The Longings of Women: A Novel

The Longings of Women: A Novel

by Marge Piercy
The Longings of Women: A Novel

The Longings of Women: A Novel

by Marge Piercy


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An “extraordinary” novel of the intertwined lives of three troubled women, by the New York Times–bestselling author of Gone to Soldiers (San Francisco Chronicle).

When her best friend’s death rattles her sense of complacency, college professor Leila Landsman decides she’s finally had enough of her cheating husband. Leila throws herself into her work and encounters Becky Burgess, a local woman who climbed her way out of poverty but whose success is completely halted when she becomes the prime suspect in her husband’s murder. Meanwhile, Leila’s housekeeper, Mary Burke, is no stranger to failed marriage. Abandoned by her husband for a younger woman, and unable to support herself on her own income alone, Mary now secretly sleeps in her clients’ houses, hiding her homelessness to remain employed and survive.
Flawed but resourceful, frightened yet determined, these three women must draw on an inner strength they never knew existed to make it without the men they’ve come to depend on. Although their situations differ, Leila, Becky, and Mary have all reached their tipping points—and each is about to be pushed to the brink—in this gripping and relatable story of the dangers of dependence and the liberating power of self-reliance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504033350
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 04/12/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 433
Sales rank: 12,878
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Marge Piercy is the author of the memoir Sleeping with Cats and fifteen novels, including Three Women and Woman on the Edge of Time, as well as sixteen books of poetry, including Colors Passing Through Us, The Art of Blessing the Day, and Circles on the Water. She lives on Cape Cod, with her husband, Ira Wood, the novelist and publisher of Leapfrog Press.

Read an Excerpt

The Longings of Women

A Novel

By Marge Piercy


Copyright © 1994 Marge Piercy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3335-0



Sitting on a bench outside the courtroom, Leila began looking at her watch at three. She had expected to be called right after lunch as an expert witness on battered women. Now it was almost five and the cross-examination of the doctor who had treated Linda Sue in the emergency room was still continuing. Leila had been scheduled to testify today for the defendant Linda Sue because she had no classes Friday, but she was also supposed to relieve Melanie's mother, Mrs. Peretz, at the hospital. Why did she so often feel as if she should be in three places at the same time, guilty wherever she was because she was not tending to some other problem?

Leila realized with a little surprise that she was bitterly unhappy. She did not want to be sitting in court, where Linda Sue's trial was not going well. Leila hated testifying, hated the rigid protocol of the courts, although she was supposed to be a good witness, the same reason she was in demand as a speaker. She was cool/warm in her public persona, maternal and efficient at once. She thought quickly on her feet. Years of teaching, sounding as if she knew what she was talking about even if she had only read the material for the first time the night before, paid off in voice control, the ability to improvise and to field hostile questions with grace. She would be useful on the stand, if she ever got there, but she was in a bind. She sat by herself on the wooden bench, the victim's sister glaring sideways at her.

Leila's best friend Melanie was dying of breast cancer, after a remission of five years. Leila's son David was off on the West Coast at Cal Tech. Her husband Nick had broken his vow of years and taken a successful local production of Oedipus Rex to off-Broadway, recasting in New York. Nick had not returned her last three calls to his answering machine. Her message of last night had been brief but pointed. "Nick, I miss you to distraction. I'm coming to New York this Saturday. I've fixed things so I can stay until Monday morning. I love you. See you Saturday around noon."

Finally she was called, was sworn in and had begun testimony when the judge recessed for the weekend. Great. She had to be here at nine on Monday. She would take a very early shuttle out of LaGuardia. After leaving the courthouse in downtown Boston, she promptly got stuck in rush-hour traffic. It took her twenty minutes just to exit the parking garage and another twenty to reach the end of the block. Leila was listed officially at the hospital as Melanie's sister. When she finally reached the room and Mrs. Peretz could leave for supper, Melanie's mother went out shaking her head and muttering.

This was a bad night. Melanie was conscious but in constant pain. "You still call Mama Mrs. Peretz," she mouthed with a gaunt grin. "You've known her since we were freshmen at Penn. More than half our lives."

"Your mother seemed so old to me then. The age I am now. That must be how I look to my students."

"We were ... so full of energy. Hope." Melanie tried to squeeze Leila's hand but couldn't. Her hand fell open.

"I haven't given up hope. Don't you."

But Melanie lapsed into unconsciousness. She groaned, tossed, mumbled but did not reopen her eyes. Her glossy black hair had long ago fallen out. Her face was skeletal.

Leila left the hospital feeling despondent. As she drove home to Cambridge, she noticed indifferently that it was finally clearing into the sort of crisp late October night she usually loved. The clouds were ripping visibly as the steely moon shot through. Melanie had her first episode of breast cancer seven years before, and yet her doctor had not caught this in time. Then in March, Melanie's birth month, the tumor had metastasized.

with the black hair
is paler
they make quite a pair.

Nonsense rhymes they had made up years before, nonsense rhymes they still wrote for each other every birthday.

Leila is round
and far from the ground
and bites her professors for lunch
Melanie's narrow
eats like a sparrow
and orders up boys by the bunch.

Odd that rhymes they had giggled at twenty-five years ago should ring in her ears tonight: simple exhaustion. She was swamped with her classes, her students, the research project on incest survivors' relationships with their children that was in press now. She was so distant from her own work that it did not even feel interesting. She had to provide support and help not only for Melanie but for Melanie's daughter Shana, who was still in high school, and often for Mrs. Peretz, who had relocated to Boston two months ago.

She did not think, as she pulled into the drive, that she had left so many lights on; on the other hand, a burglar would not turn on every light in the downstairs, and she had been distracted and in a mad rush when she left. She had returned from campus to change for court. She had found an enigmatic call from her son David on the answering machine that suggested problems at Cal Tech; a plaint from a student she had promised to help with research. In her heart Leila knew she loved David more than anyone living, but she was not really sure which one she loved more, Melanie or Nick. Nick was her husband, her mate; but Melanie was her heart's sister, her other self. She was unraveling as Melanie disintegrated. It was just as well that Nick had taken an out-of-town gig this fall, as he often did. She would not be able to be there for him as much as he needed.

The front walk rustled with maple leaves she kicked. The house crowded its lot. It was two-story and wooden with a corner tower that, with lights on in the living room and in the master bedroom above it, looked festive, two wreaths of light through the red and the gold draperies. As soon as she opened the door, she heard Nicolas, and her heart leaped with a sharp pang of startlement and joy. It was all right, it was all right, he had come home to her. He had been too busy to return her calls. Perhaps rehearsals were going poorly. It meant nothing that he had not called her back. He was here to see her, and they were still whole, a family. She flung her coat in the direction of the couch, stopped at the hall mirror and daubed her mouth with lipstick, gave her short thick brown hair a quick punishing brush. She was grinning at herself, her cheeks rosy with the blush of expectation. She ran toward his voice.

He was talking on the phone too loud, as he always did. When they spoke on the phone, she was always turning the volume dial down and then down again, and they were always talking on the phone when he was gone, as he so often was. He projected his voice to the back of the hall, to the balcony. He was a big man with a big presence and a big voice. He got off at once when he heard her — a woman? Don't be silly. He had promised he was done with all that, said he was getting too old for complications with actresses. He merely terminated the call because he wanted to see her. For a year they had had a new marriage, no more out-of-town romances, the two of them working at the relationship wholeheartedly together.

"I didn't know you were coming!" she said, then realized she sounded shrill as an overexcited child. "Why didn't you call the hospital? I had no idea! Oh, I'm so glad to see you. I was worried."

He came striding toward her, gave her a quick kiss and a bear hug. "I tried to call from Perm Station, but you weren't here. I took the train." When he embraced her, he always made her feel petite, anything but the overgrown adolescent who still cowered inside.

She was checking him for signs of trouble. Yet he seemed exuberant, larger than life. He was an imposing man, tall and big-boned and, at forty-eight, not exactly heavyset but solid, almost monumental. "You'll never guess who I ran into yesterday in the lobby of the Brill Building — Al! He was very friendly, remembered me right away...."

Al? Al? She tried to remember somebody they had gone to school with, or someone who had acted in his company at B.U. She ought to know, obviously.

"I told him I'd brought Oedipus to New York, and he wished me luck. He looked great. Everyone was scoping me, who he was greeting."

"Nick ... Al who?"

"Al Pacino. Remember, I met him when I was at the Mark Taper?"

She was still checking him over, like someone who looks over her dog for ticks after he has been in the woods. New York was his bête noir. He was going bald so that his curly grey hair circled the bare spot like a monk's tonsure. His full kinky beard was ash blond, just streaked with grey. His large eyes under jutting brows were as crystalline blue as ever but bloodshot from lack of sleep. She could tell he had been eating and drinking too much. His skin looked ruddy and splotched. His lips were cracked from not drinking enough water. No one else would notice anything wrong, but it was her job to keep him in shape. He was describing the train trip, the man he had sat next to, what had been said, a raconteur's crafting of the ordinary into the memorable, but she had to know his situation. "Is something wrong?"

"They were producing that dry frenzy you sometimes have when you're trying to get an ensemble together. So I gave them the day off. I have to go back in the morning, but I thought I'd just hop a train and check in with you." He put his arm around her and guided her toward the leather couch. "I keep getting your messages too late to call you — after all, you work too, and you're not the most coherent person wakened in the middle of the night."

"I'm a grump, I come apart at both ends," she said apologetically, feeling only a sharp spritzy happiness like the best fruit soda in the world. What fine clear piercing beautiful eyes he had, how strong and yet shapely his hands were, good tools for expression. His nose and chin were finely modeled, his brows thick, his forehead high and broad. He was her love, her treasure. She always forgot how his strong thumbs sprang out toward the end in an arch. She forgot how his eyelids had a natural lavender tint, invisible unless she sat very close, pressed against him as now.

They sat on the couch with a bottle of cabernet sauvignon he selected from the cellar — the area under the stairs she called the wine basement. He put his head in her lap and she rubbed him behind the ears like a great hunting cat who had lain down for a moment and allowed himself to be pleased. "Are you sorry you let them talk you into New York?" He had resisted with every other play that had been a local success. He hated the hold New York had, felt it had almost destroyed theater. Occasionally he lectured on that topic for a fat fee at universities.

"I suppose not to have done it would be dying a virgin. You have to let yourself get really fucked once, right? I didn't want anybody saying that I'm afraid of the challenge. But everything is four times harder and five times more expensive. New York theater is a sewer, a sink of energy."

Her fingers kneaded the tight places in his thick neck. "You're worried."

"I'd be a happy idiot not to worry." He sat bolt upright. "This time it's got to work. I'll show the bastards. I'll ram it down their throat."

"Beloved, I've wanted to get down, but Melanie's very, very bad." They had agreed that, unlike their usual arrangement, this time she would visit occasionally. She had made it to New York exactly once.

"Frankly, I haven't had the time to miss you. It's been fierce. I don't have enough left when I crawl into bed at night to meet the emotional needs of a goldfish." He flopped back down. "It is a stunning piece, I know it."

"But I'm going to come down. Next weekend. How about that?"

"If I could just get the last act sizzling. Faster, hotter."

"Are you satisfied you're ready to open in three weeks?"

"Three and a half. I need every day, every hour." He groaned with vexation. He was too long for the couch. His ankles stuck out into space, rigid, quivering. "Sometimes I want to wring Sheryl's neck. She won't take direction. She nods, she agrees, she wags her tail, and then she does it her way. Yet she has an animal presence that causes audiences to stare at her as if they can't get enough."

Leila had a sixth sense by now. If he wasn't yet involved with Sheryl, he was considering it. She had a moment of total despair. She judged her willing belief that indeed he was finished with affairs as naive, as a weak-kneed desire that it be so. Perhaps she could silently convince him this weekend to hold off. Sheryl: twenty-four and whippet-lean, with a voice like butterscotch. Leila said nothing. What was to say? They had their arrangement, one she had gratefully believed they had outgrown. Only away from home. He wouldn't lie to her. If she asked him about Sheryl, he would tell her, far more than she wanted to know. She didn't ask. She felt a great weariness. After all, she was a forty-five-year-old woman of no great beauty, a hardworking semi-academic who fought a constant daily battle to maintain weight just ten pounds over what she ought to be. In the theater, he dealt with ambitious beauties, willing, young, sometimes very young. Never make him choose. From the beginning he had made clear, only a part of him would be hers — a large part, but only a part. The rest belonged to his work and to his freedom. She would be in the way when he was directing out of town. But there had to be a woman. He was a huge hunger in the shape of a man, not so much for sex but attention, feedback, reassurance. She could not do her work and follow him around; and their household secret was that she was the main breadwinner. Nobody except Melanie knew that. His part-time appointment at B.U. paid less than half what she made as an associate professor at Lesley College, not counting her books.

Melanie had always understood her situation with forgiving clarity, understood how lucky Leila felt to have won Nicolas, who had named himself that, born William, Bill Landsman, to a dentist and housewife in Houston, barely Jewish — the handsome one, the genius, the iconoclast. By the time he was Sheryl's age, he had achieved a reasonable success as an actor. At thirty, he had turned to directing. For fifteen years he had been a power in regional theater. When anyone discussed theater in Boston, his name was one of the first that would be mentioned. He taught part of the year at B.U., but mostly he put on plays in a converted movie house near campus, or around the country by invitation at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, at the Actors Theater in Louisville, at the Alley Theater in Houston. He was considered equally adept at staging difficult new plays and at finding startling meanings and unexpected subtexts in classics. He had done a Changeling in twenties costumes that shocked and sizzled. Sheryl had been his student and he cast her in the lead. Leila was sure nothing had happened then, but obviously he had remembered Sheryl after she went off to New York to try for a career.

She put on the red silk Victoria's Secret nightgown he had given her for her birthday two years before, rather than the flannel Eileen West she usually wore. But when she climbed into bed he was already asleep. She lay beside him, depressed by Melanie, by having allowed herself to think about the affair that might be going on or about to develop. To any relationship there were costs, there were imposed overt and hidden taxes. She had long ago accepted her role in his life: central but partial. It gave her benefits too. She lay on her side unable for a long time to sleep beside the great mound of his body that put out warmth like a wood stove. He smoldered in his sleep while she pondered that freedom.

Countless women who had married when she did had given up their friends. She could remember when she had felt almost as close to Lisa as to Melanie, Lisa who vanished into her marriage as into a closet. Leila and Melanie had stayed close over the decades, in part because Nick did not possess her as so many husbands ate up all of their wives' attention. She had enjoyed the time and energy to return to school, to get her doctorate at Brandeis, to take on a career and to go as far as she could. She was able to carry out her research, think through her ideas, write her books. No doubt one reason their marriage had lasted was because she remained interesting to him, and for that she credited her work. She was out in the world too. She had anecdotes, stories, new people, departmental controversies to bring home.


Excerpted from The Longings of Women by Marge Piercy. Copyright © 1994 Marge Piercy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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