“A rich testament to the power of second chances.”—Women’s World
A Publishers Weekly and USA Today Bestseller!
From the New York Times bestselling author of Good Luck with That comes a new novel about a blue-blood grandmother and her black-sheep granddaughter who discover they are truly two sides of the same coin.
Emma London never thought she had anything in common with her grandmother Genevieve London. The regal old woman came from wealthy and bluest-blood New England stock, but that didn't protect her from life's cruelest blows: the disappearance of Genevieve's young son, followed by the premature death of her husband. But Genevieve rose from those ashes of grief and built a fashion empire that was respected the world over, even when it meant neglecting her other son.
When Emma's own mother died, her father abandoned her on his mother's doorstep. Genevieve took Emma in and reluctantly raised heruntil Emma got pregnant her senior year of high school. Genevieve kicked her out with nothing but the clothes on her back...but Emma took with her the most important London possession: the strength not just to survive but to thrive. And indeed, Emma has built a wonderful life for herself and her teenage daughter, Riley.
So what is Emma to do when Genevieve does the one thing Emma never expected of her and, after not speaking to her for nearly two decades, calls and asks for help?
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
If you want to know when Kristan’s next book will be out and hear news of her appearances, subscribe to her mailing list at kristanhiggins.com. You can also find her online at facebook.com/kristanhigginsbooks, twitter.com/Kristan_Higgins and instagram.com/kristan.higgins.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Kristan Higgins
“You don’t have a brain tumor,” said my best friend, who, conveniently, was also a neurologist.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes, Emma. Don’t look so disappointed.”
“I’m not! I just . . . you know, my vision was wonky last night. Then I spaced out driving into the city today.” Granted, last night I’d accidentally turned on the superbright flashlight while it was aimed right at my face, but still . . . the retinal afterimage had taken some time to subside. As for spacing out, I drove into Chicago a few times a week, so it was normal that I didn’t take note of every detail on the forty-five-minute drive. Still, I couldn’t help asking, “Are you sure it’s not parahypnagogia?”
“Stop looking up medical terms,” Calista said. “You’re healthy. You’re not dying. Riley will not grow up motherless, and besides, she’s sixteen, and if you did die, I would adopt her and raise her as my own. Screw her baby daddy.”
“I did screw him. Hence our child. But I’ll make sure you get custody. She does like you better.”
Calista smiled. “Of course she does. Are we still on for drinks Thursday?”
“We are. Thanks for checking me out.”
“Stop staring into flashlights.”
“You put it that way, it sounds so stupid,” I said.
“It is stupid, hon. Now go. I have actual sick patients.”
I kissed her on the cheek and walked out of her office. Yes, I was a hypochondriac. But I was also a single mother, so my death did figure prominently into my daily musings. As a therapist, I knew that was a normal fear—leaving my daughter, the upheaval it would cause her. She’d have to live with her father back in Connecticut, and he had two other kids (and a wife). And what would happen to my grandfather, who’d taken me in when I was a knocked-up teenager? We still lived with him, and I didn’t want him to be alone. I’d lost my own mom at a young age . . . would Riley be as screwed up as I’d been?
Calista was right. I had to get over this. I knew I was healthy, but diagnosing myself with all sorts of horrible diseases was kind of a hobby. After all, the Internet was invented for a reason.
But I trusted Calista, who was brilliant and my friend. Feeling considerably cheered, I walked out onto Michigan Avenue, blinking in the spring sunshine. The Magnificent Mile glittered, washed clean by two days of bone-chilling rain earlier this week, but in typical midwestern fashion, we suddenly seemed to be in the middle of summer, even if it was only May.
No brain tumor. Hooray. Also, drinks with Calista, which still sounded cool and adult, despite our being thirty-five. Unlike me, Calista was single with no kids and had her act completely together, whereas I still felt like I was faking the adult thing.
Except where Riley was concerned. I was a good mother, that I knew. Even if she was struggling a bit these days, I was on it. I was there. I stalked her social media accounts and read her texts (don’t judge me . . . she was still a minor child, after all). Tonight was Nacho Night at our house, and even if Riley had been a little sullen these days, nachos would surely cheer her up.
The twisting skyline of the City of Big Shoulders glittered in the fresh air. I loved being in Chicago proper. Today, before my brain tumor check, I’d seen a client in the shared office suite I leased with a group of therapists. I was still new to the profession and grateful to have access to the posh space. Most of the time, I worked from home, doing online counseling for people who didn’t want to be seen walking into a therapist’s office. TheraTalk, the secure Skype-like software that let me see patients online, was less than ideal, but that was okay. I found I counseled the really troubled people better with a little distance.
Pain was always hard to see up close. If I teared up online, or wanted to smack a client, it was easier to hide.
But the office made me feel like a proper therapist, and my client today, Blaine, was an easy case. She had adjustment disorder, which was the general diagnosis that allowed me to get paid by her insurance. Blaine had never adjusted to her in-laws and liked venting about them. I’d suggest ways to answer that didn’t involve curse words or the throwing of wine bottles, which was Blaine’s fantasy, and she’d nod and agree and come back next month with a new story. Easy-peasy and actually kind of fun to hear the tales. Her real issue was feeling confident enough to contradict her mother-in-law, and not backing down, but we were getting there.
Maybe I’d swing by the Ghirardelli shop and get some ice cream. Then again, we had ice cream at home, if Pop hadn’t eaten it all, and I couldn’t justify spending six bucks on a cone.
I walked past an empty storefront, then jerked to a halt. Turned around and looked. My hands and feet tingled before my brain caught up.
Yep. That was a harbinger of doom, all right.
To the untrained eye, it looked like a pink leather handbag, adorably retro but with a sassy blue tassel sexing it up a bit. Nevertheless, I knew what it was. A pink purse of doom.
Shit, shit, shit.
For a second, I forgot where I was, transported instantly to my childhood, when I always felt like an outcast, like a stupid, unwanted kid, like I’d done something wrong just by breathing.
Genevieve London Designs, Coming Soon
Accessories, Fashion & Home Goods for the Discerning Consumer
My reflection in the glass showed me for what I was—not a discerning consumer, not a fashionable woman, just an ordinary-looking person with her dark blond hair pinned up in a graceless bun, wearing dark pants and a dark shirt, both polyester. This morning, I thought I looked nice. Crisp. Professional.
Right now, I looked droopy, hot and . . . scared.
This was not how Genevieve would’ve crafted me.
For years, I’d done a bang-up job of forgetting that Genevieve London was my grandmother and had raised me from the age of eight to eighteen. It was easy, considering we hadn’t spoken for seventeen years.
Riley would see this, of course. She knew her great-grandmother was that Genevieve London, though they’d never met. Some of her friends had Genevieve London purses and shoes. The arrival of one of her shops in Chicago would not be good news. Riley, being sixteen, was bound to have strong feelings about this one way or another. Bad feelings, probably, given the black rain cloud she’d been living under for the past few months.
At least I’d had this warning. God! Imagine walking past this store’s grand opening and seeing the Gorgon after all these years. I could use the drive home today to figure out what to say to Riley and how to head off any expectations she might have . . . like the idea that Genevieve might want to see us.
Riley’s friends hung out on the Magnificent Mile all the time, now that they were sixteen, and someone was bound to see the store and tell her . . . and Riley was sure to tell them she was Genevieve’s granddaughter. Would her friends even believe her? Genevieve London was an international brand. Riley and Pop and I . . . we were just regular folks.
I hurried up, walking briskly to my car, sweat streaming down my back. I’d dressed up today to look the part, but I regretted it now. My left heel was rubbing in the unfamiliar pump.
All these years without a Genevieve London boutique in Chicago. Sure, Genevieve’s stuff was in all the high-end department stores, but a dedicated store . . . ugh. I’d been naive enough to imagine she’d stayed out of Chicago because she knew we were here. But no. Her empire was expanding still.
I didn’t want to assume this would bother Riley . . . and I didn’t want to assume that it wouldn’t. I didn’t want her to think I was upset. I didn’t want her to feel rejected, and I didn’t want her to get her hopes up, and I didn’t want her to sublimate any of those feelings if she had them, and I didn’t want her to feel she couldn’t tell me about them if she had them, and I didn’t want her to feel that she had to tell me about them if she didn’t want to.
Being a single mother and a therapist was very complicated.
A few years ago, I’d told Riley the facts: Genevieve London of the adorable purses was my grandmother, and I’d lived with her for ten years after my mother died because my father couldn’t take care of me. I explained that Genevieve wasn’t the nicest person, so we didn’t talk anymore. Since my father never came to visit, it was easy not to say anything more about the London side of the family.
I only told Riley because my grandfather (on my mother’s side, clearly) had recommended it, and Pop was seldom wrong. Can’t hide the truth forever, he said. I’d answered that I didn’t want to hide it as much as ignore it, which he said was the same thing.
To the best of my knowledge, Riley didn’t tell her friends about her link to Genevieve; the girls never mentioned it or asked me questions when they came over, the same three girls Riley had been friends with for ages.
But sixteen was the age when you tried to impress your friends, after all, and how many girls had great-grandmothers who designed handbags owned by Adele, the First Lady and Oprah, or had a two-page ad spread in the spring edition of Vogue? I pictured Riley and her friends going into the store, a snooty manager giving my precious daughter a cool once-over before cutting her down with a razor-sharp comment. Because if I knew my grandmother, she’d have instructed her manager to do just that. She would’ve written it herself and told her staff to practice it. “Ms. London doesn’t have a great-granddaughter,” the manager might say. “Is there something I can show you?”
My grandmother had eviscerated me; I didn’t want her near my child.
Traffic on 290 West made the trip home longer, and the midwestern heat pulsed down through the windshield, daring my Honda’s AC to keep up. By the time I pulled up to Pop’s humble house in Downers Grove, my skin felt hot and tight, and the rearview mirror showed my blond hair flattened by heat, a clenched jaw, red cheeks, and worry making my brown eyes look too wide. Overall, a little on the crazy side.
I took a deep breath. “Hi, honey,” I said, practicing. Smiled. “Hey, baby. No, not baby. Hey, sweetheart, how are you? Did you have a good day?”
My grandfather wasn’t home; though he’d retired last year from his job as an elevator mechanic, he still did electrical work on the side. My other grandmother—the nice one—had died when I was seventeen, just a year and change before I came out to live with Pop.
Riley’s shoes, the kelly-green Converse high-tops, were in the middle of the living room, and there was a glass next to the sink that hadn’t been there this morning when I left for the city. “Hi, honey!” I called. “I’m home!”
No answer. I listened and heard nothing but quiet.
I went upstairs, trying hard not to run, wondering if I should run, and if I had run that day so long ago, if everything would have been different.
I knocked once, harder than I meant to, and threw open Riley’s door.
My daughter lay on her bed, earbuds in, looking at her laptop, and the relief made my knees wobble. You never realize it until you’re pregnant, or holding your baby in your arms, but your heart, soul and peace of mind will never be yours again. The tiny hijackers take over before they draw their first breaths, and you would do anything to keep them safe. Anything.
“What?” she said, taking out one earbud.
“Hi! How was your day?” My voice was too loud, too bright.
“Fine.” Her tone indicated otherwise.
It was okay. She was here, and she was safe and alive, even if it was one of those days, then. The dark days. Normal teenage behavior, hormones, etc. She was due to get her period in about three days (yes, I kept track), so it was probably just that.
She was so beautiful, my girl—blazing red hair down to her shoulders, thick and curly, milk-white skin with freckles, and her eyes. Her blue, blue eyes, clear as a September sky.
Telling her about the Genevieve London store right now didn’t seem like a good idea (or I was a coward, or both). I sat on the edge of Riley’s bed and put my hand on her shin, unable to resist touching her. “How was lunch today?” I asked.
“Gross.” She flicked her gaze at me, then resumed watching whatever was on her screen. “Hamburgers, not French toast sticks like they said. The meat was gray.”
“That is gross. How about if I make French toast for supper?”
“You don’t have to.”
“Do you want me to?”
“Are you going to Mikayla’s tonight?”
Another shrug. That wasn’t good.
“Okay. Well, French toast for supper, extra syrup for my girl.” I kissed her head, and she gave me a half smile, and I felt the painful rush of love I always did for my only child. Thank you. Thank you for that smile, for still talking to me, for being my favorite person, my greatest love.
Feeling fairly stupid, completely reactionary and tentatively happy, I went back downstairs.
My daughter was safe. She almost smiled. She wanted my French toast. I thought she was okay.
This uncertainty was new for me. Until this past year, Riley had been a sweet, happy person. As a tot, she’d played for hours in cardboard boxes, or pretended to be a waitress or a hairdresser. It wasn’t so long ago she’d still been playing with Josefina, her American Girl doll. As a teenager, she loved books and babysitting. While the statistics said most of her peers were having sex and trying out drugs and alcohol, Riley still read the warrior cats series and slept with Blue Bunny, her first stuffed animal. I was grateful . . . no tweeny fuming, not for my girl. Jason, her father, had been a happy teenager. Me, not so much, but I liked to think my daughter’s sunniness was at least in part due to my good parenting.
Physically, she’d been a late bloomer—athletic like her dad, thin, getting her period just before she turned fifteen, only recently needing a bra. At first, it had been okay; a little weepiness every twenty-nine days, cured by a girls’ night with just the two of us watching obscure shows on the National Geographic channel, eating brie and apricot jam on crackers.
When I myself was sixteen, I’d been so aware of my odd status in Stoningham—the ward of an important, wealthy woman but abandoned by my parents, desperate to be normal, whatever that was. Riley had always seemed better, more confident, happier than I’d ever been, thank God. She’d been content to avoid romantic drama, had the same friends since she was eight, wanted to put off learning to drive till she was older. Her social life, such as it was, consisted of sleepovers with her longtime friends. She was a happy, happy kid.
And then came winter, and everything seemed to change.
The brie and shows about life in Alaska weren’t enough. The long-suppressed terror buried deep in my gut showed its teeth, even as I used every tool and resource I had to convince myself over and over that Riley was . . . well . . . normal. Not clinically depressed. That the gods of genetics had not cursed her with the same thing that had haunted my mother.
Somehow, the things that had always seemed so good and wholesome took on a darker cast after this past winter. Why didn’t she want to go to a dance? All her friends were going, weren’t they? Was she clinging to her childhood in an unhealthy way, and if so, why? Was she afraid of growing up? Had something happened to her . . . rape, or bullying, or drugs? Was I missing something? Was it boy troubles? Girl troubles? Both? Was she gender fluid, or gay, or trans? None of those would change my love for her, but maybe she wanted to tell me. Should I just ask? Or would that be intrusive?
I analyzed her moods, trying to slip her some therapist questions without making her suspicious. Her pediatrician had pronounced her “completely normal with a side of awesome” at her annual physical, but still. When you know depression can be genetic, and when your own mother committed suicide, you watch like a hawk.
Genevieve London’s overpriced, elitist store might throw my daughter in any number of unpredictable ways. And after seventeen years of feeling free from my grandmother, seeing the new store was just too much Genevieve London for one day.
A tremor of danger hummed in my gut, warning me there was more to come.
I ate one of the oatmeal cookies I’d baked the day before. I had an online appointment—this client liked messaging, rather than video conference, and that was fine with me. His problems were chunky—PTSD from a wretched childhood—and it was easier to be wise if I had time to think.
Then the landline blared, and I jumped, because who ever used landlines? The harsh ring of Pop’s 1970s phone was horribly loud, and I snatched it up immediately. Probably a telemarketer. Since it was a phone from the days of yore, we had no caller ID or even an answering machine.
There was a pause, and just as I was about to hang up, someone spoke.
“Is that you, Emma?”
Her voice punched me in the stomach, the unmistakable, blue-blooded tone of the Gorgon Genevieve herself, immediately recognizable even after seventeen years.
I hung up.
Almost immediately, the phone rang again. I let it, and the sound brayed through the quiet house. Two times. Three. Four.
“Mom? You gonna answer that?” Riley called from upstairs.
“Sure thing, honey!” I said, snatching it up again.
“Don’t be childish, Emma,” Genevieve said. That voice, so elegant and frosty, always with that tinge of disappointment.
The store. She was probably calling to tell me about the store. “What do you want?”
“I see we’ve lost all social graces,” she said.
“Why would I waste them on you?”
She sighed. “Very well, I’ll get right to it. I have cancer. I’m dying, so you have to come home and do your familial duty. Bring your child.”
My mouth opened and closed noiselessly. A) cancer wouldn’t kill her, because she was just too mean. B) I wouldn’t go “home” if I had a gun to the back of my head. And C) she’d kicked me out seventeen years ago. Her final words hadn’t exactly been a blessing.
“Funny,” I said, “you talking now about family and duty. Oh, gosh, look at the time. I have to run. Have a nice death!”
“Don’t hang up, Emma, for heaven’s sake. It’s so like you to fly into hysterics.”
I clenched my teeth. “I’m not hysterical, and I’m not coming home. I am home, as a matter of fact.”
“Fine. Come back to Connecticut, Emma, and say goodbye to me as I live out the last of my days.”
“You haven’t called me since I left, Genevieve. Why would I care about the last of your days?”
There was a pause. “We’ve had our differences, it’s true.”
“You kicked me out when I needed you most. Why should I care if you need me now?”
The frost of her voice turned to sleet. “You were irresponsible.”
“And pregnant, and eighteen.”
“As I said, irresponsible. At any rate, it’s just for a couple of months.”
“Must you make that unladylike noise?”
“Genevieve, I’m sorry. I don’t care enough about you to uproot my child—it’s a girl, by the way—so I can change your diapers in your dotage.”
“Nor am I asking you to, Emma. I’m simply asking you to come home so I can see my granddaughter and great-granddaughter before I die.”
“You blew your chance on us a long time ago. Besides, don’t you have a son? Ask him.” Not that my father had ever taken care of anyone very well.
“This is not work for a man,” Genevieve said.
“It’s not work for me, either.”
“Emma, it’s not my fault that you were a floozy who couldn’t keep her legs crossed and threw away her future.”
“Sweet talk will get you nowhere, Gigi,” I said, using the only nickname she’d allowed back then. God forbid I’d just called her Gram. “Besides, do you really want a floozy taking care of you?”
“I’ll pay for your travel expenses and give you some money in the meantime.”
“No, thanks. Hanging up now.”
“Jason is separated from his wife, you know. Oh, but I forgot, you and he are still so close. Of course he’s already told you.”
My stomach dropped. The Gorgon had me there. Jason had not told me. And given that he was the father of my child, my one experience with being in love and my closest male friend, that stung.
Then again, Genevieve was the master of stinging. She was a wasp in every sense of the word.
I curled the cord around my finger. “The answer is still no. Please don’t call again.”
“Very well,” she said. “Would you accept a bribe? Come home, and I’ll make your child my heir.” There was a pause. “My only heir. Even if she doesn’t have a real name.”
Riley was my grandfather’s last name, my mother’s maiden name. Another sting from the queen of wasps. “What about Hope?” I asked. “You’re cutting her out of the will?” Hope was my much younger half sister, the child of my father’s brief second marriage, and she lived not too far from Genevieve at a home for children whose medical needs were too complex for their families to handle alone.
“Hope has a trust fund for her care that will last all her life.”
“Good. Make me her guardian. Otherwise, we have nothing to talk about. Bye, Genevieve,” I said.
“Think about it. We’ll speak soon.”
“No, we won’t.” But she had already hung up.
I went to the kitchen table and sat down, my mind both racing and empty at the same moment.
Genevieve was dying. I waited for some emotion—rage, satisfaction, grief—to hit me. Nothing did. My stomach growled, so I ate another cookie.
Once, I had loved my grandmother and wanted desperately for her to love me. That hadn’t happened. Try getting someone to love you for ten years and failing . . . it leaves a mark.
So she was dying. I told myself I didn’t care. What about Hope? Would my sister care? Would she miss Genevieve, who, from what the staff at her facility told me, visited at least several times a month? It was hard to tell; my sister was nonverbal. She was a sweet girl, full of smiles and snuggles when her seizures weren’t stealing away her days, or her rages weren’t taking over. She had a severe case of tuberous sclerosis, and every complication that went with it.
At least Genevieve had done right by my sister.
An image of my grandmother and her housekeeper/companion Donelle on the terrace in the summer flashed through my head. Cocktail hour observed religiously, their laughter, the breeze coming off Long Island Sound. My room, painted the faintest blush pink, my giant bed and fluffy white comforter, the tasteful throw pillows, the window seat that overlooked the wide expanse of grass, the rock walls that bordered the yard, the giant maple tree. The bathtub I could fill so deep I could float in it.
I also remembered how I wasn’t allowed to have posters in my room, or funny signs, or the tie-dyed pillow I made with Beth, my best friend in high school, or the goldfish I won at the Ledyard Fair. I wasn’t allowed anything Genevieve deemed “tacky.” I wasn’t allowed a bulletin board on which to pin mementos or souvenirs. I had to make my bed and replace the pillows exactly as Genevieve wanted, and the second I took off my shoes, they had to go into the closet. It wasn’t a prison by any means, but it wasn’t really my room, either . . . it was a catalog page from Genevieve London Home Designs, and my personality was not welcome.
I remembered Genevieve’s rage when I told her I was pregnant. How she’d told me to abort my baby or give her up for adoption. Five minutes ago, she’d offered to leave that same child millions.
Like that could undo everything. I’d made a life with my baby, got through college an inch at a time, working nights at a grocery store, leaving Riley with Pop, fighting to stay awake in class.
Money wouldn’t undo the past.
And yet . . . Riley was almost done with her junior year, since she’d started kindergarten a year early, being a smarty-pants. We’d already looked at some colleges online and visited the University of Chicago in April. I didn’t have a lot saved for her college, but I had some. A little bit of every single paycheck had gone into a savings account since before she was even born . . . but when I said little, I meant it. A drop in the bucket. I was hoping Jason would help—counting on it, really—though, legally, he wasn’t obliged to pay anything. He had another family back east, and while he’d never missed a child support payment, he’d never given any extra, either. He worked in construction; his wife did tech part-time.
Genevieve, however, was frickin’ loaded. Her company was traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Sheerwater, her house in Stoningham, Connecticut, had to be worth at least $15 million alone.
It didn’t matter. Riley would be fine; I’d take out more loans even though my own were still choking me and would be for a long time; she’d take out loans, too. Maybe she’d get one of those full scholarships at the Ivy colleges for incredibly bright kids. Maybe do a couple of years at a community college. Maybe Jason would take care of everything.
I wasn’t going to sell my soul, not even for my daughter.
It wasn’t worth it. We couldn’t go. We shouldn’t go.
We weren’t going to go.
Here are some facts about getting older.
You hate young people because their manners, clothes and speech, as well as their taste in books, music, film and television are all inferior.
You leak when you laugh, cough, hiccup, sneeze.
Putting on a bra becomes nearly impossible. Your arms don’t bend that way anymore. Nylons are even worse, because you can lose your balance and fall.
You go through a second puberty, sprouting hair from your ears and nose while your eyebrows and lashes thin and your upper lip sprouts hairs as thick and sharp as wire.
You wait all day to have a drink.
You nap when you don’t want to and can’t sleep when you do.
You have regrets. Once you dismissed them as a waste of time, but as you get older, they creep back.
I was always an attractive woman. A great beauty, to tell the truth. Grace Kelly and I could’ve been sisters, people used to say. It was true. My parents had been quite attractive . . . I always thought like marries like in most cases. Of course, you see the aberrant couple—Beyoncé and her rather homely husband (yes, of course I know who Beyoncé is, I do live on this planet). But more or less, beautiful people marry beautiful people. And if one is extremely wealthy but also homely or plain . . . Prince William, for example . . . one can marry a great beauty like Kate Middleton and create more-attractive children.
I was beautiful and wealthy and went to a fine school. I took care with my appearance and wardrobe, watched how I spoke and was well aware that I projected an image. Garrison said he knew the first moment he saw me that I would be his wife, and that was exactly what I’d hoped for—that the best-looking young man from the best family with the best prospects and, of course, the best heart would see me and know in an instant I was the one.
I didn’t let him down.
After he died, I most certainly did not fall apart and start leaving the house in a bathrobe or letting my hair get long and stringy. Did Jacqueline Kennedy? Did Coretta Scott King? Joan Didion? I think not.
Not only did I keep up appearances, I exceeded them. I became a style icon and an industry leader. Well into my forties, heads still turned when I walked down Madison Avenue. I was sleek, chic, tall and slender, and I wore three-inch heels every day. Though I didn’t date publicly, I eventually had a few gentlemen friends . . . lovers, if you must know. My financial adviser. An art appraiser from Christie’s. I would never marry again, nor did I want to, but I enjoyed the occasional dinner in the city, a night in a suite at the Mandarin Oriental or the Baccarat (never the Plaza . . . their rooms were so tacky).
And then, abruptly, I became invisible.
That was the first inkling I had that I was aging out.
Oh, I was still fashionable and attractive, but suddenly, I was an older woman. Heads no longer turned, despite my excellent bone structure and thick hair. Doors were no longer held. Young men looked right through me, often bumping into me as if I were made of fog.
I wasn’t just invisible to men. Females, too—the twittering teens who’d swarm past me on the street, giggling too loudly, exclaiming about themselves in utter self-absorption. Young women were too busy checking their phones or fondling their own hair or adjusting their breasts in their push-up bras.
Men my own age who once had given me an appreciative glance stopped seeing me, their gazes trained on those hair-fondlers. I found myself hating the young. They were so loud, so self-obsessed, so needy, always wanting all the attention on themselves.
It seemed to happen overnight. Once, a bartender would flirt with me, admire my taste in alcohol, since I always specified Chopin vodka or Hendrick’s gin. He might say, “I love a woman who appreciates the finer things,” or, “I bet you could teach me a thing or two,” with a crooked smile or a lifted eyebrow. Now it was simply “Coming right up.” Or, far worse, “Yes, ma’am.”
For decades, I was a regular at the same hotel restaurant and bar in the city. It had been Garrison’s favorite place to take his clients. I stayed loyal after he died, bringing my contacts there, the buyers, the fashion journalists and editors. The manager always greeted me by name—as was appropriate. It was simply good business to recognize a returning customer, especially as I became a tastemaker. I would hold interviews at this hotel, not wanting to let people see my apartment, as it was entirely too personal. Often, I’d book a hotel suite for my corporate guests or recommend it to friends. The hotel was appropriately grateful for the free publicity and stream of business. Seated in the rooftop bar at the Lyon Hotel, Genevieve London sips a classic gin martini and gazes over the city.
Until the day when I went in and the maître d’ said, “Can I help you?”
Not “Mrs. London! How wonderful to see you again! James, please escort Mrs. London to her table.”
When I told her my name, she didn’t give a flicker of recognition. “Enjoy your lunch,” she said, passing a menu to a minion.
I didn’t move. “One can have one’s teeth straightened, you know,” I said. “Ask your dentist. You could be quite pretty. And please get your superior. Tell him Genevieve London is here and unhappy with the service.”
Of course it was cruel. But, really, did Helen Mirren get treated this way? She did not.
No longer did young women look at my shoes with envy . . . they were wearing bedroom slippers, or aptly named UGGs. At home in Stoningham, of course I was still recognized, but sometimes in the summertime, I’d have to wait in line at the wine shop or farmers’ market, and it was as if I were simply invisible. Waitresses would walk past me without even taking a drink order. At Rose Hill, where Hope lived, new staff no longer mistook me for her mother. My gentlemen friends invited me out less frequently, which was fine, as they were now talking about things like sciatic pain and little blue pills. On what would be my final interlude with the man from Christie’s, I caught a glimpse of his dangling scrotum, so reminiscent of a turkey wattle, and decided my sex life was over.
I had read the articles on hating one’s neck and the lack of male attention, but I hadn’t quite expected it to happen to me.
I was aging well, mind you. I’d always had perfect skin, and I took care of it, never falling prey to the tanning fad, always wearing a hat when outside, as well as excellent makeup and sunscreen. My neck was crepey, but a little laser treatment from a dermatologist kept that to a minimum. I didn’t mind the wrinkles, as they were slight—a few crow’s-feet à la Audrey Hepburn, a slight softening of the cheeks.
I did mind the hairs. Every morning when I flossed and brushed and put on makeup, I peered into the mirror—the magnifying mirror that showed every eyelash at ten times its natural size—and looked for hair, tweezing each whisker away before it had a chance to grow. Every night when I washed with gentle cleansers and moisturized with serums and lotions infused with hyaluronic acid and vitamin C, I did the same. And yet there was the day when, in a restaurant restroom, I found an eyebrow hair at least an inch long. An inch! I swore it hadn’t been there the night before.
The upper lip hairs. The chin hairs, as if I were a nanny goat. The nostril hair! I had no recollection of my mother having to trim her nostril hair, yet there it was, a cluster of fur, as if a small animal had taken up residence in my nasal cavity. I had to check moles, since they seemed to be fertile soil for hair follicles. Every day, it took longer and longer for me to get ready.
I had to look my best. It was a matter of discipline. If I let one thing go, what would be next? Me wandering down to the post office in a bathrobe covered in dog hair?
Another indignity: the noises. The grunts and oomphs as I got into or out of a chair, coming out of me of their own volition. The crackle of my knees as I went up the stairs, the pop of a joint if I knelt down. When I rolled my neck to loosen the muscles, the cartilage whispered and creaked like an old windmill. Despite my daily yoga classes, my body was loosening, sagging, drifting ever downward.
I learned not to wait to go to the bathroom, as the second I saw the toilet, my bladder wanted to empty immediately. I had to file down my toenails because they became thick and yellow and difficult to trim. Though I had strong suspicions about the hygiene of the local nail salon, I finally started making regular appointments there, simply because I couldn’t bend in the shower to spend the necessary time. Donelle didn’t even try, and her feet looked more like malformed hooves than anything found on a human.
Friends call you less as you age. Or, if they do call, they simply recite a litany of their pains and diagnoses. “My polyps! My bunion! My irritable bowel!” I did not degrade to that level—Mother would spin in her grave—but those calls were much more frequent than the invitations I used to receive. That was one reason I kept up with Friday night cocktails. It was my link to sanity some weeks. I’d invite Miller Finlay, who had done some renovations on Sheerwater a few years ago, and the Smiths, my neighbors from down the street. In the summer, I’d include some of the more pleasant summer people—the Drs. Talwar, Vikram, a cardiologist and Saanvi, a thoracic surgeon; the lesbian couple, Alesia and Anne, both of them veterinarians.
It made me feel . . . relevant. Vital. I was not invisible, not in Sheerwater, not when I had all but sold my soul to ensure that, yes, I would live well, with dignity and grace and style. I would not be remembered as a shriveled little lump under coarse sheets in a nursing home with frightened eyes and filthy diapers. No. I would go out on my own terms, definitively and decisively and with grace, as I had lived my life.
And I would make sure my nostril hairs were trimmed back, thank you very much.
Reading Group Guide
Life and Other Inconveniences
Questions for Discussion
1. Genevieve copes—and teaches her family to cope—by soldiering on despite life’s hindrances. Do you think this helps or hurts her family? In what way?
2. Genevieve’s treatment of her two sons goes from one extreme to the other. Do you think parents sometimes favor one child over another? Are we blind to our own children’s faults? Are we blind to our faults as parents?
3. Why do you think Genevieve has so many dogs?
4. In what ways are Genevieve and Emma similar?
5. How do you think the tragedies and hardships that Emma faces shape her as a person? What about as a parent? How do they shape her for the better?
6. Why do you think Emma agrees to go back to New England when her grandmother asks her? Is it really just for Riley’s sake?
7. How does Riley bring Genevieve and Emma together?
8. How are Paul, Emma’s grandfather, and Genevieve able to get over their differences?
9. Parenting is a major theme in the book, especially when it comes to the role of the father: Clark as a father to Emma, Garrison as a father to Clark, and Miller as a father to Tess. How do their experiences affect their parenting of their children?
10. Choice is another major theme in the book: Emma’s choices to keep Riley; to move in with Paul, her pop; and to allow Genevieve to meet Riley. How do Emma’s choices shape her life? Do you disagree with any of the choices she makes?
11. Why do you think Riley is able to connect with Genevieve in a way that Emma can’t?
12. Emma says, “Life tooketh with one hand and gaveth with the other.” Several of the characters either go through tragedies or make choices that alter the course of their lives. In what ways does life work out anyway? How do you think their lives would have been different if these events had not occurred?
13. How does Genevieve show that she truly does care for Emma? In what ways does Emma show she truly cares for Genevieve? How do you think they could have shown it better to each other?
14. What do you think makes it possible for Emma to be by Genevieve’s side when she dies?
15. Four generations of women are featured in the book: Genevieve, April, Emma and Riley. In what ways are they similar as mothers and as daughters? Why do you think the author chose to create this family dynamic? How does the author use the characters to display the nuances of motherhood and childhood?