From Kate Walbert, the highly acclaimed, National Book Award nominee, comes a dazzling, career-spanning collection of new and selected stories.
In these twelve deft, acutely funny and often heartbreaking stories, Kate Walbert delves into the hearts and minds of women. Her characters are searchers, uneasy in one way or another. They yearn for connection. They question the definitions assigned to them as wives, mothers, and daughters; they seek their own way within isolated, and often isolating, circumstances, reveling in small, everyday epiphanies and moments of clarity.
In the riveting opening story “M&M World,” a woman is plunged into panic when she briefly loses one of her daughters at the vast and over-stimulating Times Square store. In “Slow the Heart,” a single mother tries to ease tension at the dinner table with Roses and Thorns, the game she knows the Obamas played in the White House. In “Radical Feminists,” a woman skating with her two children encounters the man who derailed her career years earlier. And in the poignant, “A Mother Is Someone Who Tells Jokes,” a mother reflects on the nursery school project that preceded her son’s autism diagnosis. This is a deeply moving, resonant collection from a writer “rightly celebrated for her ability to capture the variety and vulnerability of women’s lives with a combination of lyricism and brawn” (NPR).
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About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York, and Stony Creek, Connecticut
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:M.A. in English, New York University
Read an Excerpt
Ginny had promised to take the girls to M&M World, that ridiculous place in Times Square they had passed too often in a taxi, Maggie scooting to press her face to the glass to watch the giant smiling M&M scale the Empire State Building on the electronic billboard and wave from the spire, its color dissolving yellow, then blue, then red, then yellow again. She had promised. “Promised,” Olivia said, her face twisted into the expression she reserved for moments of betrayal. “Please,” Olivia whined. “You said ‘spring.’”
She had said “spring.” This she remembered, and it was spring, or almost. Spring enough. Spring advancing, the trees newly budded, the air peppery. Regardless, it felt too early to go home when the light shone this strongly, slanting across Central Park in the way of late March, early April; plus, the city had already collectively sprung forward. Spring has sprung, the grass has ris’.
“All right,” she found herself saying. “Just once. Today. Just once. This is it.” Breaking her resolution to stop qualifying—five more minutes, this last page, one more bite—and wishing, mid-speech, she would stop. She has tried. Just as she has tried to be more easygoing, but when push comes to shove, as it always will, she is not easygoing. And she qualifies. It’s a verbal tic: first this and then that. A constant negotiation—action then reward, or promise of reward. What is it that the books say? Screw the books.
She takes the girls’ hands and holds tight, changing course, crossing Central Park West to Central Park South. The girls suddenly delighted, and delightful, straining ahead, buoyant. They are gorgeous, bright-eyed, brilliant girls: one tall, one short, pant legs dragging, torn leggings, sneakers that glow in the dark or light up with each step, boom boom boom. They break free and race across, bounding onto the sidewalk, their hands rejoined like paper cutouts, zigzagging here, zigzagging there, Maggie clutching Zoom Zoom with her free hand, choking the thing, its dangly legs and arms, its floppy, flattened ears.
Ginny follows them quickly, remembering how her heart would literally stop as Olivia—then what? four? five?—would run to this same corner, the light not yet changed. Her daughter had only to step into traffic, to veer off the curb. She never did. Olivia climbed the stone seals at seal park in Chelsea, the bronze bears in the playground outside the Metropolitan Museum; she teetered on their heads and could so easily have slipped—she did slip, once, but it was nothing. Still, Ginny had to wake her every hour that night, shake her out of her sleepy fog. “Who am I?” Ginny had said, Olivia’s blue princess pajamas silky beneath her grip, Olivia’s shoulders so thin. “Mommy?” Olivia said, squinting, pupils the right size, shrinking: constricting or contracting, she never knew which, but, whatever, correctly—she was fine. And then, a bit older, those other sneakers—wheelies? heelies?—and Olivia careering along the sidewalk, wheels where the heels should be, the speed! And downhill, too, with nothing to hold on to, no way to stop. The pediatrician had said the most dangerous thing was trampolines, even with nets. And then the rented house that summer had one, netless, in the backyard. She had watched as the girls bounced higher and higher. She couldn’t get them off, Olivia and now Maggie, just like her big sister. She had stood vigil at the window, or next to the rail in her hat and long sleeves buttoned at the wrist, the girls slathered with sunscreen. The point is, her heart stuck in her throat, always in her throat.
Ginny hurries to catch up. One has tripped the other accidentally on purpose and now the other howls as if singed with fire.
“Stop it,” Ginny hisses. “Right now. Period. Stop it or no M&M World.”
They stop, Olivia smiling to clear the air, though the air stinks: they’re near a line of carriages and their horses.
“Please,” Maggie’s saying. “Please. Please.” And so they circle around, petting Blackie, petting Whitey, petting Gummie with the drippy nostrils, the one the driver says loves sugar—“Yes, yes, next time we’ll bring a sugar cube”—and Whinny and Happy and the other one, its long yellow teeth reminding her: she needs to bleach. Suddenly everyone’s teeth are whiter than her own; they wear them like necklaces. And their faces, too, seem suspiciously doctored, first one line then another magically evaporating, a whole generation of women paying for erasure.
“Ouch,” Maggie says. She holds one hand flat as instructed, the brown carrot there, a gift from the driver. The driver laughs. “No danger,” he says. The horse roots and chews. “You’re fine,” Ginny says. She strokes the soft hair of the horse’s muzzle, the horse nuzzling Maggie’s tiny palm; it wears a hat with a feathered plume, as if it had trotted here from the stables of a fallen tsar. Ginny leans into its solid skull, and the horse stares back at her with a huge watery eye. Where am I? it wonders, or something equivalent, and she thinks of the whale in Patagonia that asked the same thing. This was years ago, before the girls were born, when she and the girls’ father took a trip to Chile.
They were there for vacation; there to see animals. Animals had been promised, including whales. A center existed, manned by earnest students, young men and women from all over the world who spoke Spanish beautifully and wore thin silver bracelets with a symbol that meant something. They piloted the boats and explained to the tourists the seriousness of the venture, the need for extra donations. The tourists kept quiet, mostly, standing on the side of the boat where they’d been told to stand, given the radar and various other instruments that would determine the location of the whales—sometimes a female with a calf or two or, rarer, a male on its own. The whales communicated over great distances, as everyone knew, but the students could intercept their communications, or decipher them: regardless, somehow the students knew what the whales were saying, or might be saying, and so could steer the boat in the right direction, where, for a fee, the tourists could take pictures of the whale surfacing or of the plume of water from the blowhole, or sometimes, even, if the tourists were very lucky, of a whale jumping gracefully as if showing off.
On this particular voyage, the one Ginny found herself on with the girls’ father, Ginny chose to stay on the side of the boat with more shade. She was hot, she told the girls’ father. He could call her if anything exciting happened. She had opened her book: War and Peace, a paperback edition she had picked up in the paperback exchange in Santiago, where they had stayed for a few days before heading south. She had been at a good part, a really good part, and so perhaps it took some time for the whale to get her attention. She had had, when she later thought about it, the feeling of being watched. And so she had looked up from her place in War and Peace and seen the whale, a female, she would learn, uncharacteristically alone, lolling before her on the surface of the water. She folded the corner of her page and stood, shading her eyes; then she walked to the boat rail to get a better look. She didn’t call the girls’ father; she didn’t call anyone. She looked down at the whale. It lay on its side, staring with one eye straight at Ginny, drifting alone in its disappearing sea, the sun burning both of them, beaming through the torn shreds of the shredded atmosphere. They stayed like that for a while, Ginny convinced that the whale had a message to deliver, something she might translate and convey to the world. But she never figured out what, since too soon someone from the other side saw it and the whale was gone.
“Mother!” Maggie’s saying.
Ginny pulls away from the solid skull of the horse and turns back to her youngest.
“You weren’t listening,” Maggie is saying.
“Was so,” Ginny says.
“Then can I?” Maggie says.
Ginny bends down to kiss Maggie’s head, the part between the plastic barrettes that Maggie repeatedly refastens each morning, wanting to look, she says, “right.” Maggie’s hair smells delicious.
“No,” she says.
Maggie stomps her foot; she’s pushed Zoom Zoom deep in her pocket, its strange face, not quite rabbit, not quite anything else—“it’s extinct,” Maggie once said—just above the fold.
“I love you,” Ginny says. “You’re beautiful.”
“What about me?” Olivia says. She has been standing next to Ginny, as quiet as a stone.
“You, too, sweetheart,” she says, pulling her oldest in. “You, too.”
There are other things to fix, not just her yellow teeth. She needs some spots removed from her skin; she needs to dye her gray roots, the stubborn tuft that refuses to blend. She could use something for her posture—Pilates—and she’s overdue a mammogram, a bone scan, a colonoscopy. She needs a new coat, an elegant one like those she’s seen on other mothers, something stylish to go with the other stylish clothes she means to buy, and the boots, the right boots, not just the galoshes she’s slipped on every morning all winter; it’s spring now, isn’t it? She should pay to have her toes soaked, her feet scrubbed of dead skin. She could choose a bright color of nail polish, a hip color, a dark purple or maybe even that shade of brown. She should take a class—philosophy, religion, vegan cooking—and wear sandals there, the new kind, with the straps that wrap the ankle or twist all the way to midcalf, her brown toenails shiny smooth, as if dipped in oil. There are posters on the subway and numbers to call. She writes down the websites in the notebook she carries for such things: lists, reminders. But she is constantly out of time, losing track, forgetting. Sunday’s Monday evening, then Wednesday vanishes altogether.
M&M World looms in the distance, the electronic billboard—M&M’S WORLD—as bright as a beacon. They hurry down Broadway. At Fifty-first, Olivia claims she can see the waving M&M hanging from the spire of the Empire State Building. “It’s blue!” she says.
“Where? Where?” Maggie says.
“No, it’s green!” she says.
“Where?” Maggie says, hopping. She’s suddenly furious. “I can’t see! Lift me!”
“Be patient,” Ginny says. She takes Maggie’s hand and pulls her along. Olivia is in front, swimming upstream, parting the crowds. Hallelujah to the end of the hideous winter: blackened snowdrifts and dog shit and lost gloves. The city erupts, oozes, overflows; everyone is outdoors, walking quickly or standing on the corner checking phones, dialing phones, speaking on phones. “Where?” someone is saying. “You’re breaking up.”
“Olivia?” she yells; she doesn’t see her.
Olivia has stopped in front of a store window: snow globes and hats and luggage on wheels, a rack of I New York T-shirts, electronic gadgets. She is suddenly taller when she turns back around, her face complicated. “I’m here, Mom,” she says.
“Don’t scare me.”
“It’s the new kind.”
“I can’t,” Ginny says. “We’ve got to—”
Maggie’s pulling her hand. “Mister Softee!” she’s saying.
Christ, already? The truck?
“Please?” Maggie says.
“Not today,” Ginny says.
“Did you see it?” Olivia’s saying.
“Just a minute,” she says to Maggie. “What?” she says to Olivia.
“Please? It’s a special day, isn’t it?” Maggie’s saying. “It’s spring. You said.” Ginny turns to Maggie. In Maggie’s smile are four missing teeth, each one saved and wrapped in tinfoil in her Tooth Fairy Box. She plans on blowing her wad all at once: fifteen teeth—or are there more?—beneath her pillow, precious little things although three have already been patched for cavities, the dentist wondering how vigilant Ginny has been about flossing, the amount of candy consumed. “Remarkably so and hardly any,” Ginny had said at the last appointment. “It’s a mystery.”
“Next time,” she says now to Maggie. “Enough’s enough.”
“It’s the new kind,” Olivia is saying.
Maggie looks up. “Please,” she says, her teeth tiny pearls.
“Mom!” Olivia says.
“Oh, all right,” Ginny says. “Just this once. Not again. Only because it’s spring. This is it.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Maggie says, smiling.
“What?” Olivia says.
“Ice cream!” Maggie says. They high-five and dance around Ginny’s knees.
Ginny had kept a list of the animals of Patagonia. The ones that interested her. There were the penguins, of course, an entire colony that was completely tame. They had never been hunted and it was as simple as that, the guide had said, she and the girls’ father stooping, squatting to watch them furiously building their nests: the mating season had ended and now they were preparing for eggs. There were some, too, that were not well. Those stood on the outside of the colonies looking in; sometimes small crowds of other penguins gathered around them and nosed them toward the water, a not so subtle suggestion, the guide had said, that they might be better off drowned. Brutal nature, the girls’ father had said. There were the lizards and the guanacos and the numerous birds, the elephant seals they’d watched from a cliff top, the males fighting over a female that lay on its side, clueless or, rather, helpless. Brutal nature, she had said, and the girls’ father had laughed, and in that instant, and this is true, a rainbow had appeared—it was that kind of weather—the arc stretching from one end of the ocean to the other, and she had taken his hand and said, “Yes.” She thought she was ready. Children, she had said. Dozens of them.
There are even more people farther on, in Times Square, though the cars have been blocked and so there’s that, at least—one less thing. They’ll finish their ice creams here before turning back toward the store, Ginny says, maneuvering the girls around the tables and chairs, the feet, the flocks of pigeons, the remnants of lunches consumed. Men and women she may or may not recognize—movie stars, rappers, modelsóloom above them, magnified a thousand percent, their eyes the size of swimming pools, their teeth cliff walls she could hide behind or possibly dwell in, like the Anasazi, chiseling toeholds so she might scale down at night to forage. The movie stars, rappers, and models are invariably smiling, cheerful; some sing or dance, the women with suggestive postures, the men in dark glasses and fur coats. Everyone is moving, gyrating, blinking, flashing. Tourists sit on the new risers watching nothing or everything, looking down, from time to time, to study their guidebooks. The breeze picks up, eddying ticket stubs and wrappers and waxed paper and brown bags and plastic straws and whatever else has been left behind. Shameless, this litter: if she ran the world. Recently, a flock of plastic bags has caught in the spindly sycamore in front of their apartment, empty bags that inflate and deflate with the wind like marooned sailing ships. They are what she sees when she looks out the living room window, which, truth be told, she does more often now than she should. It’s as if she were trying to remember something that she’d forgotten, as if there were someone she was supposed to call. She stands at the window and looks, the plastic bags inflating, deflating. Alive, somehow, mocking her or maybe just reminding her—a cosmological message. From whom? Of what?
“Mother!” Olivia yells. Maggie, halfway between Ginny and Olivia, is on the pavement, clutching her knee. “Mister Softee!” she’s saying. “My cone!” Ginny is next to her before she knows it, pushing up Maggie’s ragged leggings to expose the skin, stroking her hair. Strangers gather dumbly. “We’re fine,” Ginny says. “Thank you. She’s fine.” She blows on the scraped place, red and scratched raw but not bleeding—they were racing, they were almost tied, Olivia’s explaining. Maggie’s ice cream is upturned and melting in the street, a ruination. Maggie cannot speak for sobbing. “Sweetheart,” Ginny’s saying, stroking her hair. “It’s okay, sweetheart. We’ll find another truck. We’ll get a new one. We’ll get another.”
Olivia licks her cone, listening. “Then I want another one, too,” she says.
The place is jammed and loud. There are vats of brightly colored M&M’s everywhere, M&M’s crammed in plastic tubes spiraling to the ceiling. There are M&M T-shirts and M&M mugs and M&M tote bags and stuffed M&M men, or whatever they’re called (M&M guys? M&M characters?), and M&M pillows and M&M beach towels and M&M statues and M&M key rings and M&M snow globes and M&M plates and M&M puzzles and M&M umbrellas. The employees, dressed in M&M colors, dance and sing along—for minimum wage?—to a song Ginny recognizes, a song she’s heard played continuously on the radio station that Olivia listens to in her room now, the door mostly closed. It’s the voice, Olivia pointed out, of one of the men on the billboards, one of the men swathed in fur—or maybe he was the guy in the suit. Ginny can’t remember, her head already clogged, her eyes watering. It is hot in here, the air-conditioning not yet on, the heat remembering winter. The girls stand on either side of her, transfixed. Maggie’s tears have been wiped dry, a Band-Aid found in the deep recesses of Ginny’s purse, the wound, as Maggie called it, cleaned with a hand wipe, then kissed for good luck. Only Big Sister could do that part—wiggling her fingers first to conjure the fairy dust that only Big Sister could conjure. A fairy dust invisible to mothers, its healing powers a mystery, like phoenix tears, Olivia said. Or Zoom Zoom, Maggie said.
“Can we, please?” Olivia asks now. She has seen the sign directing customers up, by way of the escalator, to the second floor, where a life-size M&M waits like Santa Claus, available for photographs.
“All right,” Ginny says. “Just this once. Because we’re here. But not if there’s a line.”
“Yeah!” the girls say. Olivia takes Maggie’s hand and leads the way. Ginny watches them step onto the escalator with their identical ponytails, their small shoulders, their fleeces tied around their waists. From the moment they were born, they looked like her or they looked like their father, or, sometimes, they looked like a combination of both: her hair and his eyes, his mouth and her nose, her chin and his smile. But from behind now they look just like little girls: sisters in a portrait, or Renoir’s beauties in flat black hats, poppies sprung from their ballet shoes. They are timeless, somehow, though too fast growing. “Zoom Zoom is shrinking,” Maggie had said. “Wasn’t Zoom Zoom once bigger?” They ascend and Ginny feels the catch of love unbearable: she never imagined this, she thinks, her heart suddenly thudding, as if stepping down a stair or two, hard, and then a pause and then another thump, or a clump, her heart clumping down the stairs—caffeine, maybe, or nerves.
She follows them up but they are already out of sight. The crowds thick, people speaking different languages, laughing, dancing with the employees. Where is she? What is this? At the top of the stairs, Olivia waits to show her. “Look!” she says, holding up a green Statue of Liberty M&M. “You pull the torch.”
“Cool,” Ginny says.
“Are you looking?” Olivia says. “The torch!”
“I saw,” Ginny says. “It’s cool.”
“And they have purple ones.”
“Can we get some?”
“Where’s your sister?”
“With the guy. Can we get some?”
“The purple ones! They’re grape!”
She and the girls’ father had discussed at length how to explain it to them. He had thought it best to be as honest as possible, to sit them down and simply tell them that he was moving out. “They’re old enough,” he had said.
They’re too young, she’d said. She could barely look at him. He was all secrets; they slid around beneath his expression like tectonic plates. He was all the things he wouldn’t say to her that she wanted to know, all deception and cunning. It made her crazy to look at him and so she stared at her feet, at her ubiquitous galoshes. At least she should find some more contemporary ones, the ones with the thick matching socks turned down over the top, the ones in strong solid colors that came from the British Isles or somewhere—Brittany?—and suggested other lives, lives spent mucking stalls or milking cows, or even striding with a fishing rod and a rough-hewn basket through streams where the trout still ran as they once had, before, in other places, they grew strange scales and forgot to spawn; lives spent striding and oblivious of the wet, oblivious of the hard stones that would have pierced the soles of lesser girls. Boots that suggested strength or, at the very least, a day’s catch.
“It’s not like they don’t get the concept,” he had said.
She looked up at his face and squinted, and the girls were there, too: in his eyes, his eyebrows.
“Maggie!” Ginny shouts. She can’t see her. The line for a photograph with the M&M is endless, and she can’t see Maggie anywhere.
“What guy?” Ginny asks, turning to Olivia. “What do you mean, ‘the guy’”
“I didn’t say that,” Olivia said. “I don’t know. She was here a minute ago.”
“Right here,” Olivia says, and starts to cry.
“Don’t,” Ginny says. “We’ll find her. Please. She wouldn’t just disappear. She’s got to be somewhere. Maggie!”
“Maggie!” Olivia says.
“Maggie!” Ginny says.
There are too many people in M&M World. There should be some requirements, some restrictions. She’s quite sure that numerous fire codes are being broken. She plans to write a letter, to get someone’s attention—she’ll call 311. There are hundreds of people, if not thousands, in this place. How can anyone see a thing? She looks around at the racks, the ascending columns of stuff, the stacks and piles beneath the garish lights, and she suddenly thinks she spots Maggie, but it’s not her; it’s another child. She yanks Olivia here and there. “Maggie!” she calls. She is trying to remain calm. She’ll find an employee in a minute; there must be an intercom system. “Maggie!” This must happen all the time, as it does at Disney World and places like that. The store can automatically lock the doors. “Maggie!” She sees an employee, a girl no more than seventeen or eighteen in M&M green with a pierced nose and spiky blond hair. “My daughter,” she says, breathless, flagging her. “She’s gone.” The girl’s name tag says WENDY, KALAMAZOO, MICHIGAN. Thank God, a midwesterner.
“I mean, she was with me. And now I don’t know where she is.”
“Was she here?” Wendy says.
“Yes, she was. With me. And I can’t—” Ginny breaks away. “Jesus, is there someone else?”
“I’ll help you find her,” Wendy says.
“Is there a manager?”
“Don’t panic,” Wendy says.
“I’ve got to—”
“Barbara,” Wendy is saying into some kind of apparatus she’s wearing around her neck.
She and the girls’ father sat across from each other at the kitchen table, the light above them harsh, the hour late. From time to time, an ambulance sirened by, or someone shouted in the street; it was the weekend. The girls slept in the other room, Olivia with the quilt wrapping her ankles—she tossed and turned—and Maggie with Zoom Zoom and her other animals positioned around her. Zoom Zoom in the doll cradle, perhaps, or tucked in a towel on the floor, its head on a pincushion or a neatly folded Kleenex.
He talked and talked. She needed a change in subject; she needed to go to bed. It was all so banal, wasn’t it? So ordinary? Predictable? An intern? A true love? She looked down at her unvarnished nails: in college she had worn leather moccasins and, on occasion, feathers in her ears; she’d won a prize for her dissertation. Most days, she carried a tote bag, black, with the name of her favorite nonprofit in white.
She listened for a while, and then she did not. Then she said, “Maybe we could tell them it’s like what happens when they argue about the fort. How they each want to push the other out of the fort, how there’s never enough room in the fort. We could tell them you’re taking a break from the fort,” she said.
“All right,” he said.
“This, of course, makes me the fort,” she said.
“You are not the fort,” he said.
“I was joking,” she said.
Outside, a bottle shattered.
“But they might understand the thing about the fort,” she said.
“All right,” he said.
“They might,” she said.
“That’s good,” he said.
“Maggie!” Ginny yells. She feels Wendy touch her arm, right behind her.
“Don’t leave,” Wendy says. “That’s the first thing.”
“Don’t go out of sight.”
“She’s out of sight,” Ginny says. “My daughter. She’s five years old. Please.”
Olivia cries beside her. “I’m sorry,” Olivia says. “It’s my fault.”
“It’s not your fault,” Ginny says. “Sweetheart, it’s not your—Maggie!” Now Ginny’s screaming, her voice swallowed by the wall of sound, the same song, the same rapper, repeatedly singing. Customers stop browsing, unsure what to do. They step back and multiply, as if viewing an accident.
Wendy is speaking into the gadget around her neck. She looks up. “Barbara’s on her way,” she says, as if delivering good news. “She was in inventory.”
After the whale swam away—disappeared, really—Ginny couldn’t quite explain to the girls’ father why she hadn’t called him immediately. He had promised to call her, he said, so why hadn’t she called him? He had been just on the other side of the boat; he had the camera, after all. He hadn’t seen a thing, he said. By the time he heard the other tourists shouting, the hubbub, the whale was gone and Ginny was standing there, red-handed. “You were red-handed,” he teased her afterward. “A whale hoarder.”
“Was not a whale hoarder,” she’d said.
“Uh-huh,” he said. “Whale hoarder.”
And for a while, in the early years of their marriage, when she spent too much time reading, or rose early to walk alone in the park, or drifted off when the two were having dinner in a restaurant, he’d kick her ankle and say it again. “Whale hoarder,” he’d say. And she’d laugh and then she would not. She’d remember the whale’s expression, how it lay on its side and drifted in the current, how it had been so close that she could see the raised scars of its skin, the mottled gray color of it and the sheen of evaporating water, and its massive head, how the whale’s eye, onyx black, had looked directly at her, unblinking, and she had thought, If I can stand here long enough, if I can just look hard enough, I’ll understand. What, she wasn’t sure, but she felt it was something she was meant to know, something beyond the noise of everything else, something as clear as the sounds carried across the ocean. “What?” she had said to the whale. “What?”
It is Olivia who spots Zoom Zoom after Barbara has arrived and the doors have been manned, after Ginny has sunk to the floor with her head between her legs, after the tourists, English-speaking and those with no idea, have come forward, rallying around the woman with the missing child and the child that remains, a gorgeous girl, freckled, tall, her hair loosened from its ponytail, her face puffed with tears. It is Olivia who sees Zoom Zoom’s ear, and then Maggie’s shoes, or the bottoms of them, beneath the dressing room curtains, Maggie covered by a heap of discarded M&M wear, an M&M beach towel over her head. She hadn’t heard her mother or her sister, she said, howling. She thought they’d gone, too.
“Too?” Ginny says, hugging her youngest to the floor, hugging her small arms and legs, folding her into her own arms as tight as she can bear. “Too?” she says, crying, laughing, pulling Olivia in as well, so that the three form a kind of solid thing, a weight, a substance, as round as a boulder, which, for the moment, fills in the empty space that was there just before. And suddenly everything returns: the buzzy air, the lemony chocolate scent piped through the store, the rapper’s song, the rainbow wall of colors, the crowds.
“Let’s go,” Ginny whispers. The girls are sniffling, their faces hot. She stands then, a daughter gripped in each hand. They ride the escalator down in silence, staring out the large windows toward Broadway, toward the familiar thickening rush-hour crowd, until they reach the bottom and step off. Ginny lets go first, leading them, pushing hard on the glass door against the wind, against what has become more than a blustery day, because in truth it is not yet spring, exactly; there is still the possibility of a freeze.
She squats to zip the girls’ fleeces to their chins, to kiss their cheeks—their eyes still wet with tears—then pulls them close to her, again. How soon the whale dissolved into its darkening sea. How soon she was left on her own, waiting.
Table of Contents
M&M World 1
The Blue Hour 23
To Do 81
Paris, 1994 99
A Mother Is Someone Who Tells Jokes 117
She Was Like That 161
Slow the Heart 177
Do Something 193
Radical Feminists 211
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for She Was Like That includes an introduction, 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.
In these deft, gorgeously wrought stories, Kate Walbert explores the hearts and minds of women, the joys and anxieties of mothering in the modern age, and the drive for human connection in an increasingly disconnected world. Walbert is as skilled as ever at capturing female interiority. In the brilliant opening story “M&M World,” a woman is plunged into panic when she briefly loses one of her daughters at the Times Square store. In “Slow the Heart,” a single mother wanting to enliven the dinner table conversation suggests to her family that they play Roses and Thorns, the game the Obamas played during meals in the White House. And in the story, “A Mother is Someone Who Tells Jokes,” a woman reflects on the nursery school project that preceded her son’s autism diagnosis. She Was Like That is a deeply resonant, career-spanning collection from a writer “rightly celebrated for her ability to capture the variety and vulnerability of women’s lives with a combination of lyricism and brawn” (NPR).
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. From a mother losing her daughter in the consumerist chaos of a Times Square store in “M&M World” to a father checking his phone during a group meeting of parents and children in a rehabilitation facility in “Slow the Heart,” many of Walbert’s characters are distracted and overstimulated. What role does technology play in these stories? What do you think Walbert is trying to convey about the modern condition?
2. The past figures significantly in Walbert’s stories. In many of them, flashbacks infuse the present scenes with greater depth and significance. Why do you think she chooses to do this? Is there a flashback that had particular resonance for you?
3. Men are frequently absent from these stories. In “M&M World,” the narrator's ex-husband is never named, simply called “the girls’ father.” How are men portrayed in these stories, as fathers or as husbands?
4. Many of these stories, from “M&M World” to “Radical Feminists” to “A Mother is Someone Who Tells Jokes,” take place in New York City. In what ways does post-9/11 New York inform the sensibility of these stories? How does the environment, and the city in particular, affect the characters’ psyches and lives?
5. Several of these stories feature women telling stories, including “To Do,” “She Was Like That,” and “Conversation,” among others. Discuss the theme of storytelling in this collection. What is the significance of the characters’ attempting, and often failing, to be heard?
6. Walbert’s characters frequently mention canonical women writers, from Edith Wharton in “A Mother is Someone Who Tells Jokes” to Virginia Woolf in “She Was Like That.” How do these women interact with these texts? How do you think these writers have influenced Walbert’s writing?
7. In “Do Something” the narrator, Margaret, announces that she is “trying to Do Something . . . trying to be real when everything is an approximation” (page 204). In what ways do we see Margaret, and Walbert’s other characters, attempt to do something throughout this collection? How is the drive to do more or connect more reflected in other stories in the collection?
8. In “A Mother in Someone Who Tells Jokes,” the children are asked to complete the sentence: “A mother is someone who . . .” The narrator’s son chooses “A mother is someone who tells jokes.” What do you think of this answer? What do you think it says about the story?
9. “Radical Feminists” features a man, Jonathan Fontaine, who years earlier derailed the career of the protagonist, Beatrice Wells, by asking if she planned to get pregnant while on the job. The two bump into each other in a busy park, and Beatrice proceeds to imagine all the ways in which she might have confronted him at the time—though she did not—while simultaneously doing him a favor. What does this story say about what women were up against in the workforce at the time? And now? What does it say about the shadow of sexism over a woman’s life?
10. What do you think are some of the threads and common themes through the twelve stories? What do you make of the title She Was Like That, and how do you think it represents the collection as a whole?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read A Short History of Women, Kate Walbert’s much-acclaimed novel, which features some of these stories, and offers a moving portrait of the complicated legacies of mothers and daughters.
2. Bring in a favorite passage from one of the many women writers who have reflected on female interiority over the past century, from Virginia Woolf to Jenny Offill, that you think complements these stories. Discuss how it resonates with your own story.