. My form, and Malcolm's, along with the inch of air between us, were bathed in silver light that brightened at the edges like a halo. Louise and Patrick, on the other side of the photo, were deep in shadow. The scarf I was wearing had been hand--colored a blunt red. It was tied around my neck like a choker, like a noose. But it wasn't me who was about to hang.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison. Copyright © 2015 Jan Ellison. Excerpted by permission of Random House LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

1. In the beginning of the novel, Annie writes: “Between those bookends was a family whose happiness might still be intact if only I’d been able to see the threats to it more clearly.” Is Annie reponsible for Robbie’s accident, and for her family’s unraveling? Is it in her power to protect them?

2. There is more than one indiscretion in the novel. Which do you think the title refers to, or might it refer to more than one?

3. On page 302, Annie writes that it is “easier to blame the impulsiveness of youth than the wanton self-indulgence of a grown woman.” How can this statement be assessed in the context of Annie’s story? Why does Annie confess to Jonathan upon her return from London? 

4. After Jonathan moves out, Clara and Polly are passed between their parents “like a restaurant dessert.” Is Jonathan’s decision to move out defensible? How are the girls’ childhoods altered by the events of the summer? How might they look back on this period in their lives?

5. The novel takes the form of a confessional letter from Annie to Robbie. It also moves back and forth across two decades and spans three continents. How did this structure affect your reading experience?  Does the structure remind you of any other novels?

6. Annie’s youthful relationship with Patrick is tortured and unfulfilling, yet she continues to yearn for him for more than twenty years. What causes this obsession? And why does it fade once Annie finally meets Patrick in London as an adult? 

7. On page 250, Patrick defines art as “whatever stands in the world with no other purpose than to move us.” Annie in turn suggests that art should at least be beautiful. Do you agree with either of these definitions? What other scenes and situations in the novel speak to the themes of art and beauty? 

8. Early in the novel, Annie writes: “The heart is large, and there is more than one material in the bucket we call love.” How does the novel address the theme of the nature of love? How do notions or definitions of love evolve as the novel progresses, and Annie matures? 

9. Alcoholism runs in Annie’s family, yet when she finds herself abroad at nineteen, she begins to drink heavily. How might Annie’s upbringing have influenced this behavior? What leads to Annie’s “bargain” with herself in the clinic in San Francisco, as described on page 209?

10. The letter Annie receives from Emme’s uncle contains a major revelation. Did this revelation come as a surprise? What previous scenes hint at this revelation? Is Emme justified in holding Annie responsible for the shaping of her own history?

11.  Annie posits that a memory is “by its nature a revision…. shaped by the waves of time, and by the history that has rushed against it since…” How does the novel interrogate the nature of memory? Is Annie a reliable narrator? How would the story be different if it were told from Jonathan’s point of view? Or Robbie’s? Or Emme’s?

12. On page 273, Annie realizes that if she expects to be forgiven, she must “forgive indiscriminately” from now on.  Which characters, besides Annie, seek forgiveness? Which characters are ultimately redeemed, and which, if any, are not?

13. The novel concludes without describing what happens when Annie flies to Paris to reveal to Robbie the truth about his paternity and about Emme’s motivations. How do you imagine events unfolding between Annie and Robbie, and ultimately, between Robbie and Emme?

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