A breathtaking novel that follows a young woman named Ani Silver through college, a long sojourn in Paris, and a string of romantic entanglements, all of which lead her to confront the legacy of her Armenian family's tragic past.
At the book's opening, Ani is a bright, trusting young woman, passionately in love with Asa Willard: a New England boy with a trust fund as big as his appetites, and the farthest thing possible from the old world accents and superstitions that filled the childhood home she shared with her widowed mother and her Armenian grandparents. After college, she sets off for Paris in pursuit of education and adventure, safe in the belief that Asa is devoted and waiting for her to come home, where they'll marry and live a simple American life. But just as she is beginning to lose herself to the beauty and mystery of her new city, she receives a letter from Asa that shatters her dreams for the future. Newly unanchored, she confronts the puzzle of her individual and cultural identity for the first time, a puzzle that is enhanced and complicated by the resurfacing of a childhood friend, Van Ardavanian. Van is an elusive and beguiling character, an intense, single-minded young man whose preoccupation with the Armenian heritage they share verges on the obsessive. He shows Ani a whole new way of looking at the world, turns her eyes to a tragic heritage she has shut out, and opens doors to parts of her identity that she has never before acknowledged. But Van cannot deliver her to herself any more than Asa could, and through him Ani learns that passion and idealism can have dark consequences.
Through a new constellation of friends and acquaintances in this foreign city, Ani comes to ask the questions about herself and the continuum she is a part of, and when Van disappears under dubious and mysterious circumstances, Ani returns home determined to puzzle out her past-- that of her father, David Silver, a Jew from NYC who was killed in a car accident when Ani was only five; that of David's family, who cut him and his new family off the moment he married Ani's Armenian mother; and finally, that of Ani's grandmother and grandfather whose gut-wrenching experiences during Armenian massacres at the hands of the Turks spill out once and for all, only at Ani's tentative prompting.
Having learned the hard way that she cannot use other people as conduits through which to find herself, Ani ultimately comes to demand access to the rooms of her past that have been denied her. Infused with warmth and humor, Dreams of Bread and Fire is an irresistible novel that addresses a question that has faced every generation in this country: whether it is possible to achieve the neat simplicity of American life once we've arrived here without denying the haunting legacies of the places we've fled from.
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land of Armenians, land of orphans
The grandparents' apartment smelled of spices and lemon furniture polish. Ani took off her shoes in the front hall and put on pink slippers that slid across the Oriental carpets. This was her new home. She wasn't to touch the blue vase or the china figurine of the girl driving a flock of geese. Baba sat in the wine-colored plush armchair with a tall lamp beside it reading his newspaper. Ani could sit on the couch, on the hassock, or in Grandma's lap. There was a glass bowl filled with hard candies on the coffee table. A red and white peppermint spun like a pinwheel in her mouth.
Grandma kept candy bars behind the balled-up plastic bags in the breadbox. She read their names to Ani off the bright paper wrappers: Almon Joy, Milky Vay, Tree Musketeers. Ani and Grandma sat on the couch on the back porch spitting watermelon seeds over the railing onto the grass. Then they went to the garden to pick mint and parsley. Auntie Alice called from the second-floor porch — it was a two-family house — for them to send up some mint. Ani dropped the sprigs into a basket hanging from a long cord and watched as Auntie Alice pulled it up.
When the neighbor's dog started to bark, Ani looked through the hedge and saw his jerking blond head. He growled and bared his sharp white teeth. Grandma yelled, Hush up, charshoon!
In the bedroom that she shared with her mother, there was a framed photograph of Ani's father, David Silver. At night, long after bedtime, Ani imagined she heard his footsteps approaching in the hall. It had all been a mistake. He wasn't dead after all. Ani pretended she was asleep and lay in the dark listening to her mother crying.
In the morning Baba said, Let's go shopping, anoushig.
At the market a large man with a white apron and hairy arms spoke in Armenian to Baba. The man cut a sliver of halvah, offering it to Ani. It crunched and melted on her tongue. In the bakery Baba bought some rolls and round cracker bread from a woman with a gold tooth. She also spoke Armenian. So did the tailor at the dry cleaners and an old woman whom they met on the sidewalk.
Is this Armenia? Ani asked, slipping her hand into her grandfather's.
This is Watertown, Massachusetts, Baba said.
Is your last name Silver?
Baba shook his head. Your last name is Silver. Our name is Kersamian.
The old elementary school was being torn down so Baba took Ani to watch the wrecking ball crash into the brick building. Dust rose as the walls fell in jagged sections, leaving empty classrooms exposed and floors sagging into the rooms below. The next day, just yards from the demolition, Ani's kindergarten class met for the first time in a room with an accordion divider in the modern wing of the junior high school.
During recess Ani hooked her fingers in the chain-link fence separating the schoolyard from the work site, imagining the rooms as they had once looked with desks, chairs, and children. The teacher was at the blackboard writing letters with yellow chalk when the wrecking ball came hurtling through the wall. The children screamed and tumbled through the collapsing floor.
It was Ani's fifth birthday. She didn't have any friends, but Grandma invited the grandchildren of her friends. On the morning of the party, Grandma brushed Ani's hair into a ponytail cinched high with a red velvet ribbon. The red polka-dotted dress was made of fabric stiff as waxed paper and underneath she wore a red tulle petticoat that scratched her legs.
They played a game called Button, Button, Who's Got the Button with a large black coat button on a circle of green yarn. Then they put on party hats with white elastic that cut into Ani's neck. They sat at the dining room table with the lights out waiting for the cake. The candles glowed in a semicircle and Ani blew them out with one breath.
She stood in the front hall with a chubby girl named Carol Hagopian who was in Ani's Sunday school class at Grandma's church. Carol's eyebrow was a long black caterpillar across her olive forehead. There was a fine black down on the sides of her face.
Carol said, You don't have a father, do you?
My father was run over by a car when he crossed the street. He went to heaven, Ani told her.
Your father wasn't Christian, so he didn't go to heaven, Carol replied. He's burning in hell.
Ani knew that her father's ashes were in a cylindrical tin in the bedroom. Ani believed that his spirit was in heaven, which she understood to be a place near the moon where good people went when they died. She imagined that hell was at the center of the earth where the devil chased bad souls around with a pitchfork while hot lava rained down on them. Her father was not in hell.
Carol's eyes were almond-shaped like a cat's and she wore a half smile, curled at the corners.
You want to see something really neat? a boy asked Ani.
Ani hadn't noticed him come into the hall.
In the middle of his extended palm rested an egg-shaped rock the color of smoke.
He said, It's gray quartz. I found it at the beach this summer.
What's your name? Ani asked.
Van Ardavanian, he said. My grandmother and your grandmother are cousins.
His eyes and hair were black and his smile burned like a candle.
Ani told him, Come on. I want to show you something.
Van followed her to the bedroom, where she reached under her bed for a white cigar box. She opened the lid and surveyed her treasures: six acorns, a bottle cap with a rebus inside, a bead bracelet, and a soft brown cloth bag filled with marbles. When she dumped the marbles on the chenille bedspread they clicked against each other, then stared up expectantly.
Those were my father's, Ani explained.
Van selected a green cat's-eye shooter and rolled it between his palms. Trade you, he said.
For what? Ani asked.
The rock for the marble.
Okay, Ani said, sealing their friendship.
Ani was in the backyard playing tea party at the picnic table with her Penny Brite doll. Ani poured water from the teapot into Penny's cup and dropped a pebble in for a lump of sugar.
Her mother called from the back door: Ani, come get a sweater.
Ani reluctantly climbed the steps to the house.
When she returned two minutes later the tea set was still on the table, but Penny Brite was missing. Ani checked under the table, under the bench, and behind the metal lawn chair. Then she peered through the hedges. The neighbor's big dog had Penny in his mouth.
A loud scream rose up from inside Ani, circling out of her mouth into the air.
By the time Baba pried the doll out of the dog's jaws, her red dress was nothing but wet scraps and there were deep teeth marks in her belly and dents in her legs.
Ani ran to her bedroom and hid under the bed. It was a small tight world where nothing bad could happen.
Later Ani's mother knelt down by the bed and poked her head in. She had just returned from Woolworth's, where she had bought a new Penny Brite that she slid toward her daughter. There was a stupid grin on the doll's face and it smelled of plastic. Ani turned her face to the wall.
Soon the smell of cooking butter, onions, and peppers drifted out of the kitchen. Ani heard Grandma's sewing machine in the dining room. Finally Grandma, without saying a word, slid Penny Brite under the bed. Ani recognized her doll by its damaged legs, but Penny was wearing a different dress that was navy with white pleats instead of red with white. Ani lifted the dress and ran her thumb over the teeth marks in the doll's belly. Then she reached out for the new doll, which was still lying on the floor.
Penny Dark and Penny Bright, Ani whispered.CHAPTER 2
the hungry dream of bread, the thirsty of water
Ani Silver was afraid of flying. But she was afraid of many things, including dogs, hypodermic needles, parallel parking, and public ridicule. She was afraid of sleeping alone because as an adult of twenty-two she still had dreams about Satan and his hordes of fallen angels who glared at her from the corners of the night.
As she buckled her lap belt and put her seat into the upright position for takeoff, Ani was thinking about her boyfriend, Asa Willard. She had waited until the jet's door was firmly secured before allowing herself this indulgence. She feared that during her absence, despite his recent promises of undying love and fidelity, he would replace her. She believed he subscribed to the algebraic theory of love — another available woman could easily carry out the functions that Ani performed as his girlfriend. To her he was unique and irreplaceable.
Ani had met Asa three years earlier while she had been working her financial aid job at the desk in the library's reserve room. The long oak tables in the cavernous basement room were full of frat jocks reading photocopied articles for government and economics classes. She barely glanced up when a guy asked her for an article for Govy 42. She fetched the manila folder, took his ID card, and read the name on it, covering the photo with her thumb. It was a game she played to relieve the tedium: trying to guess what the guy looked like based on the name. Asa Willard, Class of 1980. Asa, an Old Testament name. Either a prophet or a king. She imagined dark curly hair, coffee eyes, and a long sad face.
As Ani handed the card back to Asa Willard, she confronted a pair of indigo eyes patterned with black diamonds. His skin had the smooth warmth of ivory and his hair was the color of the fine sand above the surf line. Her face must have registered some kind of dismay because he asked, Are you okay?
I'm fine, she said. She had watched him walk away with the grace of someone whose bones were strung together with purple satin.
A few days later Ani was sitting on the carpet in the poetry room of the English library reading through a pile of new books. Asa Willard surprised her by bringing her tea at four o'clock.
You want a cookie? he asked.
No, thanks, Ani said.
I'm Asa Willard, he said, sitting cross-legged on the floor across from her. He was wearing gray rag socks, baggy jeans, and a red plaid flannel shirt.
I remember you from the reserve room, she admitted.
Now you're supposed to tell me your name, he prompted.
Nice to meet you, Ani. What class are these for? he asked, gesturing to the books.
No class. It's what's left of my spiritual life, Ani told him.
Lapsed Catholic? he asked.
Armenian Evangelical, she told him. She hoped he wouldn't ask for an explanation of what that was. How to describe the old Armenian aunties in the front pews singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" under the direction of Southern Baptist Pastor Duke? She saw tiny cubes of white bread on one silver-plated communion tray and thimble-sized glasses of Welch's grape juice in the other.
I'm a lapsed half Catholic, he told her.
What does that mean? You go to mass every other Sunday?
Mother's Catholic, Father's Episcopalian. I have pagan leanings.
Ani reluctantly glanced at her watch. Damn. I'm late for work. Thanks for the tea. She scrambled to her feet.
What time do you get off work? he asked, smiling crookedly.
When he walked her home that night they paused under the lantern over the dorm entrance. It was snowing. He pulled off his mitten and brushed the snow from Ani's hair. He kissed the tip of his forefinger and touched it to the center of Ani's forehead.
That's your third eye, he said. The seat of wisdom. Good night, Ani.
Ani peered out the plane's window at the city's lights falling away beneath her. The Kersamians' car sped along Memorial Drive toward home. Her grandmother was in the front seat rubbing the lenses of her glasses with a lace-trimmed handkerchief. In the backseat her mother Violet bravely sniffed back tears. Baba kept a firm grip on the steering wheel and admonished the weeping women, "Vhy babum, you two. Save your tears for somebody's funeral."
The man in the seat next to Ani was flipping through a magazine about motorcycles. His knees were jammed into the seat in front of him and his shoes poked out into the aisle. Ani believed that if she didn't say a word to him the invisible wall between them would hold firm. She'd never have to see the snapshots of his children or hear about his new girlfriend or the reason for his trip to Paris.
After the flight attendant cleared away the dinner tray, Ani closed her eyes. He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not, the plane's ventilation system hissed. Soon it had shifted into the noise of rolling surf.
She was startled awake by the pilot's voice over the intercom. They had begun their descent into Orly Airport. In a windy cloudbank, the plane bucked slightly and Ani's stomach swooped toward her ribs. She gripped the armrests. Ani hated the landings most of all. What if the wheels didn't descend? What if the brakes didn't work? On her first flight to France a few years before, Ani had thrilled at the sound of the passengers clapping as the plane's wheels touched down. We should all applaud our miraculous, death-defying arrival on the tarmac.
At the baggage carousel Ani waited for her cobalt-blue backpack, the one Asa had bought for her. It was an internal frame mountaineering pack, now crammed with clothes and shoes. She had used it on a miserable canoe trip they had taken to Acadia National Park. After paddling in the bow until the muscles in her arms burned and her palms blistered, she had stumbled under the weight of a sixty-pound pack during the portages. They hadn't seen another soul for days and the mournful call of loons made Ani want to cry. Asa accused her of lily dipping with her paddle and took it as a personal offense when she lay coughing in the tent during the fifth consecutive day of pouring rain. When they got back to town she was diagnosed with a bad case of bronchitis.
Ani hoisted the pack to her back and made her way out of the terminal past pink-faced French soldiers standing guard. The soldiers' boots were black and they had big guns slung over their shoulders as though ready for combat with a deadly enemy. Ani nervously hurried past them.
The taxi driver didn't seem to understand when she repeated the address for the second time, so she handed him the slip of paper. He nodded gravely and pulled from the curb. They sped along a highway until they entered Paris via a broad boulevard lined with shops. In the heart of the city they wound through narrow cobbled streets. Finally the driver pulled onto the sidewalk in front of a glass-paned double door. Ani handed the driver some colorful notes as he propped her pack inside the front hall. The concierge, eyeing Ani up and down as though inspecting a horse, gestured toward the elevator. Ani rode it to the second floor.
The apartment door swung open. A blond woman dressed in a lime-colored knit dress and a matching headband smiled broadly. Her teeth were as regular and white as Chiclets. She extended a hand on which glittered a diamond the size of a chickpea.
"Hello, Annie. I'm Tacey Barton. And this is Sydney," the woman said, gesturing to a thin sour-faced child at her elbow. The girl had honey-colored hair and was dressed in a smaller version of her mother's outfit.
"Hi," Ani replied. "My name is pronounced Ah-nee."
The mother said, "Well, Ah-nee, we're thrilled to see you. Just in time. John and I are leaving on a trip to Vienna and Budapest tomorrow morning. We'll be back on Tuesday. Sydney has been looking forward to meeting you, haven't you, honey?"
The child grimaced. Ani guessed it was a smile of some kind. She knew the Bartons had another child, a boy named Kyle who was at boarding school in Connecticut. Ani had negotiated with Tacey Barton over the telephone: in exchange for room, board, and one hundred and fifty francs a week Ani would see Sydney off to school each morning and watch the child four afternoons and three nights a week. This arrangement with the Bartons would supplement Ani's meager student fellowship and leave plenty of time for classes at the university.
"Drop your bags by the door, Ani, and I'll show you around." Tacey turned on the heel of her lime flats.
The apartment had twenty-foot ceilings and French windows overlooking the Palais-Royal garden. Although it was bigger than any house Ani had ever been in, she pretended that it wasn't anything out of the ordinary.
Sydney accompanied Ani to the top floor of the building to the servants' quarters under the eaves.
"Do you spend much time up here?" Ani asked the child, as they made their way down the windowless hall.
"No. But I always take the au pairs upstairs on the first day."
"Have you had a lot of them?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dreams of Bread and Fire"
Copyright © 2003 Nancy Kricorian.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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