Read an Excerpt
In 1988, George H. W. Bush had just won the presidential election by inviting everyone to read his lips while Michael Dukakis lost it by riding in a tank. Dr. Huxtable was America’s dad, Kate & Allie were America’s moms, The Golden Girls were America’s grandmoms, McDonald’s announced it was opening its first restaurant in the Soviet Union, everyone bought Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and didn’t read it, Phantom of the Opera opened on Broadway, and Patricia Campbell got ready to die.
She sprayed her hair, put on her earrings, and blotted her lipstick, but when she looked at herself in the mirror she didn’t see a housewife of thirty-nine with two children and a bright future, she saw a dead person. Unless war broke out, the oceans rose, or the earth fell into the sun, tonight was the monthly meeting of the Literary Guild of Mt. Pleasant, and she hadn’t read this month’s book. And she was the discussant. Which meant that in less than ninety minutes she would stand up in front of a room full of women and lead them in a conversation about a book she hadn’t read.
She had meant to read Cry, the Beloved Country—honestly—but every time she picked up her copy and read There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills, Korey rode her bike off the end of the dock because she thought that if she pedaled fast enough she could skim across the water, or she set her brother’s hair on fire trying to see how close she could get a match before it caught, or she spent an entire weekend telling everyone who called that her mother couldn’t come to the phone because she was dead, which Patricia only learned about when people started showing up at the front door with condolence casseroles.
Before Patricia could discover why the road that runs from Ixopo was so lovely, she’d see Blue run past the sun porch windows buck naked, or she’d realize the house was so quiet because she’d left him at the downtown library and had to jump in the Volvo and fly back over the bridge, praying that he hadn’t been kidnapped by Moonies, or because he’d decided to see how many raisins he could fit up his nose (twenty-four). She never even learned where Ixopo was exactly because her mother-in-law, Miss Mary, moved in with them for a six-week visit and the garage room had to have clean towels, and the sheets on the guest bed had to be changed every day, and Miss Mary had trouble getting out of the tub so they had one of those bars installed and she had to find somebody to do that, and the children had laundry that needed to be done, and Carter had to have his shirts ironed, and Korey wanted new soccer cleats because everyone else had them but they really couldn’t afford them right now, and Blue was only eating white food so she had to make rice every night for supper, and the road to Ixopo ran on to the hills without her.
Joining the Literary Guild of Mt. Pleasant had seemed like a good idea at the time. Patricia realized she needed to get out of the house and meet new people the moment she leaned over at supper with Carter’s boss and tried to cut up his steak for him. A book club made sense because she liked reading, especially mysteries. Carter had suggested it was because she went through life as if the entire world were a mystery to her, and she didn’t disagree: Patricia Campbell and the Secret of Cooking Three Meals a Day, Seven Days a Week, without Losing Your Mind. Patricia Campbell and the Case of the Five-Year-Old Child Who Keeps Biting Other People. Patricia Campbell and the Mystery of Finding Enough Time to Read the Newspaper When You Have Two Children and a Mother-in-Law Living with You and Everyone Needs Their Clothes Washed, and to Be Fed, and the House Needs to Be Cleaned and Someone Has to Give the Dog His Heartworm Pills and You Should Probably Wash Your Own Hair Every Few Days or Your Daughter Is Going to Ask Why You Look Like a Street Person. A few discreet inquiries, and she’d been invited to the inaugural meeting of the Literary Guild of Mt. Pleasant at Marjorie Fretwell’s house.
The Literary Guild of Mt. Pleasant picked their books for that year in a very democratic process: Marjorie Fretwell invited them to select eleven books from a list of thirteen she found appropriate. She asked if there were other books anyone wanted to recommend, but everyone understood that wasn’t a real question, except for Slick Paley, who seemed chronically unable to read social cues.
“I’d like to nominate Like Lambs to the Slaughter: Your Child and the Occult,” Slick said. “With that crystal store on Coleman Boulevard and Shirley MacLaine on the cover of Time magazine talking about her past lives, we need a wake-up call.”
“I’ve never heard of it,” Marjorie Fretwell said. “So I imagine it falls outside our mandate of reading the great books of the Western world. Anyone else?”
“But—” Slick protested.
“Anyone else?” Marjorie repeated.
They selected the books Marjorie wrote down for them, assigned each book to the month Marjorie thought best, and picked the discussants Marjorie thought were most appropriate. The discussant would open the meeting by delivering a twenty-minute presentation on the book, its background, and the life of its author, then lead the group discussion. A discussant could not cancel or trade books with anyone else without paying a stiff fine because the Literary Guild of Mt. Pleasant was not fooling around. When it became clear she wasn’t going to be able to finish Cry, the Beloved Country, Patricia called Marjorie.
“Marjorie,” she said over the phone while putting a lid on the rice and turning it down from a boil. “It’s Patricia Campbell. I need to talk to you about Cry, the Beloved Country.”
“Such a powerful work,” Marjorie said.
“Of course,” Patricia said.
“I know you’ll do it justice,” Marjorie said.
“I’ll do my best,” Patricia said, realizing that this was the exact opposite of what she needed to say.
“And it’s so timely with the situation in South Africa right now,” Marjorie said.
A cold bolt of fear shot through Patricia: what was the situation in South Africa right now?
After she hung up, Patricia cursed herself for being a coward and a fool, and vowed to go to the library and look up Cry, the Beloved Country in the Directory of World Literature, but she had to do snacks for Korey’s soccer team, and the babysitter had mono, and Carter had a sudden trip to Columbia and she had to help him pack, and then a snake came out of the toilet in the garage room and she had to beat it to death with a rake, and Blue drank a bottle of Wite-Out and she had to take him to the doctor to see if he would die (he wouldn’t). She tried to look up Alan Paton, the author, in their World Book Encyclopedia but they were missing the P volume. She made a mental note that they needed new encyclopedias.
The doorbell rang.
“Mooooom,” Korey called from the downstairs hall. “Pizza’s here!”
She couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time to face Marjorie.