Outside Wonderland: A Novel

Outside Wonderland: A Novel

by Lorna Jane Cook

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Overview

Alice, Griffin, and Dinah Stenen's mother and father died tragically when they were quite young. The loss haunts them into adulthood. Alice is a stage actress in New York who can't commit to a relationship. When she meets Ian she's smitten, but suspects it's Ian's four-year-old son that really captivates her. Griffin and his longtime partner are settled into a contented domesticity, however Theo's insistence that they adopt a child throws Griffin into a panic. When he refuses to cooperate, the crack in their relationship widens. Dinah, the youngest, has a short, passionate love affair that leaves her pregnant and alone when she discovers the father is engaged to someone else. The three look to each other for support during this rough period but they falter. What they don't know is that their parents are watching them from a place outside time and space—worrying, reminiscing, and perhaps guiding their children as each makes their tentative way towards happiness. In luminous prose, Cook tells the story of these tender souls and a love that knows no boundaries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312625696
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/29/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lorna Jane Cook is the author of Home Away From Home and Departures. She lives with her family in Holland, Michigan.

Read an Excerpt

Outside Wonderland


By Lorna Jane Cook

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2011 Lorna Jane Cook
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-6585-9



CHAPTER 1

It always began, and ended, with a gift — a filmy scarf, a box of square chocolates with hand-drizzled icing, and, of course, flowers. Wiser men dismissed the cliché of roses and opted for white freesia or peonies, fat pink blooms like layers and layers of lace — an inverted petticoat, something sweet and old-fashioned, yet hinting of sex. Perhaps it was her own perversion that turned something as innocent as a flower into a come-on. But in Alice's experience, that was exactly what it was. Admirers sent them backstage, or waited outside behind the ropes and stanchions, clutching bouquets to their tweed or corduroy chests, hoping to elicit a smile at the very least.

"Alice!" they called, as if they knew her personally after seeing her onstage, her name on the posters and marquees: Alice Stone, an Off-Broadway celebrity. A reviewer had said she was destined for greater things, and perhaps because of that endorsement, members of the audience always wanted to see what she looked like up close, "in real life." Onstage, she was beautiful; in real life, a little less so, though she was curvier than some costumes revealed (she always ate the chocolates); her face more arresting without the makeup.

Alice was amused that adults could have trouble separating real life and fantasy — wanting so desperately to believe in fairy tales, true love, and happily-ever-afters. Women in the plush mohair seats breathed softly when Alice collapsed into the arms of the magnetic lover, the wrong man, the right one, whatever. The men beside their dates or wives simply watched Alice move across the stage, imagining they were the ones grasping her arm, or ripping off her dress. Of course, the latter never happened onstage, but several lovers had acted it out in Alice's apartment.

Acting was so simple. Alice thought of it like swimming: Dive in and float or thrash about, and then climb back out. Often she was reaching for her regular self like a towel the moment the curtain fell. Other actors — starry-eyed, smitten with theatre — held on, claiming characters had them in their grip for days or even weeks after a play ended. Alice knew it was the other way around. They didn't want to let go of being Stella or Stanley or Laura or Desdemona or even Puck. It was intoxicating. It was also, Alice thought, childish, though she couldn't blame them. In a way, she envied them.

Once upon a time, Alice believed in fairy tales. Her mother had recited them from memory on the edge of her bed while Alice closed her eyes and imagined. The night became starrier, the covers silkier, and the wind through the window filtered with magic particles and the whispers of elves beyond the sill. Her mother's favorite stories were from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. She had named her three children after characters in the books — Alice (obviously), Griffin (modified spelling), and Dinah (the cat).

Then she slipped, as through a looking glass, and disappeared. Off to Wonderland, or Heaven, or somewhere far away and out of reach.

Alice was seven, and sitting four backyards away with a friend, languidly stringing garlands of untrimmed blades of grass and lily of the valley stems — while at home, life as she knew it was ending.

Everything changed the instant Alice's mother lost her footing on the rubberized step stool in the pantry — while her husband lectured at work; while her baby napped in the crib; while her four-year-old watched cartoons, sucking his thumb; and while Alice, her eldest, crushed fragrant flowers to smell the sweetness in her palm. A neighbor returning a casserole dish happened by the house just after the fall and called for help, but it was too late.

After that, Alice accepted that bad things rose out of thin air, in the middle of normal life — when you weren't even looking, even if you were being careful, or good. Normal people tripped or had heart attacks in foreign countries. Thus, you could lose your mother — and then, stunningly, also your father. Alice realized that she had a choice: either collapse or brace herself for what might come next. She opted for the latter.

For years, she was careful to the point of obsession — locking and relocking doors, boring her gaze into traffic lights and oncoming cars, consuming only organically grown food, vitamins, filtered water. As a teenager, she'd kept watch over her siblings and Joan, and until she moved to New York after college, where she had to fend only for herself. It was a relief not to worry about the others, but she didn't feel less anxious. In her early twenties, she went to a kindly but faintly inept therapist, who advised her to "tamp down" her fears, as if they were mere campfires and it was her own fault for letting them flare up. And one day, he actually chided Alice for being "so negative," and encouraged her to "always look on the bright side of life." Later, when she heard the Monty Python song, she recognized the line and laughed. There was no end to advice, no matter how absurd the source. Alice left the therapist and never went back.

Besides, on her own she'd found that time had passed and nothing else terrible had happened. She relaxed, a little. Drank, at times, a lot (it seemed to help). And best of all, she discovered acting. Or rediscovered it. She'd always acted, even as a child, playing at being other people, improvising when life called for it. It was, in fact, her calling.

Onstage, in rehearsals or performances, Alice Stone was in perfect control; it was because at the same time she was letting go of Alice Stenen. She disappeared beneath a character's skin and clothes and had to move only within the orbit of a stage, everything laid out and planned beforehand. Thus she was free, and, as an admiring cast mate had observed, "buoyant." Buoyancy was not a normal state of being for Alice in real life. She was not good at letting herself go. But she was not good at holding on, either. It was why her relationships were mostly fleeting.

* * *

Standing alone in her dressing room, Alice surveyed her latest gift, already knowing what it meant.

The box was a slender rectangle, as if for a tie, but when she lifted the lid, Alice smiled wryly. Of course, it was a necklace — this one a silver strand, teardrop gem shimmering in the vanity lights — which meant "I can't live without you," and "I'm sorry," and also, inevitably, "It has to end." For some reason, a necklace was the farewell gift of choice for most; maybe it symbolized a noose.

Without reading the attached note, Alice knew it was from Alex, fifty-four and just through a costly divorce, lavishing his spare time and half of his selfish heart on her. The other half belonged to his college-age children, whom he didn't wish to hurt. Alice suspected that the ones he really was afraid of hurting most were himself, his bank account, his orderly life. A girl on the side (even a girl of thirty-five) was what kept him sane, and "alive." As if a tumble in her bed — or on the floor, or the backseat of a cab — were akin to an oxygen mask, or the slap of defibrillators to a chest. Perhaps it was, and Alice had been happy to oblige, to help save a drowning man from a boring life.

Finally, she read the note. Alex — kindly, greedy, charming, needy Alex — was calling it off: "I actually love my wife" (What happened to the "ex" part?), "and I can't risk losing everything." It occurred to Alice that she could use the note as blackmail if she wanted to. But she had no desire to turn someone's life upside down. Men like Alex could do that all by themselves.

Alice sighed and slipped on the necklace. Maybe she'd wear it for tonight's performance. The necklace would be perfect, the gem catching the overhead spotlight and glinting like a diamond. She inspected. It wasn't a diamond, but pale bluish green. Amethyst? Quartz? The setting and the silver looked expensive, but it could be something Alex had found on a quick run-through at a department store. Yet even if he had bought it with care at Tiffany's, the implication was the same: Here. I'm going. Get lost.

Alice stuffed the box and note in the trash and turned to get dressed, ignoring the chatter of the other actresses crowding the mirrors, singing and shrieking their lines to warm up and calm nerves. By the time she stepped onstage, diving effortlessly into character, Alice had left Alex far behind on the shore.

The audience that night was spotty, many rows empty, but Alice attributed it to the day and the weather — Wednesdays were always slow, and cold, torrential rain didn't help. Who would come out on such a night to see a play about a dysfunctional family, even if it was by Tennessee Williams? Which it wasn't. It was a small, experimental two-act play written by a talented but mostly unknown playwright whose following so far consisted of friends and admirers.

Afterward, the other actors invited Alice out for drinks. Creatures of habit, they liked to convene at nearby bistros or bars and rehash the night's performance. Five of them were gathered on the sidewalk now, lighting cigarettes underneath umbrellas while someone hailed a cab.

"I'll think I'll pass," Alice said, huddling inside her coat.

"Come on, Alice," implored Janine, a baby-faced newcomer who played the younger sister of Alice's character. "We're going to have champagne to celebrate ten weeks. You have to come!"

"No, thanks," said Alice. "I'm really tired. And if it really has been ten weeks, I think you're going to need something stronger than champagne."

Janine laughed. "But it beats Cats, right?" She kissed Alice on the lips, impetuous as usual, and skipped away through puddles to join the others.

Alice pulled her collar tighter against the rain and headed in the other direction. Her apartment was a thirty-five-block walk to the Upper West Side, but she'd lied — she wasn't tired at all. She needed to breathe. And she needed to vent.

She hated to admit how much she had allowed herself to care about Alex, how hurt she was, preferring to think about how predictably callous and selfish he'd turned out to be. As she walked up Amsterdam, she decided to work through the alphabet: asshole, bastard, coward, dickhead, effing asshole, fucker. She felt a little better by the time she reached l (liar, limpdick).

She thought of her brother and Theo, so perfect together. And her sister, Dinah, with her quaint, old-fashioned approach to romance. As far as Alice knew, Dinah was tirelessly monogamous, and believed in true love. Sometimes Alice envied her. Dinah didn't take careless risks and she was patient and loyal, even though, at the moment, also single. Alice had the impulse to phone her sister when she got home, to commiserate, but knew it was too late. Even if Dinah were awake, their grandmother, Joan — with whom she still lived in Takoma Park, Maryland — would be asleep, lunging for the phone with panic in her voice.

It was after midnight when Alice reached her building and trudged wetly up four flights of stairs to her apartment. When she reached the door, touching her key to the lock, it opened without resistance, the heat rushing to engulf her. She gasped, jerking her keys away. The doorknob dangled, clearly jostled loose.

Slowly, Alice backed away, heart pounding. Carefully, she closed the door behind her and then raced back down one flight of stairs and knocked on the door of Mr. Sechenov, an elderly friend. He always liked to hear about Alice's latest roles, and she gave him free tickets to her matinees, mainly so he would get out now and then. He had a prosthetic leg he kept propped by the door just for outings, and when he opened the door now, he was in pajamas, leaning on his cane, one-sided.

"Oh, hello, sweetheart," he said, his face lighting up.

"I think I've been robbed," Alice blurted. It occurred to her as soon as she spoke that she was crazy to call on a defenseless old man. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Sechenov, I shouldn't have woken you," she said. "But do you mind if I use your phone?"

"Of course not, doll! Come inside." He hopped out of the way and waved her in, glancing anxiously toward the hallway before bolting the door.

The apartment was just like Alice's, only reversed — the kitchen to the left of the door instead of to the right, windows facing east instead of west — and it smelled faintly of old age. But he had the same square living room, with a false fireplace and parquet floors. Alice had noticed before that his phone was even on a table in the same place she had hers, and that he also piled take-out menus there and kept pens in a drinking glass.

Alice dialed the police, then sat down to wait. "I wonder if I should go back up there," she said.

"No, no! You should stay. We'll hear the police when they come and we'll go up together, okay?"

Alice nodded. She perched on the edge of the olive corduroy sofa, its back covered touchingly with lace doilies. Remnants of the late Mrs. Sechenov, probably. There were no other signs of a shared life — a single chair was pressed up to the table, a small pile of books braced the sofa, and only wing tips waited beside the door, one attached to the leg. Mr. Sechenov had lost his wife many years earlier, but Alice had learned that he didn't like to talk about her. When she'd started to ask once, his eyes had watered and he'd waved the question away like smoke.

Mr. Sechenov handed Alice a towel for her drenched hair, and offered tea and then water and then "a cordial," but Alice shook her head each time. She had had his tea before and it tasted oddly like dust. She thanked him, apologizing again for the late-night intrusion.

"No, don't worry. You can always count on me," Mr. Sechenov said, sitting down opposite Alice in a tweed La-Z-Boy. "It's not easy living alone," he added, his brow furrowed. "You never know what could happen to you."

Alice wasn't sure if Mr. Sechenov was referring to her or to himself. He seemed even more rattled than she about the break-in, but then, he was old, and disabled.

"I'm sure it's no big deal," Alice said, continuing to downplay her own fears to allay his. "Maybe I forgot to latch the door completely when I pulled it shut. Someone probably just found an open door and got lucky."

"I hope it wasn't one of those delivery guys. They make me nervous — all those tattoos, and that one from Thai Palace with the pierced lip? I don't understand that at all."

"Neither do I," Alice said. She didn't mention that she once had had a boyfriend with a lip ring and rather liked it.

"Aren't you scared, hon?" Mr. Sechenov asked.

"No," Alice said, "thanks to you." She smiled. "And it was probably nothing — you know, these things happen sometimes." She supposed it was just her time; everyone in the city was robbed or mugged or worse at some point. She should be glad it wasn't worse.

"Someone new just moved in next door," Mr. Sechenov said suddenly, brightening and tilting his head toward the wall at his left. "A young man, your age." Alice half smiled, half listening. The old man went on, mindlessly rearranging some newspapers on the floor with his bare toe. "Might be nice. Hard to tell from a brief meeting, but he was friendly. Had a lot of books, looked like, and CDs. And a child."

Alice heard the last part and laughed a little at the afterthought. She felt antsy, though, and had to resist the urge to get up and pace, trying to be polite.

"I don't think there's a mother in the picture," Mr. Sechenov mused. "Far as I can tell. They seemed close, chummy, you know. Like they have a bond. That's always nice to see in young fathers, I think."

"Mm," Alice said. In her mind she was going through her apartment and wondering what she might have lost. She wasn't really attached to material things, but she loathed the idea of someone rifling through them. The more she thought about it, the more she tensed, and then seethed. It was so utterly invasive. How dare they?

"I have to go," she blurted. She jumped up and went to the door, unable to sit still and do nothing. She would deal with it herself, she thought, if the police wouldn't come.

She nearly collided with them in the hallway, caught by the arm by an officer who merely said a soft "Whoa," as if nothing ever surprised him, and held her like a wild pony.

"It was my apartment," Alice said impatiently, breaking loose and rushing ahead up the stairs. "I'm the one who called."

"Miss Stone?"

"Yes." She kept running.

"Wait," came the insistent response as they followed her.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Outside Wonderland by Lorna Jane Cook. Copyright © 2011 Lorna Jane Cook. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

Title Page,
Dedication,
Acknowledgments,
Epigraph,
Prologue,
Part I: A Gift, a Flight, a Dog,
Part II: Adam, Eva, What's-His-Name,
Part III: Lost and Found,
Epilogue,
A Reading Group Guide,
Also by Lorna Jane Cook,
Copyright,

Reading Group Guide

Alice, Griffin, and Dinah Stenen's mother and father died tragically when they were quite young. The loss haunts them into adulthood. Alice is a stage actress in New York who can't commit to a relationship. When she meets Ian she's smitten, but suspects it's Ian's four-year-old son that really captivates her. Griffin and his longtime partner are settled into a contented domesticity, however Theo's insistence that they adopt a child throws Griffin into a panic. When he refuses to cooperate, the crack in their relationship widens. Dinah, the youngest, has a short, passionate love affair that leaves her pregnant and alone when she discovers the father is engaged to someone else. The three look to each other for support during this rough period but they falter. What they don't know is that their parents are watching them from a place outside time and space—worrying, reminiscing, and perhaps guiding their children as each makes their tentative way towards happiness. In luminous prose, Cook tells the story of these tender souls and a love that knows no boundaries.

1.) The scenes and observations of the parents from up Here is a unique way for the writer and reader to share reflections on the unfolding lives of the Stenen siblings. What stood out most for you from the scenes from Here? How does this possibility of an afterlife fit with your beliefs about what lies beyond?

2.) How likely is it that the siblings feel some of the love and concern that their parents are showing for them from the great beyond?

3.) The siblings are drawn very sympathetically; their shared experience of loss shapes them each in different ways. How does that loss affect each of them?

4.) Which of the three main characters – Alice, Dinah and Griffin – do you relate to most?

5.) The parents say that although the children have changed they are still the same, "earnestly making their way in a fractured life." Discuss how resilience and love binds them.

6.) Each of the Stenens deals with the fact that bad things can happen at any time in a unique way. Alice braces herself for what might come next and escapes into acting to let herself be free. Dinah discovers a strong religious faith in Greece and her belief in fate and purpose makes her put family first yet she longs for love and romance. Griffin knows that families are fragile and he loves his partner Theo deeply but feels parenthood is for other people – it's tempting fate. What drives each of them to take the risks that they do to create families of their own as adults?

7.) How do each of the siblings define family? How do the living arrangements that evolve over the course of the story reflect their desires and fears about family? How do you define family?

8.) Dinah acts out of character by having an impetuous affair on the cruise. Why do you think she threw caution to the wind?

9.) As Dinah screams at the falls, filled with disappointment and doubt after finding that Eduardo is to be married, she waits for a sign from God. Her mother comments "Now she'll have to shake up her life and change things." How do you think Dinah handles the consequences of her actions? What do you think of how heavily she leans on her family to help her through?

10.) Why did Griffin adopt Holly, the dog, when Theo was so clearly against it? Why couldn't Griffin talk to Theo about his fears about parenthood and family? How unreasonable was it to expect Theo to understand without really being told?

11.) Why was Griffin drawn to Ray? What need did Ray fulfill for him? Why do you think Griffin was willing to give up his relationship with Theo for someone he barely knew?

12.) Alice becomes entranced by Adam, the three year old son of her neighbor and lover Ian. She thinks perhaps her fantasy of belonging in their lives could be real, perhaps it's where she's meant to be. What is Alice looking for in Ian and Adam? How do her doubts sabotage her desires especially after she loses Adam for a few minutes in the park one day?

13.) Alice notes "when she was around Neil, she kept reaching for her old self." What do you make of Alice being drawn to being wanted by Neil at the same time she wishes that Ian would ask to make their relationship permanent? What do you think about her parents' reflection that: "Alice may love them all (and she does) but still do the wrong thing. And not even intentionally. Just because she's restless, and, yes, a little blue."

14.) What do you think about Dinah and Theo and Eva pretending to be the happy family? And Griffin sneaking around watching them, stalking the old homestead?

15.) After Holly is gone and Griffin moves back in, Dinah feels like she doesn't fit anymore, and she is surprised that Theo can so easily forgive Griffin. What do you think of the shift back for Theo and Griffin?

16.) What do you think the title of the book means? Where do you imagine the three main characters' lives going from here?

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