“The promise of beauty—the kind of real, personal beauty that can transform a person’s life—arrived in Eden, Virginia, on the fourth Thursday in June.” That’s the day Tallie Brock sees the sign at the Klip-N-Kurl, the beauty parlor where she works part-time, sweeping the floor and refilling shampoo bottles, among other chores. (What she really enjoys is listening to the women chat, gossip, and buzz like a beehive.) The sign in the front window announces GLAMOUR DAY. For twenty dollars, a woman can receive a complete professional makeover—and a glossy nine-by-twelve-inch picture of the result.
For Tallie, the glam shot just may be her ticket out of Lovettsville. She dreams of someday going to Hollywood and becoming a Star. Her mother, who was the spitting image of Natalie Wood, used to say “the sky’s the limit.” In fact, her mother once left home to make a movie in Los Angeles. But she returned six months later without whispering a word about it—and tried to pick up her life right where she left off. Tallie noticed something different, though. And her mother’s best friend, Martha Lee, the plainest woman within miles, knew the secret that soon the whole town would discover. At the time, Tallie was just afraid her mother would get antsy and disappear again. She was only half right.
But that was four years ago, and now Glamour Day is fast approaching. While jotting down observations in her Rulebook for Living (such as “Women with fat faces shouldn’t wear bangs” and “Beetles signify change”), Tallie finds herself changing in unexpected ways—as she tests the limits of trust, explores her growing attraction to a boy from a family as rich as her imagination, and reaches for the sky like she has never done before.
By turns funny and tender, joyous and poignant, bestselling author Anne LeClaire has written a winning, stylish novel of small-town Southern life— and what it means to be a mother, daughter, best friend, wife, and lover.
About the Author
Anne D. LeClaire is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Entering Normal. She is also a short story writer who teaches and lectures on writing and the creative process, and has worked as a radio broadcaster, a journalist, and a correspondent for The Boston Globe. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Redbook, and Yankee magazine among others. She is the mother of two adult children and lives on Cape Cod.
Read an Excerpt
The promise of beautythe kind of real personal beauty that can transform a person's lifearrived in Eden, Virginia, on the fourth Thursday in June.
As usual I arrived through the rear door of the Klip-N-Kurl, and so a few minutes passed before I caught sight of the sign in the front window. I'd been working at the Kurl since school let out. Mostly I did chores: swept the floor, cleaned the sinks and mirrors, refilled the shampoo and conditioner bottles, dumped the ashtrays, straightened out the magazine table, that sort of thing. Because I wasn't licensed, that was supposed to be the extent of it, but once in a while, when she got behind, Raylene let me do a shampoo or a comb out.
I found soaping a head of hair pleasurable. You would be surprised to discover the wide variety of hair. Thin. Coarse. Thick. Wiry. Growing in ways that defy imagination. Hair with three natural parts, or platinum streaks there since birth.
It is not false pride when I tell you that my hair was my best asset, though I'd cut it that springa mistake that never would have happened if Mama'd still been with me. I'd started out planning to give myself a little trim, like Elizabeth Talmadge's new do, but getting it so the sides matched wasn't as easy as you might think, and Raylene had to fix up the mess. I'd vowed when it grew out never to cut it again. Just trim the dead ends. I planned on wearing it down over my shoulders, like Kim Basinger, an actress I continue to admire even though that town she bought went bankrupt.
"Morning, Tallie," Raylene said. She was working up a head of suds on Sue Beth Wilkins. An unfortunate mop of hair topped the list of Sue Beth's sorry features. Some of the meaner boys in our class called her LBshort for Lard Bucketbut a kindhearted person like Mama would call her sturdy.
Mrs. Wilkins was sitting over by the dryers flipping through the style magazines. Raylene caught my attention in the mirror and gave a quick eye roll. You had to feel sorry for Sue Beth. Every year in late Junewhen they held all the practices that led up to tryouts for next year's Flag Corpsher mama dragged her in and, armed with pictures she'd clipped out of some teen magazine, set Raylene to work. Sue Beth wasn't in the least consulted about this and had told me herself she didn't want to be a Corps memberas if that were even a remote possibility. The whole time she sat in Raylene's chair she looked about as happy as a rain-soaked rooster. It was clear as crystal Sue Beth wasn't going to make the Corps or the cheerleaders or the Sparkette twirlers or much of anything else except maybe, maybe the chorus. It wasn't just her weight, which certainly wasn't any asset. It was her whole yard dog look, whichhaving Mrs. Wilkins for a motheryou could understand.
Still, year after year, Mrs. Wilkins persisted. Last fall she'd had a wooden floor installed in their basement and a lumberyard banister attached to the wall and told anyone who would hold still for a minute that she'd built a dance studio for her Sue Beth. She even hired a private teacher to come in once a week to give lessons. The whole thing about drove Raylene mad.
"Hi, Sue Beth," I said.
"Hi," she said from beneath a cap of foam. She wasn't really so bad. Mama might have found possibilities in her.
"I hear girls' soccer has openings this year," I said. "You thinking about trying out?"
"Sue Beth doesn't go for that sort of thing," Mrs. Wilkins said.
Raylene gave me a warning look like Don't even get started. Mrs. Wilkins was a steady customer. Shampoo and set every week, and once a month the whole workscolor, cut, and nails. Raylene didn't want me antagonizing her.
"Anything special you want me to do?" I asked.
"Got a load to be folded," Raylene said.
"Right," I said, and headed for the back room. Raylene had installed a new washer and dryer, and my job was to keep up with the laundry. You would be amazed at the number of towels we went through in a day. We never reused them. Like some shops I won't name. Raylene was insistent about that.
"Then you can give the plants a drink."
"Okay," I said. I opened the dryer and lifted out a full load of towels. They smelled sweet from the little sachet sheets Raylene used, something Daddy had forbidden me to buy. I took my time, finding pleasure in folding a neat stack.
On and off since I started working for her, Raylene talked about my going to the cosmetology school over in Lynchburg after I graduated Eden High and then coming back full-time for her, something I can tell you that I had absolutely no intention of doing. Whenever she brought it up, I just nodded, but my resolve remained firm. A person has to take care not to let other people push their dreams on you. I had ideas of my own. They weren't jelled, but they were cooking.
Other than her plans for my future, I liked working for Raylene. For one thing, she was dependable as a ceiling fan. My own life was not so solid, and I liked this about her. The other thing was I liked being in the shop, listening to the sounds of women's voices. Even back when Mama was with us, Daddy had never been much for conversation, and nowwith Mama gone and just the two of usDaddy barely spoke at all. The talk at the Kurl balanced the silence of our home. I listened to the women talk about men and cooking recipes and when to plant bulbs, sorting through the particulars of what they were saying, testing things in my mind and adding the useful items to the book I kept. I'd started the notebook as a way of remembering everything about Mamaso I wouldn't forgetbut it had grown into a book about how to be a woman, the kind of stuff a girl usually learned from her mama. You'd be amazed at the things a person could learn just by being attentive.
I was carrying the watering can up front for the ivy when I saw the sign perched on this easel Raylene had set up in the front window. It was a blowup of a blonde all prettied up like a Hollywood star with a feather boa streaming over her bare shoulders like pink lemonade, and Raylene had angled it so it could be seen by anyone in the shop as well as those walking by. On the bottom, Glamour Day was spelled out in red letters rimmed with gold.
"Raylene," I called. "What's this?"
"What's what, Tallie?"
"This poster. This Glamour Day thing."
Raylene left Sue Beth sitting at the sink with a towel wrapped around her head. Within minutes she was explaining the whole thing, how this company was sending in a team of trained professionalsthat's what she called them, a teamto make you over. For twenty dollars you got the complete workshair, makeup, the whole joband then a photographer took your picture in five different outfits entirely of your choice. Glamour Pics, the company called it, like you were a Movie Star or heading for center stage at Nashville.
"For the twenty dollars," Raylene continued, "they also let you keep one nine-by-twelve photograph."
I thought about that for a minute, then asked, "Well, how does the company figure on making any moneythe glamour makeover and the photo all for twenty dollars?"
"Tallie, honey," Raylene said, "the Glamour Company's lack of business acumen is not our problem." She was as pleased with the whole deal as a cream-fed cat.
Mrs. Wilkins was hanging on every detail. Naturally she'd already signed up for both her and Sue Beth.
Suddenly I was filled with missing Mama. I could just imagine her sporting the pink boa. If she were there she'd probably end up directing Glamour Day herself. Mama knew everything about Hollywood. She had direct experience. The fact was that four years ago, when I was in the eighth grade, my mama'd headed off to California. She went there to be in a movie. You may doubt me on this, but it's true.
When Mama left, my daddy and me and her best friend, Martha Lee Curtis, were the only people in Eden to know why she went off and what her plans were. Tell people I'm off visiting kin and let it go at that, she said. Mama never did
care a fig about what others thought. In that way she was unlike most women. So we told people just like she said. When their pointed questions met with no satisfaction, the majority of folks let the subject drop. Town gossip was that she'd left my daddy and run off with another man, which, believe me, was incredible but made sense to just about everyone in Eden. People were always saying my daddy was sweet, but no one pretended to think he deserved my mama. Her included, I suppose.
Of course I was dying to tell the whole county what Mama was up to, but she said no. She made us promise. She had her reasons, she said. I couldn't imagine what they might be. Wasn't it better to have people knowing the truth than thinking she ran out on us? But like I said, Mama didn't care about the good opinion of others. Still, if it were me, I'd want to tell everyone what I was setting off to do. It was the most exciting thing in the world.
Mama's plan for becoming an actress wasn't as impossible as it might seem. First off, she'd been acting for years. In Eden High, she was the star of the annual play every year from freshman to senior. Then later, after she graduated and was at school learning how to type and take dictation, she performed in the theater over in Lynchburg. She had the photo album to prove it. All her life Mama dreamed about being a movie star. She believed it was her true destiny.
Then one day that winter, just after I'd brought in the mail and was sitting on the porch drinking a Coca-Cola, Mama started screaming. By the time I got to the kitchen, she was dancing around the table and waving a magazine in the air. Finally she calmed down enough to tell me how they were going to make a movie about the life of Natalie Wood and how the director still hadn't settled on the actress for the leading role and was, in his words, looking for a fresh face, someone who could capture the essence of Natalie. Mama said this was her big chance. She was as close to the essence of Natalie Wood as anyone. She was practically a twin.
According to my granny Goody, from the time Mama was five years old, people were always commenting on the astonishing likeness, first as the little girl in A Miracle on 34th Street, a video we owned and watched every Christmas, then in all the ones that followed. Rebel Without a Cause. Splendor in the Grass. West Side Story. Gypsy. It was like Natalie Wood was holding up a beacon for Mama to follow. Final proof was Mama's high school yearbook photo. She looked exactly like Natalie in Splendor. That year was when she started insisting on being called Deanie, after the girl in the movie.
"I'm doing it, Luddy," she told my daddy that night. "It's my big chance. It's fate." The way she said fate, in a flat, determined voice, refused argument.
Daddy wasn't convinced, though he wanted to agree with Mamait nearly killed him to disagree with her. At the time, I believed he was afraid she might go off and find another life and was afraid, too, that lying at the other end of her dream was only disappointment. He couldn't bear the thought of Mama being let down any more than he could entertain the thought she would leave him. I myself was torn between wanting Mama to be a star and despairing at the idea of being left without her.
Mama jumped up and tore out of the room. A minute later, she was back holding two pictures that she slapped down on the table in front of my daddy. One was of Mama taken the previous Christmas, and the other was an autographed photograph of Natalie Wood. I'd always believed Mama got that picture from a Natalie Wood fan club or a film studio. It was that kind of glossy up close photo. A personlooking at the two pictureswould be hard pressed to tell which was the real Natalie.
"See," she said. "I'm supposed to get this part. It was made
"Oh, baby," Daddy said, "it's not that I don't want you to go. I just don't want you to be disappointed."
Mama's mind didn't hold room for such thoughts. "You know what I believe, Luddy," she said. "The sky's the limit. The sky's the limit and all we have to do is reach for it."
The sky's the limit. Mama always said that. But sometimesand I do love my daddysometimes I wondered if Mama really believed that the sky was the limit, why had she settled on a man like Luddington Brock? Half the men in Eden were in love with her. You could tell this by the way their eyes followed her when she walked down the street. She could have had any man in the county. But she picked my daddy.
Goody had a theory about this. She said in our family women marry down. We marry down, she said, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to elevate our men. Goody had married my granddaddy when he was a clerk at Simpson's Cash Store and then dedicated her days and her daddy's money elevating him until he ended up a doctor for the Southern Railroad. I don't know for sure about Goody's marrying theory, but there is no denying that Luddington Brock was a big step down for the only daughter of Taylor and Jessie Adams.
In spite of Mama's conviction and the two photos on the table staring up at him, Daddy still wasn't persuaded, so Mama just perched herself on his lap, cupped her hands on his cheeks, and made him look straight at her.
"It's something I have to do, Luddy. I have to. If I don't, my life will be filled with regret."
At that time, I truly didn't apprehend the true nature of dreams. I didn't understand they held the power to take hold of you with both hands and pull you along, just sweep you off your feet and turn your entire life on its back. That day, I only recognized my mama's determination. The next day, she was planning it out, showing a lot of grit for someone who'd never been out of Amherst Countyand at that time I really did think that Mama had never been outside the county in her life. We rented all the old Natalie Wood movies Mama didn't already own, including The Last Married Couple in America and This Property Is Condemned, two that most people probably never have heard about. We kept them so long, the video store charged us extra. It was weird, sitting there on the sofa by my mama, her hand in mine, all the time staring at the TV screen and seeing her face reflected back at me. Sometimes I had to tighten my fingers around hers to convince myself she was still there beside me.
Reading Group Guide
1. What is the significance of the title Leaving Eden? How does it work on both a literal and a figurative level?
2. Tallie's mother, Deanie, quotes the poet Robert Frost:
"Home is the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in." How does this indicate Deanie's attitude about her hometown? In which ways does she stand out there? How are Tallie's feelings about Eden similar and different?
3. What is Tallie's reaction to Deanie's departure and subsequent return? How does Tallie feel inadequate compared to her mother? In which ways does she feel abandoned by her? How are mother-daughter relationships presented in the novel, including those between Goody and Deanie,
Mrs. Reynolds and Sarah, and Mrs. Wilkins and Sue Beth?
4. "A person's as big as her dreams," Tallie recalls her mother saying. At the beginning of the novel, what are
Tallie's dreams, big and small? How does she measure her dreams against the ones of those around her? Why does she adopt Deanie's dream as her own? Does she ever believe it's truly her own aspiration?
5. Tallie doesn't believe that anyone she knows, other than herself and her mother, has the capacity to dream. How is she proven right or wrong? What actions, both good and bad, do Deanie and Tallie undertake in order to realize their dreams?
6. How does Tallie characterize the relationship between her parents, and how accurate is her viewpoint? Does the partnership seem imbalanced? What do you think attracted
Deanie to Luddington, and vice versa? What role does Tallie play in their relationship? What is the dynamic of the family unit before Deanie's departure, and afterward?
7. What is Tallie's relationship with her father like both before and after Deanie's death? How do they both cope with their grief? Do you think that Tallie is stronger than her father? In which ways does Tallie need someone to take care of her? In which ways is she older than her years, and how is she younger?
8. Were you surprised to learn that Deanie's abandonment of Tallie was actually her death from cancer? What techniques does Deanie use to brave her illness? How do humor and laughter play a part? In which ways does imagination alleviate her pain? How do the people around her cope with her sickness and death?
9. How does Martha Lee serve as a foil to Tallie's mother?
What does Tallie learn from their friendship? Does Martha
Lee act maternally toward Tallie, or is she more of a nontraditional mother figure? What does Tallie admire about Martha Lee, and what would she like to change?
What aspects of Martha Lee's personality are reflected in
Tallie's? In Deanie's?
10. Tallie compares everyone she comes in contact with to her mother. "Not like Mama" is her constant refrain.
How does Deanie's presence guide Tallie in her day-to-day life and overall? In which ways does Tallie most miss her mother's influence? How do other women, like Martha
Lee and Raylene, attempt to fill that void?
11. Tallie is upset when a social worker comments that she idolizes her mother. How accurate is his statement? Why does Deanie provoke such strong feelings in those who surround her? How does Tallie's trip to California cast
Deanie in a more realistic light?
12. Tallie keeps many things to herself, from her feelings for
Spy Reynolds to her plans to flee to California. How does her "secret self" compare to the persona she projects to the outside world? Do others in Edeneveryone from
Deanie to Luddington to Spy to Martha Leealso possess a hidden identity? How do they express or hide that facet of their personality?
13. Physical appearances play a pivotal role in the novel. How does Deanie's striking resemblance to Natalie Wood shape her life? How is Tallie driven by insecurities about her appearance?
Why is Glamour Day so important to her, as well as to the ladies at the Klip-N-Kurl?
14. How does Tallie's makeover on Glamour Day affect her behavior toward Spy? What about Spy is so appealing to Tallie?
How does her initial impression of him differ from how she comes to feel about him? Why does Spy, in turn,
find Tallie intriguing? Does this surprise her?
15. Why does Martha Lee decide to attend Glamour Day? Why does she take Tallie's spot? What facets of her personality does this reveal?
16. Did the disclosure of Sarah's drowning surprise you? In which ways, both subtle and overt, does it affect Tallie's behavior? Why do you think Tallie skipped Sarah's funeral?
How is this characteristic or uncharacteristic of her personality?
17. What is Tallie's initial conception of the Reynolds family?
How do they appear to the outside world? How does their outward demeanor conceal secrets?
18. Initially, why doesn't Tallie believe the rumors that Sarah killed herself? What are the clues that point to Sarah's suicide?
How does Mrs. Reynolds stand in sharp relief to Tallie's mother, particularly in relation to her children? How does Spy react to these forces and the emotions they unleash within him?
19. Why does Spy come to Tallie after he has been arrested?
What compels her to make love to him? What is her attitude toward the possibility of having his baby? How are her feelings similar and different to her mother's feelings toward Sasha?
20. Why did Deanie make a special trip to find Sasha? What do you imagine their reunion was like? Do you think
Deanie would have believed Sasha's assertion, "It takes more than an accident of blood to make a family"? Why or why not?
21. What is Sasha's attitude toward Tallie when she shows up on her doorstep? Do you think that Tallie was surprised to discover an older sister? How does Tallie react to the secrets that Sasha reveals about their mother? Do you think that Tallie and Sasha will ever be in contact again?
22. What about her visit to Natalie Wood's grave evokes such a strong emotional response from Tallie? Why do you think that her father undergoes a significant change at this point in the novel?
23. "Wanting is a powerful thing," Anne LeClaire writes in Leaving Eden. How does LeClaire present the different forms of desire? How is desire a positive force in Tallie's life and in the lives of those around her? In which ways is it detrimental?
24. What propels Martha Lee to fall in love and get married?
How do you envision her life together with Tallie's father? How do you think Tallie will adjust to having
Martha Lee as her stepmother?
25. Why does Tallie initially begin to keep her book of sayings and advice? What does it grow into?
26. The last line of the book is from Tallie's journal: "The
Queen of Cures is Love." How does this theme resonate throughout the book? What other lessons has Tallie learned?