Claudia Silver to the Rescueby Kathy Ebel
Estranged from her bohemian Brooklyn family and fired for an impropriety at work, Claudia Silver is officially in over her head. When her younger sister lands on her doorstep urgently in need
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In this gutsy debut novel, flawed but unsinkable Claudia Silver cuts a wide comic swath through 1990s New York City in her misguided attempts to find love and happiness.
Estranged from her bohemian Brooklyn family and fired for an impropriety at work, Claudia Silver is officially in over her head. When her younger sister lands on her doorstep urgently in need of help, twenty-something Claudia desperately wants to offer the rescue that she herself has longed for. But Claudia missteps dramatically, straight into a disastrous love affair that disrupts three very different New York households. Ultimately, she discovers the resilient nature of love where she least expects it—among her own family.
Claudia Silver to the Rescue is the firece yet tender chronicle of the many humiliations and occasional triumphs of a young woman determined to wrest her identity from the spectacular wreckage of her mistake. Uncomfortably hilarious, quintessentially human, Claudia is an unforgettable heroine who shoots for the stars and hits the ceiling.
"Thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly thought-provoking . . . Readers will start it on the beach under an umbrella, finding themselves laughing loudly at the narrator’s clever split-second comebacks, and keep coming back to see the drama unfold. . . A perfect summer book."
"A crackling debut [with]…surprising emotional heft."
"Witty, assured, and surprising. . . A hilarious roller coaster of a ride."
"Satisfying and unexpected. . . Readers will root for this deeply flawed but ultimately appealing heroine."
"Claudia Silver is an utterly lovable heroine with a voice—and a journey—that had me hooked. It's a very funny book with a deeply compassionate heart. I rooted for Claudia, I felt for her, and I didn't want to say goodbye."
—Lauren Graham, author of Someday Someday Maybe
"Kathy Ebel is a writer of razor-sharp insight and uncommon wit, with an extraordinary ability to capture the textures of life—the language and sensibilities and fashions that define a place and time. Claudia Silver to the Rescue will transport you to New York City in the early 90s, and offers a richly detailed portrail of conflicted youth. This hugely enjoyable story manages to be funny, tense, and wise, all at once."
—Chris Pavone, author of The Expats
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Fast & Sloppy
Claudia Silver, the production assistant, ordered lunch for the ladies of Georgica Films every day. The all-female staff ate family-style, around a large oak table that their employer, executive producer Ricky Green, had purchased at considerable expense for just this purpose. While the daily lunch order at the little production company was perhaps her chief duty, Claudia had other key responsibilities, including the speedy typing of contact sheets for different production jobs on the Selectric in the corner. She handed the documents to her bosses Faye, Tamara, or Kim to review, and invariably trudged back to the typewriter, taunted by the crop of typos that only minutes before were nowhere to be seen and now required immediate correction.
Claudia ran errands and picked up giant brown-paper-wrapped bunches of flowers from the wholesaler on Twenty-Seventh Street. Ricky, who’d gotten into the business of producing television commercials because he wanted to wear jeans to work and considered restaurants and a place in Idaho important, arranged the flowers himself in various Depression-era pottery vases from his sprawling collection. Claudia FedExed gift certificates from day spas and salons to clients whose birthdays had almost been forgotten. She called the messenger service for pickups and drop-offs around town. She greeted, with a wink, the various rangy, ripe, dreadlocked, tattooed, gold-toothed, knit-capped dude-bros whose cycling cleats clattered on the parquet and whose Public Enemy pounded through their Walkman headphones as they waited for a signature, while her bosses tensed, silently calculating the degree of sexual threat the messengers posed.
Claudia carefully observed and pitied the ladies of Georgica Films. She was determined to perform her daily tasks with an ever-so-slight yet palpable indifference, which, when paired with her charisma, would keep her pointedly on the fringe of the operation and protect her from ever turning out like them.
Her idiosyncratic work ethic had earned Claudia the nickname Fast & Sloppy.
Every day at Georgica Films there were fights, usually over the phone. They typically began with first-date nervousness, rocketed into cocky aggression punctuated with gales of ballsy laughter, and ended with a pounding of the receiver into its cradle, followed by loud analysis, frustrated tears, and a cigarette on the fire escape. Faye, Tamara, and Kim screamed at production managers and casting directors on the phone: hours later they would call back and laugh it off, comrades once again. This style of conflict resolution was a new one for Claudia.
In the home of Claudia’s mother, Edith Mendelssohn, fireworks had always been followed, swiftly, by cataclysmic ice ages. Only once, when she was nine, on a long, cranky car trip, Claudia told Edith that she hated her:
“I HATE YOU.”
Hearing the hot syllables leap from her throat had been satisfying. She’d heard other children rage at their parents similarly with negligible consequences, and telling her mother she hated her made young Claudia feel, briefly, normal. But she soon regretted it. Edith didn’t react suddenly. Her hand didn’t fly into the backseat to box an ear. She kept driving, under a remarkable silence that Claudia soon realized Edith planned to keep up. As it turned out, Edith neither spoke to nor looked at her child for three straight days. Finally, when Claudia couldn’t take it anymore, she dropped to her knees and begged for forgiveness at her mother’s lap. This method was successful. Edith accepted her child’s apology, recognized her once again, and life resumed.
Ten years later, Claudia was a senior in college, sitting on the floor of her dorm room on Manhattan’s far Upper West Side, on the phone with Edith. In one week, Claudia would graduate and set out to seek God knows what. She was afraid. Over the last month, she’d visited several of her favorite professors at their office hours to ask what they thought, but none of them had a particular plan of action in mind for her. Recognizing that she was utterly unprepared to depart the snug little campus, Claudia was tempted to demand a refund from the bursar, despite the fact that her education had been financed largely on credit.
Claudia had called her mother to discuss the upcoming summer. Graduation ceremonies would be held in a few days, and Claudia’s various friends would be going home to catered graduation parties held in leafy backyards, professional internships killing time before graduate school, or bright new backpacks that would soon be hauled off on wine-dark European tours. Claudia had the weekend waitressing job in SoHo she’d held on to since her senior year in high school. Plus a hangover.
“I’m afraid I’m unable to offer you accommodation at this time,” Edith explained. Edith, who spoke more languages than she owned bras and trusted poetry more than people, might have been known for her slim but stunning volumes of sestinas in multiple translations, had circumstances far beyond her control not required her to become a business-school librarian at Baruch College. She spoke in calligraphy.
“Accommodation?” Claudia echoed, disbelievingly. “Are you my mother, or Howard Johnson’s?”
Claudia’s best friend, Bronwyn Tate, had just come downstairs from her own nearby single to visit. Theirs was the druggy dorm, now in a wistful state of dismantling as its residents prepared to scatter. Good-quality museum posters had been stuffed, ignominiously, in trash cans, as a general scorn for the Impressionists was required as an exit visa, and futon frames, broken by one too many threesomes, were piled on 114th Street to dry their particleboard bones in the hot May sun. Bronwyn joined Claudia on the floor, pulling the shredded cuffs of her faded Nantucket Reds up over her bony knees and folding her long legs Indian-style.
“Quarters have become close,” Edith continued, “and I’m afraid I just don’t have the space.”
“And would those close quarters by any chance go by the name of Robbie Burns?” Claudia accused, as she and Bronwyn exchanged a look. Bronwyn communicated her focus and sympathy by tucking a long, loose strand of blond hair behind her ear.
Edith’s gentleman friend was Robbie Burns, although Claudia knew he was neither. Edith had become involved with Robbie a decade before, when she’d still been married to her second husband, Mr. Goldberg, the father of her younger child, Claudia’s half sister, Phoebe, who was eight years Claudia’s junior. Neither Claudia’s father, a hotshot émigré professor with a penchant for psilocybin mushrooms and primal scream therapy, nor Phoebe’s father, a Jewish playboy with a sixth-grade education and a velour wardrobe, had remained in the picture. But each girl resembled her own father as well as the brunt of Edith’s humiliation, embodying separate failed chapters of her fragmented life. Edith had kept her maiden name.
The family was shaped like a triangle.
Edith and Robbie Burns had met at Baruch. She’d been thirsty and flagging, en route to a Hillel Club event, a lecture on Malamud and Roth presented by a darling widower of the English department who would have been a suitable mate for Edith, if only he’d been fifteen years her junior, tall, ponytailed, spottily educated, occasionally incarcerated, wearing a canvas coverall provided by the beverage distribution company that had disregarded considerable doubts upon hiring him, and stocking the soda machine, like Robbie was. Robbie handed her a cold one, on the house, with a saucy comment that made Edith feel wanted, dangerous, and armed. She’d divorced Goldberg a few years later, and kept Robbie as her poison: he was the Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie of paramours, and like bodega pastry was best consumed in the dark. Edith’s solution to managing the shame of Robbie’s presence, alongside motherhood and her respectable profession, was to pretend to Claudia that he didn’t exist.
Edith, erudite and accomplished in certain realms, was very, very bad at her chosen ruse, dropping endless extravagant clues over the ensuing years for Claudia to pick up. Edith was either whispering to Robbie in the bathroom, the long cord of the kitchen phone dragged across the dinner table, or she was visiting Robbie, first in rehab, then in prison, then in rehab, and bringing Phoebe along, who would later report to Claudia exactly where they’d been. Or she was pulling the car into every available rest stop between the city and the beach to “call a friend” on the pay phone, while the sisters waited in the hot, old Karmann Ghia and made up spoof lyrics to movie theme songs. Skipping over introductions or explanation, Edith finally moved Robbie into her home with her two daughters the dreadful summer before Claudia had left for college. Claudia didn’t know whether to act surprised or not. But she knew from precedent that she wasn’t supposed to act angry. Which made Claudia exponentially ripshit, enough for all of them.
“I’m not sure where it is written that a grown woman continues to live with her mother,” Edith was saying.
I’m not a grown woman, Claudia was tempted to counter.
“When people graduate from college, they go home,” Claudia argued instead. “They at least have it as an option. I’m not saying forever. Or even for the whole summer. But literally. You know, I come home for a week or two, regroup, and then I’m outta there.” Bronwyn had reached out to give Claudia’s knee a caring squeeze with her long fingers.
“I’m afraid,” Edith countered, firmly, “that you’ll need to revise that agenda.”
“You realize that what you’re saying is that your fucking junkie boyfriend is more important to you than I am,” Claudia croaked. It wasn’t even that Claudia was so eager to return. Or that she thought of Edith’s domicile as home, particularly. It was simply the injustice of it all.
“What I realize is that you’re very angry right now.”
“Do you wonder at all where I’m going to sleep once the dorms close?” Claudia asked her mother. Bronwyn had now dipped her head to rest her cheek on Claudia’s shoulder. She smelled familiarly of Chanel and cigarettes.
“I think you might inquire with the housing office,” Edith suggested. “You may be able to secure suitable campus housing for the summer, and perhaps beyond.”
“You’re saying I am not welcome in your home.”
“There comes a time,” Edith declared, “for a young person to be, simply, on her own. Do you think I ever went home, quote unquote? By the time I was your age, my childhood home was a mass graveyard, and we had lost everything. And not just tea services and dowry linens, I assure you.”
Edith’s Hitler card, Claudia knew, was her mother’s prerogative and impossible to trump. She promised herself she would not cry until she had hung up the phone, which would be soon. “We should have talked about this,” she said, plaintive. “Before it was too late.”
“No one put a gun to your head and forced you to ignore your own next steps until the eleventh hour, as they did us.”
“Oh my God!” Claudia cried, hot tears of rage making her break her promise. “You know what? You are a terrible fucking mother.”
“And you, my dear,” Edith replied, “aren’t so hot as a daughter.”
Claudia hung up the phone, shifted into Bronwyn’s bony embrace, and wept.
“It’s okay,” said Bronwyn. At that very moment, forty blocks downtown, Bronwyn’s own mother, Annie Tate, was sitting at her kitchen table, affixing Dinah Washington stamps to the invitations for Bronwyn’s graduation party, which would be held at the Boathouse.
“No, it’s not,” Claudia sobbed.
Bronwyn sighed. “I know,” she admitted. “Your mom is . . . who she is. But you’re going to be okay.”
“If you say so,” Claudia managed to get out.
“You can stay in our guest room. We’ll help you figure it out.”
Claudia clung to Bronwyn. “Thank you,” she eventually said.
“I love you, Claudia. You’re my best friend.” There was not a tissue in sight. Bronwyn offered Claudia the hem of her Indian print tunic. “Do you want to blow your nose?”
“Oh hell no,” Claudia replied, finding her ability to chuckle.
“Do you want to go with me and my dad to Corner Bistro?” Bronwyn asked. Bronwyn’s dad was Paul Tate. He was what a father was supposed to be. Handsome and powerful, with a taste for both problem solving and fun, and a large collection of witty cuff links. “He’s down in the Village,” Bronwyn continued, “and I’m sure he’d love to see you.”
“Even under dreadful fucking circumstances?” Claudia shuddered, the last of her sobs moving through her.
“Are you kidding?” said Bronwyn, rising fluidly to her feet and offering Claudia her hand, “he eats dreadful fucking circumstances for breakfast.”
It was midafternoon and midweek, but Paul Tate, a senior partner at a white-shoe law firm in midtown, was able to get away and spring for burgers, beers, and advice. He would have quarters for the jukebox, favoring Stan Getz and “Box of Rain.” He was a man who would be there. For his kids, for his kids’ friends, even for his friends’ kids. He was sane, and he was buying.
“Yes,” said Claudia, as Bronwyn took her hand and pulled her up to standing. “Please. Totally.”
That May night at the Corner Bistro had been almost two years ago, and Claudia and Bronwyn had since become roommates. They now shared a first-floor apartment in Brooklyn, on the south side of Park Slope. During the summer, their place had been sweltering, with plastic box fans in every room. But now that it was November, a chilly draft swept in and the old windows rattled. In the last two years, Claudia had started what was apparently her adult life, complete with taxes, credit cards, birthdays, Pap smears, snowstorms, clumsy accidents involving avocados and paring knives and requiring a few stitches, and other milestones and phenomena on which, she noticed, Bronwyn regularly consulted Annie and Paul Tate.
In these two years, Claudia had not heard a single word from Edith, who lived four subway stops away.
Edith had always expected her eldest to recite poetry, write charming thank-you notes, rise when an adult came into the room, eat her pizza with a fork and knife, deftly analyze major works of art and literature, assuage her depression and counsel her heartbreaks, and otherwise promote the aristocratic values of her rightful home, a Europe that no longer existed. Claudia had been a cowed, entertaining child, aware of the chaotic sea that rose up on all sides around her mother, an atoll. But these same skills had come terrifically in handy over the last two years, during which Claudia had become an expert on soliciting temporary rescue from other people’s parents, the Tates chief among them. Performing for them, projecting a confidence that belied her fear, dining for weeks on the leftovers from their Thanksgiving tables, belonging nowhere. Surviving.
Bronwyn Tate received a monthly allowance of four hundred dollars and brought her laundry home once a month for Annie’s cleaning lady’s loving regime of bleach, softener, and sharp folds. With the paychecks she earned as an assistant talent booker on a syndicated morning talk show hosted by a former Miss USA whose girl-on-girl photos had cost her her crown but landed the front page of the Post, Bronwyn paid her share of the rent and utilities and put ten percent in savings. With her allowance she bought steak frites, theater tickets, first editions, and shirts from Steven Alan. When her allowance ran short, she met Paul for lunch in the partners’ dining room and left with a check.
But in Claudia’s case, “no money” really did mean no money, especially toward the end of the month. Accordingly, she had become an expert on free things in Manhattan: the exact timing of subway-to-bus transfers, the Thai tofu cubes, baked falafel, and other after-work samples at Healthy Pleasures that would do for dinner, and the listening booths at Tower Records, where she’d lose herself in Lisa Stansfield for forty seconds at a time. In the evenings, at the dive bars, Mexican restaurants, and dance clubs that she frequented, Claudia paid for shots, beers, and margaritas with the generous allowance always on offer from her new credit card. Weaving slightly in her cowboy boots, Claudia would scan the free promotional postcards that had recently popped up in display racks at her favorite haunts. The postcards boasted cheeky graphics that often referenced sadomasochistic sex and usually celebrated hard liquor. Claudia combed them for G-rated images, and sent off innocuous, Edith-proof messages to her sister, Phoebe, who had been fourteen the last time they’d seen each other. Claudia’s estrangement from Edith had ushered a storybook frost into the triangular kingdom, with Snow White and Rose Red encased in separate blocks of blue ice at its center. Claudia was prepared to play all roles in the tale: the dastardly villain, the chilblained victim coughing spottily into an embroidered handkerchief — shit, she’d even be her own handsome prince.
“Darling Feebz,” a typical note would read, “Today I saw a white guy with locks at Smith/9th Street reading CATCH A FIRE and I thought of you. Say hi to Barkella. I miss you and love you. Claw.” Barkella was Phoebe’s beloved terry-cloth dog, whose irises had long ago been rubbed from her plastic eyes. For all Claudia knew, Phoebe might have already relegated Barkella to a cardboard box.
At fifty-two, Edith Mendelssohn’s beauty had taken on a voracious quality as it defended itself. She was anxiously fixated on Phoebe’s lanky form, with its willowy limbs, her loose mane of sandy waves, and her large, sexual mouth. Phoebe’s captivating appearance only fueled Edith’s quiet doubts about her child’s intelligence. As Edith piled and twisted her own lush, silvering mane in the mottled mirror of her tiny bathroom’s medicine cabinet and grimly considered that her own refugee parents had been unable to afford braces for her teeth, she reaffirmed her belief that beauty and brilliance were mutually exclusive. Brilliant women used their minds to seduce, and as they accumulated and discarded suitors, their brilliance tended to harden, diamondlike. Beautiful women, on the other hand, had no choice but to quickly tether themselves to dull men with paunches and briefcases, and then face a lifetime of constant pregnancies and pristine living rooms devoid of a single real book.
Had Claudia brought home anything shy of an A-minus, Edith’s response would have been baffled and withering. But to the simplest of Phoebe’s achievements — a painting of a Thanksgiving turkey fashioned from a handprint, a B-minus on a social studies quiz — Edith responded with an overwrought gasp. The fact that this dramatic praise was actually relief was not lost on Phoebe. It made her want to fail.
Phoebe was a junior in high school now. She probably wasn’t a virgin; she probably did drugs, and which ones and with whom and how often and where, Claudia knew full well, would chart her future as powerfully as what college she would attend — with the defining question of what drugs to do in college looming powerfully on a rapidly approaching horizon.
Of course, Phoebe never wrote back.
She would have needed Claudia’s address to do that.
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Meet the Author
Kathy Ebel is a widely published essayist and poet and her screenwriting credits include Cold Case and Law & Order: SVU. A first-generation American and native New Yorker, Kathy studied literature and creative writing at Barnard College. She chronicles her quest for restored German citizenship in her blog: Fatherland: There's No Place Like Home, or, How and Why a Nice Jewish Girl Asked Germany to Take Her Back. She lives in Los Angeles.
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Claudia Silver may be in her twenties, but she hasn’t left her teen years firmly behind. She has about as much sense as a love-struck fifteen-year-old left on the subway overnight and who might be prone to hallucinations on more than a few occasions. But I loved her anyway. That’s messed up, right? Yeah, I thought so, too. But like all teenage fantasies it wasn’t a perfect match, nor was it even a near perfect one. In fact, I abhorred her and loved her in nearly equal parts. There were occasions where I wanted to give her a hug, and there were plenty of occasions where I wanted to slap my forehead, scream, and run in the opposite direction. By the end, I might have had a nice semi-permanent red spot along with a decent amount of brain damage, and possibly finished my cardio for the entire month of March. So what gives? I might have reached a new level of softness around my middle, or I might have just discovered a hidden gem in the midst of a woodpile before the entire stack of debris was doused in kerosene and set ablaze. I’m still processing and evaluating all the inputs, but I’ll go with the hidden gem option for two hundred Alex. I was more than a little entertained, even if I wasn’t exactly rescued. CLAUDIA SILVER TO THE RESCUE reminded me of a soap opera, so it wasn’t all that surprising when this little tidbit was actually discussed in a bit of depth in the novel, and it reminded me on more than one occasion of how lucky I am with my family and my relationships and my job situation, because I really don’t endeavor to find out how much worse it could get for myself, but I have no problem reading about somebody else’s problems over the course of 259 pages or so. Robert Downs Author of Falling Immortality: Casey Holden, Private Investigator