Harvard physiologist Robert Merriwether has four whip-smart children, an attractive and intelligent wife, and a successful, stimulating career. True, he and Sarah have not slept together in years, and when he decides to stay behind in Cambridge for the summer while the rest of the family vacations in Maine, his newfound freedom is deeply unsettling. But that does not mean that Merriwether wants to change his life or feels unloved. To a man of science, desire is nothing more than a biological reaction. And Merriwether’s personal philosophy is that once you’re in your forties, real love is nothing but lust and nostalgia.
Then Cynthia Ryder walks into his life. Twenty years old, she is beautiful, intelligent, witty, and kind. And, to Merriwether’s great surprise, she wants to be with him. Initially, he evades her advances, sure that hers is just a passing fancy. But as he gets to know her better, Merriwether realizes that Cynthia is more mature than he first suspected and that the joy he feels when they are together has been missing from his life for a long, long time. When the summer ends and their need for each other does not fade, Merriwether realizes that he is being given a chance at true love. The question is, will he be brave enough to take it?
Considered by many critics to be Richard Stern’s finest novel, Other Men’s Daughters is a tender, honest, witty, and life-affirming portrait of a love as transcendent as it is unlikely.
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Other Men's Daughters
By Richard Stern
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 Richard Stern
All rights reserved.
The Merriwether House—as it was known in the neighborhood for most of its ninety years—is a three-minute walk from Harvard Square. The second house from the southwest corner of Acorn Street—a hundred yards between Ash and Hawthorne—it is wooden, gabled, bellied with bay windows. "Autumn-colored," said a Merriwether child. It rises three stories behind a large acacia tree set in a tiny oval lawn whose few feet of renewable earth stuff supplied a large proportion of ordinary Merriwether exchanges: "The tree's leafing out." "Time to mow again." (Mowing took sixty seconds.) "Your bicycle's on the lawn."
A resident of Manhattan might think of Cambridge as "country," but it is urban in marrow, which is to say that whatever grows there bears the mark of human toleration or display.
Until the day of Merriwether's departure from the house—a month after his divorce—the Merriwether family looked like an ideally tranquil one. Parents and children frequently gathered in the parlor reading in their favorite roosts, Priscilla, by firelight, the others by the light of old lamps whose bulbs were shielded by pies of rose and amber glass. Years of fire-heat have bulged the room's striped wallpaper and, with other pressures, lumped the armchairs and velveteen sofas.
Merriwether had complained for years that his wife Sarah hadn't rejuvenated Aunt Aggie's house. The reason, he believed, was a form of Cambridge indolence disguised as ascetic contempt for body comfort. For years such Cambridge platonism brought the rear ends of Merriwethers against the coils of what should ease them.
"Darn it all, Sarah. I wish there were chairs we could sit in."
"Of course, Bobbie."
"I guess I'll have to go out and buy some myself."
"That would be practical."
"Practical all right, but where do you find them?"
A bit of charade: Sarah, "the earnest, bright-eyed, agreeably useless antiquarian," Merriwether, "the helpless man of thought." Two decades before, they had fornicated on one side of a double bed while Sarah's roommate pretended sleep on the other. Even then much more of the world was in their heads than in talk with each other.
In the warm, crannied, silvery parlor, parents and children formed an irregular crescent around the fire. Albie, the eldest, home from Williams, stretched on a sofa reading Machiavelli's Discourses. He is stocky, shaggy, sharp-faced, with soft, near-sighted, deep brown eyes. A political conservative—he runs quietly against all discernible tides—his preferred manner is oblique irony. Priscilla tells him he looks hip but smells medieval. Priscilla lies a yard from the soft mesh firescreen. She wears a green buckskin vest and scarlet bell-bottoms, wide bells at bare feet. The flames raise gold welts in her long brown hair, gold chips in her green eyes. She reads pamphlets on Metal Fatigue sent her by NASA. For years, she has corresponded with them about becoming an astronaut, has done the exercises, mathematics and engineering prescribed by their education specialists, and though, recently, it is poetry which takes up more of her time, she keeps her hat in the spatial ring.
Beneath Grandpa Tipton's portrait sits Esmé. On the edge of greater beauty than Priscilla, she is a flat length terminated by ringmaster boots. A little bra shows through the unbuttoned upper half of a blue work shirt. Blonder, clearerfeatured than Priscilla, a dreamier girl, she reads the magazine Glamour.
The youngest child, George, has bangs to his eyebrows, his father's blue eyes and his mother's stocky build. Pencil in hand, he corrects the typescript of a children's book written by a Merriwether neighbor who has already dedicated one book "To my punctilious critic, G. M."
Dr. Merriwether feels an antique safety here. He drinks a New York State Chablis and reads Cymbeline, a play he hasn't read since an undergraduate course in Shakespeare twenty-five years ago. The difficult, magic language and the mild wine enrich the calm. The parlor, the fire clicks, the tiny clinks and rattles of supper-making from the kitchen, the beauty and momentary seriousness of his children dissolve the anxiety which has gripped him for months. The play is such a mixture of strangeness, precision, extremity and restraint. It sits on the old rock of ethic: "Self-fulfillment is self-denial." He reads, "The breach of custom is breach of all." "But is it true?" wonders Merriwether. This parlor, thicker with custom than life, holds like a microscope specimen his own breaching.
"The parlor is for dusk," said Aunt Aggie Tipton. Aunt Aggie, too, was a breacher. For thirty years she lived unmarried with Mr. Louden Stonesifer. The house is still laced with the debris of wires, speakers, buzzers and colored lights installed so that he and Aggie could communicate wordlessly with each other. (One never knew when a stroke would disable speech.)
"The Merriwethers never felt the need to add to the Gross National Product. Or to coddle provincial morality," said Aunt Aggie. Such boastful maxims supported her breach of Cambridge burgher life; though it seemed to her nephew that she gauged to a turn the bounds of Permitted Eccentricity.
"Pray you trust me here—I'll rob none but myself," he reads in Cymbeline. If he could make his children understand that. If it were true. Even as he thinks, "I'm peaceful, happy, this is a beautiful moment," he is aware that in four or five hours he will walk out of their earshot, down the backstairs and telephone the source of his breach, Cynthia Ryder, a young girl for whom he is almost ready to give up the thousand formulas which compose this beautiful human hour.
"Love," Dr. Merriwether thinks. Famous, frozen word concealing how many thousand feelings, the origin of so much story and disorder.
When he teaches the Introductory Physiology course, he begins one lecture, "Today, ladies and gentlemen, we will talk about love. That is to say, the distension of the venous sinuses under signals passed through the third and fourth sacral segments of the spinal cord along the internal pudendal nerve to the ischiocavernosus, and, as well, the propulsive waves of contraction in the smooth muscle layers of the vas deferens, in seminal vesicles, the prostate and the striated muscles of the perineum which lead to the ejection of the semen."
His seriousness does not invite the concessionary laugh to pedagogical wit. If he wants laughter, he will say, "That, gentlemen, and perhaps ladies, is what is making you toss in your beds. One way or another." Usually, though, he explores mind-body problems, peripheral sense filters, spinal lesions, the swelling and beading of myelin sheaths, the fragmentation and disappearance of axis cylinders. A careful lecturer, he does not forget love. (For non-majors, it is important to relieve the technical complex with more manageable views.) He cites a definition of John Locke, "'Any one reflecting upon the thought he has of the delight which any present or absent thing is apt to produce in him has the idea we call love.' Philosophers among you may note the distinctions between 'delighting,' 'thinking of delight,' and 'reflecting upon the thought of delight.' I believe later analysts simplified this scheme. Freud, for instance, speaks of love as a mild psychosis." Or Dr. Merriwether will vary his decorative allusions and speak of "such amateur physiologists of love as Balzac, Maine de Biran, Rémy de Gourmont and Stendhal. I suspect French analytic power is revealed in their literature more than in their science." In the same lecture, he draws on Sarah's master's thesis on Courtly Love. Those rough maps of feeling had precious little congruence with physiological ones; yet without the internal pudendal nerve, the invention of love would not have tamed the ferocity of medieval western life. Sarah had argued that the Rebirth of Women began in that old deflection from war to love. (Now, her direction was reversed.)
In those days, he'd been enchanted by her work. As she finished the chapters of her M.A. thesis, she read them to him. How had that stocky little dynamo with the cameo head learned so much? Provençal, Old French, Spanish. Those beautiful bird sounds spun out of her husky little voice. A Dietrich voice without the parodic sexuality; enchanting out of that sweet stump of girl.
He explained his work to her. The black pearl eyes lit with excitement: how she wished she'd studied science so she could really follow. How long was it before they both realized she not only didn't follow but was bored stiff pretending? Dr. Merriwether retreated. Then, five or six years ago, Sarah stopped pretending. She opened a door inside her to a very tough little lady. The lady said, "This is it. I am no doormat. You are no Einstein." Venus in armor. A new Sarah who corrected everyone, who lectured everyone. When Priscilla got interested in French poetry, Sarah fetched down her old text and began passing out the Radcliffe word. "The Spirit of Romance is NOT an authoritative book, sweetheart. Pound was enthusiastic, he was gifted, but he knew NOTHING. He bought a copy of the Chrestomathy and he thought that made him a scholar." In Provençal, Sarah scored high; at least there was no one around to grade her. She moved on to politics: no "mushy liberal squash" for her; Cambridge was a swamp of soft-headed muckers, what did they know about running the world? She stood with Bill Buckley (who'd dated her cousin when he was at Yale): she'd rather have the country run by the first thirty people in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. Albie got out the directory: "Triple A Cleaners, Aamco Transmitters, Felicia R. Aabse. Looks pretty good, Mom. Who do you want for Defense, Felicia or the Cleaners?"
For months now, Sarah specialized in her husband's moves. She classified his gestures, checked his bills, noted his new suit, his brighter ties, the extra shag in his hair. He has spent more time in the lab than he has for fifteen years. There is new ease in his speech and dress, yet he has long since stopped asking her what she had even longer refused him.
She used Albie as weapon and fortress. Albie, indolent and charming, accepted his mother's flirtation along with her checks. In his cruder moments, his father is a conversational ploy, a backdrop for truancy. "Dad gets everything through the test-tube. There's more to life." What there is mostly is sleep, touch football, reading Burke and The National Review. Sarah took the temperature of Merriwether's silent distaste. "It does no good at all to get after Albie."
"He sees your face harden when he sleeps late."
"He can't see it if he's sleeping."
"Do you want a debate or the truth?"
"It's you who have the truth, Sarah. But it is true that Albie is happier horizontal than vertical."
"You may stay vertical, but he sees through that."
"I stay vertical, because you don't want me any other way."
The black eyes burned in her pale face. Angry, she is less puffy, almost the white cameo he'd thought so beautiful. "I am no legal whore."
When he came back from the summer in France, he told her. "Of course there's someone, Sarah. I'm not a cactus. I couldn't endure without intimacy. I've been driven to the wall." He'd kept from saying, "You've driven me to the wall." Part of his fear and guilt had been converted into pity. Even to him, Sarah often seemed his victim. Despite the harshness of their life together, pity enabled him to care for her. She'd been so decent. She was basically—whatever that meant—and he was to learn there were endless "bases" of Sarah and himself—decent. But this woman who had almost never lied or cheated or done much more than hold back the truth went into his files, read his mail, listened in on his phone talk.
"You think I don't know," she said. Cambridge neighbors were as hungry for gossip as their notion of Iowans. (Hungrier: fluent passivity was an appetizer.) Sarah herself gossiped little. But for years now she had kept an inner catalogue of his weaknesses; each year added to them, every book she read gave her new material. Double Helix, Jim Watson's charming boy's book of genetics and tourism, was a treasure trove for her. "You never had Jim's free spirit. You're a grub, you go to the lab like a bookkeeper to his accounts. Without verve, without creative spark." And he lacked Jim's tenacity. "I can't see you rushing off a train to a bookstore and swotting up a subject the way he swotted up Pauling's Chemical Bonds in Heffer's."
"Yes, a pedantic grub. You'd remember you had to play tennis, or have lunch or take one of your girls to the movies." He didn't have any girls then. And was this what a grub did? She described him the way Jim described himself. Yet it worked, as did anything in his dark moods, to sap his self-confidence. Her latest find was Lévi-Strauss. "You're a bricoleur," she said over the Corn Flakes she "insisted" on buying against his lectures about protein breakfasts. "A mental garbage collector. Your life is made of left-overs. You don't plan, you don't have long views of your own. You've got the mind of a primitive." He vaguely thought Lévi-Strauss had wiped out the notion of the human primitive, but he knew the joys of lecturing, he waited her out. "It's clear why you're not an important scientist."
Women, thought Dr. Merriwether, did have difficult times, particularly women who grew up between the Twenties and Sixties; they smelled new freedom in the air, they saw young women who enjoyed it, yet felt they themselves hadn't been prepared for it. Even scholarly, New England girls such as Sarah had been raised as charmers, dreamers. If they were almost content, they sensed they shouldn't be. Like the new blacks of the Sixties—Merriwether's experience was mostly second-hand—they assigned every pain to one conspicuous wound, they were this way or that because they were women, being a woman was a misery, an inflicted misery, and who were the inflictors but men, and what man in particular but the husband, or, at least, the husband one no longer loved, that is, the man who no longer loved them. So the progression went, and women of intelligence and education were the prime sufferers or complainers, activists, gossips, haters and corrupter/liberators of others. Merriwether feared for his children. Sarah did not hear hatred in her voice, but the vitriol leaked into the children's heads. Poor Sarah, yes, but also, yes, curse her, curse her blind egoism, her self-righteousness and curse her hatred.
A strange, released summer for Dr. Merriwether. Most of the day he was alone. Sarah had taken the children to her parents' summer place on Duck Isle, Maine. He stayed behind in Cambridge and moped about the laboratory. Most of his friends were away. Three afternoons a week, he dusted off his M.D. and did the doctoring chore for the Summer School at Holyoke Center.
For a month, he ate most meals by himself, breakfast on a stool at Zum-Zum's—toasted bacon rolls with strawberry jam, fresh orange juice, a terrific tonic after the winter of frozen cylinders out of the Minute Maid cans, two cups of coffee and the New York Times—lunch at the Faculty Club, sometimes with a colleague, and dinner at the Wirthaus where he had the same table every evening, just behind a little Korean gourmand who ate nine-course dinners. ("Where do they go?" he wondered.) The first week, he hit on an excellent golden Graves; he drank most of the bottle every night. The waitress pointed him to the evening's delicacies. It wasn't unpleasant. Bolstered by thousands of meals with family and friends, he did not have the bachelor shame of solitary eating, and he could do without talk.
After dinner, he walked the jammed, astonishing summer streets, then home, and in the silent house, watched television movies or read books of a sort he hadn't read since his literary youth, Dante, Montaigne, Shakespeare.
Longtime skeptic living in a sea of skepticism, Merriwether needed something more that summer. The Cambridge heat, swampy, intimate, almost visible, drained that energy which, most summers here, drove him down to the boathouse for a shell, or to running in sweatpants along the river. Now and then he did play tennis with his colleague Davison, but that energy which for years he'd at least partly dispensed in a thousand competitive games (even solitary rowing was competitive for him: he rowed against clogged arteries, against the clock), turned inward. "About time," he thought. "But where to take it?"
Excerpted from Other Men's Daughters by Richard Stern. Copyright © 1973 Richard Stern. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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