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Esquire Best Books of 2017
Minnesota Public Radio Best of 2017
The Morning News 2018 Tournament of Books Pick
New York Times bestselling author of The Dog Stars
“[A] gorgeously wrought story.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Heller is a gifted writer…Celine is such a joy to be with.” —NPR
“Ingenious… Like Mark Twain and Toni Morrison, Heller is a rare talent.” —Elle
Celine is not your typical private eye. With prep school pedigree and a pair of opera glasses for stakeouts, her methods are unconventional but extremely successful. Working out of her jewel box of an apartment nestled under the Brooklyn Bridge, Celine has made a career out of tracking down missing persons nobody else can find. But when a young woman named Gabriela employs her expertise, what was meant to be Celine's last case becomes a scavenger hunt through her own memories, the secrets there and the surprising redemptions.
Gabriela's father was a National Geographic photographer who went missing in Wyoming twenty years ago and while he was assumed to have been mauled by a grizzly his body was never found. Celine and her partner set out to Yellowstone National Park to follow a trail gone cold but soon realize that somebody desperately wants to keep this case closed. Combining ingenious plotting with crystalline prose and sweeping natural panoramas, Peter Heller gives us his finest work to date.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The call had come while she was at her workbench wiring the naked taxidermic form of an ermine onto a rock, beside the skull of a crow. The plan was to have the skinless ermine looking down at his own hide tacked to the rock. Her sculpture had a distinctive dark streak. When Celine wasn’t solving cases, she made pieces from anything at hand, which often involved skulls. The year before, the window washer had been fascinated by her art, which was displayed throughout the open studio, and the next day he brought her a human skull in a bucket. “Don’t ask,” he said. She didn’t. She covered it immediately in gold leaf and it stood now on a pedestal by the front door, looking elegant.
Now, she felt like this ermine. She felt skinned and lost, without protection.
Her own fur had been her family. She had Hank, of course, but a son, no matter how old, was someone to be protected, not the other way around. When the phone rang, she almost didn’t answer it, but then she thought it might be Pete calling from up in the Heights, needing grocery-shopping help.
“Hi, Celine Watkins?”
“This is Gabriela. Gabriela Ambrosio Lamont.”
“Gabriela,” she whispered, trying to place the name.
“You don’t know me. I went to Sarah Lawrence. Class of ’82. I saw the story about you in the alumni magazine: ‘Prada PI.’ ” Gabriela laughed, clear, bell-like. Celine relaxed.
“That was silly,” Celine said. “I mean the title. I’ve never worn Prada in my life.”
“Chanel doesn’t alliterate.”
“Right.” Celine closed her eyes. The name was distinctive and it sounded familiar. Hadn’t the girl had her own small story in the magazine?—about a show of still-life photographs in a gallery in San Francisco. Celine seemed to remember a portrait of the woman and bits of biography—she was pretty, maybe partly Spanish. Her father had been a photographer, too, hadn’t he? Famous and very charismatic. The story had interested Celine.
“I remember you from an article.”
“Hah! The exclusive club of the alumni magazine profiles,” Gabriela said.
Pause. “I hope it’s okay that I called you. Out of the blue.”
“Yes, of course.” Celine had been in her business a long time; she knew that nobody ever just called out of the blue. They had been on a certain trajectory for a while, they deliberated, they picked up the phone. They were like the pilots of small planes approaching an airport who call the tower, finally, for instructions to land.
What Celine didn’t know was if she had the strength. It was one year and one day after the Twin Towers had fallen. She could still almost smell the char, still see the air gritty with ash, and remember how the wind blew bits of charred financial statements and Post-it notes across the river where they fluttered over the dock like lost confetti. She could not have imagined a sadder finale to a grim year.
Her younger sister had died that May. She remembered how bright, how tender seemed the cottonwoods along the Big Wood River in Ketchum, Idaho, the morning Mimi left. She had helped her go—the handful of pills, the long kiss on the cheek. How she had walked down the drive, how the leaves spun in the wind, and how when a gust came through it swept the old trees to a darker green like the hands of a harpist lifting a somber note off the strings. And then in July she got word that her older sister, Bobby, had a brain tumor. It was a flare-up of a cancer five years in remission. Celine went to Pennsylvania to visit, to help, and there was not much to do as Bobby died within three weeks. It was almost as if the youngest sister’s death had given the eldest sister permission to take the deep rest she had longed for.
And then the first plane hit and Celine went to her window and watched the plume of black smoke rise into a clear sky. She was riveted. She lived fifty feet from the pier in an old brick loft building kitty-corner to the River Café. It was almost under the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn side, thirty yards from the East River, and with the windows open she could hear the current rip and burble against the pilings of the dock. She pursed her lips and tried to get enough air. She did not move. Pete left her alone. When the second plane tore through the sister tower to the south she shuddered as if it were she herself who had been slammed and ripped. Lying in bed that night while she cried silently beside him, Pete realized that Bobby was the North Tower and Mimi the South. And of course the collapsing buildings were much more than that, too. They were a burning message that a certain world had passed. Her sisters had been the last of the family she’d been born into. Celine’s inner and outer world mirrored each other.
Celine was sixty-eight then. Her body was more frail than it should have been for an active strong-willed woman as a result of four packs a day for thirty years, and though she had quit ten years ago, the smoking had ravaged her lungs. She usually refused to wear oxygen, she was too elegant, or vain.
So she had stood in the window and struggled to breathe. She stared at the skyline where the two improbable towers had been and felt the constriction in her chest: the grief of this unreal, this towering loss that just then seemed the sum of all loss. She was aware of the half-full bottle of morphine pills she had in her gun safe upstairs, the pills in their labeled orange plastic bottle that bore Mimi’s name: “Mary Watkins, For pain, one pill every fours hours, not to exceed six pills per day.” But she would never go that way. Nor would she use one of the four handguns from the same safe, not on herself. She was too curious, for one. About how everything unfolds—and folds back up. But she didn’t know if she had the will to do any longer the work she was born for. Which was saying, in a way, that she no longer had the will to live.
Celine Watkins was a private eye. It was an odd vocation for someone in the Social Register who had grown up partly in Paris, partly in New York. She may have been the only PI on earth whose father had been a partner at Morgan’s in France during the war. The only working PI who had come to New York City when she was seven and attended the Brearley School for girls on the Upper East Side, and then Sarah Lawrence. Where she studied art, and at twenty-one spent a year back in Paris, where she apprenticed with an expressionist and was proposed to by a duke.
She also had what Mimi called the Underdog Bone. Celine always rooted for the weak, the dispossessed, the children, for the ones who had no means or power: the strays and homeless, the hapless and addicted, the forlorn, the remorseful, the broken. One couldn’t count the skinny trembling dogs her son ended up loving, nor the chaotic families that stayed with them for days. So she was not a PI like most PIs. Most people think of them as hired guns—jaded, mercenary, tough. She was tough. But she did not take jobs for the rich, she did not spy on wayward spouses or stake out anyone’s pied-à-terre or recover the missing family jewels. She had literal family jewels of her own, which she hauled out and wore with a faint embarrassment to appropriate gatherings—Cartier diamonds and Breguet watches. She had engraved silver from the 1700s. She understood the shallow prestige of the aristocracy, as well as its responsibilities. Celine had inherited the mantle of a family who had come on the first boat and worked hard and made good, and often the mantle chafed, and she was happiest when she took it off and tossed it on a hook with her beret.
The cases she took were for the Lost Causes, the ones who could never afford a PI. They were never about leverage or retribution or even justice, and they were often performed pro bono. They were usually about reuniting birth families. So she found the missing, the ones who could not be found—she gave a mother her lost son, a daughter her lost father—and her success rate was a staggering 96 percent, much better than, say, the FBI. She had worked for them, too—once, and she would never do it again.
Gabriela said, “I’m staying with an old college friend up in the Heights. On Garden Place.”
Celine was still holding a pair of small wire cutters in her right hand. She set them down. She closed her eyes. She hadn’t been to Garden Place in years, but she had gone often when her son, Hank, had had playmates on the street. Those years. Of early marriage and motherhood. She could almost smell the streets on the south side of the neighborhood, eroding brownstones, maple leaves, and the brown crunchy seedpods of the locust trees. Wilson, her first husband, was living in Santa Fe now, with a woman thirty years younger.
“Right. I know the block well.”
“Well. I . . . I called because I thought—I have a story to tell you. Is this a good time?”
“Please. I was just finishing something up.”
A beat, she could hear Gabriela trying to decide the best way in.
“I was going to start by telling you about something that happened while I was at Sarah Lawrence. But let me back up. I should begin earlier so you understand. My mother’s name was Amana Penteado Ambrosio . . .”
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Celine, a suspenseful and heartrending story of one woman’s quest to heal broken families—including her own—through her work as a private investigator.
1. What tone does the opening scene of the book set for the rest of the story, in both establishing the atmosphere and its main themes and characters?
2. How did the interweaving of Celine’s backstory with that of Paul’s and his family’s create tension and momentum as you read?
3. Discuss the different, and even opposite, sides of Celine’s and Pete’s personalities—their hard-edged, more masculine sides and their softer, artistic, and sensitive sides. How do their careers allow both of those sides to prosper, and what does their unique relationship suggest about what they love about each other?
4. How does the couple balance out each other’s strengths and weaknesses to make for an effective partnership at home and in work? Does either of them seem more dominant in either space?
5. How does Celine’s complicated experience with motherhood motivate her work as a private investigator? Did you feel that that blurring of professional and personal lines enhanced or hindered her relationship with her clients—especially with Gabriela?
6. Celine imagines that for Gabriela home is a "space within the relative safety of her own skin." Celine may share this sensibility to some degree. Which of her actions, tendencies, and memories in the book are most reflective of this very private and self-protective mindset?
7. How does an urban versus a rural setting bring out different sides of different characters, especially Celine’s? Can you track a progression of what kinds of places they settle in depending on their moods and mindsets, or is their mood more affected by where they are at any given time?
8. What service does Celine offer her clients on a more psychological level, beyond her unearthing of the facts of certain mysteries in their lives? Do you think she absorbs their secrets and suffering, and, if so, how does that motivate her to continue to the next case, even at the age of sixty-eight?
9. How does Hank take up the work of emotional excavation and investigation on his mother, perhaps work she’s unable to do herself? What does this suggest about our abilities to confront our own pasts with clear eyes?
10. What do all of the characters’ secrets, revealed to us gradually throughout the book, have in common? How do the characters differ in the steps they have to take to discover their own truths?
11. Although Celine’s role as a mother is a paramount focus of the book, what did you also take away from reading about the complicated role of fathers in their children’s lives? Do you think that Celine or Hank has more in common with Gabriela in this sense?
12. When Celine considers Paul’s circumstances for disappearing and leaving Gabriela, she displays a great deal of compassion—something that’s key to why she’s a good investigator. How do you think she’s been able to channel that in spite of all that she experienced as a child?
13. The book makes the case that the world feels different after the 9/11 attacks, and also uses the grandeur of nature to indicate the smallness of humanity. Did you feel at the end of the book that ultimately humanity’s preservation was worth the effort despite these perspectives? What do those scales of comparison illustrate about how we understand our own power in the universe? Which characters are most accepting of that balance in the novel?
14. What sacrifices does Celine make for her clients, especially for Paul in regard to his involvement in the Chilean coup? Do you think they’re grateful for what she does?
15. Think about your own family and how you have dealt, individually and collectively, with secrets and difficult times. How would things have been different for your family if the losses Paul and Gabriela faced transpired for you? Could you empathize with either or both of them?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This author creates these amazing and flawed characters that stay with you long after the book is read. The only issue I have with this book is that I did not want it to end and that I wished it was much longer than 275 pages. Go read all of his fiction works.
I thought this was a detective story, but chatter about her semi regal past, her family and odds and ends. Got to my usual decision point at page 100 and gave up. Wonder if she ever did any detecting? Waste of time and money.
A great read. He gets the men right, he gets the women right, he gets the pacing right, he gets the storytelling right. Compelling mystery, compelling family story and a satisfying but not fairytale ending because some things can be unveiled and understood but cannot be fixed.
Heller seems more interested in bragging about East coast aristocracy and his knowledge of guns then creating believable characters. Even the backwoods Montana tracker is Dartmouth educated. Don't waste your time.
Good read that had many strong people who could be their own story
Having trouble reading this book. Wears me out with the back and forth subjects' lives and over-the-top descriptions of landscape, etc.