Here," she says, "I'll get you a sweater." She's barely done
speaking before she's taking the stairs two at a time, her
espadrilles clomping against the peeling wood, transporting her
down the long hallway. It's July and twilight comes late, so even
now, at nine o'clock, the last of the sun still colors the sky, but
inside the house the corridors are dark and she's neglected to
illuminate the antique standing lamp at the top of the stairs as if
to reflect an inner austerity. It's their country house, but like
their apartment in the city the hallway runs through it, an endless
spine, which she traverses now, past the Kathe Kollwitz etchings
and the street map of Paris and the photographs of her and David's
grandparents staring down at them on opposite sides of the wall
from another continent and century. She moves with such purpose
(dogged, implacable: those are the words David uses to describe
her) that when she reaches the lip of their bedroom and steps
inside she's startled to discover she's forgotten what she came
She calls out to him, but he doesn't respond.
"Are you there?"
"David?" She'll turn seventy next spring, and David will, too (They
were born a week apart. They've figured it out: she was emerging
from the womb at the very hour he was circumcised, the first and
last Jewish ritual he ever partook of, which places him, she
thinks, one Jewish ritual ahead of her.), and she's taken to saying
her memory has begun to fail her, though she knows that's not true.
Or no more true than for any sixty-nine-year-old-or for any adult
human, for that matter. To have the memory of an infant, a toddler.
She recalls Clarissa at ten months, those first stabs at language,
how she resolved right then to teach her daughter French and
German, to do it while it was still possible. She felt the same
with Lily and Noelle, and again a few years later when Leo was
born. She spent her junior year in Paris, at the Sorbonne, and
David spent his junior year in Düsseldorf. Her French was rusty by
the time the children were born, and David's German was rusty, too,
but it was worth a try, wasn't it, she said, and she still had her
Berlitz tapes. And David, who in those days was still inclined to
indulge her, allowed her to convince him to embark on a summer
experiment; she would speak French to Clarissa and he would speak
German. Two junior years abroad between them, one set of Berlitz
tapes: the experiment lasted a week, the two of them speaking to
baby Clarissa in their bad French and bad German until it became
obvious to Marilyn what should have been obvious to her all along,
that their daughter wasn't going to be trilingual; she was going to
be mute, a wolf-child.
She remembers now. A sweater. She stands in front of their old
closet, and there they are: David's shirts pressed and starched and
evenly spaced, the shoes lined up in pairs, the sweaters folded in
piles, next to them hanging a single brown cardigan. For a second
she feels like a voyeur, looking in on a life that's no longer
hers, and as she reaches out to grab the cardigan her hand
She heads back downstairs, and when she reaches the landing she
calls out again, but he still doesn't respond. For an instant she
panics: has he run off?
"I was calling you," she says. "Didn't you hear me?"
"I guess not." David is out on the porch, reading the Times,
reclined on one of their old lawn chairs. His legs stick out in
front of him; he taps his feet against the edge of the chair.
"I got you this." She hands him the cardigan, which he takes
obediently, but now he's just laid it folded across his lap.
"You said you were cold."
"Did I?" His gaze is far off, tunneling past her.
He looks pale, she thinks. He's wearing a red button-down shirt
with the sleeves rolled up, and he inhabits it so loosely that it
billows around him like a pastry puff. He looks as if he's lost
weight. He has lost weight. So has she. They haven't eaten much,
either of them, this past year.
A mosquito lands on his neck. She swats at it, and he flinches. "A
bug," she says.
A firefly alights on one of her tulips, and another one, casting
the garden in a sputter of light. "The girls will be arriving
"Not for another twenty-four hours."
"That's soon enough."
Another mosquito lands on him.
"The bugs love you," she says. "Remember how we used to say that to
the kids? Mornings before summer camp and we were coating them in
Calamine? The mosquitoes loved Leo most of all."
She knows what he's thinking. That memory is selective, even in
small matters like this one. But it's true, she thinks. Leo was the
most bit-up of the kids. The bugs found him the sweetest, as did
He rises from his chair. "I need to get a haircut."
"David, it's nine o'clock at night."
"I mean tomorrow," he says, all impatience. "I'll go into town
before the girls arrive." He checks his reflection in the porch
window. He's patting down his hair, straightening out his shirt
collar as if he has somewhere to go.
"You look good," she says. "Handsome." He still has a full head of
hair, though it's grown silver over the years. When, she wonders,
did this happen? It's taken place so slowly she hasn't noticed it
She's sitting in a lawn chair, and she turns away from him. It's
been a year since Leo died, and on the teak garden table, pressed
beneath a mound of books, sits a pile of programs for the memorial.
There will be a service at the Lenox Community Center; then they'll
go to the cemetery for the unveiling.
"You changed into tennis shorts," he says.
"I was thinking of hitting some balls."
"The court is lit."
He shrugs, then goes back to the Times. He skims the editorial
page, the letters, and now he's on to the arts. He folds the paper
like origami, over and over on itself.
She steps off the porch and disappears into the garden. She
continues along the stone path, which winds past the bushes to
where their tennis court lies. The garage is next to it, and as she
steps inside and flips on the court lights, the clays gets flooded
in a pond of illumination.
She stands at the baseline with a bucket of balls, another bucket
waiting in the garage behind her. She's in her shorts and an indigo
tank top, her sneakers laced tightly, her hair tied back, though a
few strands have come loose in the nighttime heat. She breathes
slowly, in and out. She hits serve after serve into the empty
opponent's court, taking something off the second serve, putting
more spin on it, then returning to her first serve, hitting one ace
after another. She serves into the deuce court and the ad court and
the deuce court again. She empties one bucket of balls, and now she
returns with the other bucket. Occasionally when she serves, her
ball hits another ball lying on the clay, and they bounce off each
other. There are a hundred and fifty tennis balls now, maybe two
hundred, the court covered in fuzz the color of lime. Sweat drips
down her forehead and singes her eyes. She simply leaves the balls
lying there and returns to the house.
"Did you get it out of your system?"
She doesn't respond.
"So this is it," he says.
It is. After forty-two years of marriage, she's leaving him. At
least that's how David puts it-how he will put it, no doubt, when
they tell the girls. And it's true in a way: she was the one who
finally decided she couldn't go on like this. A week ago she asked
him for a trial separation. She hates that term. As if she's
standing in front of a judge and lawyers, a jury of her peers. When
she made her announcement, David said he wanted to give it another
shot, but they've been giving it shot after shot for a year now and
she has no more left in her. There are days when they don't talk at
all. She has reminded him of the statistics, what happens to a
marriage when you lose a child. Eighty percent, she's heard, maybe
even ninety. Why should this surprise people? Already it's 50
percent when nothing obvious has gone wrong. But David doesn't want
to hear statistics, and, truth be told, neither does she.
Another copy of the program lies forlornly on the porch. They're
everywhere, it seems, strewn randomly about the house. She picks
one up from the steps. Leo's photograph is across the cover, his
curls corkscrewing out just like David's, and beneath the photo are
the words APRIL 10, 1972-JULY 4, 2004. At the bottom of the page is
a poem by William Butler Yeats.
When she told David of her plans, he wanted to call the girls
immediately. He wanted to call Thisbe too. It seemed only fair, he
said; Thisbe and Calder would be flying in from California. But she
refused to let him call. She wanted to tell everyone in person, and
to wait until after the memorial was over. But the real reason-she
has only half admitted this, even to herself-is that she fears if
David told the girls no one would come. It would serve them right,
David says; she half suspects he wants to cancel himself. How can
they have the memorial, David wants to know, when this is
happening? But she disagrees. David thinks, How can they do this?
and she thinks, How can they not?
Now, in the kitchen, she finds him on his hands and knees, taking a
box cutter to four large packing boxes. He makes a single sharp
motion down the center of each box. His back is to her; he looks as
if he's searching for contraband. "Do you need help?" she asks, but
he doesn't answer her.
The boxes are open now, gutted of their contents; a single
Styrofoam peanut has flown out of the packing and skittered like a
bug across the floor.
"The Williams Sonoma kosher special?"
He doesn't respond.
"What's the damage? A couple thousand dollars? More?"
David glances at the receipt, which is perched on the butcher-block
table at the center of the room, lying in a bed of Styrofoam. "More
"Oh, well," she says. "We can afford it."
"You said you thought it was money well spent."
The contents of the boxes (plates and bowls, cutlery, serving
dishes, pans and pots, a few extras that David insisted on,
including a set of bowls for the children with famous sports
figures on them-they're sports fiends, the grandchildren) have been
purchased so that Noelle, Amram, and their four boys can eat in
their house. Noelle won't eat off nonkosher dishes, even if those
dishes belong to her parents. Especially, Marilyn sometimes thinks,
if those dishes belong to her parents. Noelle and Amram live in
Jerusalem and they visit at most once a year, so the dishes won't
get much use. It's one of the many reasons Marilyn has been loath
to buy them. But David has been lobbying for them for years; he
thinks of them as a peace offering.
"A plate for me, a plate for you?" She's doing her best to make
light of this.
He doesn't respond.
"Noelle will still come visit," she says. "Nothing has to change
about that." Nothing has to change about anything, she wants to
say, but she knows that's absurd.
She has found a rental on the Upper West Side, a two-bedroom in one
of those all-services monstrosities, with a gym and a pool, a
concierge, a playroom (it will be good for the grandchildren, she
thinks), a party room, all the things she could want and a lot of
things she couldn't. It's eleven blocks from David, which means
they could run into each other grocery shopping, though in New York
you can go for months without running into your own next-door
neighbor. For a while, she thought it would be better to move to
another neighborhood (she even considered moving to
Brooklyn-Clarissa and Nathaniel live there, so she could be
nearby), but except for those few years when the girls were in high
school and the family decamped to Westchester, she has spent her
whole adult life on the Upper West Side. It's hard to imagine
living anywhere else. And the apartment opened up suddenly and the
lease is month to month, so it will be a good place to figure out
what comes next. It's the house in Lenox that makes her heart
quicken. Will she be allowed to come back here? Will she allow
herself? She and David have been coming to the Berkshires summer
after summer for forty years now.
"You checked the food?"
David nods. "Everything's certified kosher."
"Are you sure?"
More Styrofoam peanuts are strewn across the floor, including one
that has lodged itself under the fridge, which Marilyn stabs at
with a fork. Now she's standing with David amidst the wreckage, and
beside it all sits the bubble wrap unfurled like a runner across
the length of the room. "We bought a whole kitchen," she says. "No
spatula left unturned."
David gives her a tired smile.
"Are we supposed to bless them?" she says darkly. "Is that
"Christen them?" David says.
She laughs, as she knows she's supposed to, and it feels good to
laugh with David. For a moment there's a lightness between them, as
if a screen has been lifted.
When David finds her a few minutes later, she's seated in the
alcove that adjoins the living room, typing on the computer. "I
know what you're thinking."
"What?" he says.
"There she goes again. Writing another op-ed about the war."
"What do you want me to say?"
"You could say you miss him."
"Of course I miss him."
"It's been a year since he died, for God's sake. And, yes, I know
writing these things won't bring him back, but I don't care." She
doesn't care, either, that she has become a mascot for the left and
everyone thinks of her as the mother of the dead journalist.
Because that's what she is. It's what David is, too: the father of
the dead journalist. It's all they're ever going to be.
In the kitchen now, he prepares a citrus marinade for the chicken.
He has chosen the menu: white gazpacho, caramelized leeks and
endive, marinated chicken thighs, jalapeño-lime corn on the cob,
pasta salad. They will also have watermelon slushies. At the
moment, though, he's chopping vegetables. The year before Leo died,
when he retired after thirty-nine years of teaching high school
English, David took a course consecrated to the very subject, five
Sundays running at the 92nd Street Y. Slicing and Dicing 101,
Marilyn called it; it was evidence, she believed, that he had too
much time on his hands.
Though there's certainly a technique, as he demonstrates now, the
way he keeps his knife always on the cutting board, only his wrist
moving. That's all there is these days, just the sound of David
when she comes home from work, cutting vegetables in their kitchen
on Riverside Drive, the sound of him here too, in Lenox, her
husband chopping vegetables. She thinks how hard it's going to be,
living on her own, how she has brought this on herself, the
solitude, the silence, and now, when she's alone, as if in
preparation for what's to come, she has begun to turn on the radio
and she listens to music she doesn't care for, just to hear a sound
in the room.
The phone rings, but when she goes to answer it, the person has
hung up. She has a brief, paranoid thought that someone is
following her. A trickle of sweat makes its way down her spine. She
opens the kitchen window, but it's just as warm outside as it is in
the house, so she closes the window again. Her heart still beats
fast from hitting those tennis balls. She smacked one of the balls
as hard as she could, clear over the fence and past the neighbor's
property. She did it for the fun of it, but it wasn't fun. She
feels the energy funnel out of her, wrung from her as if from a
sponge. Sometimes she feels as if she could die, that she'd like to
die; it would be better that way. "He used to walk around with his
laces undone. Remember? It was like he was daring you to step on
"What do you mean who?" Because in her life there is nobody else.
And because for David there has been somebody else (there have been
their girls; there have been his hobbies-he has taken up running
and become devoted to opera; he stays up late poring over
librettos-there has been this relentless chopping of vegetables),
because he's been trying to make the best of an unspeakable
situation, she hasn't been able to abide him. Is that why she's
leaving him? All she knows is she's so very very tired. She looks
at him once more and feels the rage burble inside her.
Onions, scallions, leeks, endive, cucumbers, jalapeño: he chops
them all. It looks like a trash heap, like volcanic ash. Always the
reasonable one. For years she counted on him to be like that. Now
it assails her.
"Did you call your mother?" she asks.
"You didn't tell her, did you?" That was their agreement-the
agreement, at least, that she extracted from him. No one is to know
until after the memorial.
"No," he says sharply. "I didn't."
"Then what did you two talk about?"
"Nothing," he says. "She's a woman of few words, Marilyn."
"So what were her few words?"
"She's not coming."
"Are you serious?" And she thinks: you told her not to come, didn't
you? Except, she realizes, she's actually said those words.
"My mother's been through a lot. Do you blame her for not wanting
to go through it again? She's ninety-four years old."
"I know how old she is."
"She's ninety-four, and she'll live to a hundred and forty. She has
a stronger constitution than any of us."
She's washing the dishes now, going at them furiously, while David
is still chopping behind her, the percussive sound of him. He
presses down hard on a carrot, and the top comes flying off and
sails across the room. "Jesus," he says. "Fuck! I cut
"Is it bad?"
"Bad enough." There's a gash in his thumb. It looks shallow at
first, but now, studying it beneath the sink light, Marilyn sees
it's deeper than she realized. She takes a wad of paper towel and
presses it to his hand. But the blood seeps through, so she goes to
the pantry to get more paper towel, and when she returns his hands
"Are you all right?"
"I don't know." He sits down on the stool and she's above him now,
attending to him. She runs his hand under cold water. The blood
drips off him and into the sink, down into the garbage disposal
along with the vegetable peel and citrus rind, swirling around like
beet juice. She comes back with tape and a gauze pad and bandages
"Slicing and Dicing 101, huh? They should have flunked me
She presses her hands around his, wrapping him in gauze, as if
she's taping up a fighter. "How am I doing, doctor?"
She forces out a smile. She's an internist by training, but she did
a second residency, in infectious disease. He has come to the wrong
specialist. "You're lucky you don't need stitches."
"Do I need them?"
"I think I staunched the flow."
She guides him upstairs and into their old bedroom. She has him in
their bathroom beneath the flickering lights, and David is saying,
"We need to replace that bulb. And the mirror," he adds. "It has a
crack in it. Hairline fracture."
But she's focused only on the task at hand, urging him to remain
still. She takes off the bandage, which is shot through with blood,
and wraps his hand again.
You're as good as new, she wants to say, but her breath catches on
the words. They're out of the bathroom, and now David, in his white
gym socks, is sitting on their old bed; tentatively, she settles
herself beside him. One of his socks has a hole in it, and his big
toe pokes out, white as a marshmallow nub. Through the window, she
can see the tennis court still dotted with balls, lumpy as dough in
the moonlight. Clean up, clean up. The girls will be coming soon,
and they might want to play. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm all right."
"Time to hit the hay."
She nods. At home in the city, they've been sleeping in separate
bedrooms, but this is the first time they've been back here, up in
Lenox, alone together. It seems that David has claimed their old
bedroom. Squatter's rights. Though she, in fairness, is a squatter,
too. She's also, she understands, the bad guy here. David's
suitcase is on the floor at his feet; a shoe tree spills out of it,
and a can of shaving cream.
"Good night," she says.
He gives her a quick nod.
She turns softly on her heels and heads down the hall. When she
comes back a few minutes later, David is already asleep. There he
is, her husband, and she feels a momentary heartbreak, knowing
she's not supposed to be looking at him, that somehow she's not
entitled. But she continues to stand there, tears falling down her
face. She's back in their house in Larchmont, back in other houses
and apartments, remembering hallways, portals, a domed ceiling high
above the family dinner table, bedrooms whose configurations she
can only dimly recall outside of which she used to stand at night
quietly watching her children sleep-and later, listening to David
breathe softly beside her, and she, a stealthy presence among the
reposed, careful not to disturb the sleep of a loved one.
1. Discuss the sibling relationships in the novel. To what
extent have Noelle's decisions been shaped by being Clarissa and
2. When Marilyn announces that she and David are separating,
Clarissa, Lily, and Noelle are thrown into shock. Is
separation/divorce different for children when they're adults than
when they're younger?
3. Marilyn won't let David tell the girls their news before
everyone gets up to the Berkshires. Do you agree with this
decision not to tell the family in advance?
4. "It's been the hardest year of Thisbe's life, yet it's
different for her. Marilyn and David were Leo's
parents." What does the novel mean by this? In what
ways is it different to lose a son than to lose a husband?
5. Marilyn thinks, "Mothers and daughters-in-law: such
volatile, loaded relationships." Is there something about Marilyn
and Thisbe that makes it hard for them to be close? Is the
relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law inherently
6. Clarissa's infertility plays a central role in the
book. Originally, it was Nathaniel who wanted to have
children and Clarissa didn't, but now that they're having trouble
conceiving Clarissa seems more upset than Nathaniel is. Does
this have to do with Leo's death? Is infertility always
harder for the woman than for the man?
7. Lily and Noelle have a particularly difficult
relationship. Why is this? How do sibling relationships
change as people get older? Are some siblings simply not meant to
8. Marilyn and David bought kosher food and a new set of dishes
so Noelle could eat in their home, but Noelle still won't eat
there. Do you agree with Noelle's decision? In a
conflict between loyalty to one's family and loyalty to one's
beliefs, what should win out?
9. There are some very high-powered people in this novel.
Nathaniel has two PhDs and may someday win the Nobel Prize.
Lily clerked on the Supreme Court. Malcolm is a chef featured
in magazines. Marilyn is a successful doctor. Amram and
Noelle, by contrast, struggle professionally. To what extent
do the characters in this book define their own success in
comparison with the success of their siblings and parents?
10. Thisbe says to Lily, "Everyone who knew us says Leo and I
were great together. There's no love like the love that's
been erased." Were Leo and Thisbe great
together? How reliable is memory when someone has died?
Do you think Thisbe and Leo would have worked things out if he had
come home from Iraq?
11. Most of the major characters in the novel are female, yet
the author is male. Does that influence the way you read this
novel? Is it different for a male writer to write from the
perspective of a woman?
12. Like the journalist Daniel Pearl, Leo was captured in the
Middle East and executed by terrorists. More recently, a
number of prominent journalists have died in the Middle East.
The specter of the Iraq War hovers over this novel, and the book is
populated by characters who have strong, often opposing political
opinions. Yet the book takes place in the bucolic Berkshires,
far from the center of the conflict. Would you describe this
as a political novel?
13. Although Lily and Malcolm aren't married, they live together
and have been a couple for ten years. Why does Lily refuse to
let Malcolm come to the Berkshires for Leo's memorial? Does
it say something about their relationship? About Lily
14. Noelle thanks her father for being "the voice that
understands there are things you can't know." What does she
mean by that? What makes David such a likable character?
15. Amram, by contrast, is a more difficult human being.
What do you think attracted Noelle to him? What attracted
Amram to Noelle? The novel says that Thisbe "understands
Amram's appeal. He has a kind of bullying charisma." Do
you find Amram likable?
16. "Judaism, Lily likes to say: just another installment
in the random life of Noelle Glucksman." Later, Noelle tells Thisbe
that it was random that she ended up in Israel and that she could
just as easily have landed in Sweden. What role do randomness
and coincidence play in Noelle's life? In the lives of the
17. Thisbe thinks: "Everyone wants to know about the
milestones-Leo's birthday, their anniversary-and those are hard, of
course, but it's the everyday things that are the toughest." What
does Thisbe mean by that? Do you agree with her
18. Gretchen's wealth plays a role in this novel, and the family
all responds to it differently. Discuss the role of money in the
novel in general.
19. The book says that David "mourns for Leo no less than
Marilyn does even if he isn't bellowing it into bullhorns . . . In
a way he thinks his response is more dignified." Is
David's response more dignified? Are there better and worse
ways to mourn?
20. When Amram finally returns after having been gone for two
days, Noelle is livid. Later, she hits Amram in the eye with
a tennis ball, and Amram accuses her of having done so
intentionally. Do you think Noelle hit him
intentionally? Whom do you sympathize with in this scene?
21. At the book's end, where do you think the various characters
will be in ten years?
From the author of the widely acclaimed "Matrimony, " a moving new novel about love, loss, and the aftermath of a family tragedy. Over a July 4th weekend in the Berkshires, the Frankels will contend with sibling rivalries, marital feuds, bitterness, and the true meaning of family.