Her two memoirs were “hilarious.”* Her first novel, Pretty Much Screwed, was “brilliant.”** Now, Jenna McCarthy returns with a novel of crazy last wishes and life-changing first steps…
When their mother dies, sisters Jules, Brooke, and Lexi breathe a collective sigh of relief. Their days of being hurt and controlled by Juliana Alexander are over.
It turns out, Juliana isn’t about to let a little detail like death stop her.
The three estranged sisters—one control freak, one peacekeeper and one red hot mess—are shocked to discover that their mother was hiding a massive fortune, one that promises to completely transform all of their lives. But in classic Juliana fashion, there’s a catch. Three of them, to be exact.
Now Jules, Brooke, and Lexi find themselves forced to rely on one another in order to become the women their mother wanted them to be. With millions of dollars on the line and as many obstacles in the way, the sisters embark on a hilarious journey of self-discovery, forgiveness, and the real meaning of wealth.
READERS GUIDE INCLUDED
*Jane Heller, New York Times bestselling author
**Janet Evanovich, #1 New York Times bestselling author
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Jenna McCarthy is the internationally published writer of Pretty Much Screwed, I’ve Still Got It…I Just Can’t Remember Where I Put It, If It Was Easy, They'd Call the Whole Damn Thing a Honeymoon, and The Parent Trip, as well as a former radio personality and recovering leopard-print addict.
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Twenty Years Later
Jules rested the wooden spoon on the edge of the pan she’d been stirring and turned to Brooke. “Will you please call Lexi in for dinner?” It was almost six o’clock and their mother liked dinner on the table at exactly that time, whether she was home herself or not. Of course, it stressed Jules out when she wasn’t, but there wasn’t much she could do about it.
“Sure,” Brooke said. She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted into them. “LEXI! DINNER’S READY!”
“YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME,” eight-year-old Lexi called back from somewhere outside. She stuck out her tongue after she said it, even though she knew nobody could see her. That part didn’t matter to Lexi one bit.
Brooke poked her head out the side door. Her younger sister was out on the small, weed-tangled patio doing her favorite thing in the world: frying ants with a magnifying glass.
“Lexi, Jules said it’s time to eat,” Brooke said as firmly as she could.
“Jules isn’t the boss of me, either,” Lexi said without looking up.
“Please, Lexi, come inside, okay? Jules has been in here sweating her butt off for an hour. The least you can do is come to the table.”
“I can’t,” Lexi said. “I have two left and I need to kill them. They’re squirrely little shits, too. As soon as I get them, I’ll come in.”
“If Mom hears you talk like that, she’ll ground you for life,” Brooke said, wondering if any of Lexi’s second-grade classmates had potty mouths. Brooke highly doubted it. Even her own friends weren’t really swearing yet, and they were two whole years older.
“Then I’ll sneak out,” Lexi said with a shrug. Brooke pulled the door closed.
“Any suggestions?” she asked Jules.
“I’ll handle Lexi,” Jules said, sighing as she scraped a pile of seasoned ground beef onto hamburger buns she’d laid open on each of four plates. She arranged slices of apples carefully on each one and brought them to the table. She knew her mom would be annoyed that she hadn’t made a vegetable, but she’d gotten wrapped up in her studying and had lost track of time. She’d made a conscious choice: No vegetable was better than dinner not being on the table when Juliana expected it. The apples would have to do. Without being asked, Brooke filled four glasses with water and set one beside each place setting. She folded four napkins and tucked one neatly under the side of each plate, then added forks and knives. Jules wiped her hands on a towel that was tucked into the pocket of her shorts and opened the door to the patio.
“Lexi, I mean it, it’s time to come in,” she said sternly. “Mom will be home any minute.”
“Got ’em! Ha!” Lexi shouted. She stood up, dropped the magnifying glass unceremoniously onto the pile of dead ants and brushed her hands on her dirty cut-offs. It was a blistering Southern California evening and sweat was leaving trails of almost-clean skin down Lexi’s grimy cheeks. “What’s for dinner?” She planted her hands on her hips and blew a chunk of thick dark hair out of her eyes.
“Sloppy Joes,” Jules told her. “You should wash your hands.”
“You should mind your own beeswax,” Lexi said. She marched into the house, letting the screen door slam in Jules’s face.
“Can’t you just be nice?” Brooke whispered at her.
“Nope,” Lexi replied. She was already sitting at the table, shoveling food into her mouth. Meat was spilling out of the sides of her bun and juice was running down her arm.
“Brooke, sit. I just heard Mom’s car,” Jules said, squaring her shoulders and self-consciously smoothing down her shirt.
Brooke nodded and lowered herself into her chair just as Juliana swept into the room.
“Hey, Mom,” Jules said brightly. “Dinner’s just ready.” She added the obvious last bit as much for the announcement as to deflect attention from her filthy youngest sister.
“Hay is for horses, and I can see that,” Juliana said, taking in the table and Lexi at the same time. She raised her eyebrows at her youngest daughter. Lexi, naturally, ignored her glare. “May I ask what it is?”
“They’re Sloppy Joes,” Brooke said in a rush. “We had them at Kylie Bennett’s birthday party and they were awesome. Jules figured out how to make them all by herself. Don’t they smell great?”
“Unless they can cure cancer, I’d suggest you find a more accurate term than ‘awesome’ to describe them,” Juliana said, taking her seat. “Did you run today?”
“Four miles,” Brooke told her, beaming. “I’m the only one in my grade who can run that far without stopping.” Juliana said nothing.
“How was your day?” Jules asked her mom, rushing to fill the awkward silence.
“Nothing but pure, unadulterated joy,” Juliana replied, the sarcasm dripping from her words. It was no secret she hated her job as a receptionist at the uppity Salon Patine, but the girls routinely wished she would pretend to hate it a little bit less. “Where did you get the meat?”
“Ralphs,” Jules told her. “It was on sale so I bought a bunch and froze the rest.” Jules walked to Eastridge Junior High each day and there were several grocery stores on her route, so Juliana had turned over most of the shopping duties to her. Jules never complained about having to lug those heavy bags home every other day, not even once.
Juliana nodded vague approval before shifting her eyes to Lexi, who was licking sauce off of her wrist.
“I got a one hundred on my history test today,” Jules blurted before Juliana could speak. She was in all honors classes, and spent whatever time she had left after taking care of her sisters with her nose in some gigantic textbook or other.
“You studied like crazy,” Brooke said. “You should have.”
“Do your lips ever hurt from kissing butt all the time?” Lexi asked Brooke.
“Try the meat, Mom,” Jules urged, jumping between her sisters as she always did in the hopes of staving off a scene.
Juliana used her fork to place a tiny bite of meat into her mouth. Her grimace was small but unmistakable. Before Jules could think of anything to say, Lexi let out a gigantic burp. Her mother and two older sisters watched in disgust as she picked up her plate with both of her filthy hands and licked its entire surface clean. She had sauce on the tip of her already dirty nose, and Jules didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Lexi was such a beautiful girl; her oldest sister ached to tell her to brush her hair and wash her face, but she knew that no words would ever fall on deafer ears.
“Alexis Alexander, you may be excused,” Juliana hissed through gritted teeth. “You will shower off that filth and then go immediately to bed.”
Lexi shrugged and scraped her chair back so hard it tipped over. Brooke let out a yelp when it crashed to the ground. She rushed to pick it up as Lexi flounced from the room. Juliana sighed, placed her napkin on her barely touched plate of food and rose from the table.
“One serving for you tonight, Brooke,” she said. “No seconds.”
“Okay,” Brooke said, hurt.
“And please make sure the kitchen is clean before you do anything else,” Juliana said. She directed this at Jules.
“Of course,” Jules said.
“Be careful scraping that pan so you don’t scratch it,” her mother added.
“I will,” Jules promised.
“No television tonight for either of you. You can work on homework or read.”
“Got it,” Jules said. And with that, their mother was gone.
“Thanks for dinner, Jules,” Brooke said finally. “I thought they were really good. Better than Kylie’s mom’s even.”
“Glad you liked them.” Jules smiled weakly, rising to clear the table.
Twenty Years Later
Jules strode through the Northridge Fashion Center purposefully. She had exactly one hour and a twenty-percent-off Sears coupon burning a hole in her purse, a brown faux-leather messenger-style that happened to be on its last synthetic legs. It was time for a new one, and she’d already decided she was going to splurge on genuine leather—if she could find one on sale. Even though she was finally fine financially, Jules could never bring herself to pay full price for anything. She blamed her mother for this.
As she made her way toward Sears, a navy-and-white sundress in a shop window caught her eye. It had the halter neckline that flattered flat-chested women like Jules, and the horizontal stripes accented the mannequin’s perfectly protruding middle. Jules could just see herself breezing around the neighborhood in it, a tangle of adorably mangy mutts at her feet. In a highly uncharacteristic burst of spontaneity, she ducked into Motherhood Maternity.
The sundress was on a center rack right in the front, and Jules flipped through the hangers until she found a size small. She pulled it out and inspected it from every angle, amused by the way it hung several inches longer in the front.
“Can I put that in a fitting room for you?” A grandmotherly saleslady had appeared out of nowhere. Jules blushed furiously. In her size-two flat-front khakis and tucked-in blouse, she was shocked by the question. She figured the salesladies were probably trained not to make any assumptions.
“Oh, actually I was just looking . . .” Jules said nervously, her face burning. She felt like a kid who had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.
“Well, that dress just came in and I haven’t seen it on yet, so if you try on anything else would you slip it on for me? We have fake bellies you can strap on to see what it will look like . . . You know, when you’re showing. If you ever show, that is. You sure are a tiny slip of a thing!”
“I don’t really have a lot of time . . . ” Jules said, trailing off. The saleslady looked crushed. The mall was dead and she probably hadn’t had a customer all day.
“Oh, why not?” Jules said. The woman genuinely looked as if she might cry happy tears as she led Jules to a curtained fitting room.
“The belly is in there, and my name is Ethel if you need another size.”
“Right. Thank you, Ethel.”
Jules closed the curtain, wondering what on earth she was doing. Not only was she not pregnant, but she and Shawn had agreed that they wouldn’t even entertain the idea until he finished law school, which was another two years away. Still, it was a free country. There was no harm in just trying the thing on. It wasn’t like she was secretly flushing her birth control pills down the toilet or anything. Besides, she was only doing it for Ethel.
She took off her clothes and folded them neatly on the fitting room’s padded bench. She looked at her bra-and-panty-clad thirty-two-year-old body in the mirror and tried to picture herself pregnant. It was impossible. Her stomach was as pancake-flat as it had been when she was seven years old, and her thighs were still lean and taut. In fact, nothing much about Jules had changed since she was a child. She was the same nondescript plain Jane she’d always been, the sort of woman who could pass for anywhere from twenty to forty. She longed for pregnancy curves, for the assurance that she was fertile, but more so, for the promise they represented. If she could create life, after all, she could change the world. Jules wanted desperately to believe that was possible.
She strapped on the padded belly, which looked like a giant stuffed peanut glued to a stretchy Velcro-tipped belt. It certainly didn’t look like any pregnant stomach Jules had ever seen, but maybe it would look more realistic when she had the dress on. She pulled it off the hanger and over her head and gasped at her reflection. The sundress spilled over and around her prosthetic baby beautifully, making her look legitimately, shockingly pregnant.
“Well?” Ethel called from outside the curtain. “How does it look? Come out and show me! Don’t keep me in suspense.”
Self-consciously, Jules peeled back the curtain.
“Oh my word, you’re adorable!” Ethel squealed. “Come out here and look in the three-way mirror!” A quintessential rule-follower, Jules did as she was told. In the arc of the mirrors, she was transfixed. She turned this way and that, lifting her arms and admiring the way the dress’s stripes created the illusion of curves where none actually existed. She instantly recalled a photo of her mom when she was pregnant with Lexi. In the picture, Juliana had Jules’s slight build, and her sandy-blond hair was cut into a shoulder-length bob nearly identical to the one Jules wore now. Jules squinted at her reflection, dazed by her uncanny resemblance to a ghost.
“Julia? Julia Alexander? Sorry . . . you’re the married one . . . I think it’s Richards, no, Richardson, right? Julia Richardson, is that you?” Jules’s eyes darted away from her reflection to the face behind hers that now appeared in triplicate in the mirrors.
“Mrs. Berkovitz!” Jules blurted. She spun around, dropping her arms instinctively in an effort to hide her fake belly.
“It is you! I thought so but I didn’t know you were pregnant, and then I realized since Juliana’s . . . passing . . . maybe I wouldn’t know. Although you’d think some of those other gossipy biddies in the complex would have mentioned it. Or maybe nobody knows yet? Am I the first? Oh, that would just kill that know-it-all Judith Steinman. Tell me I’m the first.” She clapped her pudgy hands together like a four-year-old seeing her birthday cake for the first time.
“Well, um, it’s sort of a secret still since we’re not very far along . . .” Jules started. She couldn’t believe she was lying about being pregnant, especially to her mother’s bigmouth neighbor. Jules never lied. It wasn’t in her nature. But what else could she do? And really, what did it matter? Her mother was dead, and it wasn’t like she was crossing paths with the old ladies at Garden Villas all that often. Or ever. Well, other than today, hopefully.
“I hate to tell you this, but we look like we’ve already popped,” Mrs. Berkovitz said with a knowing smile and a wink. Jules cupped her fake belly protectively; Ethel stifled a laugh.
“Oh, yeah, well . . . still. Would you mind not saying anything to anybody? Until we announce it officially, that is? You know, just in case.” Jules made the sign of the cross here, hoping lightning wouldn’t strike her dead before she had a chance to get pregnant for real.
“Of course,” Mrs. Berkovitz promised. “You know, my Aaren is expecting, too. Not due until December. She’s twice as big as you are, but then again we come from Russian peasant stock and she got my birthing hips. That baby’s probably gonna slide out like a wet bar of soap!” Mrs. Berkovitz laughed uproariously at this and Jules tried not to cringe at the messy image of Aaren’s baby-spewing private parts. “Anyway, maybe we’ll see you at the park in the spring.”
“Yeah, sure, that’ll be fun,” Jules said. She gave Mrs. Berkovitz an awkward hug, trying to keep the woman from feeling her padded peanut belly.
“Mazel tov,” Mrs. Berkovitz whispered in her ear. “I pray the Lord blesses your womb with as much fruit as it can bear.” They pulled apart and Jules managed a weak smile, not sure how to respond to what sounded like a curse.
Mrs. Berkovitz followed her back to the fitting room. “It’s such a shame that Juliana didn’t live to see this miracle, may her soul rest in peace,” she said. “She would have been over the moon.”
“Thanks,” Jules said. What she was thinking was, I can add this little encounter to the long list of reasons I’m thankful my mother is dead.
“Want to go for a hike this afternoon?” Pam asked. “Hannah is coming, too, and maybe Jess, if she gets all of those all-about-me posters hung up in time.” Pam was the junior teacher in the Tadpole room, a job Brooke wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy. Poor Pam spent half of her day in the smelly Little Me Preschool bathroom, bribing a two-year-old Mackenzie or Jackson with a temporary tattoo or some Silly Putty to “pretty please go pee-pee in the potty.” Brooke’s Frog room was right next door, and thankfully the kids were almost always potty trained by the time they got there. There were occasional accidents, of course, but at least Brooke didn’t have to use her classroom stipend for diapers and wipes.
“Oh shoot. I can’t today,” Brooke said, intentionally vague. She was pretty sure she’d used the dentist, chiropractor, gynecologist, podiatrist, rheumatologist, optometrist and hair appointment excuses to get out of one of Pam’s fitness funfests already. And it wasn’t like Brooke was eager to admit to her friend that she was afraid she would keel over and die if she tried to trudge up Topanga Canyon.
“Another day, then,” Pam said breezily. She wrapped up her half-eaten brownie and tucked it neatly back into her insulated paisley lunch bag. Who eats half a brownie? Brooke wondered.
“Totally,” Brooke said, trying not to stare at Pam’s brownie-filled lunch bag.
“Do you want the rest of my brownie?” Pam asked.
“Oh, no, I’m good, thanks,” Brooke insisted. She willed herself to stop staring at the forbidden bag.
Pam shrugged and surveyed the yard. It was a perfect winter day, sunny and chilly without a cloud in the sky. A lovely day for a hike—if you were into that sort of thing, which Brooke most definitely wasn’t. Brooke didn’t like to exercise and she didn’t like to sweat. Although she’d been an athlete as a child, now she was carrying enough extra weight to make any form of physical exertion about as enjoyable as a root canal. As she watched the kids chase one another around the huge play yard, she had a faint flashback to her own days as a runner, when she was young and fit and would go out to the track and push her own limits for hours at a stretch. It seemed a lifetime ago, if not more.
“Any fun plans for this weekend?” Pam asked now, interrupting her little trip down memory lane.
Fun plans? thought Brooke. She was pretty sure trying to wrestle the remote control away from her deadbeat boyfriend and shuffling through stacks of bills she couldn’t afford to pay didn’t qualify as fun on any scale. “Nothing special,” she said instead. “You?”
“I think I’m going to go see my old college roommate in Vegas,” Pam said. “She has tickets to some Cirque du Soleil show that’s supposed to be amazing. Hey, you want to go? I’ll bet you can still get a ticket. We could make it a road trip! It would be a blast.”
Brooke couldn’t even fathom what it would be like to have the guts—or the money—to just take off and drive to Nevada on a whim. Even if she could afford the ticket and her share of the gas, which she couldn’t, what would she wear to a fancy Las Vegas show? The swankiest place she’d ever been to was probably Red Lobster, and that was in high school. For prom. Thankfully she’d been thin then, so she’d been able to find a cute dress on the JCPenney sale rack for just twenty-five bucks. But in her current shape, which in Brooke’s mind bore a tragic resemblance to Jabba the Hutt, the pickings would be slim at best. Slim, thought Brooke. The irony.
“Thanks for the invite, but Jake and I have a bunch of work to do around the apartment this weekend,” she said. It wasn’t technically a lie. Jake worked really hard at playing video games most days, and not complaining while he did it for hours on end required Herculean effort on Brooke’s part.
“Another time, then,” Pam said. She brushed imaginary crumbs off of her lap and stood up. “Hey, Tadpoles,” she called, her hands cupped around her mouth. “Swim your cute little tails over here and let’s go get washed up!” A tangle of loud, sweaty kids rushed in their direction.
“Hop this way, Frogs!” Brooke shouted over the nearby ruckus.
Brooke led her charges back to her classroom and began laying out the nap mats.
“Thank you, Miss Alexander,” said Hala, her secret favorite. Hala climbed onto her mat and pulled her blanket up to her chin.
“You’re very welcome, Hala,” Brooke said, giving the girl an affectionate hug.
“I wish you could come to my house and tuck me in at night,” Hala said. “Your breath is way better than my mom’s.”
Brooke laughed and thought about how much she loved her job. The kids were so special, and so priceless, and so funny. They didn’t care that she was overweight or judge her for it like the rest of the world did. They didn’t tell her that she looked just like Kirstie Alley, and really mean just like Kirstie Alley before she hooked up with Jenny Craig. Spending her days with them was the one good thing in her life. Well, that and no longer having a mother around to make her feel like a worthless loser.
Lexi looked around to make sure Floyd hadn’t snuck in while she wasn’t looking before she slipped a twenty off the sticky bar and stuck it in the back pocket of her teeny skirt. With a what-the-fuck shrug she downed the half glass of bourbon her last customer had thoughtfully left behind. Waste not, want not, her mother had always said. Not that Lexi was fond of quoting Juliana, but some things just stuck whether you wanted them to or not.
The Salty Dog was slow on its best night, but tonight was abysmal. Lexi had made a whopping six bucks in tips in four hours, if you didn’t count the two twenties she’d pocketed instead of putting them into the cash register where they rightfully belonged. And Lexi didn’t count them, because she owed her roommate Brad exactly that amount, so it wasn’t like she’d be enjoying any of it. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like she’d be getting an opportunity to score any more cash the easy way tonight, either. She surveyed the room; it was the usual mix of regular old drunks who each had an outstanding tab a mile long. Lexi rolled her eyes at them and poured herself a fresh shot of bourbon. It landed in her stomach with a grumble and Lexi realized she hadn’t eaten a thing all day, with the meager exception of the half-dozen drinks she’d pinched since she’d been on the clock. No wonder her head was so fuzzy. She stumbled backward toward the opening that looked into the kitchen.
“Hey, Jorge,” she purred in her most gravelly voice. The cook snapped his head to attention at the sound. Lexi twirled a long dark lock thoughtfully around her finger and lowered her chin. “Do you think you could make me a burger on the down-low, before Floyd gets here? And maybe some fries? I’m starving out here and I haven’t made a dime all night.” She leaned ever-so-slightly forward when she said this, offering Jorge an enhanced glimpse of the cleavage that was purposely spilling out of her push-up bra. Jorge blinked rapidly then dragged his eyes back to Lexi’s face. Her lids were half-closed over her pale green eyes, and her lips were drawn into the suggestive sort of pout usually reserved for selfies.
“Course, Lexi,” Jorge stammered. Jorge had been scolded—more like verbally flogged—by their boss for giving in to Lexi’s food-on-demand requests more times than any of them could count. The rule at the Salty Dog was employees only ate on their breaks, at designated tables, and they paid half the menu price. They were charged with keeping one another accountable when Floyd wasn’t around, of course. But Jorge, like nearly every man with a pulse Lexi had ever met, was utterly powerless to resist her wiles. She knew the cook would willingly take a tongue-lashing from Floyd all day every day if it meant he might get a close-up look at her tits when he delivered her food.
Lexi blew him a kiss and his brown face turned crimson. If only Floyd were that easy, she thought with a stifled sigh.
“Well, look who decided to show up today.” Speak of the devil. Floyd had barged through the heavy wooden front door, causing it to slam against the wall and startling Lexi half to death. She grabbed the bar to steady herself. “What a treat for all of us.”
“Fuck you, Floyd,” Lexi said, high on hunger and liquid courage. She thrust her middle finger in his direction for good measure.
“If those Friday-night dickwads didn’t sit here all night spending money so they could watch you shake your ass, you’d be telling some minimum-wage schmuck at the unemployment agency to fuck off instead of me,” Floyd said, pulling up a barstool directly in front of her. “If someone would be nice enough to give you a ride to the unemployment office, that is.” He laughed when he said this, and it was all Lexi could do not to grab a glass and hurl it at his ugly, pockmarked face.
“Fuck you,” she said again, wishing she could come up with a meaner, or at least more original, retort.
“No, thanks,” said Floyd. “I already had crabs once, and let’s just say I’m in no rush to get ’em again. Hey, Jorge, fix me a burger, would ya?”
“Coming right up, Floyd,” Jorge said, looking at Lexi guiltily. Her stomach rumbled on cue.
“Wrap it up to go,” Floyd added. “I’m beat. I think Spicoli here can hold down the fort for the rest of the night. That right, Spicoli?”
Lexi bit the inside of her cheek so hard she tasted blood. Then she smiled—the fakest fuck-you smile she could muster—and walked around the side of the bar toward the back bathroom. Her middle finger was raised behind her back.
“Take a piss on that burger and I’ll give you forty bucks,” she whispered to Jorge as she passed by him. Jorge nodded ever so slightly, a mixture of agreement and apprehension. Lexi didn’t care if she had to pick up three extra shifts this week. The thought of Floyd eating Jorge’s nasty piss burger would be worth it.
“Thank you for coming here today, ladies,” Mr. Wiley said.
“Of course,” Jules said on behalf of her sisters. She shifted uncomfortably in one of Mr. Wiley’s big leather chairs.
“As I explained previously, before your mother passed she made me the executor of her will, so the purpose of today’s meeting is to go over her final wishes with regard to the disbursement of her assets—”
“Do I get the Chevy?” Lexi interrupted. “Please tell me I get the Chevy. That thing is classic. Not a classic, mind you. But definitely classic.”
“Lexi, hush,” Jules said. As the oldest of the three sisters—and the only one with an ounce of responsibility in her bones, it was clear—Jules had always made it her job to keep Lexi in line. This had never been an easy task, and from the looks of things, nothing had changed. “I’m sorry, Mr. Wiley. Please go on.”
“I have to say, your mother’s final wishes are a bit unusual,” Mr. Wiley told them. “It seems that she’s laid out several provisions that you’ll each need to meet in order to receive your portion of her estate.”
“Her estate?” It was Lexi, of course. “Does that include the plastic lawn chairs on her back deck or do those get sold with the condo? Because I could really use some furniture.”
“What do you mean by ‘provisions,’ Mr. Wiley?” Jules asked, ignoring her youngest sister. “Is this like that crazy movie where the rich old man leaves his grandson everything, but he has to jump through all of these hoops to get it? Because frankly, that only works when you have a ton of money, which unfortunately our mother did not.”
“Actually, your mother was a wealthy woman,” Mr. Wiley said. Jules looked around his stodgy office, wondering what his frame of reference could be. Juliana Alexander had been modestly comfortable, maybe, but she certainly hadn’t been rich. Jules had never seen her buy a single thing that wasn’t on sale, and all three girls had been humiliated more than once when their mother had tried to haggle over the price of this or that in a department store. “They’ll always knock off at least ten or fifteen percent if you can find a pull or a tear,” Juliana would insist loudly as her daughters cowered and tried to be invisible.
“Yeah, she was a regular Rockefeller,” Lexi snickered. “In that case, I want the Tuscan villa and the Chevy.”
“Lexi, please,” Brooke said. As the middle sister and self-appointed peacekeeper, Brooke was uncomfortable with any level of conflict. Lexi, on the other hand, enjoyed nothing more than making others, Brooke in particular, excruciatingly uncomfortable.
“As I was saying,” Mr. Wiley continued, “your mother was a wealthy woman. I should probably say a very wealthy woman.”
“And I’m the Queen of Sheba,” Lexi snorted. Brooke gave her a pleading look.
“You’re talking about Juliana Alexander?” Jules asked. “Our mother? The woman who lived in a seven-hundred-square-foot condo and drove a 1993 Chevy Caprice and wouldn’t consider shopping anywhere but the clearance rack? Are you sure you have the right person?”
“I’m quite certain that I have the right person, and believe it or not, women like your mother are not as uncommon as you might think,” Mr. Wiley told the three stone-faced sisters. “Women who grew up with a financial disadvantage frequently learn the value of saving and being thrifty. Often the result is a nice, comfortable nest egg, although unfortunately, many times these ladies are so unaccustomed to spending even a single frivolous dime that the whole thing winds up being distributed among their heirs. That’s partially the story in your mother’s case—the bit about her not spending it, at least. Where her story diverges from most is that she managed to amass a lot more than what most would call a comfortable nest egg. Apparently she was a bit of a savant when it came to investing.”
“How much?” Jules whispered.
Mr. Wiley plucked a heavy pen from its stand on his enormous desk and started to write a number on his legal pad. The sisters’ eyes grew wider with each zero. He turned the paper so that it was facing them.
“Is that . . . Wait, where’s the comma? Is there a decimal point in there?” Jules couldn’t make sense of the number she was seeing.
“It’s thirty-seven million,” Mr. Wiley said.
“Dollars?” Brooke croaked. Mr. Wiley nodded.
“Shut the fuck up,” Lexi said.
“Lexi,” Jules hissed, “watch your mouth.” Jules hadn’t seen Lexi in over a year, and she’d come here today hoping her baby sister had cleaned up her act at least a little. It was clear she had not.
“Why should I?” Lexi shouted. “I’m fucking rich! I can do whatever I want! Fuckity fuck fuck fuck! How do you like me now?” Lexi had jumped up out of her chair and was dancing around Mr. Wiley’s office in an appallingly suggestive manner. It didn’t help that Lexi had decided that an appropriate outfit to wear to a meeting with your dead mother’s lawyer consisted of painted-on jeans and a white T-shirt so sheer she might as well have been wearing her purple lace bra on the outside of it. When Jules realized her sister’s racy little victory dance could go on for days, she grabbed her around the waist and thrust her back into her chair. Lexi pushed her sister’s hands away and folded her own arms across her chest. Her perky nipples strained against her T-shirt and Jules fought the urge to take off her own cardigan sweater and cover them.
“Mr. Wiley, I sincerely apologize for my sister,” Jules said. “She’s not well, as you can see. But you started to say something about . . . I guess I’m just not even sure . . . I mean are we . . . Are my sisters and I even the beneficiaries?” Jules, Brooke and Lexi held their collective breath.
“Yes, you are,” Mr. Wiley said. Brooke let out an uncharacteristic squeal; Jules was too stunned to respond.
“Fucking-a-men! Goddamn it, Mom. Way to go! Can you hear me up there? I said, WAY TO GO! I take back every awful thing I ever said about you! You’re the fucking bomb!” Lexi had leapt up again and was shouting this at the roof, both fists raised in a double Black Panther salute.
“Alexis?” Mr. Wiley said. When he did, Lexi stood stock-still, and her sisters watched as the color drained from her perfect face. Nobody on earth called her Alexis except her mother. And since her mother was no longer on earth but technically below it, that left nobody. Lexi lowered herself back into her chair.
“Mr. Wiley?” Jules asked.
“As I started to say, your inheritance comes with what I suppose you could call conditions,” Mr. Wiley said, tapping his pen absentmindedly on his desk.
“Conditions?” Lexi scoffed. “Like doormat over there has to get some rich doctor to marry her—like that’s ever gonna happen—and Jules has to, I don’t know, stop dressing like she’s an eighty-year-old nun? Ooh, wait, she has to get knocked up! And let me guess, I have to cut off all of my hair or start flossing my teeth every day or get some stupid, shitty actual job or something before we get any money?” Lexi used air quotes when she said “actual job,” and her sisters stifled anxious laughs. That was one of the many things they referred to as a Juliana-ism.
“Actually, you’re not that far off the mark,” Mr. Wiley said, nodding at Lexi.
“What does that mean?” Jules demanded. “What exactly are the conditions, Mr. Wiley?”
“Why don’t I just read Juliana’s note to you? I think it will answer a majority of your questions,” Mr. Wiley suggested. He handed them each a copy of the letter so they could follow along.
Of course Juliana would die filthy rich, thought Jules. How else could she control us from the grave?
Jefferson Wiley, Esquire, cleared his throat and began:
Julia, Brooke and Alexis,
It’s hard to imagine that when you hear these words, I’ll be gone. I like to believe I’ll be in a better place, one without pain and suffering. That’s what I want for you all, too.
By now you are aware of the fact that I managed to sock away a little money before I passed, and you probably want to know how. I received a million dollars in life insurance money when your father died. Spending or enjoying it was never an option; I couldn’t have lived with myself knowing that I was profiting from his death. So I invested it, and I guess I have quite a knack for picking stocks. I managed to turn that money into several dozen times what I started with. Now I want the three of you to have it. I really do. But I also don’t believe that just handing it over would be doing you any favors, so instead you must earn it. In order for my inheritance to be divided in equal thirds and disbursed to each of you, you have exactly one year to meet the following conditions:
Julia: Walking dogs is not a career. I would like you to write your book and make a concerted effort to sell it. The topic can be anything of your choosing, with the explicit exception of pornography. (I don’t care how well that Fifty Shades business sold; hopefully you won’t need the money anyway.) Jefferson knows some literary agents he can introduce you to; please don’t embarrass him.
Brooke: No more dating down. You must sever all ties with this Jake person Julia has told me about and be dating a man both of your sisters deem suitable. (Julia and Alexis, I expect you to be discriminating.) Also, you must take up running again. I didn’t drive you to track meets all over California for you to just throw it all away. You have a year to train for and compete in a race no shorter than a half-marathon. A marathon would be better.
Alexis: You must get an actual job. A respectable one with a paycheck and regular hours and, ideally, health benefits. And no more of this “Lexi” business. Your father and I didn’t give you a stripper name; we gave you a beautiful, elegant, classy name. It’s Alexis, and you must start using it.
Jefferson has an extensive file with many pages of notes that I am confident will address any issues or complications that arise; anything that’s not covered specifically will be decided solely at Jefferson’s discretion. Please be clear: All of these conditions must be met or the money will go to charity. I pray you won’t let your estrangement stand in the way of what could be a very rich and rewarding future for you all.
Mr. Wiley set down the letter and looked at the three sisters. “Any questions? Comments?”
Jules looked at her watch. January fifteenth. One year.
Brooke sat dumbly, looking as if she’d been slapped.
“She didn’t even know she was going to die,” Jules said, her voice barely above a whisper. “It was an accident.”
“Your mother updated this letter annually,” Mr. Wiley explained. Jules, Brooke and Lexi tried to process this information.
“That fucking bitch,” Lexi finally said.
“Alexis, watch your mouth,” Jules said.
Jules opened the door of her Honda and slid in, tossing her purse into the empty passenger seat. A novel, a half-marathon and an “actual job”? Had her mother been mad? Jules had made a point of visiting her weekly, and none of these things had ever come up. Sure, Jules had probably mentioned in passing that she still pined to see her name on a book cover, and she might have let it slip that Brooke had put on some weight and clearly wasn’t running any longer, and certainly it would have come up when Lexi was invariably between waitressing jobs. But to lay out such specific stipulations for each of them? Who did that?
Juliana, that was who.
Jules’s head was reeling as she eased onto the jam-packed 405 Freeway. Her mother had gotten a million dollars twenty years ago and had never said a word, had never stopped shopping at the dollar store, never even bought herself a single new stick of furniture? They’d stayed in their tiny two-bedroom house, the three sisters squished into a bedroom not much bigger than a single-car garage. As the girls grew up and out of that house, Juliana had watched all three of them struggle to try to make ends meet, and never once offered help. Hell, it was Jules who’d paid the ER bill the time Lexi passed out in a drunken stupor and broke her jaw; Jules who’d worked three jobs until she’d managed to save enough money to buy her own dog-walking franchise; Jules who had learned to make a week’s worth of soup with just a cube of bouillon, a few carrots and a stalk of celery. And all along, her mother could have helped. Even a hundred dollars would have gotten any of them out of countless binds over the years—and Juliana could have forked over dozens of times that. But she hadn’t, not even once.
None of it made sense. Why would her mother deprive herself of seeing the joy her money could bring to her daughters? Juliana Alexander had thrived on recognition, and as much as she loved to control Jules and her sisters, she could have lorded that money over them day and night. She could have bribed Jules to write her damned book and paid Brooke to dump Jake and forced Lexi to get her act together and actually been alive to witness it all. Why had her mother had her entire last wishes spelled out when she wasn’t even that old or sick? Why, oh why, had she chosen this of all possible routes?
“I don’t need your money,” Jules said out loud, wiping away a tear that had fallen despite her best efforts to keep it together. “Shawn and I are fine. Fine, do you hear me? We have a house and jobs and I’m not a dog-walker, I’m a business owner. And I can grow that business as big as I want to! Shawn’s going to be a lawyer, and do you know how much money they make? A lot, I’ll have you know. I took care of myself as a kid and I’m taking care of myself now, so screw you.” The tears began to fall in earnest and Jules carefully edged to the side of the freeway. At the next exit, she pulled into a Burger King and found a parking spot under the shade of a giant oak. Then she turned off her car, rested her head on the steering wheel and let the tears come.
As she cried and cried, there was no escaping the truth of the situation: She might be fine, but Brooke and Lexi certainly weren’t. Brooke had let a string of loser boyfriends bleed her dry—hence her current living situation with that dreadful Jake. And Lexi, well, Jules didn’t even want to think about how Lexi got by. And as much as her younger sisters had always resented her mothering ways, Jules hadn’t felt as if she’d had a choice. Her mother’s money would change her own life, no doubt, but it would completely transform theirs.
Reading Group Guide
Reader's Guide for EVERYTHING'S RELATIVE:
1. From the opening chapter of the book, the three sisters epitomize the common traits studies on the relationship between birth order and personalities suggest: Jules is the oldest and a classic type A, responsible and a bit controlling; Brooke is the middle child, the people pleaser and peacemaker; and Lexi, the youngest, is rebellious and self-centered with an "everything will work out" worldview. Do you see any of these common birth order traits in your family or families of those you know?
2. When the girls' father died, they lost their mother too. She became overly critical and controlling while at the same time handing over many of the motherly duties to Jules, who was only twelve. Losing a spouse is one of the most traumatic events in a person's life, but it is clear that Juliana never fully recovered, nor did she help her children through the grieving process. Do you empathize with her and feel she did the best she could or do you feel her actions are inexcusable? Did your feelings about her change from the beginning to the end of the book?
3. Jules had to write a book and try to sell it, Brooke had to dump Jake and date someone more deserving and train for a race, while Lexi had to begin using her full name—Alexis—and get a real job. These are very specific requirements that only a person who knew the sisters well could have set. What does this level of knowledge about their personal lives demonstrate about Juliana and the relationship that she has with her daughters, despite the difficulties that they experienced? What sort of final conditions would your parents put on an inheritance in this same style? What changes or goals do you think they would demand of you?
4. Juliana's controlling nature seems to be born from some desire to control the uncontrollable in the wake of her husband's senseless and unexpected death. Do you think Juliana's critical and harsh words for her daughters were meant to, in some way, keep them safe? Can you think of a time when you as a parent or when your own parents reacted harshly or explosively to some event that you or they later admitted was more about fear than the actual mistake or event?
5. Jules' relationship to her sisters feels more like a parent/child relationship at the beginning of the book, and Lexi especially treats her like an overbearing mother figure. Do you feel those relationships change and become more sisterly as the novel goes on? And if so, what are some key moments when this change is happening?
6. Jules sacrifices a lot when she is young to care for her sisters and, even as an adult, she can't seem to shake the habit of sacrificing the little comforts—for example a fresh, warm towel—in order to achieve some tiny practical goal that may seem insignificant to those around her. Why do you think Jules continues to do this into her adult years? What little sacrifices did your parent or parents make for you, or what sacrifices have you made as a parent?
7. Brooke's relationship with her deadbeat boyfriend Jake seems, at first, to make little sense. Why would someone stay with a guy like that who is so obviously a leech on their life? But, this type of relationship is all too common. Why do you think Brooke was settling for Jake? How do you think Brook's childhood contributed to this habit allowing herself to be taken advantage of?
8. Brooke has a tough start fulfilling her running goals, but as soon as she sees ways that she can help her sisters satisfy their requirements of the will, she is extremely motivated to create a portfolio for Lexi and get herself into some awkward situations trying to sell Jules' book for her. What do you think this says about Brooke as a person?
9. Meanwhile, Jules is trying to play cupid for her sister with her long-lost high school sweetheart via Facebook. What do you think of this meddling—is it the same as what Brooke is doing, or does the dating/romance aspect set it in a different category for you?
10. Growing up the youngest sister, Lexi has no memory of her family as a happy functioning unit and, it's clear from the opening scene in the book, she has always been a headstrong and rebellious person. How does that add up to the Lexi we meet around the time of her mother's death: a party girl who swaps sex for favors and can barely hold down a job at a dive bar? What do you think are the root causes behind Lexi's self-destructive behavior and how do you think her mother's controlling nature may have led to her daughter's wild ways?
11. Why do you think Lexi never explored her talent as an artist when she was younger? Did it just not fit into the "tough chick" image she had cultivated for herself or was it something more? Based on her behavior, how do you think Lexi estimates her self-worth?
12. Why do you think it was so natural for Lexi to jump to conclusions about Rob’s Thanksgiving plans? How do you think you would have reacted in her situation—when he says he is going to one place and then you find out he’s somewhere else?
13. All of the girls idolize their father, Jules perhaps the most of all as she yearns to follow in his footsteps and become a writer. It's impossible to know what their actual relationship would have looked like, but it's obviously important to Jules to keep his memory alive. Is there anyone like this in your life? Someone who you barely remember or never knew, but who you think about each day and imagine, "What if?" and contemplate the guidance or support they would give you?
14. How did you feel about the ending? Were you expecting it or surprised? How would you feel if you were one of the sisters?
15. What do you think the other letter said, the letter that the lawyer was meant to read to the sisters if they did not complete their tasks?
16. What do you see in the future for these characters? Do you think they’ve created solid, lasting bonds and will continue to work on their relationships and strive toward their goals or go on to lead separate lives?