Chosen as a must-read book for summer 2016 by TIME Magazine, InStyle, Good Housekeeping, The Millions, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and BookPage
Set in 1920s New England, the story of two women who are both mothers to the same unforgettable girl—a big, heartrending novel from award-winning writer Anna Solomon
One night in 1917 Beatrice Haven sneaks out of her uncle's house on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, leaves her newborn baby at the foot of a pear tree, and watches as another woman claims the infant as her own. The unwed daughter of wealthy Jewish industrialists and a gifted pianist bound for Radcliffe, Bea plans to leave her shameful secret behind and make a fresh start. Ten years later, Prohibition is in full swing, post-WWI America is in the grips of rampant xenophobia, and Bea's hopes for her future remain unfulfilled. She returns to her uncle’s house, seeking a refuge from her unhappiness. But she discovers far more when the rum-running manager of the local quarry inadvertently reunites her with Emma Murphy, the headstrong Irish Catholic woman who has been raising Bea's abandoned child—now a bright, bold, cross-dressing girl named Lucy Pear, with secrets of her own.
In mesmerizing prose, award-winning author Anna Solomon weaves together an unforgettable group of characters as their lives collide on the New England coast. Set against one of America's most turbulent decades, Leaving Lucy Pear delves into questions of class, freedom, and the meaning of family, establishing Anna Solomon as one of our most captivating storytellers.
“Anna Solomon writes with a poet’s reverence for language and a novelist's ability to keep us turning the page. A gorgeous and engrossing meditation on motherhood, womanhood, and the sacrifices we make for love.” —J. Courtney Sullivan
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Anna Solomon
If they were coming, this was the night. The pears had stayed yellow and hard for so long that Bea had started to despair, but they were finally ready to pick. The moon was a quarter full. The afternoon’s wind had gone limp. Midnight came and went. Bea counted to five hundred for extra measure—silently,
so she wouldn’t wake the nurse—then she took up the infant from its bassinet, wrapped it in her Aunt Vera’s angora shawl, and crept down the cellar stairs in her bare feet.
The stairs to the cellar were granite, and cold. The original wooden ones had burned with the original wooden house in 1873. Bea did not know about the fire but she could smell it, because the cellar was the one part of the house that hadn’t needed rebuilding and its walls retained the flavor of ash. She moved toward the bulkhead door as fast as she could, feeling along the wall with her free hand, careful not to bump the handles of shovels and hoes, though the shovels and hoes had been through far worse. They had witnessed flood and fire. They had been variously cared for and abused by generations of gardeners, had been used to plant tulips and to dig graves. They had even, once upon a time, been in the presence of another unwed mother and her infant. Knowing this might have put Bea’s own suffering in perspective. But she did not know and she had not been taught perspective. She was eighteen, the daughter of ascendant Boston Jews who had sent her away to Eastern Point in a black, curtained limousine the day she started to show.
The bulkhead door was heavier than she expected, its diagonal slope demanding that it be lifted as much as pushed. She had unlocked it from the outside before going to bed but she hadn’t tested its weight and now the thing didn’t budge. She pressed harder. The cellar was her only way out—she
had tested the doors on the first floor and every one either shrieked or squeaked or groaned. She pushed again. If she put the baby down, it would cry. Bea started to pant with panic. The cellar roof seemed to be dropping, the walls squeezing. She climbed the bulkhead steps until she was bent nearly in two, the infant squeezed into the small space between her thighs and chest, and tried to open the door with her back. Her legs shook. Sweat sprang at her neck. She was still soft and weak from the birth two weeks before, her right eye bloodshot though she had no memory of pushing, no memory of any
of it, nothing until a baby was being handed to her, clean and silent, like a doll her mother had bought. She was lucky, Bea understood—Aunt Vera had hired a doctor who had studied in Germany with the
father of twilight sleep. There had been morphine, there had been scopolamine—these, according to Aunt Vera, would do more to liberate women than the vote. Bea understood that she was supposed to
understand herself to be lucky. She understood that she must have pushed, and that she should be glad not to remember. She pushed now, using her neck, her shoulders, every muscle in her body. At last the
door gave an inch, then two, then lightened so quickly Bea was following it—she had to scramble to catch up before it slammed on the ground outside. She looked behind her, above. The hinge had given a
sharp cry. She went stiff waiting for another sound, the nurse’s heavy footsteps, her heavy call: Beatrice? She waited until her breath came and quieted her heart. Then she stepped out into the night.
Through the near trees she could see the far ones in the orchard down below. Slowly, her eyes adjusted, and she saw the pears themselves, their waxy orbs glowing greenly in the three-quarter dark. Her mouth watered and Bea, embarrassed by this bodily secretion, turned her thoughts to her Plan.
Walk to orchard.
Check inside paper sack: extra diapers, two bottles, four cans of Borden’s evaporated milk, five twenty-dollar bills.
Set infant under most plentiful tree.
Around her left wrist, on a leather cord, Bea wore the very loud whistle Aunt Vera used to scare squirrels off the bird feeders. If they weren’t gentle with the infant, she would blow it. Also, she would blow it if they turned out not to be who she thought they were. Bea had relied on Uncle Ira for her information, and Uncle Ira was prone to telling tales. Nevertheless, Bea had chosen to believe him.
It happened every year, he said. When the moon was bright enough to see by but not to be easily seen, the air still enough not to carry sound or scent. The pears on the verge of starting to drop. He never heard or saw a thing, but the next morning he would look out his window and down the hill and there, where the day before the pears had packed the branches like sparrows, there would be only leaves and the gray, fleshy stubs from which the pears had grown. Uncle Ira smiled, describing this. They might be giraffes, he mused. Giants! Ira harbored a kind of love for the trespassers who stole his pears. They made him feel benevolent.
But really, he said, Catholics. A poor Irish family who had found a market for pears. And Bea believed him, maybe because she had to. She didn’t know any Catholics. Catholics weren’t Jews, but they were like Jews in that they weren’t Protestants. So there was that. And back home Bea had seen the Irish children walking in packs through the common and envied them, even the poor ones, the company. There looked to be a certain freedom in being one of many: the right to go unnoticed, unattended. Neglect, Bea’s mother would call it, she who had rarely let Bea out of her sight.
Until she had, quite suddenly.
And look at the consequences.
Bea steadied herself against one of the near trees, a tall, straight pine so bare of low branches it entered her consciousness as more human than plant. An idea came to her of sliding down its rough side, lying down on the cushion its needles made beneath her feet, and falling back to sleep with the baby in her arms.
The infant snorted. Bea wouldn’t have guessed that babies snorted but this one snorted all the time, followed by a tremulous sigh. The sigh came. Bea shifted the infant to her shoulder. High above them, a branch creaked and shifted, making way for moonlight. Already its angle had changed. If Bea waited for the people to arrive, she would lose her resolve, or she would keep it and be seen and the people would tell Uncle Ira and he would tell her parents and her mother would make her give the baby to the awful woman who had come last month from the Orphanage for Jewish Children, reeking of camphor and assuring Aunt Vera and Uncle Ira that she did not believe in spoiling, kissing, or otherwise unnecessarily touching babies.
She began to walk. Her neck was wet with the baby’s breath and to counter the sensation, and whatever emotion it might lead to, she did what she had trained herself to do over the months of carrying the baby, as rigorously as she had ever trained herself to play a Beethoven sonata or pen a thank-you card in the microscopic, finger-cramping script that satisfied her mother: she thought of other things. The pear trees, which she could see more clearly with every step. They were Braffets, she knew, not because she understood anything about fruit or trees but because Uncle Ira talked about his pears all the time, as though they were the children he wished he’d had, braver and brighter than his own. Have you seen the Braffets, battling the frost? Look at those Braffets, blossoming like little gods. Who knew I would be so lucky to have such Braffets. Thirty-one years ago, he had imported the trees from Sussex, England, saying their fare not in cargo but in third class, where each one, wrapped in burlap, its roots watered daily by a hired boy, occupied its own bunk. The Braffets are in the orchard, fermenting the revolution. Bea tightened her hold on the bundle of baby and shawl. She had reached the stone wall that marked the orchard’s western boundary. She squinted into the dark, straining to hear the first sounds of feet and wheelbarrows, but heard nothing apart from the lazy slap of water on the rocky beach down below. The pears waited on their branches. Vera’s exotic fish swam silently in their little pond. The infant made no sound but Bea covered its mouth with her hand anyway, half knowing its lips would move to suck her palm, half pretending to be surprised at the warm, wet mouth as it burrowed and groped. Braffet, she said in her mind. Braffet pears were named after a duchess. Braffet pears appear on the branch a bold yellow and turn green when ripe. Braffet pears are often marred by rough brownish gray patches but these do not affect their taste or texture beneath the skin. All this Bea recited silently as she unbuttoned her dress to her waist, shrugged one shoulder from its sleeve, and lowered the waking infant so it could suck.
She gasped as the mouth clamped onto her nipple, but the pain was a distraction, too, welcome in its own way. If the choice had been up to the Orphanage for Jewish Children woman, the infant would have been taken away before Bea even woke up. Aunt Vera was the one who noticed Bea, during the woman’s visit, turn bone white. Vera was weak but she had summoned the stick-straight posture she had been taught at Miss Winsor’s School and argued for a two-week delay. They would hire a wet nurse, she promised. And maybe because Vera was so ill, or so rich, or both, the woman relented. But then Aunt Vera hired a regular nurse and shocked Bea by putting the baby to her breast and Bea had gone along, in part because it justified her holding the baby, which she was desperate if terrified to do, and in part because the whole business was so uncomfortable it called up in her a resentment and resenting the baby had been a relief.
As the sucking went on, the pain quieted. She leaned forward, trying to make out the gap in the honeysuckle that was the lower entrance to the orchard. Still she saw no one. She heard nothing new. The baby pulled and pulled at her breast until the pain abandoned her entirely, leaving behind a fluttering twinge that was recognizable to Bea, despite herself, as pleasure.
A crack sounded from beyond the gap. Bea held her breath. She heard no footsteps on the road, no wheels scraping the dirt ruts. She had assumed they would push wheelbarrows for the pears, but the scuffling she heard now came from the small woods across the road. Beyond the woods were the rocks that led down to the harbor. So they had come by boat. Bea stuck a finger in the infant’s mouth, dislodged it from her breast, and started to walk toward the pear trees. The infant wailed. Bea stuck her finger back in its mouth and the baby sucked again, quiet, but the echo of its cry winged out over the trees. Bea’s blood began to pound. She worked to breathe, even to swallow, but her throat was full of the pounding; each step she took through the tall grass exploded in her ears. She looked back at the house. Vera’s hearing was weak and Uncle Ira slept like a stone, but the nurse was always half awake, it seemed, springing catlike when the infant so much as stirred.
Bea was looking back so intently she didn’t see the root that threw her forward. She caught herself with one hand but the infant’s head fell back roughly, as the nurse had instructed her it was never supposed to do. The baby howled. Bea filled its mouth again with her finger, bounced it, shushed in its ear.
In her fall she reached the pear tree she had chosen yesterday. She came down to the orchard in daylight, wanting to be sure that if for some reason the people picked from only one tree this year, they would find the baby waiting under it. She chose this one, and felt certain in her choice. But now she couldn’t see well and the infant struggled in her arms and the scent of pears was so strong she thought she would gag. Maybe the next tree produced the finest pears. Maybe this tree was understood to be the runt and the people wouldn’t even bother with it. Why had Bea thought herself capable of judging anything, let alone the worth of a tree?
Voices now, shout-whispers through the trees. Get up, said her mother. Give the thing back to the nurse. Go to sleep. Wait for the lady from the orphanage. You’re a good girl. You used to be. Don’t let a small mistake ruin your life. Aunt Vera said, Keep the baby, if it upsets you so much. We’ll raise it together. But that was a lie because Aunt Vera was dying. Do what you want, Uncle Ira said. You think your parents ever do a thing they don’t want? But Bea didn’t know what she wanted. She wanted to go back, she supposed, to before the lieutenant, before he smiled at her, before he pushed her against the wall, before he forced himself on her. Handsome, her mother had murmured in her ear that night. Handsome, she murmured now. Bea wanted to go back to when her greatest struggle was picking her way through Liszt. But she couldn’t go back and Aunt Vera would die soon and she didn’t trust Uncle Ira to defend her, when the time came; for all his talk, he snapped like a stick in front of her father. So if Bea kept the baby it would be taken anyway, only it would be the hideous orphanage woman who got it.
The small woods trembled with the people’s coming. Bea allowed herself a look down. Across the baby’s cheeks, she could trace the rash that had bloomed its second day of life, ferociously red and raw. Bea had convinced herself that the rash was a direct result of her unsuitability as a mother, and that it couldn’t go away until she gave the thing up. She touched its cheek now, letting her fingers skid over the tiny bumps. They had receded, just as the nurse had said they would. The nurse couldn’t have known how her words, meant to comfort, would rattle Bea. The rash was perfectly common, she had said, nothing to trouble over. It would clear up soon and the girl would have Bea’s skin, “coffee ’n’ cream,” the nurse’s R rolling like water. “Baby girl,” she had cooed while Bea pretended not to listen. Baby girl. Darlin’. Luv. Girl.
Cradling it now as the people came closer, Bea experienced time slowing into a long, stuttering wave, her life at once paused and hurtling forward, her vision stretching to see the infant growing at an alarming rate, lengthening and fattening in her arms until it outgrew her grasp and unfurled to stand before her. It was so undeniably a girl, just like Bea—a girl in an orchard in the middle of the night—that
Bea felt her own heart grow. She felt as if her ribs would crack.
Rubbish, said her mother. Sentiment. In three weeks Bea would recommence her musical instruction at the conservatory and enter the freshman class at Radcliffe, where she would continue her studies in the liberal arts and wear a brace to hold in her stomach and go to dances with the Harvard boys and act like all the other girls, as if she’d never lost a thing.
A crunching from the road—feet on gravel, close now. Bea’s breast went taut with goose bumps, reminding her of her exposure, and in the rapid, mindless act of buttoning her dress she was freed of decision. The baby’s eyes were closed. Bea’s arms shook as she set the bundle down in a clump of grass. The approaching footsteps were gentle, she told herself. The people were gentle thieves and they were Irish, like the nurse—they would know, she decided, how to care for babies. She had the whistle in case they didn’t. She stood, her shaking violent now and in every bone of her body so that it seemed to her that she must be audible. She clamped her jaw tight against its rattling. Then she ran, a pounding, rattling heart-bone, and threw herself down behind the stone wall.
They emerged from the gap in a silent swarm, tall and short, in dark, shapeless clothing, their faces and hands pale. Bea could not determine, at first, a leader. They carried ladders, three figures to each, held tight at their sides as they headed for the trees. They were like fairies, Bea thought, until she heard a man’s voice, quiet but clear: “Get off your blasted arses and up those trees.” Bea positioned Aunt Vera’s whistle in her hand. The ladders rose, their tops narrower than their bottoms, and Bea nearly shrieked, thinking of the tiny body, thinking she should have wrapped it in something brighter than Aunt Vera’s shawl, should have set it further out from the trunk of the tree so it would catch the moonlight, or further in so it wouldn’t get trampled. She couldn’t remember now at what distance she had set it. She rose on her knees, peering above the wall. She counted eight of them, maybe more. The ladders were planted but she hadn’t heard the baby howl in pain and a new fear struck her—that they wouldn’t find it at all. They would collect their pears and depart in their boats and the baby would still be lying there, sound asleep. Bea would have to collect it, and decide all over again what to do, and feel not only humiliation—that she was used to now—but failure.
She watched the pears fall off the trees. It was like that, as if they were simply falling, so quickly did they disappear down the ladders. The smallest figures—children—stood at the bottom, gathering the pears onto tarps, dragging these out of the way when they were full, then laying down new ones. The entire operation was carried out with an efficiency that Bea’s father, Henry Haven, would have appreciated, the sort of efficiency he spent his days (and many nights) trying to achieve at the Haven Shoe Factory. Astounding, he might say, in the tepid voice he used to deliver praise so as not to please or, heaven forbid, flatter the recipient.
“On to the next one.”
“Shut it.” This was said by the man who’d given the first order, in a calm, heavy voice.
“Lay off ’im, Rolly. He’ll shush if you lay off.”
“I’ll lay off when I’m dead.”
But the man was quiet. It was a woman who had reprimanded him, in an accent like the nurse’s, her voice uncommonly deep, and kind, it seemed to Bea. It was the sort of voice, Bea thought hopefully, that could only belong to the sort of woman for whom mothering comes naturally. So unlike Bea’s mother’s voice, which betrayed her unhappiness, or Aunt Vera’s, fluty with distraction.
Bea didn’t think to wonder what her own voice was like. She clung to the woman’s kindness, longed to hear her speak again. She wished there were a way to get her attention without the others seeing. Still the baby had made no noise. This could be a sign, Bea thought, that it wanted her, and no one else. Or maybe she had nursed it too well and sent it into a stupor, knowing what she was doing without admitting it to herself.
“Mum!” A boy’s voice.
“Over here. Look!”
“What is it?”
“A baby,” the child said.
“I don’t care how new it is. We’ve got work to do.”
“Put it over there now.” The woman’s voice. “Over here.” Bea could see one figure pushing another, smaller one. The taller one, the woman, had a small child on her back. “Set it down there. Let’s finish.”
“What about the baby?”
The boy left the bundle at the edge of the field, not twenty feet from where Bea hid. She fought a rising nausea. This she hadn’t considered—that they might find the baby and leave it.
She traveled in her mind to Boston, the baby in her arms. She walked down Chestnut Street, up the stairs to her parents’ narrow townhouse, and stared at the brass knocker. She stared for so long that all its facets came forward, intricacies she had not known she knew: three rosebuds arranged vertically, each slightly larger than the one below it; four paisley curls rising from the top, evoking a lion’s mane. To her left was the mezuzah, a slim silver cylinder meant to go unnoticed. Bea in the orchard waited with Bea on the stairs, until her parents’ maid, Estelle, opened the door.
Estelle stared. A visit from President Wilson wouldn’t have surprised her more—that was plain on her face. Also plain was her pleasure. She took the infant in her arms, held the pale face to her dark one, and slapped Bea gently on the cheek.
If Estelle was the whole story, Bea would survive it. She might even choose it. But Estelle was Lillian’s before she was Bea’s—after making Bea a strong cup of tea she would have to take her to her mother, who would be standing in her closet or sitting at her vanity in her girdle and brassiere, rageful with indecision. The sight of Bea and the baby would fell her—within seconds she would be flat on her back in bed, weeping. She had wept when Bea, at ten, came in second in the Young Ladies’ Composition for Piano Competition, wept two years later when Bea’s breasts grew to be “larger than ladylike.” Bea had never grown immune to her mother’s weeping. She had devised an expression, hard as a brick, that made her appear so, but inside she crumpled like a dropped puppet.
Her father wouldn’t come home until late. By then Estelle would have propped Lillian on pillows and helped make up her face. Henry would see her puffiness. He would see Bea and the infant and feel an unscheduled joy unlock beneath his ribs, but he would suppress his smile. Lillian would ask Bea the question she had been waiting for Henry’s arrival to ask. Did anyone see you walk down the street? Bea would say yes, everyone had seen, whether it was true or not, just to get the full devastation over with. Lillian would return to her weeping and Bea would go find Estelle and nurse the baby and begin living like a leper in her parents’ house.
In the orchard, dew seeped through Bea’s nightgown, wetting her knees. She looked up at the moon’s tall, untroubled distance. If she knew how to pray, she thought, she would pray. Instead she
held her breath and avoided looking toward the bundle in the grass.
“Help him with that tarp.”
“This handle’s broke.”
“I need a hand on this ladder.”
“Give ’im a hand—let’s go!” Small mountains of pears began to slide toward the gap. Bea started to cry.
A figure fell off from the group, and another—the woman with the child on her back, and the boy who had found the baby. They walked toward the bundle with high, quiet steps. The woman picked it up.
“Can we call it Pear?” the child asked.
The woman dropped her face into the blanket, as if sniffing. Bea thought she was trying to decide, but the woman was already decided. She knew the story of Ruth, even if Bea didn’t. A second later, she and the boy and the child and the baby were gone, following the others through the gap and disappearing into the woods. Soon Bea heard the sound of boats being dragged off the rocks. The high, whining creak of oars in their locks, moving offshore. Another whine, coming from Bea herself, a piercing, involuntary sound running from her stomach to her throat: all she could do not to wail. She clamped a hand to her mouth, then vomited into her cupped palm as quietly as she could.
Reading Group Guide
A big, heartrending novel about the entangled lives of two women in 1920s New England, both mothers to the same unforgettable girl.
One night in 1917, Beatrice Haven sneaks out of her uncle’s house on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, leaves her newborn baby at the foot of a pear tree, and watches as another woman claims the infant as her own. The unwed daughter of wealthy Jewish industrialists and a gifted pianist bound for Radcliffe, Bea plans to leave her shameful secret behind and make a fresh start. Ten years later, Prohibition is in full swing, post–World War I America is in the grips of rampant xenophobia, and Bea’s hopes for her future remain unfulfilled. She returns to her uncle’s house, seeking a refuge from her unhappiness. But she discovers far more when the rum-running manager of the local quarry inadvertently reunites her with Emma Murphy, the headstrong Irish Catholic woman who has been raising Bea’s abandoned child—now a bright, bold, cross-dressing girl named Lucy Pear, with secrets of her own.
In mesmerizing prose, award-winning author Anna Solomon weaves together an unforgettable group of characters as their lives collide on the New England coast. Set against one of America’s most turbulent decades, Leaving Lucy Pear delves into questions of class, freedom, and the meaning of family, establishing Anna Solomon as one of our most captivating storytellers.
ABOUT ANNA SOLOMON
Anna Solomon is the author of The Little Bride and a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in publications including The New York Times Magazine, One Story, Ploughshares, Slate, and MORE. Coeditor with Eleanor Henderson of Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, Solomon previously worked as a journalist for National Public Radio. She was born and raised in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and two children.
1. The novel’s title most obviously refers to Beatrice’s leaving Lucy in the orchard. What else do you think it means, and how did your understanding of it change as you read the book?
2. Bea and Albert’s marriage could be called a sham. What do you think? What defines a “real” marriage? What about a good one?
3. Bea has made a career out of doing “good works,” but their results—and her motivations—turn out to be morally complex. Have you ever had misgivings about an act of charity (your own or another’s)?
4. Who is Lucy’s mother? How do Bea’s and Emma’s relationships with Lucy speak to different ideas about what it means to be a mother? What experiences have shaped your own definition of motherhood?
5. To that end, what can this novel tell us about what it means to be a biological versus an adoptive parent? In what ways does Emma treat Lucy differently from her other children, and how does this affect Lucy? Do you think it’s possible to be both a member of a family and an outsider?
6. Both Emma and Bea feel torn between their own fulfillment and their obligations to family. What sacrifices do these women make, and do you think these sacrifices would look different if Bea and Emma lived in the present day?
7. The Roaring Twenties are often depicted as carefree years in the United States, but in Leaving Lucy Pear you see how tumultuous the time period really was. Do you see any resonance between the twenties and the times we’re living in now?