After all these years is there any way you would see me again? When Emma Lauryn Gilford heard the voice on her answering machine, she thought, How dare he? She’s put a lot of distance between herself and Samuel, filling her life with work and family, lavishing her attention on her lovely nieces and a garden that’s the pride of Higgins, South Carolina. So why does his voice still have the power to make her heart skip? Why can’t she stop thinking about this man she’d forgotten so long ago?
Emma has always been the dependable daughter, the mediator of the controlled chaos always surrounding her high-strung sisters and her widowed mother, Higgins’s own senior citizen seductress. But with the annual Gilford family reunion just around the corner, at least two of her sisters approaching meltdown, and her favorite teenage niece taking sanctuary in her home, Emma’s concrete wall of self-denial is showing cracks. And on the other side is a life she can’t put off living a moment longer.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:September 18, 1953
Place of Birth:Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Education:B.A., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1975
Read an Excerpt
THE FIRST QUESTION:
After all these years is there any chance in sweet hell you would see me again?
The very moment Emma Lauryn Gilford presses the play button on her answering machine and hears the voice of a man she has not seen or heard from at least two pant sizes ago boldly asking her if there is any chance in sweet hell that she would see him again, she feels something physically dislodge itself from a space just below her heart and swirl through her body like a wild Frisbee.
The Frisbee first cruises through her head, erasing every normal thought and feeling that her usually sane, and usually predictable, mind might create. Emma can feel it race past her chest and twirl its way towards her stomach—ignoring, of course, her heart, which she mistakenly thinks has been on solid and safe ground during the past fifteen-plus years since she’s seen the actual face of the man who just dared to leave her a phone message.
How dare he.
Peaceful, poised, restrained, controlled, happy, and usually quiet and lovely, Emma Gilford has a sudden and totally unexpected urge to scream and hit something at the same moment. If only she could move. If only she could really do what her mind has imagined.
What in the world is happening to me?
Emma tries to slow her breathing, knows it’s beyond imperative to regain control over her forty-three-year-old body and mind before his face rises up from the now ancient space just behind her concrete wall of denial, where she placed him all those years ago amid a mess of other events and people.
What Emma cannot see and does not admit is that after all these years Samuel’s head is still peeking at her from the top of her inner concrete wall. There is now a hint of gray edging out from the natural part that runs down the left side of the top of his head, but it is surely his head. His head with its strands of hair bleached at the edges from hours and days and weeks and years in the sun doing his work. His eyes as dark and seductive as dancing shadows at midnight. His nose that some might consider too big but a nose that Emma always thought made him look the part of the serious intellectual. His neck supported by a shaft of muscles that made it impossible for him to ever find a shirt that fit properly. His head always tipped to one side when he was listening to her and he did always listen to her like no one else had ever listened to her before or since. His brain filled with stories and light and a passion for his work and for her that made her knees weak and her heart lurch. His lips that could dance across her body in a ballet of love that Emma thought, wished, hoped and prayed had finally disappeared from her mind after all these years of working so hard to forget.
All those years since the last time she heard his voice.
All those years when the seconds, minutes and hours of her life have surely created new stories and experiences that even Emma would call living without realizing her heart has remained suspended.
All those years when the nieces and nephews have grown higher, their mothers—her sisters—a bit wider and amazingly even louder than when they were growing up, and her mother, as the leader of all things Gilford, has remained as boisterous, often hilarious and always entertaining.
All those years when Emma buried herself so enthusiastically in her own work, the lives of those same three sisters, and all those soccer, football and volleyball games, school plays, junior high arguments, voice changes, and first crushes as if she were the real mother and not just the beloved and always available auntie.
All those years.
“Damn you, Samuel,” Emma finally manages to say again as she wills the swirl of emotion to stop slicing the bricks off of her sanctuary where even more of Samuel is revealed.
The two absolutely astounding and terribly masculine bones just below his throat where Emma loved to rest her fingers.
The way he would simply take her hand and place it there, right there, when they were sitting, standing, lying, breathing, talking, laughing.
And they did laugh.
She remembers it now, while she places her hand across her own throat where the laughter seemed to rest back then as if it was waiting for any opportunity to spring loose, as an intoxicating mix of joy and lightness that astounds her as much now as it did the last time she recalls Samuel’s laughter mingling with hers. It was back when everything seemed possible, when romance was as much a part of her day as brushing her teeth, when Samuel was so much a part of her present, and so, she thought, of her future as well.
Emma was finishing up graduate school and living not unlike a cloistered nun in an efficiency apartment that was the size of a large shoebox. She had not yet moved back to her hometown and had not yet stepped back into the comfortable shoes of sister, daughter, beloved auntie. She was single and free and young and she had Samuel.
Emma allows herself one sweet smile as she remembers Samuel shuffling out of her tiny bathroom in her ratty flowered bathrobe, wearing her pink bunny slippers after having sprayed his hair with half a can of her hairspray so that it stuck straight up. He’d looked as if he had just touched an open electrical circuit.
“Oh my God, Samuel, what are you doing?” she’d gasped.
“I’ve decided to be one of your sisters today,” he said as if this was something he did every other Friday.
“You are homesick, Em. Yesterday you called all of your sisters in the morning and again at night. Oh yes, and your mother at least twice that I know of. So I thought if I could just be your sister for a day, you might feel better, get some work done, and that would be enough to keep you happy until you get back home for a visit.”
“But you are too tall to be a Gilford.”
“I’m adopted,” he shot back.
“Adopted,” Emma repeated, laughing so hard she rolled off the couch, which was also her bed.
“Yes, your mother wanted five daughters, not just four, because four girls and their periods and all that fighting and jealousy and giggling and emotions were not enough for her.”
“You know all about sisters and girls?”
Samuel winked and opened up the bathrobe to expose himself and said, “Yes, darling, I know all about girls.”
Even as Emma knew that he knew more about some of her sisters than she wished he did, she could not stop laughing. She laughed as he made her breakfast and he started the lapel of the bathrobe on fire. She laughed when he went into the lobby and picked up the mail and had a long talk with the landlady without once acting as if his feminine costume was anything unusual. She laughed when she realized that she got more work done in that day than she would have if he had not made her laugh, had not helped to make her so happy, had not known without being told that she really was just a bit homesick and missed her sisters and her mother terribly.
Emma now realizes she may have laughed more in that one lovely day than she has laughed in all of the days since.
“Damn you, Samuel,” she says yet again as she pushes herself away from the counter where the answering machine seems to be staring at her. She wonders how in the world he managed to find her even as she realizes it is not as if she has been hiding. It is not as if he cannot use the resources of the university, if he is still researching in some jungle for them, to trace the address and phone number that the alumni association keeps on file. It is not as if he could not have predicted that she would eventually move back to Higgins so she could be close to her three sisters and watch out for her widowed but perfectly capable mother. It is not as if he could not call a sister, maybe even the other sister, and just ask for her phone number, marital status, present shoe size or what in the hell she had for breakfast the last six mornings.
As if any part of her life except Samuel could ever be a secret.
Not with hundreds of Gilford family members spread out all over creation who come to the annual family reunion that Emma participates in as if it is a paying part-time job and that is all but advertised on the front page of The New York Times and every other newspaper and media outlet in the world because something newsworthy, if not absolutely ridiculous and illegal, always seems to happen at the annual affair.
Not with the unwritten rule in Higgins, South Carolina, that states that if you simply exist then whatever you do is everyone else’s business even if you do not know them.
Emma then spends the next five minutes standing in place, avoiding eye contact with the answering machine that she considers hacking to death with the coffee canister that sits directly behind it. Instead she wills the last sounds of remembered laughter to shatter into a million pieces and disappear—just like Samuel disappeared.
“I need this right now like I need another sister,” she mutters out loud.
More memories of Samuel rise to the surface and flutter close to her heart again and Emma scrambles to pull up the gate that surrounds it. She sees his head bent over one of his beloved books, his jeans lying across the edge of the bathtub, the way his eyes closed when he was trying hard to think before he spoke, his kind gestures towards strangers and the delightfully irritating way he always had of stopping, closing his eyes and then raising his hands before he was about to say something that to him was very important. Emma tries without success to put the gate back where it belongs. She struggles to find a reason, after all these years, for such an immense surge of emotion that her heart starts to pound.
Her heart pounds so loudly that it must be because she is so close emotionally and physically to her older sisters that she is kissing the edges of perimenopause, menopause or one of the other pushing-fifty-and-beyond kinds of female physical, mental and emotional transitional meanderings that all three of her sisters have been moaning about for so long Emma knows with certainty that she could be a part-time gynecologist and a clinical psychologist.
Hot flashes, night sweats, dry body parts, sexual ambivalence, thinning hair and everything from calcium deficiency to falling breasts: That’s surely what’s causing her to feel as if she is having a heart attack.
Certainly she could not be having a stroke just because of one phone message. It is just a voice. Just an old whisper of the past reminding her of someone she once was for just a short period of time. A person she could no longer see now no matter how long she looked into the bathroom mirror. Someone who went missing years ago somewhere around the last line of laughter she shared with the man whose voice was now on her answering machine.
“Damn you, Samuel,” Emma says again, realizing she has sworn more in the past thirty minutes than in the past thirty days and daring to swat at the machine with her closed fist and actually hitting it.
And actually turning it back on.
And actually hearing his voice again.
And actually for real, surely, and with all certainty feeling that something has physically moved through her body as if its intention was to make her physically ill and emotionally distraught and then pound away with not-so-tender fists at her nerve endings and laugh at her, because after all, it is just a voice.
But this time at the very end of the message she hears the words “Please call.” Words that must have been there before but were not heard when she released her emotions from the cage where she locked them away the last time she heard him say the word please.
It is just a voice.
Emma raises her hands to her face, places the tips of her fingers across the top of her forehead and rests her thumbs at the bottom of her jawline. She clenches her teeth together, squeezes her eyes shut, and thinks about the world as she knows it. It is a world that she surely loves. It is a world that surely cannot pause.
Her job, her sisters, her mother, her gardens, the looming planning sessions for the Gilford Family Reunion, the invitation list, the ordering, the lengthy list of tasks that needs to be checked and crossed off and examined and checked again. There is absolutely nothing that can be put on hold. Not one thing.
Emma thinks about her mother, Marty, and how she promised her she would help her strip the wallpaper out of the half-bathroom sometime before all the relatives started visiting, before, during and after the reunion. There’s also the rows of fast-growing weeds against the side of her mother’s house, the storage shed that holds all of the leftover reunion paraphernalia that she must sort through, and whatever in the world else the Gilford matriarch has for her to do in this spring season of planning, freaking out, worrying and arguing about the reunion, which is the biggest event on the Higgins, South Carolina, calendar.
There are a few nieces who are counting on her for some adventures and a couple of wild sleepovers where they can do whatever they want to do without their overbearing mothers yelling at them to keep the chips off the couch, stop calling boys, wear more clothes, avoid drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll, and to get some sleep—as if teenagers need to sleep at night, for crying out loud.
There is all of that, all the delicious pieces of a life she loves. There is absolutely no need for worrying about a little, insignificant phone message among them. There is certainly no reason to answer it.
“I do not have time for this kind of crap,” Emma shouts into the palms of her own hands, thinking about her unplanted flowers and the block of delicious and rare alone time she has planned for part of this already bizarre day in her lovely backyard.
There may not be time for crap, but Emma Lauryn Gilford astounds herself by not erasing Samuel’s phone message. Instead, she touches the soft spot just below her collarbone where the invisible Frisbee has come to rest and where she feels it quivering as if it could take off again at any moment.
Reading Group Guide
Attention: Some plot spoilers in this guide.
1. What do you think the book’s title means? What do you think the definition of the word “distance” is in the context of what happens in the novel?
2.Out of the four Gilford sisters–Emma, Erika, Debra, and Joy–did you identify with one in particular? Which sister, and why? If you have sisters, how do you think author Kris Radish depicted the Gilford sibling’s relationships?
3.Kris Radish entitled each chapter of The Shortest Distance between Two Women with a question that also appears within the chapter itself. Did you like getting a sense of what was about to happen in each chapter before you read it, or would you have rather been surprised as events unfolded?
4.“Emma does know something simple. She knows when she is in her garden lying, standing, sitting, working, planting, walking through it all–her heart slows. Her breathing lengthens, and everything seems clear,” [page 39]. Talk about Emma’s garden, and how she retreats to it when feeling stressed. Do you have a sanctuary like a garden, or a different ‘escape hatch’ that helps you deal with life’s pressures?
5.Talk about the book’s opening chapter, “The First Question.” How does it set the stage for the rest of the novel? What was your initial impression of Emma?
6.Were you stunned to learn about how Samuel and Emma first met, and how they got to know one another? Did you think Debra’s rage at her sister was justified?
7.The specter of Louis Gilford’s death hangs over all the Gilford women. How did it affect each of the sisters and Marty? What did you think of Marty’s revelation to Emma regarding Louis’s calling as a gardener?
8.Emma often describes the Gilfords as a “wild” and “crazy” family–do you think that they were unusual in being so? What is a “normal” family, in your definition? Is there even such a thing?
9.The Gilford women operate under a sense of decorum, believing that there are times and places for certain behaviors, and certain things are better left unsaid. But one by one each woman drops her respective guard and starts speaking her mind. Which Gilford made the greatest strides toward expressing herself, no-holds-barred? What led her to this point?
10.“Emma stammers because she realizes Susie Dell has just told her the truth of female life,” [page 182]. Consider what Susie says to Emma at the end of Chapter 18. Do you agree that all women share the experiences she describes–that they are overwhelmed by family obligations, or wish they had made different choices in marriage and life, and more?
11.What did you think of the poem Stephie penned and presented at the beauty pageant [pages 322-323]? Emma offered her interpretation of it, but what do you think it meant? How did the poem fit into the book’s themes?
12.“And Emma gets up, walks purposely towards her kitchen trailing Marty’s white scarf like the fine tail of a kite, and heads directly toward the answering machine and the telephone that is sitting on top of it.” With this last line of The Shortest Distance between Two Women, what do you think happened next? Who did Emma call?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In Higgins, South Carolina, the biggest annual event is the Gilford family reunion. The yearly happening is headed by the widowed matriarch Marty as a Five Star general and three of her four adult daughters as Field Generals. However, the youngest daughter forty-three years old Emma is the NCO making sure the gala comes off all right; in fact making sure the lives of her older siblings, their spouses and children, and mom come off all right. One blast from the past changes everything when Samuel leaves a voice message asking Emma if she would see him. He wants to start over. Emma on the one hand does, but fears he will leave especially after the Higgins chaos; on the other hand she wants him to go to hell. Her family collapses without her helping hand since she now needs a mental helping hand from them but none step forward. Samuel's return forces her to relook her relationships as the spinster who is the dependable one never gets the hunk because she is too busy. This is an engaging regional family drama that is fun to follow but clearly over the top of Sassafras Mountain with the Gilford "kick the can" rules; that includes an overwhelming ensemble cast making it at times difficult to recall who's who. Still this is entertaining tale that reminds the audience to be responsible but take time out to enjoy life with your love ones. Harriet Klausner
I have to be honest. I won this book as an advanced reading copy. After reading the reviews I don't even want to read it. I feel like life is too short to read bad books and this one doesn't seem to be worth the time when I have so many others to read!
I admire Kris Radish's exuberance, and even when I feel her book has a few holes in it, I enjoy the tale. The ups and downs of the family relationships had a familiar ring, yet I wanted to keep reading to see what would happen next. (As an aside, this book left me wishing I lived closer to my mother and my sister so we could have more of the every-day conversations instead of the highlights-of-the-week phone calls). I did feel the ending came a little abruptly, with some loose ends dangling, but all in all, a fun read for the beach.
Talk about dysfunctional families! This one fits at the head of the list. Several times the author attempts to emphasize the free spiritedness of the family, but it just doesn't work. You don't feel in empathy, sympathy, or anything else for these people. Stephie wasn't too bad, but a 16 year old who had more sense than most of the adults.is a scary sitiuation. I finished this book because I believe in giving a book every chance. It was close sometimes though because I wanted to just chunck it. Too bad.
Emma, 43 and single, is the youngest of four daughters, three of whom live, along with their long-widowed mother, in a small-town Charleston suburb. She¿s having all kinds of angst because in the midst of preparing for the annual big-deal family reunion, she finds a message on her answering machine from a long-ago lover (previously a sister¿s boyfriend). This usually-reliable woman can¿t seem to do anything about it, or about anything else going on around her.I was frustrated with this book for a number of reasons. First, what is it with all these newer authors writing almost exclusively in the present tense? It gives the book a feeling of edginess it doesn¿t need or merit. Secondly, the writing is very poor, often with very long sentences with too many phrases or clauses running the length of a paragraph, such as this one from page 134*:There were the ridiculous humiliations of childhood that everyone suffers¿teasing on the playground; not being part of whatever group was cool that week; not realizing that you are supposed to pant after boys when several girls are already panting; a discussion about sex during a sleepover that totally mystifies you because you have no clue what your girlfriends are talking about; thinking that you have always heard a different drummer but have never been quite able to find the right set of sticks to make sure the music does not stop; the random notion that something was always going on inside the family that you did not know about and that they did not think you were smart or old enough to know about; that feeling of ¿maybe I should too¿ when someone leaves a job, changes college majors, drops out or suddenly disappears; lost loves; the simple notion that no one you are related to will ever consider you an adult; the more complex notion that you may never really want to be an adult; expectations unmet; and this tremendous, and always growing, conviction that someone is always going to need you and you will be busy with the needing so you will never find the correct drumsticks anyway.Huh?Between Emma¿s almost nonstop ruminating (all talk/thought, little action) and her weird habit of lying down in her garden and ¿caressing her plants,¿ (page 38), I didn¿t have a lot of sympathy for this character, nor for her dysfunctional sisters. The mother, Marty, was more interesting, finding love (and apparently great sex) again at age 78 after many years alone. Emma¿s niece, the philosophical punk Stephanie/Stephie, and her beauty pageant subplot were also pretty unrealistic.In particular, the ending was disappointing. Author Kris Radish covers the family reunion/Marty¿s wedding and the beauty pageant, but leaves dangling the subplots on the long-ago lover and an upcoming intervention with the alcoholic oldest sister (mother of the niece and whose husband has an affair). Reading the resolutions to these would have been far more interesting than the reunion or the pageant. I can¿t really recommend this book, even as a beach read.[*A caveat though ¿ this was an advance reading copy, so I can only hope such a scramble of syntax was corrected before the book went to press.]
First, I'd like to say that I realize this is an Early Reviewer book, and therefore the copy that I have is not the final copy. However, that being said, I felt that what I had was almost unreadable. The text was filled with cliches telling me things like "Emma's heart is dancing the tango with great joy..." Oh, please. And it contained the longest, most contrived sentences encountered since Thackeray! For example:The last Friday in March, which makes Emma lean over as if a stomach cramp the size of Lousiana has just moved into her lower intestines while she calculates the number of extra hours she will now be spending with her apparently sex-crazed mother and two of her three older and occasionally certifiable sisters, Joy and Debra, who still live close enough to her so when she leaves her windows open Emma swears she can sometimes hear them barking like wild dogs at each other and their children and their silent spouses.WHAT?!?!?!(Upon further review, I don't even think that's a sentence since I can't find a verb in the independent clause, but it's hard to tell.)Could only be saved by a major re-write.
While this book was an enjoyable read in a few parts, I found myself growing quite tired of Emma's self-pity and emoting. I feel that if the author (Kris Radish) had perhaps filled in some of the subplots rather than having allowed her main character to wallow in her self-created despair, this story might have ended up feeling more substantial. I'm afraid that it simply falls short.
I received this book through the Early Reviewers program. While it does drag on and become repetitive in many instances (she mentions the damn family reunion almost every other line), overall it's an ok book about the ties between mothers and daughters, and the ties between sisters that hold families together, for right or wrong. I liked the second half of the book a lot more than the first half.
I got this from early reviewers and as always was excited to recieve a free book. In the end I was glad it was that. Free. I have read her other books and enjoyed them but this one just never took hold. I just never felt a connection with any of the characters in the book and the ending seemed to be very rushed and didn't seem to tie up any of the story. I wish it had been better.
Librarything early reviewer book. I couldn't finish this. Well, of course I could have but I chose not to. It is not well-written and the story is overblown & stupid. The characters are mean to each other and stay in this unpleasant involvement with each other that makes no sense. I'm sure by the end everybody has grown and the main character has found love & hope and maybe even a late pregnancy. Except maybe the mother. I couldn't tell how old the mother was supposed to be, but she has to be mid-70's so maybe she gets sick. Anyway, I read over 100 pages and decided to stop. PS: After reading the other reviews I am very very glad I did, the story meanders on & the main character doesn't even move forward.
This was an Early Reviewer Book. I have read all the reviews and I couldn't disagree more! This was the first book I have read of Kris Radish and I loved it, in fact I just bought a copy for my siser. The book is the story of a family told by one sister. The characters are a mother, four sisters, nieces, nephews, in-laws and new family members. It is an honest look into the lives of the many members that make up a family and how we think we know our siblings based on our experiences as childrens. However, we don't really know what goes on in their homes and their private lives as we fall back into our childhood relationships any time we get together. This book was interesting and I came to like all the characters, especially Emma.
Love, love, love. The Beatles sum up this book quite well. Love, love, love. All you need is love. Though so much love can be a bit over-emotional at times. And possibly unrealistic. I don't think I've ever called either of my sisters "Sister" or "Love" or "Sweetie". They'd laugh at me. This book was over-flowing with sap and mush. I will admit that it did bring me to tears a couple of times, and I did love the story itself, the concept of women coming together through craziness and some adversity, but wow. Wading through the swamp of sappy mush as a bit tiring at times. The other thing about the author's style that bothered me was the jumping back and forth from present to past. She'd start out a chapter in the present tense, and then revert back to a scene that happened that morning or the night before or last week or even 10 years ago. It became confusing. Am I reading about today? About yesterday? When exactly did this happen? Ok so I realize this sounds like I didn't like the book. Not true. It kept me entertained with every turn of the page and I was invested in the life of Emma and cheered along with everyone at Stephie's pageant and would have loved to have shared a glass of wine with the women in the gazebo. It was a great journey through female emotions and finding happiness. Actually, choosing happiness. This is a book that I do recommend, but just understand that it sometimes gets nauseatingly sentimental.