Still Life with Elephant: A Novel

Still Life with Elephant: A Novel

by Judy Reene Singer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061713750
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/21/2009
Series: A Still Life with Elephant Novel , #1
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 795,270
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Judy Reene Singer is a dressage competitor, horse trainer, and all-around animal lover. She has written about the equestrian world for more than a decade and was named top feature writer of the year by The Chronicle of the Horse. She is the author of Horseplay and Still Life with Elephant.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

WHEN MATT first mentioned her, two years ago, I thought he said he was getting a collie. And I thought, Great, I love dogs.

I get like that—a little vacant, listening with half an ear. I hear a snatch of conversation and convert it into something else. I misunderstand things. Sometimes I’m not listening at all. I can’t help myself. I have a chronic preoccupation with an inner dialogue that leaves little room for the outside world. I practically go deaf when I get nervous. I’ve been this way for a long time, and maybe that was some of our problem.

“The frog is woebegone,” he would say.

“Frog?” I would ask.

And he would put his hands on his hips and give me that look, before repeating himself. “I said, I won’t be gone for long.”


So she called me, my husband’s colleague—that’s what the collie turned out to be. She called to tell me she was pregnant.

Even though I had a radio blasting—I always keep a radio playing nearby—I heard that well enough. There is no mistaking when someone tells you that she and your husband are pregnant.

“Neelie?” she started, then continued in musical tones. “I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you, but Matt couldn’t bring himself to do it and you need to know. Matt and I are pregnant. About three months now.”

Isn’t that just too cute? Matt and I are pregnant, the way couples announce it nowadays. When I was a kid, the wife got pregnant and the husband got a big pat on the back. Now they are pregnant together. So inclusive. Except for me, of course. Matt’s wife.

They had been in love for about a year and a half, she said. Maybe two, she couldn’t be sure. Which meant it started just a few months after he told me he was taking in a collie to help him with his lions. Lions. I seem to remember that I heard “lions.” Which is not so far–fetched; Matt, after all, is a veterinarian, and he sometimes helps out at a wild–animal sanctuary about ten miles from us.

He was taking in a colleague to help him with his clients.

And his love life. She apparently was taking care of his love life as well.


Her name was Holly, and she was a small–animal specialist, and she was recuperating from a divorce, looking to relocate from Colorado, and wanting to join a practice in New York, in the small town where her parents lived. Where we lived. I found all of that out at the welcoming dinner I cooked for her in our home. She looked like she had just breezed in from a day on the Aspen slopes. Blond hair, lean workout body, crisp blue eyes. Big–Sky blue eyes, although I know Big–Sky is really Montana. She mentioned that she liked crafting. I was surprised, because she looked so outdoorsy.

“I’d never take you to do crafting,” I said.

“Rafting,” Matt said, exchanging glances with her.

“White–water rafting,” she said, tossing her blonde, Colorado–outdoor–sun–bleached hair, her Big–Sky eyes now looking vastly amused at me. Of course. Who does white–water crafting? In my defense, I was whipping the cream for a lovely chocolate–cream pie, which is my signature dessert. Which she declined, because she DIDN’T LIKE CHOCOLATE.

I mean, come on.

I guess she wanted to keep that lean, sinewy–cat, predatory figure, because she was certainly still on the prowl. I just didn’t know it.

I had a slice of pie, and Matt asked for a very thin slice, which he never did, he loves my pie, and maybe I should have sniffed out something suspicious right then and there.

They worked well together. Matt always said that. She just seemed to anticipate what needed to be done next, and had it finished before he asked. She was full of energy and great ideas. She was a good surgeon, she was a good diagnostician, she was good with the clients.

She was very good with Matt.


I love horses, and that’s how Matt and I met. It was ten years ago. I was twenty–eight and had a decent private practice as a therapist with a master’s in social work. I owned a horse, though I rarely rode him. I was in one of those stupid circular dilemmas that horsepeople get into. I needed to work to pay for my horse’s upkeep, but couldn’t ride him much because I was working such long hours to pay for his upkeep. So he was more of a pasture potato.

His name was Mousi, which was short for Maestoso Ariela, which, I must admit, is a weird name for a male horse, but he was a Lipizzaner, and they are named for both their mothers and fathers. It’s a very egalitarian way to do things, like the Norwegians, who do it with “sen” and “datter” tacked onto their surnames. No one gets left out that way.

Mousi was colicking. He was sixteen, and he was my whole world, and now he was nipping at his sides and rolling back his upper lip like a wine connoisseur at a tasting. I knew right away it was the sign of a belly ache. My old veterinarian had just retired, and I needed to find someone new. Matt had been practicing in the area for a while, and I had heard from horse friends that he was good and cute. I mean, a good vet and cute. But he was also good and cute. He came out to the barn right away, which is very important for a colic, and quickly got Mousi comfortable. I liked the way he worked. Quiet and sure of himself, gentle with Mousi, and very skillful when he had to pass the nasogastric tube to pump warm water and mineral oil into Mousi's belly.

“I guess he was a quart low,” he joked, as Mousi’s colic eased.

I liked his sense of humor.

When we were finished, I grabbed my wallet to pay him.

He said, “Doodle gate?”

“Is that like Watergate?” I asked. “With cartoons?”

“Watergate?” He gave me a puzzled look. One of those puzzled looks that tip me off that I haven’t really heard things right.

“Date,” he said. “Do you date?”

“Yes,” I said, embarrassed, busying myself with something crucial, like arranging the bills in my wallet in denominational order.


We liked each other right away. I didn’t demand much from our relationship, and he was distracted most of the time anyway, busy building the equine part of the practice. I wasn’t quite there, he wasn’t quite there, and it was a good fit. We fell in love. We got married.

Six years later, he bought the practice out from the retiring senior partner. It was a large practice by now, and getting larger. Things were going great. And then we tried to have children. It didn’t happen for us, and we even went to a fertility specialist, who tested everything from the hair inside our nostrils to the carpeting in our bedroom. After several long months, we found ourselves sitting in his office, facing him at his desk, while he sat with our papers in front of him, a potentate holding court, handing out the grave pronouncement of infertility. Matt had sperm clowns, he announced. I immediately pictured Matt’s testicles hosting a kind of Comedy Central, and giggled a little. Matt and the fertility doctor both looked at me. There is nothing funny about a low sperm count.

But I guess those clowns came through when he needed them.


After Holly and I spoke, I hung up the phone. Actually, I didn’t hang up, I just put the phone down on the kitchen table and walked away from it, walked out of the house and straight to the barn, like one of the zombie people in Dawn of the Dead. Grace, my Boston terrier, followed, looking worried.

I tacked up Mousi and walked him around the ring, and asked him if he thought Matt was going to come home that night. Mousi is pretty wise for a horse. How do you start a divorce? I asked him. Because there was no question now, that was what I was going to do. How will I get through it? How do I wake up every morning knowing Matt is gone? And what happens afterward? Do I move to Colorado and break up someone else’s marriage, sort of like a reciprocal trade agreement?

I rode Mousi around the riding ring on a loose rein and continued to talk to him. Horses are terrific to talk to, because you don’t have to strain to listen for answers. They never lie. Mousi just listened, flicking his white ears back and forth like semaphores, and I knew he was being very sympathetic.

We had a long conversation.

How many times had I invited Holly over for dinner? I asked Mousi. Dozens! How many times had I sent my best Tupperware containers to the office, filled with extra food for her, because the poor thing never had time to cook? Dozens! How many times did we include her in our plans because Matt said she was lonely? How many times had I helped Matt pick out just the right Christmas, birthday, thank–you–for–working–late gift? Ha! And all the while, I told Mousi, all the while, behind my back—all the while—she and Matt—well—

Those collies, you can never trust them.

Chapter Two

“SO—HE didn't come home last night?” Alana asked me. She is my dearest, closest friend, and I had called her early the following morning.

I was holding my breath to stop the hiccupping that was the result of too much crying, which was how I had spent the whole night.

“Nooo,” I answered, releasing a cascade of pent–up hiccups. “He never came home.”

“What a bastard!” she proclaimed. “You’d think he would have done the right thing and called you himself.”

“The right thing would have been not to screw her.”

“What a snake,” she said. “And a coward,” she added. “You’ll never be able to dust his chicken.”

“Dust his chicken?”

“Trust him again,” she said.

“The thing is”—I hiccupped—“I trusted her, too. She came into my home. She ate my food.” Hiccup.
“I even trusted her with my mother’s secret recipe for fruit stollen.” Hiccup, hiccup.

“I would think you’d be more upset that you trusted her with Matt,” Alana said dryly.

“Well, I trusted Matt first, of course,” I said. “I trusted him to uphold his end of our marriage. If I trusted him, I shouldn’t have to worry about trusting anyone who’s with him.” I then excused myself to grab my third box of tissues in twenty–four hours.

“So now what?” Alana asked when I got back to the phone.

I didn’t know.

I kept thinking about when I finally did get pregnant. Last year. It was after four in–vitros. And it wound up being ectopic. I went through an emergency operation and lost an ovary and a fallopian tube, after which the surgeon came in, and said very matter–of–factly, “Sorry, but we lost your ovary and a tube,” like, Oops, where did I put those damn things, anyway?

I thought how very ectopic this all was getting now. So ectopic that now Matt’s baby was in someone else’s uterus.

“You want me to come over and spend a few days?” Alana asked.

“No,” I said, “you have your own family to worry about. And I need to be by myself.”

“You should have someone around you,” she said. “You should be able to walk a shoe in some gum.”
I didn’t ask her what she meant. I reheard it later in my head: she had said, Talk it through with someone.

I spent the next three days alone with my stack of CDs, playing mostly stuff by Black Sabbath. I was angry. Sad. Angry. Sad. Furious. I didn’t do my usual morning jelly–donut–and–coffee run, which I even managed to do two years ago after I had broken my right leg. At the time, I just used my left leg for both pedals, on a manual–shift truck, because I have to have my jelly donuts.


Matt didn’t call. And I wasn’t about to call him. What would I say? “How exciting that you’re finally able to start a family! Need help picking out names?”

Matt didn’t e–mail, write, telegraph, send up a smoke signal, or in any way let me know that he was sorry or repentant or still alive. It was as though he had disappeared into a black hole. Or maybe I had. Because it felt like I had just stepped off the curb and fallen into a deep abyss of disbelief and misery. Was he still going to work? With her? Like it just was any regular, ordinary day, except that he was just coming home to a different person at night?

I hoped she was puking ten times a day and gaining weight like a brood mare.


It was Thursday, three days after Holly’s phone call, when I finally heard from Matt. “I didn’t know she was going to do that,” he said, by way of apology.

“Do what?” I asked. “Get pregnant or call me?”

“Actually, both,” he said. “I was horrified when she told me. I just couldn’t face you.”

“And if she hadn’t called, this would have—what?—just continued until the kid went off to college? I mean, she’s already three months pregnant. I trusted—” My throat closed around my vocal cords, and all I could do was produce a strangled sound, like a seal.

“Neelie, I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m not even staying with her. I’m staying in a motel. Until we can talk. You and me. We need to talk.”

“What’s there to talk about?” I asked.

“I was—I don’t know.” He took a deep breath. “The practice was getting so busy, and I was under a lot of pressure. So stressed out, and she and I were together every night until late, and you—”

I knew that he had been getting home late. Later every week. I was leaving nice dinners for him on the kitchen counter. Love notes in his underwear while he showered in the morning, even though he had been too exhausted to have sex with me for weeks. There were phone calls during lunch, made from my cell phone while I was atop a rearing horse, for God’s sake, to keep things good between us. To keep the connection.

“You were having an affair with her when I lost the baby!” I gasped, my outrage slamming my heart into my lungs.

He didn’t answer. “I felt we were drifting,” he finally said. “I was getting mooned.”

Maybe it was marooned—I had stopped listening by now. Then I hung up.

And I realized that I had not only been deaf, I had also been blind.

Reading Group Guide

1. How did Neelie’s friends and family respond to her news about Matt’s affair? Why were so many people hesitant to blame him at first? Who is the Alana in your life–wise and reliable, and always on your side?

2. Though Matt and Neelie share a dedication to animals, is there a difference in their motivations, or in their approach to treating animals?

3. How does Neelie’s hearing impediment affect her storytelling? In what way does it provide comic relief at just the right moment?

4. Does Matt’s justification for his actions match the truth? Does his vulnerability to women like Holly make him a typical man, or is Matt an exception?

5. How did you react to the story Neelie’s mother told about her own marriage, revealing the agreement she struck with her husband after learning of his infidelity? Do they have a happy relationship? Do you think her decision was appropriate only for women of previous generations?

6. Discuss the role of baking and sweet treats (especially donuts) in the novel and in life. What connection is sustained between Neelie and her mother through baking? Does it share any parallels with the donuts that make Neelie an expert elephant trainer?

7. What was Neelie’s true intention in going to Zimbabwe? Did she want to repair her marriage, or was she looking for an adventure that would benefit suffering animals? Did she make the trip because of Matt, or in spite of him?

8. What gave Neelie the sure knowledge that Margo had a baby? Why weren’t the other members of the team able to realize that they had left behind another animal in need? How is Neelie able to easily understand maternal longing?

9. How has Neelie been affected by the tragic memory of Homer? What do her shifting feelings about that day indicate about her evolving state of mind? What enables her to finally lay the incident to rest?

10. In chapter forty-two, Neelie describes how good it has felt to become Abbie’s oasis “in the great tangle of pain and cruelty.” In what ways do Abbie and Margo also become Neelie’s oasis? When have you been able to play this role for another living being? How did it affect your perspective on life?

11. How would you characterize Tom? Does he fit your image of the ideal man? Is he a good match for Neelie?

12. What does it take for Neelie to convince the elephants to trust her? What changes does she have to make in a regimen that worked for horses? How do relationships with animals sometimes mirror and heal relationships between humans?

13. In what ways is the sale of Neelie’s house both liberating and overwhelming for her? In terms of emotions, how does leaving that house compare to arriving at Tom’s chateau? In what ways do our homes capture chapters of our lives, and the essence of our being in general?

14. How would you have resolved the choice between Tom, Matt, or neither? What did it take to uncover the “rescue hunger” Neelie describes in the novel’s closing paragraphs? What do you ultimately predict for her future?

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Still Life with Elephant 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book. page turner and a fast read
harstan More than 1 year ago
Horse trainer Cornelia "Neelie" Sterling is stunned to find her spouse Matt, a veterinarian is cheating on her with his practice's partner. Outraged, she tosses him out of their house, but fails to finalize their separation with a divorce though as a former social worker she knows she should. Neelie cannot make it permanent even when she learns his girlfriend is pregnant. Neelie turns to donuts for solace, but finds out about strike three and four when she realizes their accounts are empty and their house has a second mortgage. When an opportunity to rescue an elephant in Zimbabwe arises, she jumps at the mission as does Matt. Philanthropist Thomas Princeton Pennington funds the quest, who falls in love with Neelie, but she distrusts men; instead showering her love on Margo the mother elephant and her baby. Meanwhile Tom and Matt compete trying to persuade Neelie to make room in her heart for one of them. The key to this super character study of a cuckolded woman who distrusts men loves the elephants and their African habitat. Neelie has choices to make between the men who want into her life and what to do with Margo and her calf. Fans of strong character studies with a charming elephantine spin will want to read Judy Reene Singer's engaging tale of love between a woman and an elephant. Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful and touching book. Singer creates a very realistic atmosphere with her main character Neelie that will have you reading til late hours wondering how the end will turn out, and if she will make the decisions you would of made for her. This is one that will find a permanent place on my bookshelf.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you loved her first novel, Horseplay you will love this one as well. An amazing novel that once you start it you wont be able to put it down. Held me in from page one until the end. You don't have to be a horse or animal lover to love this endearing story of love, friendship, betrayal, and healing.
Shirley55 More than 1 year ago
The main character (Neely) has a hearing problem and constantly hears things wrong. Often what she hears is then translated to what was actually said. This technique might have worked a few times, but it gets old quickly, and becomes very annoying. Still, no one suggests she have a hearing test. Also, she LOVES jelly doughnuts, and that aspect of her personality is absolutely beaten to death. Could the author have dropped that after maybe the first 15 times? We know -- We KNOW -- she likes jelly doughnuts. Now get on with the story.
Pea70 More than 1 year ago
I checked this out from the library and really wanted to like it so much more than I did. Rarely do I ever stop reading a book midway - its just one of my quirks, I don't like to 'give up' on a book after investing even a little time in it. However I just had to stop reading and don't think I will ever attempt it again. The main problem I had was that the main character mishears what other characters say to her. I'm sure it was meant as a cutesy trait, but I found it annoying beyond belief and v...moreI checked this out from the library and really wanted to like it so much more than I did. Rarely do I ever stop reading a book midway - its just one of my quirks, I don't like to 'give up' on a book after investing even a little time in it. However I just had to stop reading and don't think I will ever attempt it again. The main problem I had was that the main character mishears what other characters say to her. I'm sure it was meant as a cutesy trait, but I found it annoying beyond belief and very distracting, so much so that I couldn't get past it to finish the book. :(