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The place is Manhattan in the boom of the 1990s. Gwen Lewis thinks her life is perfect. She's thirty, smart, high-achieving, single; she's the director of an institute that's helping post-Communist Russia democratize. She has family money, a condominium on the Upper West Side, and a suitable boyfriend, a banker.
Then she meets Gideon Wolkowitz. Gideon is an impoverished puppeteer who works in an anarchist squat on the Lower East Side: an impecunious sweet-talking huckster, a messianic dreamer, a seventies socialist throwback, a secular Jew. Gwen and Gideon fall desperately in love. Their sex is epic. Their love seems like a gift from the gods — destined to heal all wounds. Each is the child of a broken home; each fills the other's unsuspected aching emptiness. The lovers hole up in Gwen's apartment, feasting on stolen nights of ecstasy and confession.
Then Gwen gets pregnant and their romantic idyll is broken, and the angry ghosts of their ancestral pasts rise to claim them. Gwen is pulled into a Puritan devotion to work and motherhood that only a driven career woman or Massachusetts pilgrim could understand. Gideon, torn by his anger that Gwen has ended their sex life,by his native hatred of her "socialite" values and his love of the woman herself, begins to hear the call of shtetl ways and the synagogue. The reader watches helplessly as the divisive forces of money, worldly ambition, and self-will complete the shipwreck of Gwen and Gideon's love.
A novel that wholly engages us by the depth of its understanding and the power of its storytelling.
|Publisher:||Knopf Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.59(w) x 9.64(h) x 1.43(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Sunday in Central Park.
A raw gusty September afternoon, unseasonably cold. Wind ripping the browning leaves from the oaks and plane trees. Autumn in the air.
On this particular Sunday afternoon, middle of the 1990s, Gwendolen Lewis was sitting by the toy-boat pond, where she had arranged to meet a friend. Gwen, as was her habit, was early; her friend late.
She had ploughed through the remains of the Sunday papers (no news; just stupid weekend stories about how to spend your money); she had made notes on the next morning's business trip, picked up the messages on her voice mail—one from Constance, warning, redundantly, that she was late. She had bolted a cup of coffee, and now was reduced to restless waiting.
Glistening runners, spillover from the day's marathon. Rollerbladers, colliding. Baby carriages with superstructures fanciful as Roman chariots, maneuvered by anxious parents. And dogs. Dogs sniffing, sparring, mounting; their owners jolly, self-exculpatory, resigned to this transient intimacy with strangers whose only point of commonality was that their dog just happened to be licking your dog's unprotesting asshole.
Damned Sundays. Late Constance. Loathsome park, with its neutered geometries, intended to placate creatures—dogs, small children, athletes—who shouldn't be living in a city to begin with.
Constance, an Englishwoman who lived in Singapore, was staying three blocks away at the Carlyle. So why couldn't she and Gwen have met instead downstairs in the Bemelmans Bar—a dark, confessional place which didn't welcome animals, or grown men on skates? Besides, it was aboutto pour.
And here, twenty-two minutes past the appointed hour, came Constance.
On the brow of the hill Gwen spotted her, and watched her de-scend through the crowd: long red-gold braid slapping one shoulder, schoolgirl-dishevelled in loose white corduroys, and something immeasurably provocative, derisive in the waggle of her bottom. A smiling obliviousness that declared, There are only twelve people in the universe I care about . . .
Long smooch, tight hug, faces buried in each other's hair, as if to obliterate the pity of their living eight thousand miles apart and only meeting three times a year.
"Why're you so late?"
Constance dropped beside her. "I made the mistake of calling the children. (They're staying with my parents.) Ruby wanted me to read her Noddy. I told her, ‘My love, for some odd reason I didn't bring any Noddy books to New York with me.' She said, ‘Here the book. Read it.' Rather difficult to explain to a two-year-old an instrument that enables you to hear but not see. What would you like—more coffee?"
The two women bought cappuccinos from the kiosk and strolled counterclockwise around the pond. Paused by the statue of Alice in Wonderland, on whom Gwen and her younger brother had climbed as children. Twenty million years ago. Grown Gwen eyed bronze Alice, impressed—despite herself—by the poised girth of the pinafored giantess. A vertical sphinx, with eyes the size of baseballs. Our Alice Who Art in Wonderland, live children hanging from her limbs, like the damned and the saved.
"Shall we sit?" Constance, evidently missing her own babies, wanting to watch other people's children play.
They sat. Next bench over, a bearded man was stretched out asleep, newspaper under his head. Homeless, or sleeping off a bender? Sleeping, Gwen decided. You no longer saw so many homeless people in the city. Giuliani had shipped them all out to . . . to where? To colonize some new Australia, maybe.
"So you're off to Russia tomorrow. I'm glad I caught you."
Gwen, mid-sip, nodded. "Me, too. I miss you; I don't seem to have any friends anymore. I find myself talking to the computer."
"Hopping." Gwen was a director of an institute set up to help the former Soviet Union democratize. "We just found out our Moscow accountant—hired by me, naturally—has been embezzling funds."
"What a bore. Can you trace the money?"
"Oh, we'll never get it back. The money's not even the point. It's—what do you expect, the whole society has been this kleptocracy for years. It's no joke getting people to feel, This is your country now, you don't need to rape your wife, you could try making love to her for a change . . ."
"Do you still like it?"
"Russia? My job? Yeah, both of them. A lot. You know I've got this taste for dead-end streets. How about you, Constance? Are you getting used to the East? Don't you miss work?"
Constance was a lawyer who had specialized in mergers and acquisitions at a white-shoe London firm. For a few years she'd appeared a highflyer—till, burnt out on corporate hours, she had first shifted into human rights and then, after her second child, quit.
"You must be joking. I'm far too lazy for law; I'd much rather stay at home and gossip with the nannies." She paused. "You know, Singapore's hardly the East. Sadly. We live in international quarantine, like these sort of high-paid guest workers—you know how Singapore Chinese just despise everybody. But Roger swears we'll be back in London in a year . . ." She leaned forward, narrow shoulders hunched against the wind. Smiling, with an unfocused benevolence, at the boys and girls swarming over Alice's polished bestiary.
"You're homesick for your children." Gwen, jealous.
Constance, for reply, shifted her smile to her friend. "You don't want babies ever, do you? I mean, you think this mothery stuff is all unspeakably dreary and trivial, don't you?" Not accusing—on the contrary, vicariously enjoying her friend's lone freedom, her license to play the field. "The pleasures of small children—of one's own small children—are somehow impossible to convey."
Gwen considered (briefly) children's tyranny, their singsong voices too loud like deaf people's. The tedium of being expected to evince an interest in Noddy when all you wanted to do was read the paper, pay your bills.
"I guess so." Then, embarrassed, she launched into self-defense. "You know, I'm away a lot. Places without phones or . . . FAA regulations. I mean, nobody with a family could possibly justify setting foot on one of these rattraps they're flying out of . . . Murmansk. Sometimes I think if I could be the father—you know, just stop by once in a while to kiss the kid good night . . ."
"But you're happy . . ."
"Oh, come on. Happiness suggests an absence of self-loathing I can't quite pretend to, but let's say, I like my work. Then at the end of the day, I want to lock the door and be alone. Read a book, turn out the light whenever. There's something about two people in the bathroom at the same time, one of you trying to brush your teeth when the other one's pissing, that just makes me want to—"
"What about Campbell?"
"Campbell's great, but . . ."
"That sounds red-hot."
"What can I say? I'm an old maid. Am I going to wake up in ten, fifteen years, aghast that I forgot to have children? Maybe. I don't think that far ahead, I'm not ruling anything out, maybe I'll be that mother who orders her customized chick at seventy-three."
Not saying the obvious. That most of what she'd seen of marriage was lies, betrayal, destruction. At best, the slow erosion of whatever you'd once liked about yourself.
"Could you imagine spending your life with him?"
"Who, Campbell? I can't live with myself, let alone someone else. I mean, I guess that's what I'm saying—I'm just scraping by, there's not much margin of comfort to offer anybody else."
My husband—she'd heard women her age pronounce this pompous phrase as if the guy thus conjured were seven feet tall, shaved with a straight razor, and had fucked them to jelly that very morning. When in fact most husbands Gwen knew were snot-nosed squirts, needy, repetitive, cavilling. My husband? No.
"How's Roger doing?" Grudgingly. The irredentism creeping in, willy-nilly: I shared a bed with your wife back when she wore braces on her teeth and had to listen to Blondie's "Heart of Glass" five times before breakfast; I possess unstudied archives of her—age fifteen, seventeen, twenty-one, at the beach, shoplifting, on her first acid trip—that you would die for one peek at. When Constance was one of the few foreigners at a New England boarding school. An ugly duckling, all skinny legs and freckles. Like Gwen, a near-geek.
"Roger? He's a wonder," said Constance, ironically. "His bonuses are larger than the GNP of most Third World countries. I suppose that puts me off work, too: I can't very well pretend we need the money."
"I bet," said Gwen. "I remember when people used to go on about the eighties being this age of greed."
"Oh, the eighties were Hard Times compared to nowadays."
"This is the real thing, isn't it?"
The children swirling, swirling over Alice in Wonderland. Trampling the Dormouse, throttling the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat. The children swirling, swirling, spilling over the edges like besiegers of a fortress.
On the bench next to Gwen and Constance's, the sleeping man turned over in his sleep. Tucked his long legs tighter under his butt. He was wearing a pair of red Converse All Stars, Gwen noted, his big toe poking out of a hole in one sneaker. Gwen intercepted her friend's unease: the danger-averting watchfulness of Constance-as-mother. What is this potential pervert doing here? I thought they didn't allow unaccompanied adults in the playgrounds. Maybe Constance had been living in Singapore too long . . .
Constance wasn't the only one watching their sleeping neighbor, Gwen noticed. A boy in a Braves shirt, scaling Alice's brawny shoulder, also kept glancing at the man.
High wind ruffling the leaves on the plane trees underside up, the clouds now dark and heavy-lidded with their burden, and a first grumble of thunder.
Gwen stood up. "We'd better split."
The parents, too, beginning to hustle their kids, pack up the strollers, slip windbreakers from knapsacks.
And now—as if everyone's eyes had finally bored him awake—the sleeper on the next-door bench sat up, stretched. Looked around. Taking in Constance, Gwen—who looked away too late.
The man yawned, stood up, glanced over at Alice. At the boy in the baseball shirt. "C'mon," said the man to the boy. "Time to go home."
And Gwen watched as he chucked his newspaper into a trash can and ambled over to the railings, where he unlocked a large rusty bicycle. Mounted, helped the boy onto its crossbar, and cycled away, wobbling.
Leaving Gwen feeling obscurely excluded. Not quite sure which it was she envied—the raffish ease of the cycler, or the trustfulness of the son nesting between those pedalling knees.
She and Constance also rose, hurrying up the hill and out onto Fifth Avenue. The rain cascading now, surplusing in indented coveys in the octagonal paving. Lightning white-white in the sky's sullen darkness.
Gwen and Constance rushing across Madison Avenue in the pus-laden downpour, narrowly missed by a bus, splashing a group of people sheltering under the awning of the Carlyle.
"Do you want to come up to my room for some tea? Roger should be back any minute."
"I can't—I have to stop by the office."
"And tonight? We're supposed to meet Christopher at some new—"
"I know. Unfortunately, I've been summoned for dinner with my dad. The triannual dinner. He only calls up when Jacey's out of town."
"Count your blessings."
The Lavrinsky Institute was housed in a turn-of-the-century Gothic palace on the southeast corner of Seventy-ninth and Fifth. Gwen had wondered if her boss, Edward Lavrinsky, had not seen his own face in one of those crouching limestone monkey-men that dripped from each corner. Lavrinsky was an investor who had decided to translate his fortune into political philanthropy. Gwen, who had met his children, didn't much blame him.
In the late seventies and early eighties, Lavrinsky had funnelled money into the New York City public school system, of which he was a stellar graduate. But Lavrinsky had evidently been bored by education and its theoreticians: he was much more interested in shaping U.S. foreign policy—a job that in bolder days had been assumed by the U.S. government. With the end of the Cold War, Lavrinsky had founded an institute devoted to rehabilitating the former Soviet Union, whose southern reaches he himself had fled, long ago, as a small boy.
Half a billion dollars a year Lavrinsky spent on buying transmitters for independent television stations in Belarus; retraining biochemists in the warfare cities of Kazakhstan; vaccinating children against tuberculosis; reflooding the Aral Sea.
Gwen was in charge of their Russian portfolio. It was a sweet racy job, just subversive enough to keep her happy. Every year, like a medieval bishop spreading Christianity, she launched a new program in Kazan or Stavropol or Arkhangel'sk; every few months she came round to check on her older parishes, manned by missionaries with bank accounts. She was often followed; their offices were bugged; their local employees were sometimes arrested while the foreign nationals got their visas revoked. Besides which, she sometimes knew in the worst way that their larger enterprise wasn't working, that Russia and its chickens were still a world apart. But it beat her previous job, working in the State Department.
Today, Gwen stayed at the office till seven, clearing her plate for the next three weeks' absence.