A juicy, sprawling comedy of manners about a group of thirtysomethings navigating friendship, love, and their fledgling careers among Houston’s high-powered, oil-money elite
Thirty-year-old Vivienne Cally is wealthy in name only. Orphaned as a child and raised by a cold but regal aunt, Vivienne was taught to rely on her beauty and Texas tradition, and is expected to marry a wealthy and respectable man who will honor the Cally name. Friends with Houston's richest and most prominent families, she's a beloved fixture at the social events big and small, and suffers no shortage of access to some of the city's most eligible bachelors. Preston Duffin has known Vivienne and her set since childhood. He's never shared their social aspirations or their status but is liked and respected for his sharp wit and intelligence. About to graduate from a prestigious architecture program, he is both fascinated and repelled by this group of friends he sits on the cusp of. He's long admired Vivienne's beauty and grace, but isn't sure he holds any place in such a traditional life. Intrigued by Preston's ambitions and the extent to which he challenges the only way of life she's ever known, Vivienne both courts Preston's attention, and rebuffs his critiques of her predictable and antiquated priorities and values. Inspired by Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Yvonne Georgina Puig's A Wife of Noble Character shares the original novel’s astute social commentary at the same time that it illuminates the trappings and rewards of coming of age that are wholly unique to the twenty-first century. Charming and shrewd at once, this Texas love story takes readers from Houston to Paris and Switzerland and back again, and will speak to both fans of Wharton and anyone who has every struggled to find their way in life.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|File size:||644 KB|
About the Author
Yvonne Georgina Puig's fiction and essays have appeared in Salon, Variety, Los Angeles Magazine, and The Texas Observer, among others. She holds a Masters in Professional Writing from USC. She lives in Santa Monica with her husband. She is the author of A Wife of Noble Character.
Read an Excerpt
A Wife of Noble Character
By Yvonne Georgina Puig
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2016 Yvonne Georgina Puig
All rights reserved.
Why must a girl pay so dearly for her last escape from routine?
— EDITH WHARTON
Preston noticed her immediately. He always did.
It was a Friday in May, a warm, windy day. Campus was busy. He was going home after a night spent at the studio preparing for his final reviews, but what was Vivienne doing here? She stood in the middle of the path, wearing a long white sundress, as dozens of students rushed past her. The wind played with her skirt, lifted her long, straight hair. She kept glancing around. There was nothing new about her — Preston had known her for years — yet he could not see her without feeling keenly curious.
He decided to approach. If she didn't want to talk, he knew, she would pretend not to see him. If she did, she would be his best friend. He wanted to see which it would be.
She smiled and gave him a fragrant half embrace, stirring his senses agreeably after twenty-four hours spent in a room rank with the body odor of future architects. He hoped she couldn't smell him; her height met his shoulders exactly. A few underclassmen brushed by and took a second look, probably wondering who she was and why he got to touch her.
She stepped back and tucked her pale hair behind her ears. She was carrying a substantial and obviously, even to Preston, expensive white leather purse over her shoulder. It was covered in polished hardware and buckles that seemed not to buckle anything, and she slipped her small hand beneath the strap to relieve the weight of it from her shoulder. He'd seen her only a few weeks ago, but he'd never seen her so radiant, so bright and unblemished. Maybe it was the humidity filling in the grooves of so many late nights spent drinking light beer in West Houston mansions, Preston imagined, calling up his usual distillation of her character. He knew they were the same age, but she didn't look thirty. In the broad collegiate thoroughfare full of earth-toned students and not-getting-any-younger professors, she was a fine beam of light.
"I'm so glad to see you. Thank you for coming to help me." She stood before him at full expectant female attention, her eyes green as spring moss. "You look like you slept with your head on a desk."
He thanked her for the observation — he'd actually been awake most of the night with his head on a desk — and said that he was always happy to appear the moment she needed help.
"I'm looking for the Rothko Chapel. I thought it was on the Rice campus." She interrupted herself to explain that she'd just had breakfast with their mutual friend Bladimir. "I know it's near Blad's, but I can't find it and my phone is dead."
"You're in the area," Preston said. "But the Rothko Chapel isn't on campus; it's a couple miles from here." After some questioning, he figured out where she'd parked and gave her directions.
To his surprise, she suggested they go there together. "Are you busy?"
Preston said that he was never too busy for her, and together they walked to her car through the campus rush and onto Montrose Boulevard, with its wide gravel sidewalks. Traffic passed close. Preston walked nearest to the street. Her car was parked a few feet into a crosshatched red zone. It was a black BMW 325 but an older one, probably late nineties, much older than what Preston assumed she'd drive. Why did he make these assumptions in the first place? The more she intrigued him, the more he was inclined to make assumptions about her.
She pulled a parking ticket from beneath the windshield wiper and frowned — an exaggerated pout, not pretty but endearing. She looked like a little girl.
"How much?" Preston said.
She was not nearly as bothered as Preston would have been. A parking ticket was cause for a day of mournful thoughts about all the things he could have spent sixty dollars on: a week's worth of modeling supplies, twenty cups of fancy coffee, a supremely minuscule percentage of his massive student debt. But Vivienne seemed to have forgotten about it already.
"Will you drive?" she said. "I don't know where I'm going."
So he drove while she sat beside him, fiddling with the air conditioner. Her car smelled like vanilla bean. He liked how odd and good it felt to be this near to her — he was usually a bystander in her company — but it was no doubt typical of Vivienne to bend a man's will to her need, no matter how small that need, and leave him feeling flattered for it. He remembered Vivienne in high school as a sumptuous vision enjoyed from afar, a sort of impressionist landscape — not someone he'd share friends with one day. But as their twenties narrowed, it seemed their social circles did too. They knew many of the same people; channels crossed. Preston liked seeing her, but sometimes she'd say something and then he'd think that maybe he liked seeing her more than he liked her. And yet, even then, she held his interest. Watching her was like watching a play — every way she spoke, or turned her wrist, suggested design and forethought. Her eyes were so alert. He could never figure them out, and so he could never quite figure out how to handle her.
"So are you an architect now?" she said.
"Almost," Preston said. "Graduating in a couple weeks if all goes well. You just wanted to check out some museums today?"
"I have some time. I told Waverly I'd help her with the seating chart — you know she's getting married? To Clay Fitcherson? I've been putting it off. But I don't have to be there till three."
"I got the save-the-date two months ago," Preston said.
"Oh, good," she said. "It's a huge wedding."
"It must be if I'm invited."
"I'll make sure to seat you next to a pretty girl."
Preston took this as a consolation, meaning she would not be the pretty girl sitting next to him. She was probably dating a guy who drove a big truck. She usually was.
He backed her car into a shaded spot. The morning was spectacularly humid, the neighborhood dewy and alive with the bustle and flap of grackles, the St. Augustine grass underfoot green and shag-thick. They stood before the daunting windowless brick octagon of the Rothko Chapel. It looked nothing like a chapel. There were spots of mossy mold here and there in the mortar. Some crows were perched on the lip of the roof, cawing.
"I always thought this building was an office," she said. "I've passed it a hundred times."
"What do you think about the architecture?"
"I should know better than to talk to you about architecture." So she saw through him. "I like the museum better." She pointed to the Menil Collection next door. "I've always loved that museum. I think my aunt or someone in my family was a patron. I've been to a lot of parties there."
The surrounding homes were all painted in the same soft shade of gray as the Menil. This quiet corridor was oil money at its best. One of Preston's favorite local tales was about Dominique de Menil, who, by way of her family's still-mighty oil-field equipment company, Schlumberger, erected this subtle temple to her art collection in the eighties and in the process gave fusty old Houston a real gift. Preston loved how unexpected it was that behind those gray walls, on the coastal plain of Texas, lay one of the world's most important collections of surrealist art.
He also liked the museum "better" than the chapel, which had always struck him as imposing given the synthesis of the surrounding architecture, a deliberate effort at variety. But he'd usually found a more complicated way of expressing Vivienne's same thought, involving Philip Johnson's intentions and the built environment. She had a point. Why were there so many layers of interpretation? Appreciating, despising, adoring, misunderstanding, not-caring-for. Sometimes you like a thing or you don't.
"The Menil is really a masterpiece of light," Preston said, and thinking he sounded pretentious, added, "I like it better too."
"That's nice," Vivienne said. "A masterpiece of light."
"The chapel is about the absence of light, the muting of it," he said.
"The Menil is about the disbursement of light. Renzo Piano might be my favorite."
"Is that the architect?"
Preston nodded. "Of the Menil."
She poked his arm. "Do you have a penny?"
Preston handed her one from his pocket, which she examined and squeezed tightly. Then she kissed her fist and tossed the penny into the reflecting pond full of pine needles.
Silly, Preston thought. What does Vivienne Cally have to wish for? To him, she was the girl who had everything. Though he was always running up against what "everything" meant. He tended to elevate the term above anything money could buy. There was something about Vivienne that seemed bought, as if the men she chose had won her affection with their money — a power he lacked — and so "everything" had to mean something beyond all that, something people with money couldn't hope to attain but that he, who had no oil money or gas pipeline or political legacy, or even a business degree, could. It was a method to convince himself that the tables turned: Vivienne Cally may suppose herself beyond his reach, but, in truth, he was beyond hers.
Inside, she sat on a bench and stared at the twilight-colored canvases while Preston pretended not to stare at her. Her beauty was beyond sexual (though it certainly was sexual). There was nothing angular about her. She was subtly round, her breasts big. He liked her shoulders in particular: strong and soft, but still delicate. Shoulders a man could clutch and feel stronger by. A pale face, a face filled with possibility. If only she didn't know it. But of course she did; she knew it all too well. And when Preston reminded himself of this, that this out-of-context Vivienne, here, was the popular, buoyant rich girl he'd always known, the depths receded. Her beauty was appealing because a man could ascribe any meaning to it he wished. God knows what the men she spent her time with made of her.
"Rothko painted these a few months before he slit his wrists," he said, joining her at the bench.
She frowned. "That's really sad."
A robed ascetic sort of man told them to shush. He was sitting Indian style on an orange floor pillow. "Should everything make you happy?" Preston whispered.
"No," she replied, like a dart. "But why purposely make yourself sad? I believe happiness is more powerful than sadness."
"That's sweet but naïve," Preston said. "Don't you enjoy feeling sad sometimes?"
She held out a hand for Preston to help her off the bench, despite the fact that she could have stood up on her own. But he obliged the act. "No, I don't enjoy feeling sad," she said. "And I don't go out and make other people look at my sadness when I do feel sad."
Preston felt the back of his neck heat up. This was exactly the kind of ambivalence he couldn't stand. As if artists have an obligation not to upset people's sensitivities.
"Why should his art be dictated by our reactions? Why should he care how we feel?"
Vivienne sighed out her nose. "Who are the paintings for anyway? They're for people to see."
A guard in a baggy security uniform came over — a diminutive man with an impressive gray mustache waxed and twirled at the ends. He had the eager air of a volunteer. "This is a silent area," he said. "Please go outside."
They scooted out into the courtyard, united by a sense of mischief, Preston's budding righteousness diffused. There was something exhilarating about being scolded by an old person — it proved you were still young. You could still break rules without hurting anyone. You could still run away and leave people shaking their heads.
Vivienne blinked her eyes against the light of day and squinted at her slinky wristwatch. "It's still early. Want to take a walk?"
Then, to his bewilderment, she took his arm at the elbow and fixed it into a faux-gentlemanly promenade pose. Of course, he thought, I'm supposed to ask her on the walk that she suggested.
"My place is just down the block. I could make you a cup of coffee."
"Merci," she said cutely, in a Texan's impersonation of the French.
The walk to his apartment was five minutes through the neighborhood, shaded with old oaks. The trees were full of brown squirrels, reproaching passersby with tail flicks and terse chirps. The other passersby were harried students and academic mothers pushing strollers or clutching the hands of wobbly toddlers. Vivienne said "Good morning" to each mother they passed and paused to coo at each child, which made Preston uncomfortable, because he rarely greeted strangers and definitely never stopped to admire children. He stood by dumbly as she tickled bellies and complimented diaper bags, wondering if he should be impressed. Still, he liked that the women seemed to think they were a couple. It made him stand straighter, even while thinking over the condition of his studio apartment. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been there for more than a few minutes, and it was possible the garbage smelled or the bed was unmade, or worse. He remembered ejaculating into a sock the other day and had no idea as to the sock's current location.
"The university owns this house," he told her as they walked up the driveway. "It's a scholarship house. I live above the garage in the back." The garage didn't bring to mind anything collegiate. It was a building that spoke for itself: a two-car, two-story rectangle painted over in a peeling shade of beige. The garage door was open, displaying his hubcap-less 1996 Civic, his broken LONE STAR BEER sign, his rusty bike fit for a fifteen-year-old, his work desk piled with reams of paper and rulers and eraser shavings. She only noticed the ivy. It covered half the house, forming a sort of structural shawl, softening corners. "It's very East Coast," she said. "I like it."
"Fig ivy," Preston said. "It's native to the Gulf Coast."
Preston started up the steps. Was it rude to walk in front of her? If he walked behind he'd see up her dress, which he wouldn't have minded, but he didn't want to get caught. She stopped midway and slipped her heels off and dropped them into her gigantic purse. He suddenly felt nervous — he was sure nothing would, or could, happen. She'd already told him that he looked like hell, but, still, she was about to be inside his apartment. He'd never been alone with her for so long.
To his relief, he didn't smell anything offensive when he opened the door. There were no socks in sight. The place was in decent order. He loved his habit of underestimating himself. He was always exceeding his own expectations.
"Welcome to my enormous apartment," he said.
Vivienne soft-footed inside and looked around. "This is the tiniest apartment I've ever seen." She set her purse on a brown corduroy armchair draped with a quilt.
Preston busied himself with boiling water and rinsing mugs in the kitchenette. "It's called a bachelor apartment," he said, over his shoulder. "I guess because this is all a man really needs."
"Is it all you need?"
"For now." He turned around and leaned against the counter, drying the mugs. Vivienne was standing at his father's old mahogany shelf, scanning his books. She took one from the shelf, an old Agee first edition, also his father's. She didn't open the book, just held it, admiring its exterior.
"I'd like to have more than one room, though, sooner than later," Preston said.
Vivienne slid the book back in place. "Do architects do well?" she said, turning her focus on him.
Preston smiled. "Territory you haven't thought to explore?"
"That's not what I mean."
He shook his head mirthfully and went back to the coffee. "Then why ask?"
She came over to his corner, arms akimbo. "Just because I asked if architects do well doesn't mean I'm on the hunt for an architect husband. You always needle me."
"Slow down," Preston said. He enjoyed riling her up like this; she was all pink in the cheeks. "Who said anything about hunting for husbands?"
"Never mind," she said.
He laughed. "I'm sorry. I'm not laughing at you," he said, even though he kind of was. He plunged the French press and poured the coffee, gave her the mug with the most crème on the top. She took it without saying anything, immediately closing her hands around it and bringing it to her face as if it were wintertime, and curled up in the armchair. She appeared to be pouting. Preston opened a window to let in some air. He sat at the edge of the bed, holding his mug on his knee.
Excerpted from A Wife of Noble Character by Yvonne Georgina Puig. Copyright © 2016 Yvonne Georgina Puig. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This story was alright from an entertainment value. I found the pace inconsistent, sometimes moving quickly, then slowing down a lot. Vivienne struggles to define herself, as she's a poor girl in a rich person's world. She was raised by her rich aunt after her parents passed away but had no wealth of her own. She tries to keep up with her friends but in the end realizes she needs to be herself without the trappings of their lifestyle. I had a hard time identifying with Vivienne and her "friends". They all seemed shallow and materialistic, disconnected from real life. However, I believe that is part of the moral of the story.
A Wife of Noble Character is melancholy and lovely. At first, disliking Vivienne and dismissing her as shallow and always ready to use her good looks to get what she wants is easy. As the story progresses, Vivienne’s character flows into a different context as she struggles to maintain the expectations of her family name but without the money that has traditionally kept that name in all the right circles. Vivienne is flawed, but her development as a character is realistic and muddled and noble. The pivotal moment (for me, at least) is Waverly’s wedding, where Vivienne is the Maid of Honor. Vivienne’s explosive encounter with the oh-so-unsuitable Preston on this night is quite a turning point in Vivienne’s life. This volta sends Vivienne in new and unfamiliar directions that include the clutches of a high-paying job with strings attached, Paris to assess an ex-pat’s artwork (but maybe to be near Preston as well), Switzerland to regroup because her life is officially in shambles, and new levels of self awareness and self appreciation. Vivienne finally finds her voice when she is in Paris, but she has a long way to go before she finally lands on solid ground. Vivienne’s friend Bladimir is definitely my favorite character. He is a true friend because he is brutally honest and unceasingly caring. The contrast between Bladimir and Vivienne’s friend Karlie is stark and poignant. The writing in A Wife of Noble Character is quite literary and draws you into its depths and dimensions. The plot and writing style have an old-fashioned tone, so the explicit sexual references and scenes are startling. On the other hand, the sex and occasional crudity are realistic elements and have a fundamental place in this story. The relationship between Vivienne and Preston is frustrating throughout. Both are stubborn and quick to judge and slow to act. This dynamic inches the story toward the perfect epilogue, which left me tearfully smiling and giddy. A Wife of Noble Character will leave you breathless and contemplating what it means to be a true friend to your friends, to your family, and to yourself throughout all of life’s storms and messy everyday moments. My favorite quote: “. . . you lose what you love when you don’t love it enough.” Thank you to Lone Star Book Blog Tour and publisher Henry Holt & Company for providing me with a copy of A Wife of Nobel Character by Yvonne Georgina Puig in exchange for my honest review.
Boy, was I looking forward to reading this one! With its attractive cover promising intrigue, social commentary and references to Wharton, I was sold like a new car and eagerly clicked ‘Request’ on NetGalley the moment I came across it. But upon reading it, I came away with a mixed bag of emotions toward it that left me a bit dissatisfied. What I liked about Puig’s A Wife of Noble Character was that it didn’t follow the trajectory I thought it would, and that’s always a plus. I had an idea in my head of how it would all play out when I first met all of the characters. And, yes, while this is a self-proclaimed “classic love story,” (a label which basically lets you know how the story will end) the twists and turns that happened to get to that point were often surprising. The biggest plus of A Wife for me, by far, was the last 20% of the read, which pulled this read back from the abyss for me. Without giving anything away, one of the pivotal turning points in the novel did make me respect, if not like, Vivienne a little more. Vivienne is a character who is considered by all in her sphere to be beautiful. All she has ever been—or accomplished—in life is being “beautiful,” thus her aspirations in life go hand-in-hand with that. She struggles against this internally, but it’s not as deep as it sounds. Really, she’s trying to decide if being a Texas gold-digger is really her calling—though she still hasn’t settled on whether or not she would consider herself to be such. Enter her gentlemen callers, the men in her life who have similar views on her shown in polarizing ways but who end up shaping the way that she views herself and what she wants from her own life. Now, I must say that in reviewing A Wife of Noble Character, I realized that the problem I had with it was the packaging. It all began and ended, so to speak, with the packaging! Reading it, I wanted it to be more; I wanted it to live up to the lovely wrapping that it was dressed and presented in, but it didn’t—not for me. This wasn’t some poignant and charmingly funny Edith Wharton spinoff—some modernized version that still had some intellectual bite. No, this was pure chick lit, highlighted by the fact that the protagonist, Vivienne, seemed to want sympathy and commiseration for the everyday life hardships that she experienced, as if she were somehow exempt from real-world issues. (Enter borderline shopaholic heroine who frets over whether or not to flat iron her hair.) Annoying, but often true of chick lit, which is why had I known that this was behind door #1, I would’ve run in the other direction for sure. More importantly, I can’t imagine that this won’t be an issue for this novel to some extent in the future. How are readers of chick lit who might really enjoy this read to know that they’ve found their match if it isn’t packaged correctly? And how many readers will be annoyed to no end once they figure out that they’ve been duped by a literarily slanted book flap and cover? You see, it’s the packaging that makes this one a problem for me, because if it’s compared to the read that I thought I was getting, the rating will surely reflect that, but if compared to other reads in its (real) genre, it might fare a little better. Meanwhile, this one started out in one of the strangest manners I’ve come across in a while. It just dropped... To see more reviews, go to The Navi Review at www.thenavireview.com, and follow the blog on Twitter (@thenavireview) & Goodreads!