The Hawthorne family has it all: great jobs, a beautiful house in one of the most affluent areas of northern California, and three charming kids with perfectly straight teeth. Then comes eldest daughter Angela’s senior year of high school.
Suddenly, everyone is floundering. As Angela writes and rewrites her application for Harvard—her father's alma mater—and struggles to maintain her position as valedictorian, Nora Hawthorne’s career hits a rough patch, taking her away from a newly distracted husband and uncharacteristically anxious younger daughters. And as the secrets everyone has been keeping will come to light, it sets the family on a final collision course that will force them to reevaluate, with humor and heart, the value of achievement.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.19(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.79(d)|
About the Author
MEG MITCHELL MOORE is the author of the novels The Arrivals and So Far Away. She worked for several years as a journalist for a variety of publications. She lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts, with her husband and three daughters.
Read an Excerpt
Nora was trying not to worry. But she’d been a mother for nearly eighteen years now. She was going to worry.
It was a beautiful early-winter day in the Bay Area, which meant that it was sixty-five degrees and sunny, or would be until the fog rolled in later in the afternoon. No need for so much as a mitten. Christmas was nine days away.
She was reaching for her cell when the home phone rang.
Nobody ever called the home number. She’d threatened to have it disconnected so many times that it was now a standing joke in the Hawthorne family. Because she never had time to do anything she threatened to do, until now.
Yes. Her hand shaking as she cradled the receiver. A man’s voice, unfamiliar.
Nora hadn’t thought her heart could climb any farther up her throat than it had in recent weeks. But it could, it turned out, it could.
When Nora and her sister, Marianne, were young, growing up in Narragansett, Rhode Island, they used to play a game. One of them would say to the other: A genie grants you three wishes. What would you wish for?
They would say things like: I wish all the appliances in the house would turn to chocolate. Or: I wish I could have the gift of flight for twenty-four hours. Or: I wish we had pizza for dinner every night for three weeks. When they got older, they might say: I wish Jennifer Johnson would get a really bad perm that lasted for the rest of the school year. Or: I wish my breasts would grow (Nora) or stop growing (Marianne).
My name is Sergeant Stephen Campbell, California State Highway Patrol.
Stephen. Such an ordinary name, Nora would think later, for such an extraordinary phone call.
Three wishes, Genie, rapid-fire.
One. Say what you have to say, quickly.
Two. Tell me it’s going to be okay.
Three. Let me go back to the beginning and start over.
Mrs. Hawthorne. I’m in the security office at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Do you know how to get here, Mrs. Hawthorne?
She couldn’t say another thing. The room was whirling. She sat down on one of the kitchen stools.
Listen carefully, please. I’m going to tell you how to get here, and I want you to come right away. Do you understand me? We’re on the south side of the bridge. From where you are you have to cross the bridge to get to us.
She swallowed, tried to breathe. She watched a hand that didn’t seem like hers grasp at the edge of the counter. She watched the fingers try and fail to grip the edge. There was a sharp sound all around her, a high-pitched noise three octaves beyond glass breaking.
Mmmmmmph. The only sound she could manage.
Later Nora would figure that it all started with her job. If she hadn’t been a working mother. If the situation with the Watkins home hadn’t happened, and then the horror show at the Millers’ house. If she’d been more available, more aware. If she’d been better. If if if.
Three months earlier . . .
In the front of the house the rest of the family went about their business. It was early September, a shade past Labor Day. If Angela Hawthorne had to put the situation into words that her AP English teacher, Ms. Simmons, would appreciate, she might say that the moon was picking its way across the sky. The school year was still a virgin: barely touched, unsullied.
Above Angela’s desk, tacked to the colossal bulletin board, was a calendar. Circled with a red marker snatched from Maya’s room (seven-year-olds had a lot of markers) was the date. November first, fewer than eight weeks away. Her mother had added the rest for Angela with a black ballpoint in her neat, Catholic-girl-school hand, using exactly the words on the website: deadline for all early-action application materials.
Eight weeks. Seven and a half, really. So much to do. Five AP classes this year: European History. English Literature and Composition. Chemistry. Statistics. Studio Art. (“Studio Art can be an AP class?” her father had asked. “That seems bogus.” Angela, in tacit agreement, said nothing.)
The battle for class rank was a bloody one. Its victims were laid out all across the campus of Oakville High and across much of Marin County. Figuratively, of course. Ms. Simmons might appreciate that metaphor. Sammy Marshall, felled by an ill-timed bout of mono the previous spring. (“Not his fault,” said Angela’s mother. “The poor thing.” Was she smiling when she said that?) Porter Webb, the school’s foremost scholar-athlete, already being scouted by the minors. Lots of time on the baseball diamond. (“Too much athlete, not enough scholar,” said Angela’s father ruefully, though it seemed to Angela that part of the rue was manufactured.)
At the moment Angela was first. Valedictorian. But the wolves were nipping at her heels. (Did this count as a cliché?)
The wolves were snapping at her feet. Better? Better.
One of the wolves was Maria Ortiz, poetess extraordinaire, already published in several journals, only some of them obscure, fluent in four languages. (Angela’s father: “Technically, are we counting the Spanish as a foreign language? Because she did grow up speaking it at home . . .”) Henrietta Faulkner (no relation, though if you didn’t ask, Henrietta didn’t offer), Angela’s erstwhile best friend. Erstwhile. SAT word.
Angela, are the class rankings out yet?
Ask Angela. Angela will know the answer. Angela knows everything. Angela, did you do your homework?
Angela, did you practice?
And already, in the first week of school, a paper due in AP English Lit, as though the two novels Angela read in August for summer course work weren’t enough. It didn’t seem fair. “But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all,” said Cecily over dinner—an aphorism she’d picked up from The Princess Bride, which she’d spent countless hours of the summer watching with her best friend, Pinkie. At ten years old, Cecily and Pinkie seemed to have an unlimited supply of leisure time with which to watch movies and ride scooters and twist each other’s hair into unnatural shapes to see how long they held.
Where was Angela’s leisure time? Gone, vanished. Taken from her in the night by an invisible thief. Wait, a thief couldn’t actually be invisible.
Stolen in the night by an unknown assailant. Corny. Overwritten. And assailants didn’t necessarily steal, they might just attack.
Purloined. Better. Simple and elegant. SAT word.
Or, more likely, if memory served, Angela’s free time had never truly existed. Perhaps, eons ago, when she was an infant, reclining in the Moses basket that her mother kept in the attic, the only remaining relic of Angela’s and Cecily’s and Maya’s babyhoods. Maybe then Angela had had leisure time, though a foggy memory persisted of a swinging ball of red and black and white, something she was meant to study and perhaps learn from. “I’m saving it,” said Angela’s mother (about the Moses basket). “For one of you. For when you have your own.” And Angela nodded, absorbing this sentiment, while in truth she couldn’t imagine ever marrying or becoming a mother. Where, on earth, would she find the time?
They were expected to read all of Beloved and write a paper on its central theme. By tomorrow. Angela hadn’t begun the book yet, never mind the paper. Cross-country practice after school, the first meet only two weeks away, six-by-one-mile repeats through the woods and over the river.
Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house . . . Angela’s only living grandmother was her mother’s mother; she lived in Rhode Island, nowhere accessible by horse-drawn sleigh. (Was anywhere?) Eight thirty. The fatigue was pulling at her eyelids. (Good? The fatigue was like a blanket . . . No. Too much. Pulling at the eyelids was better.) Again Angela looked at the calendar: November first. Not so long now, not so long.
She never had before, hadn’t wanted to, hadn’t needed to, though she kept them at the ready. They all did—for emergencies, or not, as the case may be. Angela had gotten hers from Henrietta Faulkner, who had gotten them God-knows-where. A harmless little study aid, no big deal. A few of them secreted inside an Advil bottle, the bottle tucked inside her desk drawer, behind the pencil sharpener, the old iPod, no longer working, long since replaced, the odd collection of shoelaces.
Angela pulled out the bottle and shook the capsule out into her hand. Five milligrams, not so much. Other kids used more. Lots more. Five was nothing, a baby dose. A warm-up, an appetizer.
She reached for the glass of water at the edge of her desk. Hydration was super-important after a workout like the one they’d had today. Were the varsity cross-country teams at Novato and Redwood and all across the county working as hard as they were, as hard as the mighty Warriors? It was difficult to say. They would find out when they went head to head in November, at the regional meet. Foot to foot.
She lifted the glass, drank. The capsule was so small she scarcely noticed it going down. It was a blip, a hiccup.
She waited. Nothing. She waited some more. And more. And longer. There it was. Her head cleared. It all faded to the background: the
screech-scritch of Cecily’s bow across the strings (“Practice makes perfect,” Cecily said cheerfully, though there was little evidence that Angela could find to confirm the veracity of that statement, at least in Cecily’s case. Although those same words had been repeated to Angela ad nauseam for the past seventeen years), the sounds of the television, the neighbor’s dog barking at the back door to be let in or out.
There it was. Tunnel focus, that’s what they called it. And for good reason. Angela Hawthorne, valedictorian, was staring down a tunnel, no stopping, no sleep until Cambridge.
You get there, and then you can rest. Then you can rest.
But not yet, not now. Now she would work until it was done, and then she would sleep under a crimson moon.
Do you know I thought about seeing a therapist? There: I said it. I haven’t told a single soul, not even Gabe. Don’t tell Mom, okay? Seriously.
I was going to go because of stress and sleeplessness. I thought, what have I got to lose?
I looked into it, and I even wrote down some numbers and checked with my insurance. Which didn’t cover any of it, of course. Though Elpis is ridiculously proud of its insurance. And then I looked at my schedule, and I thought: Ha. When? It turned out that what I had to lose was time I don’t have.
I changed my mind. I didn’t call. I decided you can be my therapist instead. So pardon, in advance, the long emails.
Insomnia is new to me, and on the one hand upsetting, but on the other hand I’m finding that I can really be productive when I put my mind to it. Just before I began this email to you I sent three requests for prices for the booths for the Spring Fling for the elementary school. I got the booth job again, ha, look at that, the first time I typed “booth” it autocorrected to “boob.” ( I wish.) I drafted some language for the ad for my next open house and I made a list of all the appointments everyone in the house needs in the next six months: teeth, flu shots, general physicals, etc. Maya needs to see an ophthalmologist even though she’s only seven. Cecily has to go to the orthodontist. I need a mammogram. For healthy people, Marianne, we’re alarmingly busy just taking care of our bodies.
Lucky you, Dr. Sister! You’re hired, and you never even applied for the job.
Two showings in Sausalito went late, but then one in Belvedere was canceled, so Nora arrived home not so long after she’d told the sitter, Maddie, she’d be there. Unfortunately, the showing that was canceled was the only one Nora wanted not to be canceled: the Watkins property, which had been a thorn in Nora’s side all summer—a thorn that showed no signs of being removed. The property was priced too high, in Nora’s opinion. But the sellers were firm, and they were difficult, and because they wouldn’t budge Nora knew that all sorts of potential buyers were walking right by and not asking for a showing.
You wouldn’t think, maybe, that two girls with a seventeen-year-old sister would need an after-school babysitter, but not only was Angela supremely busy every day after school but so were her friends and the friends of her friends. They had glee club and band practice and varsity sports. They had recycling club (true story) and Best Buddies (partnering up with kids with disabilities) and French Club or Spanish Club, or sometimes both, and if they weren’t acting in the school plays they were directing them or painting scenery for them or sewing costumes for them. They were preparing for Mock Trial or Speech and Debate; they were applying to be pages at the state General Assembly. They were organizing their twenty-five hours of community service for the National Honor Society. And when they weren’t doing all of that, they were doing homework, homework, homework.
All of the high school students Nora knew were so busy, in fact, that when Nora had gone back to work two years ago she’d had to cast the net far and wide to find someone to shuffle Cecily from school and to her Irish dancing lessons and back home after. Maya, in second grade, traveled along for the rides like a barnacle tucked into a car seat.
Currently Nora shelled out twenty dollars an hour to a USF junior from Wisconsin named Maddie who spent most of the afternoon on her iPhone.
The first thing Nora did when she arrived home was to open the shutters. Maddie had an unfortunate habit of closing them against the afternoon light; she claimed some sort of diagnosed sun sensitivity but Nora suspected (and Cecily confirmed) that the problem was actually that the light made it more difficult to see the screen of her iPhone or iPad. When Nora had time (unlikely) she was going to look into finding Maddie’s replacement, someone who would read with or to Maya, maybe take her through some of the classics Nora had loved when she was young, the irrepressible Anne of Green Gables fame. Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. Nora had been an avid reader of the Betsy-Tacy books as a child; when Angela was in kindergarten Nora had trotted out her dog-eared, licorice-stained copies and read them to her. Angela easily could have read them to herself, of course, she could practically take herself through Tolstoy at that age, but Nora loved spending all that extra time in Deep Valley, Minnesota, in the early nineteen hundreds. She had neglected to do the same for Cecily, and probably by now Cecily had outgrown the books. But Maya still loved to cuddle, still loved to be read to. Plus she couldn’t read to herself. Don’t think about that now, Nora. Her private rule (never enforced): one worry at a time. Okay, that was impossible. One major worry at a time.
The afternoon light flooded the living room. The shutters were partly a reaction to Nora’s growing up in a house where curtains reigned supreme: in the bathroom, curtains with yellow and pink flowers; in the kitchen, red-and-white-checked country curtains; and in hers and Marianne’s room, curtains depicting little flying fairies—these remained far too long, until Nora went off to the University of Rhode Island at age eighteen. When they’d bought this house Nora had had plantation shutters installed, not because she liked them—though in fact she did—but because they were neutral and expensive and generally acceptable and because Nora, as much as she professed not to be, was just as influenced as the next guy by that ultimate driver, that unseen hand: resale value.
“Mom!” said Cecily, propelling herself toward Nora and then wrapping her skinny arms around Nora’s waist. Cecily ate and ate, she ate everything in sight, and still she retained the half-starved look of an old-fashioned orphan: pointy elbows, hollow cheekbones. She didn’t care. She did a bit where she sucked her stomach in as far as it would go and put each and every rib on display, offering them for counting. (“Wait until she hits puberty,” said Angela darkly. “I used to be skinny too.” Angela, at 108 pounds, barely registered on the digital precision pet scale Nora had purchased from Frontgate when Frankie, their beloved, deceased Newfoundland, had flirted with an overeating problem.)
“Where’s Maya?” asked Nora.
“Playdate,” said Maddie. “Penelope’s. I texted you.”
“Right.” For a fraction of an instant Nora allowed herself to plant her face in Cecily’s hair, which smelled like strawberry shampoo, and to drink in her unadulterated affection.
“Ava broke her toe and can’t dance and my hard shoes got too small over the summer and I need new ones before the feis, which means they won’t be broken in but look I got that last part of my solo perfectly, you have to see this, I don’t have any music but just watch.”
Maddie roused herself from the couch, more slowly than Nora thought was necessary for a twenty-year-old. Nora tried not to think about how much she was paying Maddie. She tried not to think about the fact that the Watkins listing was due to expire in November and that, when it did, Mr. and Mrs. Watkins were going to take the home off the market for the holiday season and list it in the new year with a different agency. (Arthur Sutton, her boss, did not know this, and it was Nora’s mission in life to sell the home before he found out.) She tried not to think about the fact that she didn’t have ingredients for dinner, and the fact that she should have picked Maya up at Penelope’s on the way home, and she tried not to think about the three loads of laundry waiting for her, which she had forgotten to mention to Maddie and which, if she had, Maddie would have ignored anyway.
For now, she and Maddie stood in solidarity, watching Cecily dance. Cecily was a gorgeous dancer, absolutely gorgeous, and Nora took a moment to appreciate this, that this child who had come from her, from Nora (a woman who possessed no musicality, no dance talent, a woman who could not even learn the Electric Slide properly when it was being played at everyone’s weddings), had become this magnificent creature with long, lean leg muscles and a smile that could break your heart. Nora allowed herself to be transported to the Old Country, home of her ancestors; she imagined standing on a hilltop one hundred years ago or in a darkened pub on a Sunday afternoon, where she sipped from a pint of stout while a musical trio in the corner struck up a tune.
“Beautiful, Cecily,” she said, when Cecily had finished dancing and given the requisite toe-point-out bow, and that smile, that smile that the judges ate right up. Very few girls smiled at the Irish dance competitions. They were too busy girding themselves against vomiting onstage, a phenomenon of nerves that was, unfortunately, more common than you might think. “I would totally give you a first,” said Nora. Then, in a poor imitation of Cecily’s dance instructor, Seamus O’Malley, she offered up an Irish-accented “Well done, lass.” Cecily rolled her eyes, but in a good-natured way that Nora appreciated. Nora knew, having been through it once before, that the good-naturedness departed around age twelve or thirteen and returned—when? She didn’t know. She hadn’t found out yet. Nora paused. Deep breath. “Where’s Her Majesty?” she asked.
Cecily shrugged. “Not home from cross-country practice yet, I guess. Haven’t seen her.”
Just then the front door opened to reveal a sweat-soaked girl wearing running shorts and a crimson T-shirt that said HARVARD across it in proud silver letters. Angela had her sights set on her father’s alma mater, and had fixed them there long ago and never wavered. (Though it was hard to say, sometimes, if Angela had set them there or if Gabe had set them there for her.)
Angela must have run home, her chest was still heaving, though how she did that with the backpack Nora didn’t know. She didn’t even want to know. Maybe someone had dropped her off, another mother, a nonworking mother who had time to attend not only all of the meets but all of the practices as well.
“Hey,” Angela said, surveying the scene, smiling, but only, if you looked closely, with her mouth. Not her eyes. She let her gaze roam over the room, over Cecily, over Maddie, settling finally on her mother. “I am absolutely starving,” she said. “And I have hours of homework.”
Nora Hawthorne took a deep breath, opened her arms, and folded her oldest daughter into them. Angela: her angel, for so many years the one and only. This was the girl who had frantically sucked her own fingers to get herself to sleep, necessitating early and expensive intervention by one of Marin’s most reputable orthodontists. This was the girl who read a chapter book long before she turned four and spoke an entire sentence in perfectly accented Spanish at age two. This was the girl who had, as a kindergartner, accompanied her father on a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they had taken in the Harvard–Yale game on a crisp November afternoon, and who had allowed herself to be photographed wearing every sort of crimson paraphernalia that money could buy and some that it couldn’t. The photograph, enlarged, framed, now hung over the desk in Gabe’s home office, a sanctum rarely used for its stated purpose but nevertheless extravagantly decorated with all manner of collegiate memorabilia.
“Mom,” said Angela. She tried to pull back from Nora but Nora wouldn’t allow it; she didn’t care if Angela was sweating or unwilling. She was Nora’s for only a little while longer. Nora hugged the heck out of her anyway.
Twelve months from now Angela would be gone from them, launched into the particulars of her almost-adult life, dependent on her parents to buttress her bank account and occasionally her emotions, but really, truly, for all intents and purposes, gone.
“Mom,” said Angela again. “Let me go. Please? Mom?” But Nora felt her lean in before she pushed away, and all through that fall (was fateful too strong a word to describe it?) she held on to that fraction of a second, that clue that Angela was still a part of them.
“Mom. I’m all sweaty. I’m gross.”
Maddie had gone back to tapping on the screen of her iPhone, almost as though the person who handed her a sizable check each week wasn’t in the same room. Cecily was performing a set of elaborate stretching exercises that involved extending her leg over the couch, lowering it, then lifting it again. Nora’s phone buzzed: probably Penelope’s mother, wondering when Nora might be by to fetch Maya.
Nora released her oldest daughter. Earlier that week she had written seven important words on Angela’s wall calendar: deadline for all early-action application materials. November first.
Here it was. It had arrived. The most important period of Angela Hawthorne’s young life was beginning. Brace yourself, thought Nora. Batten down the hatches. Here we go.
Gabe was early to the appointment with the college counselor, which was fine, except he had taken a half day off for this so in truth it really wasn’t fine for him to have to wait—things at Elpis were busy busy, always busy, the wheels of industry and commerce turning.
It was harder to get an appointment with the college counselor than it was to get a reservation at the French Laundry, and so Nora had sent him several emails and a text the day before reminding him about it. Two p.m., she said. We need to be there together, to support Angela. Gabe checked in at the main office, where a young woman with dramatic red highlights in her hair pointed toward a closed door with a light wooden bench outside of it. “Wait there,” she said. “Ms. Vogel will be with you shortly.” In fact he didn’t consider this appointment to be necessary anyway; this was Nora’s doing. Gabe did not, as they say, have a dog in this fight. Or, more accurately, he had only one dog, and he didn’t consider it a fight. Angela was going to Harvard. Ergo, the meeting with the college counselor was a formality.
He waited five minutes, then ten. Three minutes to two now. How unlike Nora to be late for something like this. He checked his phone and there it was: a text, lacking in punctuation (he blamed Siri) but not clarity: Meet without me have to show the Watkins house just came up sorry
The Watkins house, all four bedrooms and six and a half bathrooms of it. Breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Every freaking listing in Belvedere offered breathtaking views of the bridge; if Realtor.com was to be believed, none of the town’s two thousand citizens had taken a full breath in decades. Every home in Belvedere also had more bathrooms than it had bedrooms, which seemed to be a phenomenon of the very wealthy, one that Nora couldn’t explain away, though Gabe had asked. This listing was not the most expensive in Belvedere, but it was the biggest property that Sutton and Wainwright had been offered this year, and the listing had gone to Nora. A very big deal. Four bedrooms on a quarter-acre lot. (“Seriously?” said Gabe, who, though he now considered himself a Californian, and though he loved it here in his adopted state, could still not believe what your money did not get you. The whole state of Wyoming, where Gabe had grown up, would probably sell for less than eight million dollars. “Eight million?” And Nora had said, “Eight point eight. But it’s a Cooper Sudecki.” This last said quietly, reverently, as though no elaboration were needed.)
Once, before kids, they had had fantastic sex on the kitchen floor of Nora’s first listing, a two-bedroom condo in Sausalito. The home was unoccupied—in general, not just at the time, though that too, of course— which made the act seem a little more acceptable, but Nora freaked out after: What if there were security cameras? What if she lost her job? Her license? What if she disappointed the unflappable, undisappointable Arthur Sutton, who doted so thoroughly on Nora?
A murmuring at the office desk, and here, at last, came Angela. She sat down beside Gabe and released an enormous backpack from her shoulders. (Why so big? Hadn’t everything gone digital?) Her eyes were the same blue as Nora’s, though bigger, rounder.
“Hey,” she said. “Hi, Daddy.”
Angela looked tired. “You okay, sweetie?”
“Of course,” she said. Angela and Maya had inherited from Nora the blondish-red hair, the Irish skin, while Cecily, the Irish dancer, looked more like a Syrian refugee—a throwback, maybe, to some Native American blood Gabe’s family had never acknowledged, some kind of skip-a-few-generations gene pool situation. He noted that Angela’s nails were bitten to the quick—a new habit? He couldn’t say—and that they were nonetheless painted a deep purplish black. Angela said, “Where’s Mom?” and went at one of the fingernails, though what was left to chew Gabe couldn’t imagine.
Seventeen years old, and still Angela called him Daddy. He loved that, didn’t want it ever to change. He wanted all of his girls to call him Daddy forever. He wanted Angela to call him Daddy when he walked her down the aisle (many years hence, he hoped) and he wanted her to call him Daddy when she introduced him to his first grandchild.
He held up his phone. “Just got a text. She has to show the Watkins house.”
Angela—if this was possible—opened her eyes even wider than she already had. Those eyes, so big and round that each was like an individual moon set into her face, considered his. “Yeah? That’s great. Let’s hope these people are The Ones.” She knew—as everyone but Arthur Sutton knew— that the Watkins listing was going to expire at the end of November. Five percent of $8.8 million, $440,000. Then, divide that by two, half to the buyers’ realtor and half to Sutton and Wainwright, that was $220,000. Even after Arthur Sutton had taken his cut (and Gabe was never quite sure about what that cut was), it would be a considerable sum for the Hawthornes, coming at just the right time, before the first tuition payments came due. “Still,” continued Angela, “I wish she could be here. She set this whole thing up. I met with the counselor last year. And I’m missing AP English. We’re talking about our college application essays.”
Gabe grew up on a real working ranch outside of Laramie, where the sky was obscenely big and the closest McDonald’s was forty-five minutes away. When he applied to college his personal essay was about birthing a stillborn calf in the middle of a blizzard. True story! It was harrowing, and when he stood next to Nora in the delivery room for the births of all three of their daughters he couldn’t shake certain images from his mind: the blood, the way the mother cow’s eyes rolled back in their sockets, the smell of birth and death “intermingling in the black of a midwinter’s night,” the way he’d written it in the essay. He’d always had a way with words: this helped him enormously in his job at Elpis. He also had a way with people.
He wondered what Angela was going to write about. Had he and Nora done a disservice by not putting her in front of a childbearing cow? He thought they’d given her every advantage, starting with the early days at Little Nugget Montessori. Who was the kid she’d pushed from the top of the slide? Timothy Maloney. (We understand that you and the Maloney family have come to a suitable agreement regarding Timothy’s medical bills, and we are ready to move forward and enjoy the rest of an enriching year here at Little Nugget, said the letter home. “I just wanted to be first,” a tearful Angela had said.) Then there were the swimming lessons, the flute, the dancing, the skiing, the running, French, Italian. But they’d forgotten about the cow. Nobody in his family lived anywhere near a ranch now, his parents had both passed and his two brothers lived in Vancouver and South Carolina, of all places. Everyone was craving water after years of being landlocked. “The essay!” he said. “That’s the best part of the application. What are you thinking about—”
Just then the door beside them opened, and out stepped a mop-haired boy followed by his parents; the man was an older, wearier, tidier version of the son, and the woman was an even wearier version of the man. The tension released from the office was thick thick thick; Gabe would have whispered to Angela that you could practically cut it with a knife, but he knew that was a cliché, and he knew that clichés were verboten at Oakville High, especially in the top fifth of the class.
“That’s Jacob Boyd,” whispered Angela as the backs of the three disappeared around the corner. “He’s, like, fifteenth. Not bad. He’ll probably go somewhere like Occidental.”
Gabe knew that if Nora were there she’d say something cheery and accepting about Jacob Boyd, like, “Occidental is a wonderful school!”
But Nora was not there, she was showing the $8.8 million in Belvedere, and anyway, hard-to-schedule Ms. Vogel was waiting for them. She had a deeply tanned, deeply wrinkled face and wiry gray hair sticking out all over and she wore a sweater that was almost certainly hand-knit. She shook Gabe’s hand with a grip that was limper than Gabe would have liked and said, “Come in, both of you. Mr. Hawthorne. Angela. My next appointment is at two twenty and I know we’ve got a lot of ground to cover here. Mr. Hawthorne? You look a little deer-in-the-headlights. Please don’t worry. I haven’t bitten any parents since second semester of last year.”
Reading Group Guide
This guide is intended to support your discussion of The Admissions, Meg Mitchell Moore’s delightfully screwball novel about a modern California family struggling to stay afloat during their eldest daughter’s senior year of high school.
1. From the prologue of the book we learn that someone is on the Golden Gate Bridge. We don’t know who, or why, until the end of the book. Did your notion of who might be on the bridge change throughout the course of the novel? Did you guess right?
2. A big part of the novel deals with the pressure on Angela Hawthorne during the fall of her senior year of high school at a rigorous public school in Marin County, California. Who is responsible for this pressure—is it Angela herself, her parents, or society at large?
3. While thinking of a gold rush town that was repeatedly destroyed by fire and then rebuilt, Nora muses, “The capacity [California] had for rising from the flames was truly mind-boggling.” How is that statement borne out or disproven during the course of the novel? How do Nora and Gabe’s own upbringings influence their new life in California, and the choices they make?
4. During an argument with her father Angela challenges Gabe by saying, “Try living in my shoes and see if you can do it. Do my homework for a week…Go to these practices, listen to the kids at school talk about their GPAs and their class ranks…” Do you think that the parents of today’s gifted high school students could handle their children’s schedules and workloads? If you’ve been out of school for a while, how much do you think the expectations on high school students have changed?
5. The title of the book has more than one meaning—while college admissions represent a major concern, there is a certain amount of admitting of secrets that occurs as well. Whose secret is the most devastating, personally and/or professionally? Are there any secrets that remain by the novel’s end? At one point Nora says, “Some people say it’s normal for spouses to have at least one secret from each other.” Do you think that’s true?
6. When Angela meets an admissions officer from Harvard he tells her, “Everybody in your generation, you and all of your peers, you all think you’re special. But how can every single one of you be special? It’s impossible.” Do you agree with his assessment of today’s high-school-aged youth?
7. Abby Freeman is instrumental in forcing one character to confront a secret, but does she play another role as well? At one point, Gabe remarks, “It scared him, to think that in just five years Angela would be the same age as this girl now, with a job and maybe even a professional-looking blouse.” Do you think Gabe’s interactions with Abby inform any decisions he makes later?
8. The novel is told in rotating points of view, with everyone but the youngest Hawthorne daughter getting the opportunity to narrate. What is the purpose of this device, and is it an effective way to tell this family’s story? What purpose do Nora’s letters to Marianne serve in telling their story?
9. Do you agree with the decisions the Hawthornes make by the end of the novel? Why or why not?
10. Do you think that the author meant this book to serve as a cautionary tale, and, if so, for whom?
11. If you imagine the Hawthorne family a few years in the future, what lessons do you think they will have learned or failed to learn from their fateful fall?