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How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life

How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life

4.1 6
by Mameve Medwed

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What do a chamber pot, a famous poet, a family feud, and a long-ago suitor all have in common? In this delicious laugh-out-loud new novel of love and loss, rivalry and reconciliation, treasure and trash, by acclaimed author Mameve Medwed (Mail, The End of an Error), we see what happens when past and present collide. . . .

Elizabeth Barrett Browning might


What do a chamber pot, a famous poet, a family feud, and a long-ago suitor all have in common? In this delicious laugh-out-loud new novel of love and loss, rivalry and reconciliation, treasure and trash, by acclaimed author Mameve Medwed (Mail, The End of an Error), we see what happens when past and present collide. . . .

Elizabeth Barrett Browning might have written about the length and breadth of love, but Abby Randolph has given up on all that, preferring to spend her time between her cluttered "needs work" apartment and the overcrowded antiques mart -- the optimistically named Objects of Desire. Yet Abby can't help but wonder what happened to her earlier passionate self who rejected the path set out for her, dropping out of Harvard and falling headfirst into an ill-fated love affair. . . .

Then the Antiques Roadshow comes to town, and Abby turns up at the crack of dawn, artifact in hand, standing alongside thousands of Boston's hopefuls. But there, among the carousel horses, pipe sets, potbellied stoves, and bedraggled stuffed animals, it is Abby's rather ordinary -- and squalid -- piece of porcelain that gets the star treatment.

Abby is barely able to enjoy her good news, for the moment the show airs, life comes back at her at full force. Everything changes: friendship, finances, family, love affairs, career, her view of others, and the way she sees herself.

With this, her fourth novel, Medwed once again returns to Cambridge and, in her "sardonic, funny voice" (Chicago Tribune), "homes in on the rarified self-important atmosphere of our Ivy League institutions -- and the reflected snobbishness of the people who serve them" (New York Times Book Review).

This novel is a gift to anyone who goes to a flea market or watches Antiques Roadshow, anyone who has ever defied expectations, or, especially, anyone who has never been able to extinguish an old flame.

Editorial Reviews

Claudia Deane
If you ever went to Harvard, hung out in Harvard Square hoping to run into some cute single person, or just grew up in the shadow of an academic superstar, you'll likely look fondly on Medwed's Cambridge tale.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Suffering a bout of mid-30s inertia, Abby Randolph, a Harvard dropout- cum-struggling antiques dealer, has all but given up on herself. Her mother perished a year earlier in an earthquake in India. Her childhood love and ex-fianc has penned a tell-all novel exposing Abby's awkward childhood, troubled adolescence and thwarted foray into academia. With a litany of insulting confessions, her most recent boyfriend leaves her for another woman. But when a colleague suggests she take the porcelain chamber pot left to her by her mother onto the TV program Antiques Roadshow-where experts tell her it belonged to the poet of the novel's title-fantastic pipe dreams of uncovering treasure materialize. The pot's pedigree sets in motion a series of misadventures, forcing Abby to get in gear and off the couch. The jokes in Medwed's fourth novel (following The End of an Era) don't always pan out, but this buoyant "dramady" is a wry, easy read for flea market scavengers and collectors alike, those who can appreciate how "objects of desire... the hairline crack in an old vase, the foxing in an old print, the clouded glass of an old decanter mark the passage of time, commemorate the history of people's lives." (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Medwed (End of an Error) returns with the story of Abigail Randolf, who is struggling with the death of her mother and the remarriage of her Harvard professor father. Abby would rather hide in her booth at an antiques market than deal with the conflict caused by an object inherited from her mother's apartment. Forced by her friend Gus, Abby takes the object on the Antiques Roadshow TV program only to find out that it belonged to author Elizabeth Barrett Browning and is worth thousands of dollars. This news brings ex-lover Ned and ex-friend Lavinia out of the woodwork to stake a claim to the prize, much to Abby's dismay. The reader roots for Abby as she faces her weaknesses and ultimately comes out ahead. At times, Abby addresses the audience as a trusted friend, which allows the story to come across as charming and funny without being precious. Abby is a thoroughly believable character, with flaws and strengths that many readers will recognize. Highly recommended for all public libraries.-Anastasia Diamond, Cleveland P.L. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A wimp travels the rocky road to empowerment in the Massachusetts author's fourth novel. Medwed, who struck romantic-comic gold with Mail (1997) and Host Family (2000), is an insistently friendly writer who chats frequently with the reader while voicing her protagonist (and narrator) Abigail Randolph's hopes, fears and recriminations. Abby is 33, divorced from faithless Clyde, still mourning the death of her mother in an earthquake in India (whence mom had fled with her female lover Henrietta, materfamilias of the Randolphs' best friends and Cambridge academic-circle neighbors), involved only with the antique shop whose name-A. & C. Eclectibles-keeps reminding her of the vanished Clyde. Abby's fortunes change when a chamberpot relinquished to her by former girlhood pal Lavinia (Henrietta's daughter) is identified as the one-time property of poet E.B. Browning (Abby appears on TV's Antiques Roadshow, and becomes a minor celebrity). This brings out the worst in superefficient martinet Lavinia, who sues for possession of the chamberpot, thus dredging up memories of Abby's shattered romance with Lavinia's dreamy brother Ned, who had sworn eternal love, then revealed all Abby's failures and embarrassments in a crummy autobiographical novel. Abby sulks, overeats, vegetates, wades through legal niceties and intricacies, has an ill-advised fling with a straight-out-of-GQ news reporter, survives the deposition at which she faces down Lavinia and re-encounters repentant Ned, then makes another serendipitous "find," and emerges-to her amazement-not only unscathed, but happy, for God's sake. It's all fairly frothy, and rather overloaded with wisecracks and breathless successions of rhetoricalquestions. But Medwed briskly depicts the odd world of flea markets and tag sales, and makes of Abby's arduous liberation (not unlike the invalid Browning's) an adventure to which Jane Austen might have raised a celebratory glass of port. A sitcom with heart, and a whole lot of fun.
Boston Globe
“Don’t be deceived by Medwed’s light touch and irrepressible sense of humor... a canny writer with a distinctive voice.”

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.79(d)

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How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life

A Novel
By Mameve Medwed

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Mameve Medwed
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060831197

Chapter One

It's midafternoon on a Monday, too quiet here at Objects of Desire. And too gloomy. Those cruel calendar pages have flipped to January. Short days. Endless dark nights. After months of ho-ho-ho to assault a bah-humbug soul. The fluorescent tubes ringing my booth flicker and buzz. The shepherd and shepherdess lamps that flank the faux mantel -- $129 a pair, nineteenth-century English, a real bargain -- lack bulbs. Their wiring is faulty. Clyde promised to fix it. He promised a lot of things. I look at the sign -- A&C ECLECTIBLES. I should have painted over the C when Clyde ran off with that woman whose goods he appraised a month ago. But A ECLECTIBLES offends my grammarian's soul.

I pick up the New York Times crossword puzzle. Four-letter lake in Africa. Starts with M. Clyde was good at geography. He collected old maps. I toss the paper in the coal shuttle -- solid brass, eighteenth century -- which serves as wastebasket. You never finish anything, I can hear Clyde say.

Not true, I'd protest. It's just that I don't like putting periods on the ends of sentences; I prefer to keep things open. Have many experiences. A lack of focus, my father would diagnose. Mymother would have said I was finding myself. She'd found herself in her fifties when she left my father, the world-renowned R. Griffin Randolph, the holder of the Epworth chair in humanities at Harvard. She ran off with Henrietta Potter, the wife of Bickford Potter, the Harvard economist, near Nobel laureate. Henrietta had been her roommate at Smith. You go on finding yourself until you die, my mother said.

It comforts me to remember that my mother, having found herself, also found happiness before she and Henrietta died last year in that earthquake in India. You saw the photos in the newspaper. Tattered, soot-showered children buried under the rubble. Sari-wrapped keening mothers. Cows and goats flattened by collapsed walls. In such a landscape, who could ever picture my tidy mother and no-nonsense Henrietta with their scrubbed rosy faces, their neat gray pageboys, their sensible Birkenstocks, their money belts and multipocketed safari vests ordered from the Travelers' Catalogue? Their natural self-effacement struck an incongruous note against such high drama. But when a postcard came a month later, Sunset over the Taj Mahal, I realized the niche I'd put my mother in couldn't contain her. I have at last discovered true joy. Pure ecstasy, my mother had written.

Now that my mother's not around to defend me, or Clyde to defend myself against, I have to admit that Clyde had a point about my not finishing things. I'd quit Harvard four credits short of my B.A. I joined the Peace Corps and dropped out before the posting at Rwanda. I headed for a banking internship on Wall Street but turned back at Hartford.

At thirty-three, though, I figured I was starting to settle into a career as a partner in A&C ECLECTIBLES. The A for Abigail. The C for . . . Well, it doesn't take a Harvard degree to figure that out. In spite of my starts and stops, I'd always liked everybody's leavings, the discarded and dented bits and pieces of other people's lives. Even as a kid, I'd look forward to trash-collection mornings the way my lower-school mates anticipated opening day at Fenway Park. The old books, chipped china, frayed lamp shades I'd rescued from Brattle Street barrels threatened to turn my room into a Collyer Brothers annex. Our Abigail's a pack rat, my father would opine as I'd tiptoe past his study with yet another box of salvage. Everything's a learning experience, my mother would soothe.

My mother took me to flea markets and auctions before I could walk. She scored the Lincoln portrait in my father's study while I was in utero. When I was seven, I bid on a yarn-haired, gingham-pinafored doll at a farmhouse auction in Maine, where we rented a lakeside cottage. I'd squirreled away five crisp birthday dollars. All the other bidders dropped off when they saw my grubby hand shoot up in ten-cent increments. All except a burly man sporting a billed trucker's cap who raised me a dollar to my every dime. Let the little girl have it, chimed an angry chorus, the summer people and locals for once in accord. A great big bruiser like you, somebody scolded, shame slapping him down into his seat.

The victory of that moment trumped my successes to date: winning the neighborhood scavenger hunt and guessing, within twenty, the number of jelly beans in a mayonnaise jar. I was hooked.

I met Clyde two years ago at the Brimfield flea market when our hands grabbed at the same time for a copper bed warmer stamped Plymouth, Mass and on sale for a song. He tugged; I tugged. He wouldn't let go; neither would I.

"Ladies first," I said, a feminist not opposed to using nonfeminist wiles. My grip tightened on the splintered wood.

"All's fair in love and war." He yanked.

"This isn't either," I said, though I could hear the roaring of far-off tanks. "And may I point out that I won the badge for arm wrestling in Girl Scout camp."

"Not to one-up you," he one-upped, "but I myself have wrestled steers to the ground in a rodeo." He smiled. His eyes crinkled. Just as I was thinking, He's cute, he said, "Though let me add, I've never wrestled someone quite so cute."

I felt my grip loosening. I couldn't help myself.

He pulled. I held on. "Do you ever read those wedding columns in the New York Times about how people met?" he asked.

"Not really," I lied. I who ignore the news, flip past Sports and Business, and turn to the Styles section the second the Sunday papers hit my front door.

"Well, there was one recently about this couple who met at the Chelsea flea market while fighting over a pink pasta canister."


Excerpted from How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life by Mameve Medwed Copyright © 2006 by Mameve Medwed. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mameve Medwed is also the author of Mail, Host Family, The End of an Error, and How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life (which received a 2007 Massachusetts Book Honor Award). Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications including the Missouri Review, Redbook, the Boston Globe, Yankee, the Washington Post, and Newsday. Born in Maine, she and her husband have two sons and live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
How anyone can compare Elenor Lipman to this book is beyond me. This is chick lit at it's worst...trite, uninteresting characters--the 'victimized' girl, the cad, the true love...a big bore.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I LOVED this book! I am obsessed with Eleanor Lippman's writing-and when my mother told me that this book reminded her of her writing I immediatly picked it up. I couldn't stop reading it! I love the main character-and the it was one zinger after another, almost so they became hard to keep track of!! I love love love this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
While I was not planning on getting engrossed in this book, it happened. I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and entertaining this book was. I stayed up all night to finish it because I was so engrossed! I'm ready for another!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life is a quirky misadventure with quirky fun, utterly oddball (yet somehow believable) characters. Mameve Medwed really comes through strong with this enjoyable book. It¿s an easy book to wrap up with. It never overwhelms you and never slows down either. It has an even pace that keeps you interested from beginning to end in the same was as similar great books like Second Honeymoon, How to be Good, and My Fractured Life. It is easy to give this book 5 stars.
harstan More than 1 year ago
The earthquake that killed the two female lovers left the thirtyish daughter of one Abby Randolph with a chamber pot that once belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Not long afterward, Abby shows her prize on the popular Antiques Roadshow that tours the Cambridge-Boston area, and her ugly porcelain becomes the star. However, soon after that event, Lavinia Potter- Templeton, daughter of the lover of Abby¿s mother, sues her over who is the rightful owner of the chamber pot.----- Feeling betrayed by her former best friend Lavinia, Abby takes another blow when her lover deserts her to elope with another woman. Finally, the shell-shocked Abby receives one more shot to her equilibrium when Ned, the man she has always loved, wants back in her life.---- This is a strange chick lit tale starring a somewhat stunned heroine wondering how a porcelain pot could prove that s**t happens. The prime storyline of what occurs to Abby contains too many subplots that loosely in a five degree way tie back to the lead protagonist. Still overall this is a fine often amusing contemporary tale starring a likable but bewildered female who got off the pot to showcase it only to be covered with excrement Ned being the one potentially golden exception if she takes a chance though she fears he too will shower on her parade.---- Harriet Klausner