Alice Sullivan feels like she’s finally found her groove in middle age, but it only takes one moment for her perfectly curated life to unravel. On the same day she learns her daughter is struggling in second grade, a call from her son’s school accusing him of bullying throws Alice into a tailspin.
When it comes to light that the incident is part of a new behavior pattern for her son, one complete with fake social media profiles with a lot of questionable content, Alice’s social standing is quickly eroded to one of “those moms” who can’t control her kids. Soon she’s facing the very judgement she was all too happy to dole out when she thought no one was looking (or when she thought her house wasn’t made of glass).
Then her mother unloads a family secret she’s kept for more than thirty years, and Alice’s entire perception of herself is shattered.
As her son’s new reputation polarizes her friendships and her family buzzes with the ramification of her mother’s choices, Alice realizes that she’s been too focused on measuring her success and happiness by everyone else's standards. Now, with all her shortcomings laid bare, she’ll have to figure out to whom to turn for help and decide who she really wants to be.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)|
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Alice scrolled through the latest posts on the NextDoor app as she waited for Nadia, who was, as usual, several minutes late for their twice-monthly coffee. Meredith used to join them, but she'd announced a year ago that she'd rather see them on Sundays for power walks than lounge in a Starbucks.
"Two birds, you know?" Meredith had said, thinking of her workout.
Alice and Nadia had agreed to the walks but still kept the coffee dates, a tradition since the kids had been in kindergarten seven years before. Now, Alice's son, Teddy, could wear his dad's shoes, and Nadia's Donovan knew how to code in three languages. All three moms had been nervous to leave the safety of Elm Creek Elementary when their kids started junior high that fall, but it had been a smooth transition so far to "the big school," as they called it. Well, smooth for Alice's and Meredith's children. Donovan continued on his "behavior plan."
The neighbors on NextDoor complained that local kids were "tagging," a term Alice hadn't heard in ages. Shirley MacIntosh, a frequent contributor to the app and one whose posts Alice, Meredith, and Nadia routinely mocked during their walks, had photographed a rudimentary drawing of a penis in some kind of pink paint on a porta-potty at Elm Creek Park. "Who would draw a rocket ship in permanent ink?" Shirley had written. "Haven't today's parents heard of chalk?!"
Alice snorted with laughter-the drawing was definitely not a rocket ship. She took a screenshot of the post, which she texted to her husband, Patrick, along with a reminder about their daughter's imminent school conference.
Nadia finally pushed through the front door of the coffee shop, her fleece jacket zipped against the mid-October chill. Alice pulled the scarf she'd layered over a silk blouse tighter against her neck. As Nadia placed her coffee order, Alice checked her earlobes for her lucky pearl drops. Patrick had splurged on them for their first Christmas together, and they'd become a talisman for the days she had important client meetings, like today with the Kerrigans. The Kerrigans' midcentury home would require a complete remodel, she hoped by her design firm.
At the counter, Nadia held up a finger, indicating that she'd be at the table in a minute. They'd have to talk fast, and Alice would then beeline to meet with Adrian's second-grade teacher. It'd be tight, but Alice would make it in time to hear that, as usual, Adrian was doing just fine.
Nadia looked casual in her joggers, and Alice felt jealous of her work-from-home lifestyle. It wasn't that Nadia, a software engineer, wasn't busy, but she always seemed so relaxed with no in-person clients to impress. Of course, she did have Donovan to worry about. Alice would try not to mention Adrian's conference to Nadia. When his third-grade teacher had suggested that Donovan had legitimate behavioral problems-anxiety and perhaps oppositional defiant disorder-she and Meredith had basically scraped Nadia off the floor and fielded her hysterical calls and texts for days afterward.
Alice had googled oppositional defiant disorder then. One of the main causes, at least according to the Internet, was a lack of engaged parenting. Alice secretly thought her friend had only half addressed that root cause in the years since the initial evaluation. She wasn't surprised that seventh grade had been a struggle so far. It had been tricky to talk about with Nadia, given how well Teddy had fared.
"Sorry I'm late," Nadia said as she sat. "Did you take the whole morning off for Aidy's conference?"
Alice winced. She must have already mentioned the appointment in a text. "No," she said lightly. "I have a client meeting at nine thirty. Think I'll make it?"
Nadia raised an eyebrow. "Assuming a teacher will run on time at conferences? Bold move."
Maybe your conferences run long, Alice thought. Adrian's should be a snap. "I think I've got a handle on her, and I'm only Miss Miller's second appointment. How late could it be?"
"I'm sure it'll be fine." Nadia pulled her arm out of her jacket, and Alice knew this was the time to ask about Donovan, but she didn't have the energy.
"How's your mom?" Alice ventured instead.
"The same. But can I ask you about Teddy?" Nadia looked nervous, and Alice braced herself. Sometimes these queries from Nadia-"Has Teddy ever, like, stolen anything at school?" or "How worried would you be if Teddy couldn't find a partner for the robotics fair?"-required an inordinate amount of sidestepping. While she hadn't yet heard the story from Nadia, Teddy had told her at dinner the other night that Donovan had called their science teacher a "fuckhead" in front of the class the previous week.
"Sure?" Alice flipped her phone over, ignoring an incoming text message from her boss, no doubt a pep talk about the Kerrigan appointment.
"So, this might be awkward," Nadia said gently. At least she's self-aware. "Donovan told me something about Teddy."
Alice touched the base of her throat, feeling the ridges of her collarbones beneath her fingers. "About Teddy?"
Nadia squinted. "Donovan says Teddy has some sort of a feud going with Tane Lagerhead." She shook her head. "'Feud' sounds so dramatic; it's probably the wrong word. But apparently they're not getting along? Donovan didn't know the origin, but I guess there's been some stuff happening on Snapchat." Nadia took the lid off her drink and blew into it. "Have I mentioned how much I hate that app?"
Alice remembered the day she'd allowed Teddy to download it. She'd paused in their negotiation, just as her How to Talk to Teens book had advised. She had told Teddy she wasn't sure he was ready for the responsibility of Snapchat. But as they'd reflected on his behavior "honestly and openly," as the psychologist authors of the manual advised, she had to admit he hadn't yet done anything stupid on social media. Alice monitored his Instagram, of course, and the one time Teddy had posted that vaping meme, she'd caught it and made him delete it within minutes. She was pretty sure neither Meredith nor Nadia had seen it, though they all followed each other's kids.
But Snapchat loomed beyond Alice's parental control in a way that made her leery. Still, "everyone had it," as Teddy argued, and without it he might lose out on formative friendship interactions. This last part was Alice's rationalization. But Alice thought she was right. Since he'd downloaded the app, he'd told her about his "streaks" with friends and giggled with her and Adrian about the filter that gave them all flower crowns. It seemed harmless.
"I haven't heard anything from Teddy about Tane," Alice said.
"I guess they're in a pretty public skirmish." Nadia put her head in her hand, clearly uncomfortable. "'Skirmish' isn't the right word, either, but there are hashtags and kids are taking sides. Apparently, Teddy threatened to do something 'major' to Tane." Nadia put air quotes around "major." "Anyway, Donovan's worried."
Donovan's worried? Alice stifled an eye roll. Donovan might want to look in the mirror.
"Thanks so much for the heads-up." Alice sipped her Americano and pushed her dark curls behind her ears. "I'll check in with him tonight." She hoped her tone closed the subject. Alice loved Nadia but wasn't prepared to accept advice from the mother of the most notorious problem child in the class of 2025.
"It's just that, if Donovan-you know Donovan. He's no stranger to drama." Nadia reached out and touched Alice's forearm. "If Donovan gives me a warning about something? I just feel like it's got to be serious."
Alice blinked hard and fought the impulse to shake off her friend's touch. "Okay." Don't say anything you can't take back, she warned herself. "I appreciate it, but I don't really want to talk about it." She slid her arm away. "Can we change the subject? Any interesting projects coming down the pike?"
Nadia picked up her drink and took a long sip. Alice snuck a glance at her watch.
Meredith clicked out of the NextDoor app as she lit the burner under the oats she'd prepared the night before. Shirley MacIntosh had documented a spray-painting incident at Elm Creek Park, a penis on a porta-potty that Shirley inexplicably misidentified as a rocket ship. Did she think the ball hairs were flames? Meredith screenshotted the post. She'd send it to her group text with Nadia and Alice later.
Meredith lowered her nose to the saucepan and sniffed. She'd snuck in a little protein powder, hopeful that Sadie wouldn't detect it. It had been so hard lately to make sure her nearly-thirteen-year-old had a balanced diet, especially since Sadie had forbidden Meredith from volunteering in the lunchroom at the junior high. With the demands of her daughter's synchronized skating program, Meredith wasn't sure Sadie had the nutrient balance to effectively support her growing body. But if she said "growing body" to Sadie, her daughter retreated to her bedroom and closed the door.
Meredith stirred the oats and took a tiny bite. She flattened her tongue against the roof of her mouth, searching for evidence of the powder. She knew from experience that if Sadie detected anything except honey or brown sugar, she'd have to trash the whole batch. Sometimes, she could get her daughter to stir in banana slices or nuts, but usually not.
Clean, Meredith thought as she swallowed. Breakfast settled, she whipped her phone out of her pocket to check the portal. That was one thing Meredith liked about junior high-the teachers were required to post grades and behavioral feedback online. At back-to-school night, the assistant principal had suggested logging in to the portal no more than once per week, but Meredith reasoned that more was better. She refreshed it in the mornings so she could remind Sadie about any upcoming tests or quizzes, again at lunchtime to gauge the homework volume, and then usually over Sadie's shoulder when her daughter finished assignments either before or after skating practice.
Meredith wasn't checking up on Sadie because she thought she had anything to worry about. Sadie had always been an excellent student with test scores above the 95th percentile. But Meredith had read plenty of articles about the precarious junior high transition. Her favorite magazine, Thinking Mother, had had an entire issue on it. The experts seemed to agree on one word to describe the stage: flux.
Flux capacitor, Meredith thought every time she reread the fraying copy. She pictured Doc Brown's haywire hair from Back to the Future. She and Bill had introduced Sadie to the classic movie but only made it a few minutes in before Meredith remembered the jokes reinforced rape culture. Sadie had rolled her eyes as Meredith suggested Moana for the millionth time instead.
Sadie not liking her favorite movies anymore was just one more indicator of the capriciousness of junior high. At least Meredith had the portal to help her monitor the chaos. As the landing screen loaded in front of her, Meredith raised two fingers to the permanent wrinkle in the center of her forehead. She'd told Alice and Nadia she didn't believe in Botox, which was true. But lately, her eyebrow crease deepened by the day.
This time, the worrying was because of Sadie's science grade. It had been a 93 the night before, and this morning it was an 84. Meredith clicked for a more detailed report just as Sadie arrived in the kitchen, her stockinged feet shuffling on the wood floor Meredith and Bill had installed the previous spring. Alice had overseen the refurbishment and sourced the reclaimed boards from barns in outstate Minnesota. Alice had also helped Meredith choose her dining room table, place mats, and napkins. Soon, Meredith hoped, her friend could advise on new countertops and cabinetry. Bill would have a bonus coming in December.
"Can I have coffee?" Sadie asked, a smile fluttering. Her daughter had already combed her hair, a heart-shaped barrette holding her growing-out bangs near her right temple.
Meredith laughed. "If you want something hot, you could have herbal tea."
Sadie sat at the table and ran her fingers over the steel-blue place mat. "But Chloe and Mikaela both drink lattes."
Meredith put her phone on the counter and ladled a scoop of oatmeal into a bowl. "Maybe their parents don't know about the negative side effects of caffeine," Meredith said. "That's what you get for having a mom who's up to date on medical research." She winked at Sadie.
When Meredith herself had been a seventh grader, she'd poured gritty coffee into a perma-stained travel mug and taken the city bus to school most mornings. Her mom worked the earliest shifts at the nursing home, sometimes catching a double to cover groceries and gas. With the basics to worry about, she hadn't had time to think about what it meant to start drinking coffee at twelve, even though she'd been a nurse.
But Meredith did consider caffeine. Even though she worked thirty hours per week as a physical therapist, she also made time to think about both Sadie's protein consumption and her science grade. Meredith grabbed her phone again and felt her jaw drop as she looked at Sadie's most recent test score.
"Sadie!" she shouted before she could decide whether it would traumatize her daughter.
Sadie dropped her spoon, the metal clanking against the side of her bowl. "What?"
"What the hell happened on the unicellular and multicellular organism test?" Meredith felt her forehead again, stretching the wrinkle. "Fifty-six?" Probably, Meredith thought, Mr. Robinson had made an error in reporting. And also, why did I say "hell"?
Sadie picked up her spoon again. "Yeah," she said calmly. "I just totally bricked that." She pushed an overflowing spoonful of oatmeal in her mouth and chewed, her cheeks puffed.
"Sorry for saying 'hell.'" Meredith and Bill had agreed ages ago to watch their language, but the shock of the 56 overwhelmed her. "Fifty-six?" she said again to Sadie. "That's the lowest grade you've ever gotten in your life. Is it a mistake?"
Once she'd swallowed, Sadie lifted her napkin to her face and dabbed at her eyes, though Meredith couldn't see any tears. "Sorry, Mom," Sadie said. "I'm not quite sure what happened. I saw it last night before I went to bed."
Meredith blinked. So, Sadie had known about the failing grade and not mentioned it. "Why didn't you tell me?" Meredith sat next to her at the table and put her hand over her daughter's wrist.
Sadie sniffled again, but her eyes were definitely dry. "I guess I was hoping it would just go away overnight. You wouldn't have to know."
Meredith squeezed. "Sadie, that's silly. It's right here." She waved her phone over the oatmeal bowl. "In this day and age, it's impossible to keep a secret."