With pitch-perfect honesty and heartwarming humor, this captivating debut explores marriage, motherhood, identity, and what it takes to love someone—family members, friends, or spouses—for life.
Former folk singer Helen Sear was a feminist wild child who proudly disdained monogamy, raising three daughters—each by a different father—largely on her own. Now in her sixties, Helen has fallen in love with a traditional man who desperately wants to marry her. And while she fears losing him, she’s equally afraid of abandoning everything she’s ever stood for if she goes through with it.
Meanwhile, Helen’s youngest daughter, Liane, is in the heady early days of a relationship with her soul mate. But he has an ex-wife and two kids, and her new role as a “step-something” doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Ilsa, an artist, has put her bohemian past behind her and is fervently hoping her second marriage will stick. Yet her world feels like it is slowly shrinking, and her painting is suffering as a result—and she realizes she may need to break free again, even if it means disrupting the lives of her two young children. And then there’s Fiona, the eldest sister, who has worked tirelessly to make her world pristine, yet who still doesn’t feel at peace. When she discovers her husband has been harboring a huge secret, Fiona loses her tenuous grip on happiness and is forced to face some truths about herself that she’d rather keep buried.
Interweaving the alternating perspectives of Helen, her daughters, and the women surrounding them, “each new chapter brings a wise and tender look at single life, dating rituals, and marital unease” (New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Close). In this “absolute feat of storytelling” (bestselling author Grace O'Connell), Marissa Stapley celebrates the many roles modern women play, and shows that even though happy endings aren’t one-size-fits-all, some loves really can last for life.
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Mating for Life
Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)
Unlike other turtles, the common snapping turtle cannot hide in its shell because its body is too big. These turtles snap as a defense mechanism, but aren’t actually vicious. However, perhaps because of the misconception of aggression, snapping turtles are often targeted, and are endangered in North America. When mating, snapping turtles sometimes engage in an elaborate dancelike ritual in the water that involves eye contact but no touching. Snapping turtles have no defined mating season: they court and mate only when conditions are exactly right.
When Liane swam into the snapping turtle, she screamed. He didn’t bite her, but clearly he wanted to. Then he was gone, dipping first his head and then his shell underwater. (She didn’t know he was a he, but she assumed; there was something placidly male in his glare.)
She sensed the turtle was still there, somewhere below. She turned to float on her back, hearing her mother’s voice in her memory as she did. “If you ever feel scared, don’t panic. You’ll drown,” Helen had instructed from the edge of the floating dock while Liane paddled below. Liane’s eldest sister, Fiona, had already been front-crawling to the middle of the lake, where Helen had placed a DIVER DOWN sign. Ilsa had been lying on the floating dock, too, but then she rolled off and swam, dolphinlike, toward Liane, grabbing her sister’s ankle from beneath the waves. Liane had shouted and flailed. “Exactly! Thank you, Ilsa. That’s a perfect example of what you don’t do. Back float instead.” Liane remembered her mother’s red suit, brown skin, blond hair, and the way she talked to them as though they were already grown-ups. The swimming lessons were the one thing Helen insisted on during summers that spiraled out slowly, like the pucks of Bubble Tape gum they would buy at the marina for $1.25. The girls didn’t even have to unpack their bags if they didn’t want to. They were never asked to make their beds.
Now Liane looked up at the clouds and tried to fill her belly with air. But her breath was too shallow and she had to kick. Panic soon forced her to flip to her front and start to swim, fast, for the floating dock.
She wanted to go home, and it had only been one day.
Her plan: to swim and eat salads (mostly because she hated to cook, or couldn’t cook; it was a chicken/egg situation she didn’t care to analyze) and work on the final pages of her thesis. By the end of the week, when Liane’s mother and sisters arrived for their annual early summer cottage weekend, she would have finished it. Then Adam would stop asking her when she was going to finish it and she would stop feeling guilty for not responding in a more appropriately proactive way to his father’s offer of a job on the faculty at the university, as a teaching assistant, pending her thesis defense.
The other part of her plan, and one she hadn’t told anyone about, involved the hope that by coming here alone, by treating this as a regular cottage and normal lake—and not the site of one of her life’s greatest tragedies—she could erase the past and turn herself into a normal person. The kind of person Adam wanted her to be. The kind of person she didn’t think she could be but knew she should at least try to be.
Liane ducked her head underwater—eyes closed, testing herself—and resurfaced with a gasp. In addition to the big fears, her week-alone-at-the-cottage plan hadn’t accounted for her many small fears. (Turtles. Seaweed. Algae. Other things too embarrassing to mention. Like ants. Beetles. Walking into cobwebs.) All of these things seemed more frightening without company. (Currently: she could still sense the turtle near, perhaps now waiting at the base of the ladder to bite one of her toes.)
She went down again, and this time kept her eyes open. Then she surfaced, blinked the water from her eyes, and saw movement to her left. The turn of a page. There was a man sitting at the end of the dock at the cottage next door—it had been the Castersen place, but the Castersens had sold it, or were renting it out, or something. Liane couldn’t remember but knew Helen had explained it last year when the new dock had appeared and, next, a pair of kayaks had replaced the motorized pontoon boat Mr. Castersen had once called his “Party Boat.”
The unfamiliar man sitting on the dock reading looked up and Liane looked down, focusing again on her path through the water. But she should have waved. She was in cottage country. In cottage country, you were supposed to wave (even if you were swimming) and mouth, Hello, to people (regardless of whether you knew them). But she was too embarrassed. He had probably heard her screaming about the turtle. He had probably seen the awkward way she’d jumped off the dock, plugging her nose and splaying her legs. And either way, it was now too late because the man—who had copper-blond hair and a matching shadow of a beard—was reading his book again. She kept swimming and looked away from him, but looking away meant she had to look at the shed, so she closed her eyes and ducked under again.
“Why do you keep it?” she had asked Helen, years before, referring to the kayak that hulked in the shed just up from the water. “What am I going to do with it, throw it away?” Helen had asked. “I couldn’t live with the idea of it in a garbage dump somewhere until the end of time. And it seems wrong to sell it. So we’ll keep it. Maybe one day you’ll take it out.” “Never,” said Liane. What a macabre idea. Horrible. Sometimes she wondered if Helen meant to be so insensitive. She tried to love her mother as she was, did love her as she was, but she also wished Helen was more like other mothers. Other mothers would never have left that particular kayak in the shed or suggested Liane go out on the lake in it, for example.
Liane climbed the ladder of the floating dock, wincing and curling her toes against the algae on the steps. Then she sat, hugging her knees to her chest and wishing for a towel. She squinted. The spine of the man’s book was orange. A paperback. His head was bent and his shoulders were hunched and he was leaning forward a little. As though he wants to actually get onto the page, or into it. As though he isn’t just reading it but inhabiting it. Or maybe he was just nearsighted. Still, Liane found herself thinking about a book she had read as a child, about a boy (or was it a girl?) who found a tree with a door in the trunk and when he (she?) opened it, there was another world that had always been there. Liane still asked Helen about it. “Maybe you imagined it,” Helen said once. “You were very creative.” But Liane still believed this book existed somewhere. She was certain her father had given it to her and had written an inscription on the inside cover she could no longer remember the words of but longed to read again.
She straightened her legs, shimmied forward, and slid into the water. The new dock, the one at the Castersens’/Possibly Someone Else’s Place Now, was closer than the other Castersen dock had been, and bigger. Its blond wood planks stretched out, around, and out again.
Closer now. A few more strokes and she would have a clear view. At the perfect moment, the man leaned back to stretch, tilting the book. She saw white, yellow, black writing.
Junkie by William Burroughs. Disappointing. And slightly alarming. Liane gulped air and dove, thinking about how Burroughs had shot his wife in the head. Accidentally. Who could possibly shoot someone in the head accidentally? A dozen worst-case scenarios surfaced. She was alone on an island with a man who appeared to want to inhabit a book written about rampant drug use by an “accidental” wife murderer.
Except, Liane reminded herself, they weren’t actually alone on the island. It just felt like it because it was still late June and the lake was fairly quiet. The island had plenty of other cottages, most of them tucked behind trees above the granite. When the long weekend came, it would signal the true beginning of summer and the place would feel less isolated. The sound of motorized boats would cause Helen to shake her head and cluck like an irritated hen. She would start talking again about sending around a petition, but she wouldn’t. Helen could now identify a lost cause when she saw one.
Liane had reached the ladder of the main dock. She put a foot on the first slimy ledge and pulled up, then took her towel from the closest Muskoka chair, stepped off the dock, and headed for the cottage without looking back at the man. When she was in the shade, she stood on the steps made of stones that had apparently been dragged out of the lake years before by Helen’s father. This grandfather Liane had never met had purchased the property in the 1940s and bequeathed it to Helen—and not Helen’s brother—when he died. Helen rarely said anything more about this, except that the brother (none of the girls had ever met him, either) had tried to fight Helen for it in court, saying it wasn’t fair that she get such a valuable property when she already made such a good living from her music.
Water dripped down Liane’s back. She flipped her head and wrapped the towel like a turban, then kept walking. At the door of the screened-in wraparound porch she dipped her feet into the bucket of lake water she had set outside for the purpose of not tracking sand (and bugs, and Lyme-disease-carrying ticks) around the cottage and dried them on the towel folded beside it. When Ilsa arrived at the end of the week, Liane knew, she would good-naturedly shun her younger sister’s custom, saying she wasn’t sticking her feet in dirty water everyone else had been sticking feet in, and that she definitely wasn’t then wiping her feet off on a musty towel. (“You want Lyme disease? Take this towel to a lab and have it analyzed.”) The sand underfoot would bother Liane, but not as much as it would bother Fiona. Liane would sweep but it would be Fiona who would eventually drag the old vacuum out of the closet and pull it around the main floor. Helen, of course, would have no part of any of it. “I vacuum when I’m about to leave,” she would say. “You’re wasting a valuable portion of your life by doing so now.” “I’m wasting something,” Fiona would say. “Probably the long-term health of my back. Tell me again why you don’t get a new vacuum?” “Because that one still works!” And then somehow, Helen and Fiona would be arguing over an old vacuum versus a new one, landfill versus convenience, and Liane would either glance at Ilsa and roll her eyes or leave the room feeling guilty about causing the fight with her silly bucket of water.
Liane pushed open the screen door and let it bang shut behind her, the sound jarring in the quiet of the morning. From behind the screen she had a view of the dock and she saw the man look up from his book.
• • •
Liane napped. She made soup. She did the Globe and Mail crossword as a warm-up and then failed, as usual, at completing any of the crosswords in the New York Times. She stared at Sudoku boxes, but could make no sense of them. “Your brain just doesn’t work that way,” Adam had once said, meaning it to be an affectionate remark—but there was the superior undertone. He was one of those people whose brains worked every way. She had said this to him and heard the unintended resentment. This must be what old married couples feel like. And we’ve only been together three years.
She painted her nails with polish she found in Ilsa’s room. (Dark red.) She found cream in a drawer in Helen’s room and rubbed it all over her face, then broke out in red bumps from the essential oils. (This always happened, yet she always tried Helen’s creams.) She iced the bumps. She removed the polish. Then she went up to the closet her father once used and opened it. But there was nothing in it but old jackets, none of them his. She stared into the closet until her breathing became slow and even. She wished that if she pulled aside the jackets, she would be standing before a whole new world, like Narnia. She pulled aside the jackets. This didn’t happen. She felt childish and foolish, but also wistful.
What Liane did not do was work on her thesis. When she wasn’t inside, she was on the dock. She and the neighbor—the Reading Man, as she now called him in her head—were now on cottage waving terms. He had finished Junkie and started on The Sound and the Fury. She had started bringing her textbooks and reference materials down to the dock. Lying parallel to him, also reading, felt strangely intimate.
Then, on Tuesday afternoon, it rained and she was forced inside, where the blinking light on her still-plugged-in laptop seemed to pulse with neglect. She forced herself to write two paragraphs. Then she reread the words on the screen. They no longer made any sense. She held her breath, and heard the clinking of dishes from the cottage next door.
Liane’s thesis was called “The Evil Eye: Envy’s Hidden Threat.” Apparently it had the potential to be something of a sensation, even publishable, although Liane didn’t understand how any of her findings could be a surprise to anyone. Perhaps it was because she had lived with them for so long that she was now like a woman shocked to find her husband of thirty-some years the center of attention at a dinner party due to the intrigue of his conversational paths.
“It’s the way you present it,” Tansy Miller, a brown-trouser-and-black-oxford-wearing academic, had explained to her when Adam’s father, the dean, had arranged for Liane and Tansy to meet for coffee. It was Tansy whose teaching Liane would assist, if she ever finished her thesis. “It’s your frankness. It’s the fact that reading your work isn’t boring and the students are bound to see it as such. You mention celebrities. They love celebrities.” Tansy talked like she had once been a theater major, enunciating her words and using her hands. Liane liked her and wanted to work for her. This had done nothing to spur her into thesis-finishing action.
The problem was that Liane’s work had become boring, at least to her. Adam had once said, “Well, of course it is, that’s what happens, but you’ve found your niche and you need to stick with it now. You’ll get out of the slump.” Except she was afraid she wouldn’t. Once, the folklore-related work of Alan Dundes, discovered by Liane during her undergrad years, had seemed to hold secrets. She had believed these secrets might even reveal an important point about humanity as a whole.
If she could just get back that fervor, maybe everything would be okay.
Now Liane took out a pen and started to make notes by hand, snapping the screen of her laptop shut. Her pen scratched against paper: Envious gazes, Dundes has written, are driven by envious thoughts and have the potential to do actual physical damage. The evil eye is not a black-magic-related curse, as most people believe, but rather the embodiment of an envious glare—an instant curse that anyone is capable of, even without intent. It is the lack of intent that is the point: Can we control something we do not intend to do? She paused and thought suddenly of William Burroughs. It is as though everyone is in possession of a loaded gun he or she could accidentally set off at any moment, she wrote.
Liane was not an envious person herself and did not believe she possessed anything in particular for others to be envious of (she considered herself average-looking, hated her reddish hair, was possibly of higher-than-average intelligence but not a genius, and wasn’t rich). But envy, and its power to damage, was part of the myth of her childhood. Helen had been a popular folksinger who was now often featured in nostalgic documentaries; recently one of her songs had even been covered by a well-known alternative band. Liane had noticed as a child that Helen would never leave the house without first securing a necklace with an evil eye charm dangling from its chain around her neck. When Liane asked, Helen told her it was because, right around the time her first gold record was delivered (1969; Helen had only been twenty), her throat started to ache constantly. She went to see a shaman about it—“Why a shaman?” Fiona, who had been in the room at the time, had asked. “Why not a doctor?” But Helen had ignored her—and the shaman had told her that someone was doing black magic on her, possibly inadvertently and definitely due to envy. (“I was so young. It was unheard-of. Joni Mitchell didn’t have her first gold record until the next year, and she was already twenty-seven.”) If she didn’t protect herself, the shaman told Helen, she could lose her voice forever.
Liane had pictured the shaman as a frightening character with a headdress made of dead animal skulls and felt foolish when, years later, it turned out he was an old friend of Helen’s named Bob. Liane became afraid that her mother really would lose her voice. She had a recurring nightmare about walking in the forest on the island with Helen and a large black bird attacking her mother’s throat. And as she grew older, she began to feel anxious every time she felt envious of anyone. She developed a fear of the damage she might unwittingly do to others if she ever allowed it to take hold—and so she tried to care as little as possible about what others had that she did not. (Once, as an awkward preteen, she had looked at Ilsa and thought, Why can’t I be that beautiful? and then had run from the room and refused to make eye contact with her sister for the rest of the day.)
She put down her pen. Fear. This was part of her problem. She was afraid that if she completed the thesis and got the job helping Tansy teach classes about superstition and folklore, she’d eventually get a post teaching classes on superstition and folklore herself. (Wasn’t that the entire point? Her niche, as Adam put it.) She was afraid she would then end up teaching the same thing over and over until one day she would look out at a class full of young people with futures ahead of them that were undetermined, all of these young bodies still possessing the freedom to walk out of the lecture hall and never come back if they didn’t want to—
And she’d smite them all with an envious glare.
The fact that her childish fears still loomed large in her life was not the kind of thing she could discuss with Adam. Or anyone, really. She looked down at her wrist and fiddled with the red string that was there (she didn’t practice kabbalah; the red string guarded against the evil eye and was less obvious than a necklace, so Liane wore it on the off chance that anyone ever became envious of her), then abandoned her work, even going so far as to shut down her laptop in an act that felt final, defiant. It’s only for now. I just need a break.
She went outside and sat on the end of the dock. There was a slight chill in the air. Summer had not yet taken hold. The dock next door was empty, and no sounds were carried to her across the small expanse of water. She thought about what she might say, if she could work up the courage to talk to the Reading Man. Hi, would be a start. But, historically, she had never been able to do this.
• • •
Liane had been in grade six when she had her first irrational crush on a boy she didn’t know. Boys she did know didn’t interest her at all, but sometimes she’d see a boy walking down the street or working at a store and suddenly think, That could be him, he could be The One. She’d gift him with all sorts of characteristics he probably didn’t have and lie in her bed at night dreaming up ideal meeting scenarios and perfect conversations. She would eventually feel like she knew the boy, even if she had just created an ideal version of him in her mind.
This was back when she still believed in The One, of course. Now she wasn’t sure. But she was probably going to marry Adam anyway. “We should probably get married,” he had said to her a few weeks before while they were out for dinner, eating at their regular table in the corner of a picket-fenced patio they liked to frequent. Liane had wished not to feel so disappointed. A different type of woman, the woman Adam perhaps thought she was, would have been thrilled. So practical, yes, why didn’t they? They had made some rudimentary plans—nothing traditional, obviously, and not a destination wedding because it was overdone and presumptuous; how about cocktails? Adam even suggested screening their favorite movie for their friends. (It was a French noir film called Breathless, and it was his favorite, not hers. She didn’t point this out.) Popcorn. Spiked Cokes. But wasn’t that missing the point? The night was supposed to be about them. He had raised an eyebrow when she said this. About us? he had repeated. Liane hadn’t told anyone yet that they were engaged, if they really were. But she knew that marrying Adam would mark some sort of shift into a life she had to stick with. It had never occurred to her that she might not want to. She had always been the type of person to stick with everything.
Back in grade six, Liane’s routine was to cut through the parking lot of the plaza across from her school every afternoon, although it wasn’t necessary for her to do so. Sometimes she would be with Ilsa, who was in eighth grade, but almost never with Fiona, who was in university by that point.
When she passed the window of the pet food store, Liane would strain to catch a glimpse of the boy who worked there, while trying not to look like she was looking. He was much older than she, probably sixteen. She was only eleven. This, combined with the fact that he worked at a pet food store and she didn’t have any pets, meant meeting him was unlikely. But it didn’t matter. Liane didn’t know his name or anything about him other than the fact that he almost always wore a purple Barenaked Ladies hat.
She listened to the album Gordon over and over. When school let out for the summer, she walked by the pet food store at least twice a day. She made Ilsa go with her to three Barenaked Ladies concerts in the hopes that she’d see the boy. She never did.
“Why don’t you go in and buy a can of dog food or something?” Ilsa had asked after finally refusing to attend another concert, or listen to the song “Brian Wilson,” ever again. “He’ll never know you don’t have a dog.” They were standing outside the store. “Do it! I’ll wait here.” But Liane shook her head, embarrassed. To Ilsa it would have been nothing to saunter in, grab a can of dog food, and ask dozens of questions about it with her hand on the boy’s forearm. He probably would have asked Ilsa out, too. It didn’t matter that Ilsa was thirteen. She looked sixteen and acted even older. But Ilsa would have said no. She would have been angry with the boy, even though he couldn’t possibly have known that it was Liane, standing outside with red splotches on her pale, freckled cheeks, who had a crush on him.
“I can’t,” Liane had said. “I just can’t. I can’t talk to him. I’ll die.”
“No one has ever died from saying hello to their crush.”
“I might be the first.”
Eventually he had stopped working at the pet food store. It was a while before Liane stopped thinking of him every time she heard that song. Ring a bell and I’ll salivate. How’d you like that? You can call me Pavlov’s dog.
Now Liane looked down at her empty hands. She was an engaged woman. Her days of girlish crushes were officially behind her. Whether she could bring herself to say hi to the Reading Man was of no consequence to anything.
She stood and walked back up to the cottage, entering the living room and standing before the built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. Many of the books on it were hers, some were Helen’s, a few were Ilsa’s or Fiona’s or Liane’s father, Wesley’s, and others had been left by cottage guests. Mysteries and romances and crossword puzzle volumes shared space with Vonnegut (Wesley’s) and Plath (Helen’s), a biography of Violet Trefusis (Ilsa’s; she’d brought it to read the year before, sighed a lot, and left it on the shelf with a bookmark in the middle), Tolstoy (Liane and Ilsa shared the Tolstoy). The crosswords and Sudoku books were Fiona’s. Liane remembered Fiona saying something about how doing these guarded against Alzheimer’s disease. Everything Fiona did had a point.
Liane continued scanning the shelf, then picked up a book called The Monsters of Templeton. It was unfamiliar to her, probably left by one of Helen’s friends. She took the book with her when she went upstairs to put on a bathing suit and a pair of denim shorts. With the book in her hands—it wasn’t a textbook, not even a classic; there was no reason she needed to read it, but she had been drawn to it by the black-and-white leaves and shadowy figures on the cover, and this was something she had not allowed herself for a long, long time—she went back to the dock.
She stretched out her legs and started to read—pointlessly, simply for the pleasure of it, alone at the end of the dock, escaping from her own thoughts and memories into someone else’s plotline. She read the first line of the book twice: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” She looked out at the water and thought of the snapping turtle.
At the end of the first chapter she heard the sound of footsteps on the dock next door. Instead of looking sideways, she looked up and around her, at trees and sky, then stretched and started reading again, feeling warm and indulgent. This is what you’re supposed to do at a cottage alone for a week.
I looked up and began to spin. The stars streaked circular above me, my body was wrapped in the warm black, my hands had disappeared, my stomach was no longer, I was only a head, a pair of eyes. As I touched the beast I remembered how, even on that long-ago night, I could feel a tremendous thing moving in the depths below me, something vast and white and singing.
She looked over at the man just as he looked up, his gaze moving away from his book and connecting with hers. And she wanted to say, I just read something I thought was beautiful, and it made me feel less afraid. Do you want to hear it? because she was sure at that moment that he would understand the joy of finding a book you’ve never read on your own shelf, falling into it quickly, and deciding to do nothing all day but read it. But instead she smiled at him (which was something, she told herself), trying not to squint too much in the sunlight. He smiled back, and they held on for an extra beat. Then they both looked out at the water and back down at their books.
• • •
By the end of the day, Liane had accomplished the following: she had read the entire novel, infused iced tea with the perfect amount of mint leaves and strawberry, given herself a pedicure using Himalayan sea salt as a scrub and kefir as a foot masque (the former was ingenious, the latter quite gross), and smiled at the Reading Man twice, both times because she had looked up from her book to find him watching her, his own book broken-spined in his lap, the pages blowing in the wind. Eventually he cleared his throat and said, “Hi,” in a voice that sounded like it hadn’t been used for a while, and she said, “Hi,” in a voice that sounded the same.
She didn’t die.
• • •
The next morning, Liane slid her laptop back into the bag she had brought it in. She took the cottage guest book out to the side porch with her coffee instead. She opened it and flipped backward in the book.
Thank you Helen for a wonderful week. We made the most of the weather and still enjoyed many long walks, warm fires and great food. We appreciate you being so generous in offering it to us for the week. Sincerely, The Smiths (Terri and Dave).
Liane yawned and turned the page. She had no clue who Terri and Dave were, but they sounded boring. Perhaps they were friends from the village Helen now lived in. Helen had once said that most of the people who lived there were boring, but that she loved them for that because it made her feel more interesting.
On the next page she saw a familiar scrawl.
Your children are gorgeous, your cottage is magical and you, of course, are a queen of all things. Love, Edie.
Liane experienced a moment of surprise, because seeing Edie’s writing made her realize how many years had passed since any of them had seen her.
Edie had not been boring. Liane had loved Edie. They all had—even Fiona, who had never liked any of Helen’s friends but had spent more time with Edie as a young child than any of the girls, since Helen had toured more back then. There had been some sort of falling-out between Helen and Edie, though, and she had disappeared from their lives around the time Fiona graduated from high school. Liane remembered this because Edie had come to the graduation and Helen had refused to speak to her. Liane had never asked Helen what had happened, and now she wondered why not. They had called her “aunt”; she had been Helen’s best friend.
Liane looked down at the writing and remembered the time Edie had taken her, Ilsa, and Fiona on an “expedition” to catch caterpillars, which she had somehow known would make cocoons in the jars, which would then turn into butterflies, which the girls would then release at dusk. “Why at dusk?” Liane had asked Edie. “You must always release butterflies at dusk,” Edie had said, her voice full of the mysteries only a woman like her could fathom. She had long hair she braided around her head like a crown and she always wore swishy skirts and an anklet that tinkled when she walked.
Liane closed her eyes. She remembered more: Ilsa’s jar hadn’t produced a cocoon. Her caterpillar had died. Later, Ilsa had told her she’d switched hers because she’d known something was wrong with Fiona’s—and that Fiona would hate to fail at producing a butterfly. “But didn’t you want one?” Liane had asked Ilsa. Ilsa had shrugged. “Not really. It felt wrong. And anyway, not as much as Fiona probably did.” Liane felt like she was the only person who knew that Ilsa really did love Fiona. She thought perhaps she should tell Fiona about the butterfly, but also that it was too late. My sisters don’t like each other. She realized this, also, as she continued to follow the loops of Edie’s cursive script with her eyes, and thought about how strange it was that there were truths that could exist in families that everyone ignored, even though they were devastating.
Liane closed the book, stood, and went into the kitchen. She opened the cupboard closest to the stove and grabbed a box of spelt flakes and raisins. She scooped kefir onto the cereal. Then she saw her mobile phone sitting on the counter and brought it with her to the side porch. She thought about not calling Adam, but instead she did. She should have before now. It had been days. There were no missed calls, no texts from him, nothing.
“What are you doing?” he asked, as though they had talked a few moments ago.
“Ah, and you didn’t want to dine alone.”
“Well, no, not really. I just realized I hadn’t called to tell you I arrived safely and thought you might . . .” She was about to say, be worried, but stopped, because it wouldn’t have been true, and what Adam said next confirmed this.
“I figured I would have seen something on the news,” he, ever the pragmatist, said. “I thought you were probably wrapped up in your work and I didn’t want to bother you.” Pause. “Getting a lot done?”
“Yes,” Liane lied. “A ton.”
“Good. As am I.” There was another pause. Then: “I miss you,” Adam said. “The bed feels even bigger without you.” They’d just bought a king bed together, which seemed to have been or was supposed to have been symbolic of something, but in the end all it felt to Liane was vast. She couldn’t imagine it feeling any bigger than it already did. In the night she was so far away from Adam she felt alone. When he moved, she couldn’t feel anything. “I went out to that new restaurant on the corner with Jeff and Brynn,” he said. “It was awful. You would have laughed. The waiter didn’t even know what burrata was when we asked him.”
“Well, why did you ask him if you already know what it is?”
He didn’t say anything.
“I should probably get back to work,” she said. “I miss you, too. See you next week.”
She put down her phone and looked at her cereal. Outside, she could hear crickets and bullfrogs and a distant boat. The sound came closer and she found herself channeling Helen, clucking her tongue against her teeth.
She realized she wasn’t hungry anymore. She left her cereal and went to the bookshelf, intent on finding another book to read because she already knew she was going to be taking another day off from her thesis. It would need to be the right book, one that would say something about her, just in case the Reading Man was checking out her book spines the way she was checking out his. (Halfway through the day before he had moved on to Tropic of Cancer, but then replaced it with The Sound and the Fury again. She wondered why.)
Tropic of Cancer was there, on the bottom shelf. Her father’s, Liane remembered, picking it up and opening the cover, to where he had written his name: Wesley Robert. She remembered he had suggested she read it when she was only eight, the same year he had died. He had seemed strangely urgent about it, and now she supposed she knew why. “This is my favorite book,” he had said. “I always wanted to share it with you.” Liane was a good reader from a young age, and so she had tried because she adored her father. But eventually she had to concede defeat. “I’m sorry, Dad, but I have no idea what this book is supposed to be about.” “That’s okay, Li. It’s probably a guy thing, anyway.”
She flipped through the pages of the book. A passage was underlined. “There are no more books to be written, thank God,” she read aloud. Wesley had wanted to be a writer, to pen something similar to his favorite book, and there were times when he would not sleep, seemingly for weeks on end, emerging from the study only to ecstatically declare it was going well and pour more coffee or brandy. Then the crash would come and he would shred the pages while Helen begged him not to.
He seemed to give up in his final year, and Liane often wondered if that was why he had ended his life, or if the giving up had just been a symptom. But she would never know exactly why he had taken the kayak out onto the lake in late December, why he had weighted himself with rocks, why he had slid into the water to sink down, down, down into the icy depths. He hadn’t left a note and it had taken her years to accept this. She had searched the cottage every summer. And she wasn’t sure, as much as she loved and missed him, that she would ever be able to forgive him for not saying goodbye to her, for not leaving her fatherly instructions in some form. Instead, there was a boat in the shed and the feeling she got when she thought of him, one she had never been able to properly define: some combination of nostalgia, sadness, inadequacy, and disappointment. And the fear, of course. The Big Fear, that one day the darkness (more specifically, manic depression) would catch up with her, too. My life right now doesn’t feel happy enough to be able to avoid it.
She picked up another book: Martha Gellhorn’s memoir, Travels with Myself and Another, about her marriage to Hemingway. It was Helen’s, dog-eared and old. When Liane opened it, there were many passages underlined. One of them: I knew enough to know that no woman should ever marry a man that hated his mother. She went to replace the book on the shelf, and that was when she saw the ring. An engagement ring, unmistakably so. A solitaire on a white gold antique scroll band, just languishing on the shelf. It must belong to one of Helen’s friends. Liane held it between her thumb and index finger and watched the stone catch the light prettily. She needed to text Helen and let her know it had been found so whoever had lost it could stop worrying.
But first Liane slid the ring onto her finger, forcing it slightly. Then she stared at it and tried to decide if it looked right or not.
It did not.
She pulled the ring but it stuck at her knuckle. She pulled again. Nothing.
And then there was a knock at the door.
Another knock; another futile pull at the ring.
At the door stood a man of about Helen’s age. He had a gray beard, brown eyes. He held a burlap bag with handles and there were various forms of roughage poking out the top. “I’m Iain, the neighbor,” he said, as though there were no other neighbors he could possibly have been.
“Hi, Iain, I’m Liane,” she said, trying not to sound disappointed.
“Your mother told me.” He seemed oddly nervous. “Anyway, I have a cottage up the road, and a big garden full of spring greens I can’t possibly eat, so I let your mother know I’d drop some by for you and she thought it was a good idea.”
“Thank you very much; I’ll put them to good use. I love salads.” He handed her the bag and they stood looking at each other.
“Would you like to come in for a coffee or tea?” Liane asked, because she felt certain he was waiting for some sort of offer, or at least that he didn’t want to go. He seemed to be studying her carefully, taking in her face.
“Tea would be perfect.”
She led him inside. In the kitchen, she poured water from the cooler into the rusty-topped kettle, making a mental note to get Helen a new one, even though she knew Helen would say that despite the rust it was a good kettle and there was no sense in throwing it away. She found herself sharing this with Iain, her observation about Helen and the kettle, and he said, “Absolutely, that’s Helen to a tee, and then she’ll either start using your new kettle as a planter or a watering can, or give it to someone else. Anything to save the old one from the landfill—because she doesn’t believe they actually recycle anything, you know.”
“Oh, yes, I know. Would you like to sit on the side porch?”
“Sure. You should wrap those greens in a towel and put them in the fridge, though. They’re very delicate.”
She examined him again. Well-groomed, face weathered in an appealing way, eyes crinkled at the sides. He was looking at her, too, with that same surprising intensity, as though he had met her somewhere before and was trying to place her. She felt self-conscious and lifted a hand to scratch a nonexistent itch on her face.
“Oh,” he said.
“You’re wearing . . . an engagement ring.”
“Oh. Right. Yes. It’s . . .” The true explanation was too ridiculous, so she said the thing that made the most sense and was technically true. “I’m engaged. To my boyfriend, Adam. My fiancé. My fiancé, Adam.” Fiancé. My fiancé, Adam. Did it or did it not fit?
No. It does not.
“Wow. Well. That’s . . .” He cleared his throat. He was still looking at the ring. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” The kettle had started to screech. She opened the cupboard above the stove that held the spices and teas. “Green, mint, rooibos, chai, Earl Grey, English Breakfast, or something called Youthful Detox?” she asked.
“Oh, the detox, please. Perfect.”
She put two bags in the chipped green pot, grabbed two mugs, and headed toward the porch.
“So,” she said when they were seated across from each other on the black iron bistro set with the faded red and gold cushions. “Have you had a cottage here long?” Then she sipped the tea and grimaced. “Geez. This stuff is terrible.”
“You get used to it. And I’ve been here since last summer. Two places down from here. I’m in the Bachmans’ old place. They retired and moved to Mallorca.”
Liane nodded as though she knew this. Then she leaned in, tried to be subtle. “What about the cottage on the other side of us? The one next door. The Castersen place. Did they sell, too?”
Iain shook his head. “They just started renting the place out. For this June and July, to the same people. The man there now is named Laurence Something-or-other. He’s a writer. He’s working on something. Although he told me he’s a bit blocked, so he’s been doing a lot of reading, trying to spur himself into action, I suppose. I brought him some greens last week and he told me a little about it. Apparently it’s his third novel and he’s afraid of having a midcareer slump.”
“Oh. A writer?”
“I haven’t heard of his books. He says he doesn’t write sci-fi, but it sounds like it to me. His first book was short stories and his last book was . . . let me try to remember . . . something about the end of the world being in a hundred years and everyone knowing about it, the exact date of it and everything.”
She looked down at the ring on her finger. “Well, I guess that doesn’t have to be sci-fi. Maybe more just a study of human nature. It is pretty interesting. What would you do if you knew the world was going to end in a hundred years? Would that change anything for you?”
Iain looked thoughtful. “I really don’t know. Selfishly, probably it would change nothing for me. But then again, for my daughters and sons it would. Not much point in having kids, right? Or more of them, in my one daughter’s case. Maybe that would be liberating.”
As he spoke, she wished for a moment that Iain was Helen’s type. It would be nice to have someone like him around. “Liane’s mother is a free spirit,” Adam had once said to his own parents, employing his usual tact. “You know how it is in show business.” “She’s not in show business, she used to be a folksinger,” Liane had said to him later. She wasn’t sure why Adam’s words had made her feel so angry. Maybe because he’d said what he’d said in the same way a person might say Liane’s mother is a mental patient. But he was right, of course: the reality of this free-spiritedness was that Ilsa’s father was an ex-lover of Helen’s who lived in Paris and whom she had met while on tour; Wesley had stumbled into her life during a visit to an ashram in India (Fiona and Ilsa had stayed with Edie, and Helen had been away for weeks because she was experiencing some sort of career/existential crisis); and Fiona’s father—well, no one was exactly certain who he was, least of all Helen.
She realized Iain appeared to be waiting for her to say something.
“Which could be good for people who didn’t want to have kids at all,” Liane said. “Then they could stop having to explain themselves. Liberating, I think that’s exactly it. Because you feel this sense of obligation to procreate.” She thought maybe she was now talking about herself, and hadn’t meant to be. Do I not want kids? Or do I just not want them with Adam?
“True,” Iain said. “It would be as good a reason as any. Better than the reasons most people come up with these days: ‘I’m too selfish. I need more me time.’ What else do you think might happen? A hundred years . . . would people riot, do everything and everyone in before the hundred-year mark hit, do you think?”
“Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe nothing would change at all. Maybe we all think the world could end at any second anyway, so what would change in the knowing? Maybe it would be nice to know.”
“Sounds like we’re going to have to read this book,” said Iain. Then he sipped his tea and said, “I’m afraid I don’t have a creative bone in my body, and I don’t understand the life of a writer. I wouldn’t like to be alone as much as he is, I don’t think. Although his wife and two girls join him on weekends.”
Wife and two girls.
You’re engaged, she told herself. You’re even wearing a ring. She looked down at it again and a nervous giggle escaped from her lips. She covered her mouth. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m feeling a bit weird. It turns out I’m not used to being alone, so I guess I wouldn’t make a very good writer, either. I’m supposed to be working on my thesis, but I haven’t gotten much done at all and I think I just . . . I’m feeling a little odd.” She covered the ring with her other hand and looked up at Iain.
He had a concerned expression on his face. She felt guilty then for behaving so strangely in front of a person she didn’t know. So she said, “Would you like to stay for lunch?” and then felt needy and embarrassed.
But he said, “Why don’t I take you to the marina for fish and chips? I bet all you need is to reconnect with civilization for a bit and you’ll be right as rain.”
Right as rain. She found his presence comforting. She said, “I think you’re on to something. I need to leave the island, just for a few hours. Do you have a boat?”
He nodded. “A small one, but yes,” he said, as though ashamed of this fact.
• • •
Later that day, when she returned to the cottage, she didn’t feel as alone. Lunch off the island and in Iain’s company, their conversations about books, about the fact that he’d been a museum curator before retiring, his interest in her thesis, had officially broken the spell. (Wife, girls. That had helped, too. Although not in a good way.) She put away all the books she didn’t need for research, ate all the greens in several giant salads, and finished the last page of her thesis by Friday morning.
Also: she went to the shed. She hesitated, then dragged the kayak out to the dock and spent a morning washing it carefully with lake water. She did not cottage-wave to the Reading Man during this time. She put on a life jacket. She wore it until the sun was about to set. Finally she got in the kayak and paddled away. The lake was like a garage-sale mirror, smooth but mottled. She stopped paddling, closed her eyes, and pictured the inside cover of that book she believed her father had given her. She remembered the orange of the endpapers, the vaguely musty scent trapped between the pages; he always shopped at secondhand bookstores. She saw the words,
To Liane, don’t ever stop believing in the possibility of secret magical worlds. Love, Dad
She said aloud, “I’ll try. Goodbye, Dad. I love you.”
It didn’t change anything, but it was something rather than nothing. A start, maybe.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Mating for Life includes discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Consider the epigraphs of the novel. How do they work together? If you had to pick a character to match each with, who would you pick and why?
2. Discuss the chapter openers. How did they inform your experience of each chapter? Did the description of the animal mating patterns make you think differently about monogamy?
3. How are Fiona, Ilsa, and Liane each shaped by their fathers? In contrast, how do you see the influence of Helen illustrated in each of their personalities?
4. Is there a character you identify most with? Which characteristics do you most strongly identify with? Are these things you like about yourself or don’t like about yourself?
5. Turn to p. 119 and reread the scene in the faculty lounge, in which Grace and Tansy discuss marriage. Did any of the points raised here particularly resonate with you? Why do you think people get married? Stay married? Remarry, even if they had a disastrous first marriage?
6. How integral is motherhood to Helen’s overall identity, and does this change over the course of the novel? What is your perception of her as a maternal figure?
7. Aside from the sisters and Helen, who was your favorite narrator, and why?
8. Consider the examples of female friendship that we see in action in the novel, particularly the dynamic between Helen and Edie. How are the relationships between friends different from those between sisters— both in the novel and in your own experience?
9. What do you think the novel is saying about the ways that resentment and jealousy act on couples? What about between family members? Are the effects of each emotion different, depending on whether the relationship is romantic or platonic?
10. Beyond Helen, think of the other portrayals of mothering within the novel. In what way does seeing a character in a maternal role give us new insight into them?
11. Helen tells Ilsa, “I think love is a good thing, in any form. Even when it hurts. The pain often leaves behind a beautiful memory” (p. 175). Do you agree with this? Are there other statements about love within the novel that particularly resonated with you?
12. Discuss Liane and Laurence’s decision not to get married and their reasons for it. Is it possible that their vision of what a monogamous, committed relationship without marriage looks like is as idealistic as the institution of marriage itself? To push that idea further: In an era where divorce rates are higher than ever, what does marriage truly mean anymore?
13. Consider the evolution of the sisters’ relationships with each other, as well as with their mother. Discuss the two scenes in which we see them all together—during the “spa” weekend at Crystal Springs and at Ilsa’s art opening. Consider the significance of these two events, and compare and contrast the dynamics between the four of them in each setting. Can you chart any changes in them—as individuals, perhaps, but also as sisters, daughters, and mothers?
14. Discuss the types of secrets kept in the novel and the role that these secrets play in the lives of these characters. Throughout the novel, who is keeping knowledge from whom? Do good intentions justify keeping something hidden? If the truth will hurt someone, but discovering that a secret was kept will also hurt them, how can you determine which is the better alternative?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Pretend you are casting the film version of Mating for Life. Who would play each sister? What about Helen and Iain? Myra and Johnny? Lincoln and Laurence?
2. While there are many men depicted in the novel, the narrators are all women. Which of the male characters would you have wanted to hear from? Imagine the twists and turns a chapter from this particular point of view might take. Are there questions that you still have about the novel that this character might answer?
3. Typically, we are more likely to rebel against a stricter, more traditional upbringing—but in some ways, it seems Fiona, Ilsa, and Liane rebel against their less conventional upbringing. In order to move fully into adulthood, it is natural (and instinctual) for people to break away from their parents and seek to build their own lives, but it can be a painful experience. Have you lived through this yourself, or with your own children? Do you think there is a way to be an individual while still honoring and respecting the traditions and ideals of your parents? In cases where an upbringing may have been more painful than positive, do you think there is a way to leave behind old and potentially harmful patterns rather than allowing history to repeat itself?
4. In Mating for Life, Helen’s lake house serves as a tangible link for these characters, pulling them together across time and space. Is there a place in your life—either currently, or perhaps from your childhood—that holds that same power for you? Is it possible to differentiate how much of the pull of this place comes from the physical elements of it versus the feelings and relationships that you associate with it?
5. In particular, Fiona works hard to present a perfect image of herself and her family to the world—when in reality, things are not perfect. Do you agree that especially in a world where the strong presence of social media allows us to curate our life moments and present the selves we want to be rather than the selves we are to friends, family, and acquaintances, that we may be losing touch with who we really are—or putting ourselves under incredible pressure to live up to these false realities? How can we work to stop this cycle, with ourselves and the people we know?