The Hunger Moon

The Hunger Moon

by Suzanne Matson
The Hunger Moon

The Hunger Moon

by Suzanne Matson


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A moving first novel about the power of friendship to change lives, that will remind readers of Anne Tyler and Alice Hoffman.

Renata, a waitress, has left her boyfriend Bryan without telling him he is about to become a father. She drives cross-country to begin a new life in Boston with her baby son, Charlie, hoping to stay free of emotional entanglements and the associations of a painful childhood. Eleanor, a seventy-eight-year-old widow, finds herself gradually stripping away the layers of complication in her life until she is living in virtually a plain white room. June, a young dance student, is dangerously obsessed with thinness to mask her loneliness.

The three women, from very different social backgrounds and age, meet by chance and their lives become unexpectedly linked. An emergency involving baby Charlie and the unannounced appearance of Bryan culminates in a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393337518
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 07/17/1997
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Suzanne Matson, a 2012 fellow in fiction writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, is the author of four novels and two collections of poetry. She teaches at Boston College and lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt


Renata was happiest driving, knowing she was en route. She loved poring over road maps to find towns with names like Knockemstiff, Pep, Peerless, and Bean Blossom. She loved stopping for meals at diners with EAT outlined in neon against the evening sky, and finding motels at night that had a little angled parking space right in front of each blue or green or orange front door. She appreciated the way the roadside markers changed colors and typography with the states, so that she always knew she was getting someplace new.

It was different now, traveling with a baby, but in a way it was even better--just the two of them, the car a little world in which they were perfectly alone. Charlie was so good. Sometimes, when they had driven for more than an hour and she couldn't hear his soft snores, she reached one arm in back of her to pat his head where he lay in his rear-facing infant seat. Even that wasn't enough; she needed to trail her fingers gently down the front of his face until she reached his mouth, parted slightly in sleep. Only then, when he'd latch on to her fingertip and start sucking, was she reassured. "Just checking, pal," she'd tell him.

Charlie liked the road as much as she did. For the two months that they had been drifting eastward across the country, Charlie had grown to sleep and wake according to the car's engine, enabling Renata to regulate his daytime schedule perfectly. It was when they stopped in some town for a few days so Renata could catch her breath that Charlie seemed disoriented, and forgot how to nap. Those days Renata sometimes took elaborate sightseeing drives to make him feel at home.

At night in their motel rooms she made the baby a nest of pillows and blankets on one side of their queen-size bed; she didn't think she should indulge in the pleasure of holding him close to her all night. The few nights she had given in and cradled him next to her, he had nursed on and off continually, like a puppy. Somehow that seemed too decadent; she had read that it was better for the baby to have regular feeding times. Regularity in his life would let him know that he could count on things, and this was important to her.

Soon he would be able to roll off the side of the bed, and so she would need to get one of those portable cribs. Renata had so far bought as little baby gear as possible. She like the feeling of their lightness: her one large duffel with both their clothes, the car seat, the folding stroller. She stopped two or three times a week at a Laundromat to do their laundry with Charlie dozed in the stroller. He liked the hum of the washing machines almost as much as he liked riding in the car, and when she scooped their clothes out of the dryer, she would lay the baby in the midst of them to kick and chuckle in the warm pile.

People were friendly in the middle of the country; they often wanted to know where Renata was headed with such a young baby, and wasn't she afraid to drive alone? In Nevada she had brought herself a thin wedding band for sixty-five dollars at a pawnshop. Town by town she honed her story until she had a version that she liked: her husband was in the military and she was moving to a town nearer his base. Their furniture was being transported separately. She had driven rather than flown so that she could stop on the way and spend time with the baby's grandparents. The location of the base and the grandparents changed according to what part of the country Renata was in, but it was always distant enough so that locals wouldn't ask her questions she couldn't answer.

Having a baby made people considerate and respectful toward her. Men who before would have come on to her now simply held doors wide for the stroller or helped to raise it up over a curb. Women who would have watched her like a hawk because of their men now smiled and asked how old the baby was. She was welcomed into an invisible country of mothers that behaved the same wherever she went. She was given nice big booths by restaurant hostesses to accommodate the car seat; waitresses dandled the baby while she paid the check; and one young mother she met in a Nebraska laundromat even gave Charlie a darling little overall fresh from the dryer that she said her own baby boy was just out of.

As long as they kept moving, Renata felt that nothing bad could ever touch them, so she drove from Eugene to Boise, down to Reno then Flagstaff, up to Salt Lake City and Billings, on to Caper and Rapid City, then through North Platte via Valentine, and so on. She didn't like interstates because they were too straight and too fast. Renata looked for long cuts, wrong turns, detours, and backtracks. She wasn't in a hurry. She had enough money in her account for now, and with her bank card she could get at it just about anywhere. The future would take care of itself, Renata felt sure, just as soon as she got then to Massachusetts. But they had plenty of time until then, and she thought there might never be days like this again, a perfect union of Charlie and Renata, with no one to interfere and nothing to take her attention away from him. Driving, her foot keeping the accelerator a conservative fifty-five, Renata had time to plan things as she stared at the horizon, and time even to go over the important episodes of her life, rehearsing the ways she would make sure Charlie would have a better start than she had.

She thought she made a pretty good mother, enough to make up for the fact that her baby would never know his natural father. Charlie's father did not know he had a child. They had gone together for a year while Renata was waitressing in Venice, California. In the early months of her pregnancy she broke it off and went to live in Oregon with her sister until the baby was born.

Charlie's father, Bryan, was not a bad guy; he was funny, and handsome, and romantic. But he was living a prolonged adolescence on the beach in Venice--bartending just enough to pay the rent in an old house he shared with four other guys. He usually ate for free at Renata's beachfront cafe when her manager wasn't around, and he drank for free at his own restaurant on his nights off. If they did anything else, Renata often found herself picking up the check, or one of his friends paid. His lack of responsibility made her impatient, but that wasn't why she had left without telling him they were having a baby.

Bryan was marked for tragedy. He was literally marked, with a puckered scar running down his back from when his mother had tried to kill them both by jumping from the roof of the house when he was a baby. She hadn't succeeded then, although she had done enough damage to herself to require long hospital stays and painkiller prescriptions that she stockpiled until she had enough pills to finish the job. Bryan had been eighteen months old at the time of the big leap, as he liked to call it. One of the guardian angels in charge of infants must have swooped down just in time to cradle him gently above the ground while his mother's bones shattered under him. Actually, they had found him wailing inside her unconscious arms, which embraced him so tightly that he had to be pried from her by two strong men. A row of shrubbery alongside the house had broken their fall. Bryan's only injury had been the open gash on his back, which required eighteen stitches, one for every month of his life. No one ever told him what it was on the way down that had cut him open; but the uncles and aunts he grew up with, rotating among their families in six-month shifts, always reminded his how lucky he was to have survived with only the single wound.

Renata saw it differently. She believed Bryan's survival to be a reprieve, and a harbinger of some final fall that lay in store for him. This was not mere superstition, brought on by the awe she felt every time she imagined the darkness surrounding Bryan's mother before she jumped, but information coming from Bryan himself. She had at first been attracted to his easygoing humor, his perpetual air of having just come from the beach, the fine premature creases around his eyes from being tanned year-round since he was a child. It was only after they had become lovers that she discovered that grief was his only true companion, the one he was already married to.

The first night she heard it, she woke in a cold dread, wondering what evil had entered the room to be with them, what sobbing ghost. As her mind cleared and her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she realized that the moaning was coming from the man she was in bed with, whose anguished face bore no resemblance to her laid-back boyfriend. Gradually she became used to Bryan's dreams, of which he claimed he remembered nothing the next morning, but she could never get used to the loneliness of making love with him. When he was inside her she would open her eyes to see him looking through her. His bereft stare was enough to bring tears to her own eyes. At that point the joking Bryan would return to her, solicitous and kind. She never told him that she was crying on his behalf, knowing that she could never hold his securely enough to convince him he was not falling.

Renata had left because the bottomless nature of Bryan's sadness scared her, and once you gave a child a father, you couldn't unmake the link. She knew how it was with bad parents. You kept them, for better or for worse; and whether they did right by you or not, they were yours to haul around for life. With Bryan forming the third point of their triangle, there would be an unstable corner, like a table that wobbled, always worrying the back of her mind when she put something weighty on it. She would rather raise her daughter by herself--for Renata had been certain that she would have a girl. She had pictured a smaller Renata, the same dark hair as her own, which she would comb and braid for her daughter as her mother had done when she was a girl.

Now that she had Charlie, she wondered why having a baby used to mean to her that she would be creating a small replica of herself. Charlie was so much his own person. If pressed, she could see in him some of Bryan's mouth, and maybe a little of the comically sloping browns of his father above his wide blue eyes. But having a boy now, she couldn't imagine anything different. Already she felt they were comrades, pals, in a way that suggested a jolly soldiering forward. Raising a boy meant that she would have to respect some essential difference between them: it would have been too easy to assume that a daughter would be feeling all her feelings.

There were times she thought she might have made a mistake in running away from Bryan. Perhaps he could have risen to the occasion; being a father might possibly have allowed him to go inside himself and shut off the infant's memory loop of gutters and shingles and tree branches rushing by. This might, in fact, have been his chance to grab hold of some real person, but at the same time she discovered herself pregnant, Renata didn't think she could risk it, and it was too late to second-guess herself now.

She had lived with the secret of her pregnancy for three months; being as slender as she was, her jeans and sweatshirt continued to fit just fine. One day, though, when they were lying on the beach, Bryan rubbed his hand over her stomach above her bikini bottom and teased her about having had too big a lunch. That was when Renata had began making plans.

She had never set out to become pregnant and certainly had not intentionally missed a couple of days of her pill cycle. They had driven to Santa Barbara to spend the weekend with one of Bryan's friends when she discovered that she had not packed her birth control pills. She shrugged it off, thinking to herself that two days probably would not make much of a difference since she had been taking the pills faithfully for years. As soon as she missed her period, she knew. She also realized, much to her surprise, that she had no doubts about having the baby. It was as if she had been waiting all these years for life to deliver some compelling role for her, some decisive turn of events that she could embrace with her whole self. Though she would not have pictured herself a mother at this stage--if anything, would have laughed at the thought--once the test came out positive, and she realized with a shock that the baby was already with her, made from her, and tied to her, she loved it with a startling passion.

Bryan had been surprised when she announced that she wanted to break up, but he took it well. Too well. He sat there watching her talk with a funny half-smile, and he didn't even press for explanations beyond the weak ones she offered about needing more freedom and time to herself. Renata took this as a confirmation that she had made the right decision: why provide a child with a father who would give up on people so easily? She still remembered feeling his eyes on her back as she moved to the door of his bedroom, her small knapsack bulging with the few articles she had to pack--a toothbrush, a pair of flip-flops, a short fake-silk kimono that she used to throw on when she had to use the shared bathroom down the hall. If he had spoken then, there's no telling how things might have worked out, because at the moment when her hand turned the doorknob, she felt a grief inside so large that she would have welcomed the chance to share it, to turn around and pour some of it into his arms.

But he had said nothing. Without turning to look, she pictured him sitting on his sandy mattress on the floor watching her go, and at that moment she could honestly say that she hated him. She stayed in Venice another month, and then, just when she would have need to buy a new set of waitressing skirts, she packed everything in her car and drove north, leaving only her sister's post office box number in Oregon with the manager of the restaurant.

The first motel she stopped at on the way to Eugene was called the Piney Bower, and had a horseshoe-shaped yard with picnic tables right in the back of the mint-green motel building. She pulled in after driving eight hours, queasy from the fast-food hamburgers she had eaten. In the office of the Piney Bower she used the name Mrs. John Rivera to sign the register, even through her pregnancy didn't show much yet, and if really married, she never would have referred to herself in such an old-fashioned way. "John" was nobody, the beginning of a phantom husband she would invent for strangers.

Taking a cup of Sanka from the Piney Bower hospitality bar with her to her room, she undressed and stood under the cool shower. One thing about traveling, even from one county to the next, was that the smell of the water kept shifting with you, reminding you that beneath the freeway exits with their identical Denny's and Howard Johnsons, water ran so deep it could not be made to resemble anything but its original self. Sulfur or sweet, or tangy like rain, water revealed its true nature right away, unlike people.

She loved passing through places with her secret, knowing that as she dipped her feet into the icy snow-melt waters of Like Shasta or climbed out of her car to take a breath of astringent air in the Siskiyous she only looked as if she were traveling alone. She talked to the baby regularly, asking if it needed a refreshment break, or if it liked the Magic Fingers bed massager she had turned on for a quarter. She was almost to Medford, Oregon, a cowboy town where boys still wanted boots and saddles for their eighth birthdays, when she first thought the baby answered back. Just as she was moving up in line to order a soft vanilla cone at the Diary Queen, she felt something like a ripple, as if brushed by the tiniest minnow in a still lake. Surprised, she looked over her shoulder, and saw only teenagers hanging out in the parking lot in the weak March sun, their oversized sweatshirts knotted at their waists. Then she looked down at her stomach, and, as if in confirmation, the minnow moved again. After that, Renata was careful about what she tuned in on the radio; she made sure that the music was not harsh, or the voice talking not overheated with opinion. She sang all the pretty songs she knew to the baby, and when lying in bed at night, massaged her barely rounded stomach in even, comforting circles.

Her sister, a legal secretary eight years older than Renata, had been glad enough to see her, as she herself was recently divorced and had two preschool children who she was able to take out of day care while Renata was living with them. Renata lived at Marcia's house for six months, taking care of Jess and Tommy and helping with the housework and cooking. The two sisters got to know each other better than they ever had growing up, since the age difference had pretty much guaranteed that they were never interested in the same things at the same time. Now, however, they had Renata's prepared-childbirth breathing to practice together, and a layette to assemble, and Marcia's failed marriage to dissect as they sat up nights on the patio with chilled white whine for Marcia and seltzer water for Renata.  When they brought Charlie home from the hospital, and Marcia pulled the bassinet her children had used closed beside Renata's bed, bringing meals to her on trays for the first couple of days, Renata felt like she was living in the first home she had ever known.

"Why leave now?" Marcia had asked, shaking her head with disbelief, a month after Charlie was born, when Renata had begun collecting road maps from AAA and circling classified ads for a newer car. It was true that Renata's urge to drive somewhere distant seemed ill-timed. She had a newborn, and her sister's family was in Eugene. She couldn't adequately explain why she needed to be in motion just then, without an address, instead of getting a job down the road at the Sizzler and renting an apartment near Marcia. It wasn't possible to say out loud that her sister's life depressed her. Despite the fact that Marcia had been a smiling, lace-and-sequin-covered bride, certain that she was marrying for love and forever, she was now a short-tempered, overtired, divorced mother. Renata saw how the current of her sister's anger filled the house and passed through her children's small bodies, and how it made them whiny and uncertain. Just as Renata had needed to insulate herself from what she thought of as Bryan's damaged psyche, she now feared contact with her sister's bitterness. Since her pregnancy, Renata had been cushioned by a sense of peace that was new to her, and she wanted to preserve it away from the corrosive atmosphere of Marcia's disappointment. Unlike Marcia, Renata was choosing to raise her child alone; no one had failed them, and no one would.

As soon as the baby was safely born and pronounced robust, and Renata found herself miraculously shrinking back to her former shape, her soreness leaving her like the memory of some unrepeatable athletic feat, she began to feel restless. She kept thinking of the highway motels she had stayed at on their way to Oregon, with their racks of glossy invitations to sights and attractions, and the surprise of opening each desk or nightstand drawer to discover printed stationery you could mail to someone or just take with you. Eugene itself began to feel intolerably close and small, just three miles from her childhood home in Springfield. She resolved to leave; and though Marcia wouldn't understand, Renata couldn't help that. She left.

When Renata turned down the thin acrylic blankets and stiffly starched motel sheets every night, she felt like she was peeling back the skin of a new life. And every morning, as she heaped their damp towels in a considerate pile for the maid and refolded their slender store of clothes into the duffel, Renata felt her heart lift with the knowledge that once again she and Charlie had left no trace. She like counting the number of states that Charlie had passed through in his first months of infancy, feeling that as the sum ticked up, she was giving him some king of insurance policy against the future, much as other parents of newborns invest in mutual funds.

She knew that money was the least important gift she could give to her son, and when she tried to imagine what the ideal one would be, all she could see was the sky in front of her, laden with cumulus clouds one minute, flat and shiny as the blue hood of her car the next.

Reading Group Guide

1.         The Hunger Moon is filled with images of stripping down and accumulating. How does Suzanne Matson use these images to explore the fears and desires of Renata, Eleanor, and June?

2.         How do the characters' complicated family histories help us to understand their present actions and reactions? Why is Renata so threatened by Bryan's past?

3.         With which character do you most closely identify? Why?

4.         What is the significance of the title The Hunger Moon?

5.         What role does Charlie play for the various characters in the novel?

6.         The Hunger Moon begins "Renata was happiest driving, knowing she was en route." How do notions of movement and geography play a role in the emotional landscapes of all three central characters? What has changed for Renata, psychologically, by the end of the book? How has the change come about?

7.         For just one chapter near the end, the story suddenly takes Bryan's point of view. Why do you think Suzanne Matson wrote it this way?

8.         Renata's story seems to end "happily." Do you think the marriage with Bryan will last? Why or what not?

9.         Did you have a favorite moment in the book? What was it and why?

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