Goldberg Variations: A Story of Three Cousins and a Fortune

Goldberg Variations: A Story of Three Cousins and a Fortune

by Susan Isaacs


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From New York Times bestselling author Susan Issacs, a “deliciously wicked” (Publishers Weekly) story of three cousins and a fortune.

Imagine King Lear as a comedy…

At seventy-nine, Gloria Garrison must plan for the future of Glory, Inc., the beauty-makeover business that she has grown from zilch into an eleven-million-dollar-per-year bonanza. Gloria’s never been big on family, but she’s forced to contemplate her three grandkids as objects of her largesse.

There’s Daisy, a story editor for a movie studio; her brother, Matt, who does PR for a New York baseball team; and cousin Raquel, laboring away as a Legal Aid lawyer.

When Gloria sends plane tickets and a weekend invitation to Santa Fe, the cousins couldn’t be more surprised. But the visit holds an unexpected twist for Gloria, too. Always sassy, smart, and wickedly witty, Susan Isaacs is at her formidable best in a novel that is both hilariously funny and a deeply moving tale of family, faith, and discovery.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451605921
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 06/04/2013
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Susan Isaacs is the author of thirteen novels, including As Husbands Go, Any Place I Hang My Hat, Long Time No See, and Compromising Positions. She is a former editor of Seventeen and a freelance political speechwriter. She lives on Long Island with her husband. All of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers.


Sands Point, New York

Date of Birth:

December 7, 1943

Place of Birth:

Brooklyn, New York


Honorary Doctorate, Queens College

Read an Excerpt



I am not one of those tedious people who feel compelled to speak in smiley faces. Like: Whenever a door closes, a window opens. Of course they can never leave it at a lone, bubbly sentence. No, gush must follow: Gloria, truthfully, deep down, aren’t you thrilled it turned out this way? You know, it’s always darkest before dawn. But this . . . Oh, God, this is your moment! You get to choose which of these three darling young people is worthiest to inherit your kingdom! Isn’t it like some fairy tale come to life?

Don’t ask.

Okay, ask. Here I am, pacing from room to room to room—and I am a woman of many rooms—trying to prepare myself for the onslaught. A limo will be here any minute bringing three virtual strangers to invade my house. All right, they are my grandchildren, but I barely know them. Goldberg, Goldberg, and Goldberg. Sounds like some shtick in a Marx Brothers movie.

Except what I’m living through is no damn comedy. More like a tragedy. Not tragedy with a capital T, I admit. The fate of a company like Glory, Inc., which trucks around the South and West demonstrating how to apply false eyelashes, isn’t exactly in the same league as Oedipus, that king who put out his eyes because he slept with his mother. Talk about a classic, though I personally found the play creepy. Also, to be honest, a bit boring. Maybe if I’d gone to college I’d appreciate it on a more profound level because I’d have studied it, not just read it. Maybe not. No, definitely not. By the way, do not get the impression from the above that Glory is in the eyelash biz. That’s only a minuscule part of what we do.

But getting back to tragedy: I understand it, intellectually and personally. I know the definition: the fall of a great person because of a character flaw he or she possesses. Right? For a long time I lied, said I went to college. When I lived in the East, I said Stanford, though at the beginning I was saying Sanford until I read in the Times that John Steinbeck was a Stanford dropout which, needless to say, was humiliating. To make it worse, I couldn’t stop recalling all the times people asked me, “Where did you go to school?” I’d say, simply and slowly, “Sanford.” They must have known. When I moved west, I switched to University of Pennsylvania. No one ever came back with, Yeah, sure. Because I’m so self-educated, I can pass as practically erudite. Well, if I get the name of the college right.

So, no capital T tragedy. Not that I’m claiming greatness for myself, but don’t I qualify as a sort of tragic heroine anyway? Wasn’t it a flaw in my character that caused the corporate cataclysm that led me here, pacing, then eying my watch, followed by a glance up at the TV’s closed-circuit channel with its shot of the secured entrance to Los Ranchos Verdes Estates? The only vehicle that’s come through during the twenty minutes I’ve been watching was a tan van, its windows obscured by road dust. DESERT FLOWER AIR-CONDITIONING painted along the van’s side panel was so faded the entire van almost blended into the air, all shimmery at the edges, like a mirage.

What if one of them is utterly dreadful? Forget something blatant, like rank body odor or an uncontrollable need to detail a friend’s transgender surgery in a loud voice in a restaurant. What if one of them is disgusting in a small way? Half-moons of that blackish-green dirt under fingernails. I’ve never been able to bear thinking about it long enough to figure out how the green gets there. Or instead of holding flatware properly, they clench knife and fork in fists and saw away at a piece of meat until you hear the scream of bone china getting cut by the knife. The boy could leave urine sprinkles on the underside of the toilet seat for the help to clean. One of the girls might have inch-long fake nails painted with tiger stripes.

I detest waiting. I act. I do not get acted upon. Instead of being five miles down the road at my office at Glory, Inc. doing what I always do on Thursday afternoons (checking inventory spreadsheets and confirming with the L.A. stylists what is and is not selling, accessorieswise), I am stuck at home waiting for the arrival of the three lamebrains I barely know. My three grandchildren. Fine, they’re all theoretically smart. I mean good colleges. All gainfully employed, no mean feat nowadays, in respectable starter jobs.

The boy is with the New York Mets. Public relations. The Puerto Rican is a lawyer at Legal Aid in Manhattan. The other girl is number two at the New York office of Paramount which, for all I know, only has two people. But at least they’ve got respectable CVs.

Still, such a profound dread has been pressing down on my skull that I had to gag down two Excedrin. I hate pills. I exercise daily and I’m not on any serious medication except an asthma inhaler, and that’s only once in a blue moon. But who wouldn’t have a headache under these circumstances? I fear that once I exchange about four or five sentences with any of the three, I’ll discover he or she naïve in a unique and hopeless way—and therefore incapable of running a business like Glory that netted eleven million last year. Eleven.

I’ll know soon enough. But though my headache has eased, I feel a little nauseated. The way one does after Belgian waffles. Except all I had for breakfast was two forkfuls of an egg-white frittata. Well, who wouldn’t feel queasy? I’m going to have to choose one of those Goldbergs. But as I wait, I keep returning to the moment when not-Oedipus-but-nonetheless-an-important figure, i.e., me, plummeted from a great height due to her Tragic Flaw.

• • •

Five months ago, I was in my office, a huge square room with French doors at the far end that provided a panorama of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains southeast of Santa Fe. Visitors would gasp, Oh, my God! Whether in sunshine, or in the gray of clouds, made blurry by sand on a windy day, they were always wondrous. When I sat at my desk, however, that heart-bursting sight was behind me. The mountains and the vast sky. Herewith: Gloria Garrison’s Law of Commerce 437: Do not get besotted by nature during business hours. Still, beauty is my business. I needed to look at something nonugly. So my office must not only please clients and colleagues, but it also must rise to the Gloria Garrison taste level. If that makes me sound like an egomaniac, I’m not. I simply know that if something is visually jarring or inadequate, it reflects badly on Glory.

Anyhow, because beauty that’s too familiar loses its punch, the room itself had rotated through the color wheel each time I redecorated. Naturally, I’d had my all-white period, which made everything flawless until one day I walked in and it hit me: This is what evangelicals expect God’s office to look like. Pure and boring. Soon after Goodwill removed the white flokati rug and the rest of God’s furniture, a mostly blue Persian rug moved in, though for the life of me I can’t remember what came with it. Next was the predictable Southwest routine (sage and beige with pops of paled-out orange), then Mexican with stuccoed walls and blue-tiled gas fireplace, followed by Bauhausy, in which the loudest color was tan.

Currently, my office walls are a sky blue I still haven’t tired of: such a clean color. Whenever I more than glance at those Venetian plastered walls, when I really take in the luminosity of their hue, my soul feels cleansed—that sensation of inner peace you get when you’re just out of a shower with a quality Castile soap. The latest redo had been primarily the blue paint job and reupholstery. I kept most of the furniture from my Bauhaus period. Why get new? You come to a certain age and you comprehend the adage “You can’t take it with you” on the deepest level, which is somewhere between annoying and gut-wrenching. Well, someone—I think Jack Benny—was quoted as saying, “If I can’t take it with me, I won’t go.” Amusing, gutsy . . . except he went. You ask yourself, Why buy an eighteenth-century Russian tole tray table even if I madly covet it? I wish, like the ancient Egyptians, I could believe that the furniture I brought into my pyramid would be with me for eternity. Swedish farmhouse-style would wear well. But no pyramid for me. Because there is only nothing to look forward to.

Anyway, my most recent office renovation: As an antidote to the simplicity of the Bauhaus, I did throw in a lot of yellow accessories. Keith remarked that with all that yellow along with the blue walls, I could open my own Swedish consulate.

All right, let me deal with it. With him. Keith Thompson. Until that time five months ago, he was my heir apparent as well as my dearest friend. True, not my heir according to my will, but who knew? Minds change. It could have happened. What was definite, or so I thought, was that one day he would be the owner of Glory, Inc. I was happy, happy to let him buy me out at a nongouging, below-market price. And he wouldn’t have had to wait until I kicked the bucket to take over. It would have been his just two years after the earn-out period.

Keith had been working for me for seventeen years, and still, whenever I pictured him, my mind’s eye saw him at our first interview. In those days, he’d been so stunning you could almost hear people warning themselves, Don’t stare! Just act natural. Not that he’d completely lost his handsomeness over the years. His dark gold hair, now streaked with silver, remained thick and so silky you had to fight the urge to touch it. He’d never developed that middle-aged cordy neck or a jaw compromised by a second or third chin. His azure eyes (very much like the blue color on my walls) shone with such a clear light they mellowed his iron-jawed cowboy looks with a touch of poet.

But nowadays, up close, Keith came across far older than he actually was. He looked more Medicare Man than his real age, forty-eight. Shocking, the change in him. The sharp angles of his cheeks had flattened out about five years earlier, around the time he’d switched from tequila shots to frozen margaritas, as if the overload of glucose was dissolving the calcium in his bones. Overnight, his once-bronzed, supple skin had aged. If I’d touched it, it would have felt like leather from a dried-out riding boot. However, in the seconds before my Tragic Moment, his cracked, brownish visage took on a glow again. Unfortunately, his face was afire with rage.

“Don’t you have one single ounce of decency?” he was roaring at me, though I wasn’t paying as much attention to his words. Maybe I should have. I was too transfixed by his nearness, and it had nothing to do with his being a beautiful man. What good would that have done me? No, it was because tiny explosions of saliva were erupting from his dry lips. I could see every droplet of his spit lit up by the noontime Santa Fe glare. That’s how close he was leaning in to me. His hands were braced on the edge of my desk. His chin was directly above my cup of paper clips. If he tilted in even one half inch more, his next spritz could wind up in my iced tea.

“Did anyone ever have the guts to tell you, Gloria, that you’re an evil person and a complete piece of shit?”

“Of course. Though never in a single sentence.” I admit it: I was overly fond of the sound of my own words, especially when listening to myself saying something cruelly clever. I wasn’t born with a captivating voice. It was still a work in progress. I often listened to myself, which was helpful, but it sometimes made me miss parts of other people’s conversation.

A thousand years earlier, when I was modeling in New York, one of the other girls, Ramona, had advised me, “You could use a little work in the elocution department, Gloria. You’ve got that—I don’t know—Midwest accent and it sort of makes you sound a little like Tilly the Toiler on the Ford assembly line. I’m saying this as a friend. Between you and I, if you want to hook a rich guy, they want to believe you’re the refined type, like you’re a deb modeling for the fun of it. So . . . here’s a quick trick. Make believe you’re Princess Elizabeth when you talk. But also, pitch your voice as low as it will go. Remember: Low is lovely. Except, listen: Don’t try for the British accent. Not to worry. If you’re doing a good princess impersonation, whatever you say will come out classy.” (Another girl came over to me later and murmured, “Gloria, darling, listen to me. The word ‘classy’ is déclassé, just like Ramona. Never use it.”) Over the years, I’d dropped the princess bit. Anyway, soon after Elizabeth became queen she turned dumpy. So I’d created my own personal ideal, which was a kind of female heterosexual Noël Coward. Okay, admittedly I wasn’t such great shakes in the wit department.

“‘Evil person.’” I repeated what Keith had said. “‘Piece of shit.’ How piquant.”

I waited for his customary unwilling smile—You’re a bitch and I’m furious beyond belief but hell you are amusing. Whenever he did that, one side of his upper lip, with its lush brush of a mustache, would rise despite his cheek muscle’s valiant attempt to suppress it. Except it didn’t happen this time.

“Look at you,” Keith kept going, “sitting there like that! An egomaniacal, infantile . . .” He gulped. Using two big words, so close together, wore him out. He stopped to take a deep breath. He’d been playing monosyllabic Western macho man for so many years that despite his intelligence, his vocabulary was shot to hell. Then he swallowed once, twice, and bellowed, “You’re a dribbling old lady who’s got to wear a bib. An XXL bib.”

“It’s not a bib, you ass. And you know it!” I shot back, though making sure to maintain my mellifluous voice. His “old lady” was an attempt to thrust a knife in my heart. I certainly wasn’t going to cooperate and, metaphorically, drop dead.

“Not a bib?” No drip, drip of sarcasm: a torrent of mockery. “Then what is that thing around your neck?”

It’s a goddamn insurance policy, I wanted to scream at him—the “old lady” bit had been a surprise, a smack in the face. As for the so-called bib, I was founder and CEO of a beauty and fashion business. So? Could a CEO of such an enterprise go to her next appointment, a meeting with her banker, with a blob of encrusted chicken salad on her white silk blouse? Could she jeopardize the next meeting on her calendar—an interview with a reporter from the Northwest Arkansas Times—with Coke Zero dribble stains on the teeny knots between her eighteen-millimeter pearls?

Absurd. Which was why I always wore protection when I ate at my desk. Not a bib, not some plastic monstrosity stamped with SPIT HAPPENS. No, the high-priced expanse of white linen tucked into my neckline was a genuine antique, a nineteenth-century damask napkin. The New Orleans linen dealer had told me he believed the dozen “serviettes” I was considering came from a French château that had belonged to a distinguished Huguenot family. The guy made a point of enunciating Huguenot as “oo-gay-no,” practically panting with anticipation for me to show some sign I wasn’t comprehending what he’d just said, but of course I was.

“Can I ask you something?” Keith stepped back and crossed his arms over his extravagantly toned pecs. If he truly believed that working out for an hour and a half every day to maintain a thirty-five-year-old physique was going to make all cute young guys decide, With a body like that, who cares if his face looks like it’s made from hundred-year-old crocodile skin? he was delusional.

Not that Keith was currently in the market for cute young things, I had to admit. His lover/partner of almost twenty years was stretched out on a bed in the ICU at St. Vincent’s Hospital with only a ventilator holding off Death. That’s what was making Keith scream at me.

Not the fact that Billy was dying in a room that, without a doubt, stank from disinfectant and Keith was ultrasensitive to smells. And not that Billy was probably hooked up to beeping monitors with ever-changing green numbers. Even if a miracle occurred and he survived, the from-out-of-nowhere stroke that had hit him had done such damage that his brain would be about as useful as last week’s scrambled eggs—and all this had happened three and a half weeks before Billy’s fortieth. Keith and I had been planning the celebration for months. Not a surprise party. Except it would be. Billy would think it was a small birthday dinner chez Glo, as he called my house, and that the big occasion would come the following week. Except he’d walk in to a thousand candles lighting up a hundred fifty of his nearest and dearest. Surprise! Except the surprise came a month too soon, and it was no party.

But what had turned Keith crimson with fury at me was not random rage at the unfairness of life. It was me: I have to acknowledge that. What got him was that I had not gone to the hospital. And this was after Keith told me for probably the tenth time, “Gloria, you’re like family to Billy and me.” Plus there had been at least five repetitions of “Billy always said, ‘Gloria is my big sister.’” At one point he asked, “Let me be blunt. Do you have some major issue about—I don’t know—hospitals or strokes?” And just in case I didn’t get the hint, not ten minutes earlier Keith had come right out and said, “You know, I put you on the list for the ICU. You can go whenever. Every hour on the half hour, day or night. They only let you stay ten minutes, but . . .”

And then, Tragic Flaw time. Instead of sucking it up and telling myself that sometimes, for the sake of business and/or friendship, you’ve got to make sacrifices, or pretend to be a caring human being, I was honest. Not at first, though. I dropped my voice as low as it could go, which wasn’t so hard when you haven’t manufactured a drop of estrogen in over thirty years. It could barely be heard: “I have to tell you the truth, Keith. I know you’ll think I’m an awful person. But the truth is, I don’t think I can bear to see Billy that way.”

“That’s such bullshit! Come on, Ms. Profile in Courage, you goddamn hypocrite. Say what you mean.”

So you don’t have to waste time reading between the lines, let me be up front about what my Tragic Flaw is. It is losing control and saying what I truly think. And the worst part of it is, I know how dangerous and potentially destructive honesty can be for me. I thought I’d learned not to let anyone goad me into candor. Except the double whammy of seeing Keith with tears of grief in his eyes, as if Billy were already dead, along with the rise of his upper lip, like he was so repulsed by my selfishness that he was going to vomit, was too great a goad.

I reached into my desk drawer and grabbed my pen. Despite what Keith insisted later, I wasn’t brushing him off and going back to work on the spreadsheets. The pen was just a handy object, and I needed something to squeeze in my clenched fist because I was in a pitched battle fighting myself to keep the truth from erupting. I tried with everything I had to subdue my worst self. I couldn’t do it.

“He asked for you, for Christ’s sake!” Keith said.

“He didn’t ask for me,” I told him quite calmly. “You know that and I know that. You were the one who told me: He’s lost his power of speech.”

“Not totally. I’m telling you! He looked at me and said . . .” Keith made a repulsive sound, a mix of gulp and hard g. “It was him asking, ‘Where is Gloria? Why isn’t she here?’”

I said, “Keith, you’re projecting what you want to hear. ‘Guh’ could mean, ‘Get me out of here!’ or ‘God help me!’ Most likely it’s an involuntary sound. I don’t know and neither do you. In any case, the bottom line is this: There’s no way I can be in the same room with someone who is on the verge of dying. Okay? I wish I were a better person, but I’m not. I don’t want to risk seeing anyone who’s actually dead. I don’t go to funerals. And it’s not because I’m in the older range, agewise. I’ve always been this way.” Then I kept babbling on, which I shouldn’t have: “God knows why. Most of the time, I pretend I have food poisoning. Except that excuse doesn’t work when someone has a second death in the family. Then I make believe I have a death in my own family and have to fly out to that funeral. And you know what else gets to me? I’m all for interfaith blah-blah-blah, but the worst thing the Christians ever did to the Jews was to get friendly with them. Now you have to go to their funerals and see their embalmed mothers or husbands with freakish makeup jobs in an open casket. So okay? I hate death. Comas are almost as bad. I can’t look at Billy on a ventilator.”

“Goddamn it! He asked for you! I know what I heard.”

“If you think he really can comprehend, then explain to him, ‘Gloria just can’t handle this, Billy. But she sends you all her love. You’re in her heart.’”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Goldberg Variations includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Gloria Garrison is seventy-nine years old. She’s long ago reinvented herself, changing her name from Goldberg, ditching her husband in New York, and starting a beauty company in Santa Fe. Glory, Inc., a huge success, provides makeovers—hair, clothes, and makeup—out of the back of eighteen-wheelers across the South and West. Gloria is preparing to retire, but because of her outrageous emotional insensitivity and hurtful offhand comments, her younger partner has pulled out of the business; he never wants to speak to her again. So she sends plane tickets to her three grandchildren back in New York – Matt, Daisy, and Raquel – who haven’t seen her since they were kids. As soon as they arrive, she offers them a once in a lifetime opportunity: one (and only one!) of them will become the heir to Glory, Inc.’s multimillion dollar beauty empire; whoever can wow her in a weekend will inherit. Wiser and more principled than their grandmother, all three twenty-somethings refuse Gloria’s proposal. But the remainder of the weekend brings revelations concerning love, loss, and their own family history. Gloria is tough, brusque, and often insulting, but behind her hard veneer lies a woman who must confront her past actions in order to salvage any meaning in her life.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1) Gloria says that her tragic flaw is “losing control and saying what I truly think.” Talk about tragic flaws – Gloria’s, your own, other novels whose plots are driven by such character flaws.

2) What do you think of Glory, Inc. offering makeovers in the back of eighteen-wheelers? Is it a good idea for a business? Could it work in real life?

3) Do you see yourself in Matt, Daisy, or Raquel? In Gloria? Does Matt, Daisy, Raquel, or Gloria remind you of anyone in your own family?

4) Do any of the grandchildren’s jobs appeal to you: PR for a professional sports team; legal aide; book scout for Paramount Pictures?

5) Why is Gloria the way she is? What do you think are the major forces or events that have shaped her personality? Can you admire her or sympathize with her?

6) What do you think of Gloria’s relationship with her ex-husband, Joe? Do you understand or sympathize with her for leaving him?

7) Gloria is critical and judgmental of her family, but she can be relaxed and generous with her employees like Emily Anderson and Lizzy. Why do you think this is?

8) Have you ever had a makeover? How did it go? Is there anyone you know who you’d love to see have a makeover?

9) What did you think of the way the story was told from different points of view, alternating between chapters? Was this an effective way to tell this story?

10) Imagine yourself in Daisy, Raquel, or Matt’s position when they got the offer from Gloria. What would you have done? Do you think they made the right choices ultimately?

11) Have you ever fantasized about opening your own business? What kind would it be?

12) Gloria seems utterly heartless and manipulative at the opening of the novel. Yet, by the end, she’s gained wisdom and even earned everyone’s forgiveness. Talk about the idea that it’s never too late–even at eighty–to change.

13) Do you know anyone who has had a realization and reconciliation in the way Gloria does at the end of the novel?

14) What did you think of the ending? Did you foresee this resolution or was it surprising?

Enhance Your Book Club

1) Give each other makeovers: hair, nails, accessories, makeup. Or have a day of beauty at a local salon or spa.

2) Make a list of people you’d like to pay restitution to, reconcile with, or reconnect with in the way that Gloria does.

3) Try to remember and share stories about transformations like Gloria’s in your own family.

4) Brainstorm ideas for small businesses you think there’s a need for or that might be successful today.

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