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Handsome and ambitious, Mirella and Howard Cook-Goldman have it all-two precious children, dual careers, a great old colonial house on Massachusetts's North Shore, a golden retriever. The only thing they lack is reliable child care.
Enter Randi Gill, sent by Family Options, Ltd., an agency specializing in Midwestern girls with teaching aspirations ("Could you be Comfortable with Anything but the Best for Your Family?. . . Guaranteed Nationwide FBI Criminal Fingerprinting and Background Checks."). Randi's references are perfect. She's perfect. She cleans, cooks, sews, and makes her own Play-Doh. The children love her . . . almost too much.
Though it's hard for Mirella to watch Randi succeed with the children where she has failed, she can't deny the peace and order Randi has brought to the household. But perfection is a tough act to maintain, and soon enough, there are ruptures. When events force Mirella and Howard to reveal the secrets they've been hiding from each other, the family cataclysm catapults the nanny (who has secrets of her own) into a position of unnatural control.
In A Perfect Arrangement, Suzanne Berne now fixes her sights on contemporary, two-career family life. Overscheduled and overwhelmed, today's parents are desperate for help. Whatever child care they manage to set up, the arrangements are rarely perfect. This suspenseful novel asks a question all of them face: "Is there anyone you can trust with your children?"
|Publisher:||Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Part I: 1
"She sounded cheery but earnest," Mirella told Howard that morning as she pressed a paper towel into a puddle of milk on Pearl's place mat.
"Cheery," said Howard, angled over the newspaper.
Mirella sat back and dried her fingers on her napkin. "A homey sort of voice." She looked at her watch, then checked the old walnut case clock by the fireplace, which as usual was slow. It was one of those sulfurous New England spring mornings that had been forecast to be mild but felt clammy instead, and as Mirella glanced from the clock to the window she found herself shivering.
"Comforting somehow," she said.
The Cook-Goldmans had been hunting for three weeks for a nanny to replace thick-chinned Grete, their second au pair in two years, who had flown home to Uppsala because she missed her boyfriend, Karl. There had been recent letters, sky-blue aerogrammes covered with Karl's blocky print. A midnight phone call, ending in assertive tears. "Karl needs me," Grete had said, her voice tremulous with complacency.
They were trying a new child-care agency this time, Family Options Ltd., which specialized in midwestern girls with teaching aspirations. "Could you be comfortable with anything but the best for your family?" queried Family Options' salmon-colored brochure. "Our nannies are dedicated, trained, and sensitive individuals, subject to rigorous screening and psychological evaluation. Guaranteed nationwide FBI criminal fingerprinting and background checks. Drug testing and CPR certification."
So far Mirella had not been impressed by the applicants from Family Options. It took two weeks for the agency to produce anyone for an interview-there was a waiting list of families desperate for a nanny, all the agencies said the same-then when Mirella asked the first applicant, a plump brunette from New Jersey, why she enjoyed working with children, the young woman burst into tears and confessed to having an eating disorder. The second, a former nursery school aide, a thin exhausted-looking person in a black straw hat, tripped over the doorstep when she arrived for her interview, then asked Mirella how much she had paid for her house.
"Always worry about the cheerful ones." Howard scanned the front page of the paper while snapping Jacob into his overalls. Rain predicted, Mirella read, craning sideways to look at the paper, today and tomorrow. The value of the Japanese yen had plummeted. Independent counsel widens presidential investigation. A shooting at an elementary school outside of Spokane.
Jacob flapped his arms, his Indian headdress slipping over one eye. "Blud-a-bub," he said. Then he grunted and went limp in Howard's lap.
Mirella found the lid to the jelly jar and screwed it on. "She's been working for a family in Brookline and she used to run some kind of Sunday school program at a church."
"Sit up," Howard told Jacob.
Mirella took a sip of milky coffee, pausing to watch Jacob flutter his eyelashes. Blink, blink, pause. Blink, blink. A white crust of milk glazed his chin; an amber nugget of snot lodged in one nostril. Of course she worried. Only a year since that Boston nanny sat in the news day after day, face blank as a dinner roll, beside all those pictures of the poor little boy. Six months before, a mother at Pearl's preschool came home to find their nanny drunk in the TV room, the one-year-old asleep upstairs on the changing table. People were installing video recorders now. Worry didn't come near it.
Mirella cupped her palms to either side of her face and, for the countless time in the last few weeks, considered what would happen if she forgot about hiring a nanny for Pearl and Jacob, quit work, and stayed home. It could be nice, she thought. Block castles, Play-Doh birthday cakes, afternoons at the park. Immediately a Sahara of days spread across the table, burying the castles and birthday cakes, becoming a quicksand of dirty cups and dishes, hours draining into the laundry basket, trips to the park that took so long to prepare for that by the time everyone was ready, no one wanted to go. Back once more to their own yard-that grainy relief and reluctance as she struggled through the front door and into the hall, loaded like a camel with child, bags, dog leash, stroller. Home again, and again. The cloistered smell of the house becoming her own smell: cold coffee, a diaper left in the wastebasket, the glum reek of last night's fish clinging to the broiling pan left in the sink.
She squinted at the finish on the table, stippled with faint gashes wherever the children had drummed their forks and spoons, then looked at her watch again, calculating that she would have an hour to get downtown after dropping off Pearl at preschool. Five minutes to get from her car to the courthouse. Then two meetings after her hearing, tomorrow's deposition to prepare for, Hayman's restraining order to file, a phone conference at three.
Thank God, she thought.
Jacob had stuck his finger in the butter and was smudging his finger along the table; she reached over and wiped his hand with her napkin, then wiped his nose. "Mmff," he said, twisting his face away.
Because the law, unlike her family, was beautifully reducible. The law was simply a set of rules by which human beings governed themselves. That these rules could be complex, sometimes arcane, and-because they were formed out of language-forever open to reinterpretation, accounted for most of their scope and all of their interest. But what Mirella found moving, what had inspired her to become a lawyer in the first place, was the plain human need behind all lawmaking, the desire for guidance and precedent that went straight to a zone that was humanity itself, that might even, she sometimes suspected, be the deepest of all human passions.
Not that she had a chance to reflect on the essential purpose of law very often. Her clients, mostly women, were afraid of laws, which they regarded as punitive; they became restless and embarrassed, swiveling on their padded red conference chairs, fiddling with their earrings whenever she tried to discuss philosophical aspects of the legal system. And who could blame them? Usually the people who hired her were either terrified or confused, people who had disappointed other people, often without knowing quite how-abandoned wives, assaulted girlfriends, fired employees. They wanted clear satisfactions: money, vindication. Sometimes they wanted revenge, sometimes protection. Mostly they wanted Mirella to give them whatever it was they needed, as quickly as possible.
Jacob stuck his finger again in the butter dish. She reached over and gently pushed the butter dish across the table.
Howard was still reading the paper over the top of Jacob's head. "What's her name?"
Mirella shifted in her chair. "Sandy. We said ten. Apparently she likes doing crafts. And the woman at the agency said she loves to cook-"
"She probably has no legs or something."
Blinking herself now, Mirella let the rest of her sentence vanish into the complicated Italian design on her coffee mug.
"I didn't mean that about the no legs," he said.
Which was only his way, she recognized, a fraction too late, of trying to control what she'd arranged, this interview. Though Howard pretended not to believe in bargaining with fate, he did it all the time. Bargaining, as she well knew, forgiving him already, was what a worried person did to stop worrying. At least for a little while.
"Crafts," said Howard musingly.
Mirella put down her cup and looked at the dining room's wide brick fireplace, which was crammed with stuffed animals and a pair of beach towels. "So do you think you could tidy up a little before she gets here? Just the downstairs. I don't want her to think we're a bunch of cave dwellers."
"Cave dwellers were a civilized culture." Howard fumbled with the last snap on Jacob's overalls. "Why are these things so impossible?"
Reading Group Guide
Question: Emma wants a child more than anything but she does not tell Pete about her worries and concerns. In fact, she does not confide in anyone until she meets Leonie and Hannah. What about her two new friends enables her to trust them so quickly? In what ways do they help her? What void do Leonie and Hannah fill in Emma's life?
Question: In what ways does Leonie go about trying to fulfill her ultimate goal of finding true love? Why was Ray not right for her? What factors finally motivate her to be pro-active in her search?
Question: Hannah, Emma, and Leonie become like a family to each other. What familial role does each woman take on? Compare their "family" to the actual families in the book. Why do these three friends need each other for support so badly?
Question: At the beginning of the book, Emma is very timid and even a bit afraid of her parents. How does her view of herself change throughout the book? What happens in her life that makes her stronger? In what ways does this strength help her?
Question: Hannah tells Leonie and Emma that she wants a life free of men, and wants to concern herself only with her career. What about Felix makes her change her mind so completely and abruptly? Did you believe that Felix was the right man for Hannah? Why or why not?
Question: Leonie is a strong woman, but she hides behind her hair and make-up, afraid to show her true face to the world. In what ways was going to the beauty salon with Hannah and Emma a metamorphosis for Leonie?
Question: Emma's relationship with her family, especiallyher father, takes a drastic turn when her mother becomes ill. Discuss the complicated family dynamic in Emma's family. In what ways does it change? In what ways does the shift in power change Emma as a person?
Question: Discuss Hannah's return to America for Christmas. How does the trip help or hinder her? How does her gesture of coming home change her relationship with her mother? How does it change the way she views her family, particularly her father? In what ways does she fall into the same traps as her mother when it comes to men?
Question: Emma wants a child very much, yet it is Hannah that becomes pregnant. How does motherhood change Hannah? How does it change her relationship with Felix? With Emma? Hannah is very worried that she will not be a good mother. Do you think she is?
Question: Leonie notices Abby's eating disorder long before she says anything. What do you make of the way she handled Abby's problem? In what ways did she ultimately help her daughter? In what ways did Fliss? As a large women herself, how did it effect Leonie to find her daughter was starving herself? How did it change her image of herself? How did it effect her image of Abby?
Question: In what ways is David more suited for Hannah than Felix? Why does it take her so long to realize that David is the man she really loves? Given the way that Hannah felt about Felix, do you think it is possible for her to be happy with David? Why or why not?
Question: Compare Doug to the men that Leonie has her blind dates with. What about Doug is different? What about Doug appeals to Leonie? And given her strong desire to find the right man, why is she blind to the possibility of Doug as her soulmate for so long?
Question: Emma is overjoyed to find, towards the end of the book, that she is finally pregnant. Hoe does she reconcile this happiness with the sadness she feels about her mother's sickness?
Question: In what ways does Hannah, Emma, Leonie's friendships evolve throughout the novel? What are the things that pull them apart? What brings them together? Why is the friendship so important to all three women?
Question: Of Hannah, Emma, and Leonie, which woman did you relate to the most? Which characteristics did you admire in each? In their circumstances, how could they have handled things better? Discuss the ways that these three friends are unique and what about them, as women, make them the same.
Question: Hannah is an American woman living in Ireland. Why was it important to have an American in the mix? Do you see her as ultimately different than Leonie and Emma?
Ireland is a multi-cultural society and over the past ten years, there's been a huge increase in the number of people from all over the world living there. So many of my friends come from the four corners of the globe, including America, and it seemed like a good idea to include a character who wasn't Irish. Also like a lot of Irish people, I've a huge affinity with America. Hannah is only different from Leonie and Emma in that she's a different individual: her origin doesn't make any difference. She has the same hopes and ideals, she's a lovely, kind, funny woman who wants a good life and happiness. That dream is universal.
Question: Who are your favorite writers? What kinds of books and authors inspire you to write?
I adore Jane Austen, Anita Shreve, Maeve Binchy. To be honest, I could be here all day telling you about writers. I never stop reading, which is why I don't spend enough time vacuuming! I'm writing this in my study which is covered in books (a lot of the floor, to be honest!) I love autobiographies and find books about China fascinating. I try and read historical/factual books to educate myself. I obviously didn't pay enough attention in history in school!
Question: Which of the three women in Someone Like You do you relate to the most? Or are they an amalgam of different aspects of your own personality?
People do assume that you create characters by taking different aspects of yourself and mixing it all up,but you don't. I really make up characters. My novels are character-driven rather than plot-driven, so the hard part in the beginning is creating these very different women and giving them their voices. When it comes to which woman I related to most, I honestly related to them all in different ways.
Question: As a columnist, what were the major challenges facing you when you sat down to write fiction? Did your columns inspire your fiction?
When I was a columnist, I worked for a tabloid paper which meant you had very limited space. When I started writing novels, I had to learn to write lots. On the days when I went into the newspaper office, the subeditors (who lay out newspaper pages) used to go mad because my articles were too long! I worked as the paper's agony aunt for five years but I never used a letter as the basis for a book. This would have been wrong, a betrayal of the people who wrote to me. It did show me that the world is a strange and often sad place, and that truth is genuinely stranger than fiction.
Question: Have you considered a sequel to Someone Like You? Or do you see the end of this novel as the "happily ever after" that the three characters are seeking?
I've never written a sequel and I don't see myself writing a sequel to Someone Like You. Although to paraphrase James Bond 'never say never. ' And I do see this as happy ever after. Is that schmaltzy? I am a romantic at heart!
Question: What are you working on now?
I'm currently working on my sixth novel which is the story of a family, three sisters and their mother. To the outside world, these women have it all. But behind closed doors, it's another story...
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Although not a bad book, the ending left me searching for more. The main character, Mirella is very puzzling. All throughout the book I kept thinking, 'what a lousy mom!' I was waiting for the nanny, Randy, to do something completely crazy since there is such a build up. What happens is barely shocking. I was left really disliking Mirella. The message I got from this book was, 'just because you are a professional and 40somehting with a beautiful house and a husband, does not automatically qualify you to be a good parent.'
While not a bad read, A Perfect Arrangement is not particularly engaging either. The couple in question are not easy to identify with and the issues raised by the book are of limited interest.
I truly enjoyed this book. It was a fast, easy read but had substance and detail. I found myself eagerly awaiting the next chapter. When I read the review, it sounded a bit trite and very 2001. Two working parents, living in the suburbs, stressed out, in search of the perfect nanny. The book, however, was much more than that and went into these issues in depth. It was also nice to read about parents in their 40's (instead of their 30's) with young children, contemplating another child...