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Every evening at five o’clock, Christina and Rudy stopped work and began the ritual commonly known as Happy Hour. Rudy mixed Christina’s drink with loving precision, the cavalier slosh of Bombay Sapphire over ice shards, before settling across from her in his Stickley chair with his glass of Scotch. They shared a love of language and music (she is an author, he a composer, after all), a delight in intense conversation, a fascination with popes, and nearly thirty years of life together.
What did I think, that we had forever? muses Christina, seven months after Rudy’s unexpected death. While coming to terms with her loss, with the space that Rudy once inhabited, Christina reflects on their vibrant bond—with all its quirks, habits, and unguarded moments—as well as her passionate sorrow and her attempts to reposition herself and her new place in the very real world they shared.
In this literary jewel, a bittersweet novella of absence and presence and the mysterious gap between them, Gail Godwin has performed a small miracle. In essence, Evenings at Five is a grief sonata for solo instrument transposed into words. Interwoven with meditations and movements, full of aching truths and a wicked sense of humor, it exquisitely captures the cyclical nature of commitment—and the eternal quality of a romance completed.
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About the Author
Visit her Web site at www.gailgodwin.com.
Read an Excerpt
Five o’clock sharp. “Ponctualité est la politesse des rois”: Rudy quoting his late father, a factory owner (textiles) in Vienna before the Nazis came. The Pope’s phone call, followed by the grinding of the ice, a growling, workmanlike sound, a lot like Rudy’s own sound, compliments of the GE model Rudy had picked out fourteen years ago when they built this house. Gr-runnch, gr-runnch, grr-rr-runnch. (“And look! It even has this tray you pull down to mix the drinks.” Rudy retained the enthusiasms of childhood.) He built Christina’s drink with loving precision after the Pope’s call. Rudy did the high Polish voice, overlaid with an Italian accent: “Thees is John Paul. My cheeldren, eet is cocktail time.”
Or sometimes Christina’s study phone would not ring. Rudy simply emerged from his studio below and called brusquely up to her in his basso profundo: “Hello? The Pope just called. Are you ready for a drink?”
The ominous rolled r’s on the “ready” and “drink”: if you’re not, you’d better be. I won’t be here forever, you know.
The cavalier slosh of Bombay Sapphire (Rudy never measured) over the ice shards. The fssst as he loosened the seltzer cap and added the self-respecting splash that made her able to call it a gin and soda. Then, marching over to the sink: “I need Ralph.” Ralph was their best serrated knife. The thinly cut slice of lime oozed fresh juice. Rudy cut well; he cut his own music paper, and he had been cutting Christina’s hair exactly as she liked it for twenty-eight years. And in summer, a sprig of mint from the garden, a hairy, pungent variety given to them by the wife of a pianist who had recorded Rudy’s music. Sometimes Rudy joined Christina in the gin and soda. Her financial man from Buffalo had given them two twelve-ounce tumblers with old-fashioned ticker tapes etched into the surfaces. She always kept them in the freezer, so they would frost up as soon as they hit the air.
Other times Rudy would say, “I need a Scotch tonight.” That went into a different glass, a lovely cordial shape etched with grapes, given to him by the daughter of a pasha who had invited him to her houseboat parties in Cairo back in ’42 and called him Harpo because his assignment in the Royal Air Force had been playing piano and harp to keep up troop morale. “I need a Scotch tonight” could mean either that his work had gone extremely well or that some unwelcome aspect of reality (his music publisher sending back sloppily edited orchestra parts, being put on hold by his health insurance provider, being put on hold by anyone at all) had undermined his creative momentum.
“Thees is Il Papa calling from the Vatican. Cheeldren, eet is cocktail time.”
Christina was a cradle Episcopalian who had gone to a Catholic school run by a French order of nuns in North Carolina. Rudy was a nonpracticing Jew who had gone to a Catholic Gymnasium in Vienna until age fourteen, when the Nazis came. Rudy always liked to tell how there were two Jews and one Protestant in his class at the Gymnasium, “and the Protestant had the worst of it by far.” So Rudy and Christina shared an affectionate fascination with Popes, especially this one, with his hulking masculine shoulders before they began to stoop, and his nonstop traveling, and all the languages.
What did I think, that we had forever? Christina asked herself, sipping the gin and soda she now made for herself. Often Rudy had interrupted himself in midsentence to explode at her: “You’re not listening!”
What was I listening to? The ups and downs of my own day’s momentum. We were both “ah-tists,” as the real estate lady who sold us our first house pronounced it. She herself had been married to an ah-tist. Her husband’s novel had been runner-up for the Pulitzer, she told us, the year Anthony Adverse won. Her name was Odette, as in Swann’s downfall. Rudy was fifty-two and I was thirty-nine and neither of us knew, until Odette carefully explained it to us, that you could buy a house without having all the money to pay for it up front.
Christina would arrange herself on the black leather sofa they had splurged on in their midlife prosperity (a combined windfall of a bequest from Rudy’s late uncle in Lugano, with whom Rudy had played chess, and a lucrative two-book contract for Christina, in those bygone days when there were enough competing publishers to run up the auction bid) and which the Siamese cats had ruined within six months. She would cross her ankles on the Turkish cushions on top of the burled-wood coffee table and train her myopic gaze on Rudy’s long craggy face and crest of white hair floating reassuringly from his Stickley armchair on the other side of the fireplace. An editor had once told Rudy he looked like “a happy Beckett.” Christina felt rich in her bounty: the workday was over and she had this powerful companion pulsing his attention at her, and her whole drink to go. They raised their cocktail glasses to each other.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. Let’s start with the very first sentence in
Evenings at Five: “Five o’clock sharp.” Do you hear a bell tolling? What does this one sentence tell you about what you’re about to read? The phrase is repeated on page 29. How do you react to hearing it again? Five o’clock is associated with a ritual in Christina’s house. A ritual—originally meaning a prescribed religious ceremony—has taken on the meaning of a regular household activity.
Is there such a thing as a household religion
—and if so, what composes it?
2. Are stronger memories associated with rituals than with other events? What kinds of experiences make the strongest memories? What kinds of sensations and associations does Godwin latch on to as Christina evokes the cocktail hour?
3. Are rituals necessary in helping us avoid feeling vulnerable in lives easily dominated by our own weaknesses? How does Christina use rituals to counter her ritual alcohol drinking?
4. Some memories are “graven on the heart”
(page 16) and others strike familiar chords. Chapter
1 ends with Rudy answering Christina’s question,
“What are you thinking?” by telling her, “I
wasn’t thinking. I was hearing music.” Does
Christina attain this kind of sensitivity in a way?
Is what she hears on page 17 a kind of music?
To a certain way of hearing, is everything music,
including Rudy’s answering machine message
(pages 38–39), to which Christina applies the
Gregorian term melisma (an ornamental phrasing of a word or syllable)? The last chapter, “Coda,”
reminds us that Godwin has composed a sonata in
Evenings at Five. In what ways can you sense or hear a sonata in the novel?
5. Godwin says that, after writing the first five pages of Evenings, she had tricked herself into a new way of writing. What is that new way? To get a handle on this, look at the kinds of sentences she writes and at how one sentence connects to the next.
6. By the end of chapter 2 of Evenings,
you realize that Christina is talking with Rudy,
who has died. Is such a conversation helpful,
or does it cause you to worry about Christina?
Your opinion will determine what you think
Christina’s fate will be in this story. See Rudy’s posthumous conversation with Christina on pages 97–98.
7. Look at how Godwin ends each chapter in
Evenings. Write down the ending sentences or key clauses in succession on a piece of paper and see how they tell the story.
8. What do you know about different grieving ceremonies? Christina undergoes a few. What should the purpose of such services be? Are they effective? What do you think of the ceremonies that Christina experiences? What is the art of condolence letters?
9. What kind of a record of a person’s life is left after his death? What kind of a story does an appointment book tell? Evenings provides a remarkably comprehensive account of the different kinds of things that linger or last after death—including junk mail. What are those things? What is Godwin’s strongest case for eternal life? Keep in mind her opinions on page 58.
10. In a .ctional world, memorable impressions are symbols, key events are omens, and coincidences are fate. In our lives, is there such meaning? What is the meaning of Christina’s temporary semiblindness? What about the sighting of the bear?
11. On page 57, Christina discovers how much she misses Rudy’s awful moments. Are there any personality traits people exhibit that are not lovable
—perhaps shallowness, conformity, or lack of personality? Does this relate to Christina’s uneasiness with the paltriness of most confessed sins in “Possible Sins”?
12. Godwin opens up a lot of space in her novel for Gil Mallow. Mallow is the child of a mother who had given birth to him because, at
.rst, she hadn’t known she was pregnant, and,
then, used her pregnant condition for her art.
Eventually, she rejected pregnancy-inspired forms and artistically aborted the idea of Gil. Why is
Mallow such an important person in Godwin’s and Christina’s universes? How much are you affected by the heartbreaking episodes in Evenings?
Christina sobs, cries, and hoots with laughter at various points. At the end of chapter 3, she says,
“My heart is broken.” As dream analysts say after hearing about agonizing dreams, what were the feelings you had witnessing the episodes?
13. What percentage of your life do you think is dominated by memories rather than your engagement with present needs? How much do you wish to stay connected with the past? Why?
Is it useful to have talismans, such as Rudy’s metronome, or passwords, such as the one
Christina holds on to in “Possible Sins”? What role does Bud play throughout Evenings? Do cats have some special supernatural connection?
14. Godwin’s novels always include the names of books that characters are reading or to which they are referring. They provide a subtext to the story. If you’re ambitious, make a list of the book references in Evenings, .nd out what they’re about, and see what they say about the novel.
15. What does Christina mean when she says
(on page 113), “I have to make the crossover between image and presence”? She then says, “I,
the visual one, now have to rely on sounds.” Are visuals associated with image, and sounds with presence?
16. You have an opportunity, now that Godwin is including her Christina stories with Evenings at Five, to witness the growth of a major work. How do the stories connect to
Evenings? What major themes are developing?
Where are the gaps? What additional stories would you like to see?
17. At the end of “Possible Sins,” Father Weir suggests using a favorite food as a password for spiritual communication rather than a memorable piece of wisdom. What information do you use for private passwords in e-mail accounts or as personal information to con.rm your identity with credit-card companies? What really sticks in your mind?
18. What fairy tale does “Largesse” evoke? Do modern women have to create a body of stories to counter the messages of traditional fairy tales?
19. Both “Largesse” and “Old Lovegood
Girls” involve fellow airplane passengers who play roles in ushering Christina into her story.
Are each of the Christina stories a mythological journey? If so, what insight or dividend does
Christina retrieve from each descent?
20. How does Godwin struggle with the idea of the ingénue? In her interview, she says that she had never been an ingénue. Yet in “Old
Lovegood Girls,” she acknowledges an attraction to the old Southern way of life and the importance of such a concept to her father. At the heart of this issue are Christina’s views on goodness, expressed in her essay for Miss
Petrie. Does Christina’s belief in goodness,
even though it’s a revision of the traditional model, indicate an attachment to the old ideal?
Or does Christina reject the ideal as a product of the “market for brides”? How do you think
Godwin views marriage?
21. In “Waltzing with the Black Crayon,”
Kurt Vonnegut issues some rules for writing. Do you agree with them? Do you have a list of rules?
22. In what ways is “Mother and Daughter
Ghosts, A Memoir” a ghost story? Why does the term ghost apply to the daughter as well as the mother?
23. What is it that causes Godwin to slip into the role that attaches to her at the conference in
“Mother and Daughter”? Was Godwin looking for a way out of what had been developing at the conference? What might have been and what were her ways out?
24. What do Godwin’s and her mother’s imagination exercises say about them at the moment they compose them?
25. “Mother and Daughter” contains a powerful revelation—the mother’s admission of what she had witnessed and redressed at her father’s funeral. It comes under the heading “the worst thing that had ever happened in her life.”
What function does revelation play in Godwin’s reaction? What kinds of questions elicit revelations?
“What is the worst thing?” is one. Another kind of revelation leads off “Waltzing with the Black Crayon.” What are the different kinds of revelation?
A Conversation with Gail Godwin
Rob Neufeld is the book reviewer for the Asheville
Citizen-Times and director of the program "Together
We Read" in North Carolina. At present, he is editing
volume one of Gail Godwin's diaries.
Rob Neufeld: In Evenings at Five, as Christina begins
to commune with Rudy after his death, she
imagines how other authors would write a ghost
story about the experience. Then you write,
"But this was Christina's story, and if she forced
or finessed anything, she might miss the secret
with her name on it." The spirit world is an easy
sell for some, a hard sell for others. What are
your thoughts about it?
Gail Godwin: My feelings about the spirit world
are stronger than ever. I don't expect to see any
ghosts of loved ones, but they do leave a vibrato.
There's the time when Christina gets a condolence
letter from someone who says that loving
someone after he has died is stronger because
there's less interference. The static of what that
person needs from you, what you need from
him, isn't there. I wish I could write a ghost
story. Very few satisfy me, and I know there's a
possibility I could be satisfied.
RN: Many stories about women visited by
ghosts are sad because the women can't overcome
their grief and ultimately lose their preference
for reality. Christina finds a different
path. Is she a hero?
GG: She is—in that she keeps on living her life
in the sense of the quest. The event has made
her stronger through her knowledge about her
love and herknowledge that she is lovable. I
can't think of a novel that portrays a positive relationship
with a ghost. Oh, I can think of
one—The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It's corny, but it
qualifies for what a ghost story should be.
RN: What makes a good ghost story?
GG: It can't have any hokey hauntings or appearances.
It has to grow out of the living person's
history, perceptions, and needs. It can't be
inflicted on them. The ghost has to have lived
with them for a long time.
RN: How does the ghost manifest itself?
GG: It can go several ways. This leftover life
that refuses to die can inhabit the person and use
the living person as an instrument. It still doesn't
mean that an exterior thing has been planted in
them. It comes out of the living person's needs
and fears. In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Mrs. Muir
arrives at a house as a widow. A big temptation
for a widow is to lose her preference for reality.
What the attractive ghost does is get her back
into living life fully—smelling the sea. The saddest
thing in the story is when the ghost talks
about the relationship they could have had if he
had been alive. D. H. Lawrence has a story—
"The Borderline"—about a widow on a journey
to meet her lover. Her dead husband ruins
the whole thing. He's allowed to do so because
she has incorporated certain powerful qualities
of his. She grows increasingly powerful, and her
new lover can't bear it.
RN: At the start of Evenings at Five, the reader
finds himself dropped into a domestic scene already
in progress. What is your relationship with
readers? How do you lure them into your stories?
GG: This book didn't start off by my trying to
lure any readers. I just wanted to sit there in my
house every night around five o'clock, listen to
all the sounds, and evoke the cocktail hour. After
five pages, I had "tricked" myself into a new
way of writing. It was a tempo, and I couldn't
RN: This gets us to talking about music. You
compare Evenings at Five to a sonata. Could you
elaborate on that?
GG: A sonata has a certain form—a theme that's
stated, then a companion theme. The two themes
have a relationship. The sonata is resolved by moving
or transforming into something that comes out
of the materials, and yet is new. When Christina
sits down in Rudy's chair and decides to drink a
glass of red wine, she remembers how the priest
had come to console her. She had asked him,
"Where should I sit?" He said sit where you want,
and she sits in Rudy's chair. Then, at the same
time, she imagines herself on the sofa looking at
Rudy. She imagines his personality and then she is
able to be both herself and Rudy at once and then
to be the life that was made by the two of them.
RN: Previous novels of yours involved religious
thought. Are you trying to create a religion
that not only works for you but also for the
GG: You said that I've been on a decades-long
search for a powerful and centering spirit. I am.
I go to church because it connects me with the
beginning of my search at St. Mary's [Episcopal
Church in Asheville]. Tom Miller, the priest at
St. Gregory's in Woodstock, said, "We might as
well learn to accept our inseparability from
God." One contains a relationship between oneself
and this Other—this powerful, centering
spirit. I just live with it; there's no theorizing.
There's just working at that relationship.
RN: In Evenings at Five, you say that Christina
felt Rudy's presence more strongly once he was
absent. One can then believe that with death,
the sense of presence becomes everlasting.
That's the kind of religious thought a scientific
person can grasp. And then when the priest visits
Christina, what does he say?
GG: He visits with a parishioner and he says
the burial office: "Hope that is seen is not hope.
Why hope for what is already seen?"
RN: Another good religious thought for a rationally
GG: There are some other good ones in Evensong
[Godwin's previous novel].
RN: You know Paul Valéry's saying, "God
made everything out of nothing. But the
nothingness shows through." Do you agree
GG: Something else shows through when you
get to the bottom of nothingness. It's like a
piece of black cheesecloth. There's a glow below
it. This would make a good painting. You
know, I find so much out about my characters
by drawing them. [Some of Gail's artwork can
be seen at gailgodwin.com.]
RN: At the end of "Old Lovegood Girls,"
Christina, having donated money to her alma
mater, says, "I . . . like the idea of some girl like
myself . . . knowing she may dream and study
and play the innocent ingénue a little longer."
Could you tell us a little more about being an
GG: The ingénue is the girl who has all her options
open. She's taken care of by others. There's
time to play, to read and study, to learn things.
RN: Regarding your reflections on childhood,
to what extent do you identify with the ingénue?
GG: I suddenly have the horrible feeling I've
never been an ingénue. I had a dream when I was
five or six—I was on a front lawn of a house and
a mammy was bathing a blond-haired boy. I crept
up to the boy and said, "Splash her." He does—
and she comes crawling after me. I've always been
an instigator. I've never been an ingénue. I don't
think I was ever innocent. The first time I went
to Sunday school, I came home and said I had
pushed a little boy down the stairs. My mother
called the church. She was told that no little boy
had been pushed down the stairs.
RN: In what ways is it different applying your
fiction writing to your own life rather than to
invented characters? Are there special risks and
GG: First, when I think I'm writing a memoir,
I use fictional ploys and shapings, slipping in a fiction
here and there. When I'm writing about
other people, I'm writing about my internal cast
of characters. In memoirs and in fiction, I will do
anything to get to the quickening moment.
RN: The Christina stories are particularly candid
and personal. In "Mother and Daughter
Ghosts, A Memoir," you tell about your last time
together with your mother before she died, when
you felt threatened by her at a spirituality conference.
You both had responded to an exercise by
which you had to imagine yourselves meeting the
king and queen of your psyches. In your mother's
scenario, she was the heroine admired by the
queen. In yours, you were snubbed by the queen.
GG: It's so funny and so horrible. I spent the
last hours before my fight on my mother's
porch, writing my criticisms of the conference,
when I could have been spending precious time
RN: That story stands as the only experience
with your mother in the book, whereas in real
life, you had many, including ones that celebrate
the joy you both felt—well, the joy you share at
the beginning of the "Mother and Daughter
Ghosts" story. Do you sometimes make yourself
laugh when you're writing?
GG: Something will happen in a scene, and I'll
giggle. My humor surprises me. I don't plan it.
RN: In chapter 5 of Evenings at Five, after
Christina returns home from the doctor following
her scary blindness episode, she takes down
Rudy's and her "brown-at-the-edges" cartoon of
a woman saying to her snuggly mate, "I love these
quiet evenings at home battling alcoholism." Next
she disposes of all Rudy's medications, and recalls
the party they attended shortly before his death
when Rudy, feeling time-pressured and exasperated
with small talk about cabbages and Brussels
sprouts, booms in his loud bass voice: "An outstanding
cabbage would be a welcome addition to
this gathering." The humor is necessary to lighten
the pain, isn't it? If you go a distance in your story
without humor, do you sense that?
GG: Often during the course of remembering,
you bump back and forth between painful and
humorous material. Christina has been shaken by
her doctor's term blotto, and comforts herself with
Gil Mallow's recent remark that she and Rudy
made a "formidable" couple, a description she
prefers to "blotto." Thinking of the Mallows leads
her into the funny-awful memory of the dinner
party where they met. Whenever I read that dinner
party passage aloud, people burst out laughing
and so do I. Yet at the time, Christina (and I!) suffered
agonies and was furious. But now, with
Rudy gone, she misses the individual force of his
awful moment, and she has this great insight that
comforted me as I was writing the passage. I
quote from the book: "But now the absence of
that force she could never quite modify or control
has left an excavation in her life that cried out to
be filled with his most awful moments."
RN: A nightmare has a powerful effect on
Christina in Evenings at Five. Dreams populate
your fiction and daydreams constantly mix in.
Might we consider you an advocate of the
GG: Jungian analysis is an ongoing graduate
course for me about the one-third of my life
when I'm asleep. I could index the figures, settings,
and cross-references. My dreams are defi-
nitely a commentary on what my unconscious is
trying to tell me—what's being neglected and
what's being falsified.
RN: Do bad guys have bad dreams?
GG: Your dreams point to things you need to
pay attention to: "Hey, Macbeth, that forest is
moving toward your castle."
RN: In your preface, you say you envisioned
stories that would pounce on "those places in
Christina's journey that mark a turning point for
her." Two stories portray experiences that preceded
the deaths of your parents; and two other
stories, those of your priest and of Robert. How
central a concern is it to you to come up with an
answer to death?
GG: I'm not trying to come up with an answer
to death. I'm trying to engage with death.
Death is not an enemy at all; it's a room I haven't
been allowed into yet. The barriers may open
into unexpected landscapes.
RN: Do you plan on adding Christina stories
to future editions of Evenings at Five?
GG: This is by no means a finished product. I
have other Christina stories. Eventually, Evenings
at Five will stand by itself again. When my editor
had called me to say that Evenings at Five would
be coming out in paperback and would look
thin, she asked, "Do you have anything else?" I
sent her the Christina stories I had. When I add
new Christina stories, the whole new book will
be called The Passion of Christina and will have
stories that go from childhood to old age—about
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What do Pope John Paul, a serrated knife fondly known as Ralph, and a bottle of gin have in common? Artfully, with humor and tenderness, Gail Godwin weaves the Pope, Ralph, and Bombay Sapphire gin into a loving testament. Every evening at five, Rudy builds his wife a drink with loving precision. and announces that 'the Pope has called.' Rudy is a composer and hears music; Christina is a writer lost in a world of words. But somehow, despite their differences, for 28 years their marriage works. When Rudy dies, his formidable presence no longer holds center stage in Christina's life. The gifted linguist and world traveller with a mellifluous voice 'one octave below God's' is gone. Stripped of his presence, Christina is reduced to drinking her gin alone and conversing with Rudy's chair every evening at five. It's Christina's recollections of Rudy that makes Evenings at Five a standout. She reads his appointment diaries, kept through their years together, reliving the chronicle of his life. She listens to his music, composed one note on top of another until he reached a glorious symmetry - much like their life together. His is a powerful and lingering presence that defies death. Christina's memories are a delightful read, despite the sobering subject. Ms. Godwin's skill as best selling wordsmith proves itself once again in this latest book. Evenings at Five transcends death and loss, guiding each reader to an individual finale.
I really enjoyed Evensong and Father Melancholy's Daughter, but this left me pretty cold. Funny, as I am a recent widow. It just didn't 'grab me.' Or perhaps it was too painful. I didn't know when I picked it up that Ms. Godwin's own partner had died in 2001.