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Authors: Lisa Alther

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Other Women

BOOK: Other Women
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Other Women

 

by

Lisa Alther

 

First novel, Kinflicks, published in 1976, Lisa Alther an icon for the sixties and seventies-a young woman sly and hilariously carving out her life amid the tumult times. Her second novel, Original Sins, charted the ex passage from childhood to adulthood by exploring latile dynamic in a group of friends. Now, in Other n, the main characters have grown up-but they’ve ed childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood only I that maturity presents the biggest problems yet. And in tory, Lisa Alther hits her stride, giving us an exuberant, funny, moving, altogether captivating novel as she us into the lives and hearts and minds of two wonderbbompelling and appealing women.

her life, Caroline Kelly has been a member of the helpofessions-she learned the “trade” and its code of sacrirom her social-working parents at an early age. But connly, at thirty-five, she is finding herself in need of help. past, she’s used every bromide she could find or invent: age and motherhood; monogamy, bigamy, and

polygfeminism, and God; sex, work, alcohol, and true love. Each enchanted for a time, but none ed to do the job permanently-the darkness always creeping back. Now it seems to be back with a venggeven nature has begun to seem oddly malevolent; the (uppy she found and took to the vet turned out to be a i fox), and the only thing left? Psychotherapy.

Dt that she takes to the idea easily! Caroline, who has gated her life to the welfare of others; Caroline, the ig, the self-reliant, the all-for-the-common-good daughf

all-for-the-common-good parents; Caroline giving in, ig up, giving herself over to the ministrations of another? .-iinkable. U ntil now. Now, when her (female) lover with m she shares a home wants to end their relationship (but their cohabitation); now, when the sights in the emerroom, where she’s a nurse, move her not to action but aralyzing horror; now, when even the fact of her two rally fatherless children (whom she adores) doesn’t preher from thinking longingly of the emergency suicide she keeps at the back of her closet. Now even she sees oo

to avoid the couch. And so, with angry resistance in her s (she doesn’t want the therapist to think she actually needs

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back stlap)

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help), she thrusts herself into the office of a woman who, Caroline will quickly discover, is as strong, as stubborn, as determined-and as giving-as she herself.

Hannah Burke, confident and successful in her productive middle years, chose her profession partly to assure herself a situation in which she could be in control, in which she could maintain the illusion that nothing would take her by surprise again, at least not in the ways she’d been taken by surprise in the past: by her parents” abandonment of her, by the loss of love in her first marriage, and the devastating loss of two children in her second. But Caroline does

take her by surprise: pulled along by the force of Caroline’s hunger for understanding, Hannah is moved, almost unwittingly, to examine the self she has worked for years to put aside-the self that has experienced all the loss and guilt and terror she confronts every day in her patients but refuses to confront again in herself. And so Caroline and Hannah become both foil and mirror to each other-alternately provoking each other, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes with powerful intent.

The story of Caroline’s journey through therapy, of Hannah’s journey back through herself, and of these two women’s relationship-growing from animosity and reluctance to trust and affection-unfolds with immense humor and sympathy and feeling. We see the often raucous events of Caroline’s life as she ferrets out the angels and demons of her past, confronting (in her mind and in fact) her parents, her exhusband, her lovers, and herself. We see how Hannah has carved her “peaceful old age” out of tragedy and joy, and the hard-earned ability to learn from both. And we see how each of them-helped by the other-bravely allows herself to break down, and through, her stalwart defenses so that she may finally

grow up.

Lisa Alther was born in Tennessee in 1944 and now lives in Vermont.

Other Women is

her third novel.

jacket design 6y Paul Bacon

ALFRED A. KNOPF, PUBLISHER, NEW

YORK

 

ALSO BY LISA ALTHER

Kinflicks

Original Sins

OTHER WOMEN

OTHER

WOMEN

LISA ALTHER

ALFRED A. KNOPFNEW YORK1984

THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK

PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF, INC.

Copyright

[*copygg‘1984

by Lisa Alther

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright

Conventions. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New

York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited,

Toronto. Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Alther, Lisa. Other women.

I. Title.

PS3551 tilde 1,7809 1984813’ 54

 

ISBN 0-394-53936—

Manufactured in the United States of America FIRST EDITION

For Nancy Magnus

Heartfelt thanks to the following friends, without whom this book wouldn’t exist: Nancy Magnus, for our endless discussions of therapeutic technique and the meaning of life; Carey Kaplan, for extensive assistance and unstinting encourageRichard Alther, Blanche Boyd, Stephanie Dowrick, Alice Reed, Bill Reed, and Shelton Reed, for careful readings and fruitful suggestions; Bob Gottlieb and Martha Kaplan, for their usual sound editorial sense; and all the above for their kind support on days when this project felt to me like the worst idea since nuclear warheads.

“Is life so wretched? Isn’t it rather your hands which are too small, your vision which is muddied? You are the one who must grow ucents.”

-Dag Hammarskjold

PART ONE

Caroline switched off the ignition of her red Subaru, gripped the steering wheel with both gloved hands, and gazed across the parking lot down to Lake Glass. Raindrops rolled like tears down the windshield, and dripped off the bare gray branches in the yard. “God is crying,” she used to explain to her younger brothers on rainy days in Brookline.

“For all the sad and suffering people in the world.”

Onceleaves lay in sodden heaps around the tree trunks. Lake Glass looked cold in the fading afternoon light. It was hard to believe that a couple of months earlier power boats had dragged water skiers around it. Gusts had driven sailboats across it. Swimmers had churned through those murky waters, and fishermen had lounged on the banks.

Soon the lake would freeze solid, the way chemical solutions used to crystallize in test tubes during her laboratory experiments at nursing school in Boston.

In her dream last week the lake was already frozen solid, and dotted with acres of human heads, mouths wide open in silent screams. Faceless men in army uniforms marched among them, haltto split some open with bloody axes. The ice was strewn like a packinghouse floor with brains and gore and shards of bone. Caroline woke up with her mouth wide open, her hair soaked with sweat. For a moment she was unable to move or to think. Gradually she realized she was in her own bed, in the cabin in New Hampshire she shared with Diana. She climbed out of bed and went into the next room. Her sons and Arnold, their black Labrador puppy, lay asleep, breathing noisily. Diana and her daughter, Sharon, were asleep upstairs. Caroline rubbed the floor by Jackie’s and Jason’s bunk beds with her big toe. Wood, not ice, and the boys’ heads were evidently still attached to their necks.

The next day a little boy was wheeled into the emergency room, his head split up the back, his light brown hair matted with blood. His father had grabbed him by the feet and swung him against the edge of a stone fireplace for tracking mud on the rug. As Caroline stared at the wound, her mouth fell open and her limbs went rigid. Brenda, an Emergency Medical Technician name badge shaped like an ambupinned on her uniform pocket, was too busy snipping away the clotted hair to notice Caroline’s paralysis. But Caroline finally underthat she had to do something about herself. It was one thing to awaken terrified in the night, but something else again not to be able to perform your job. She had two sons and no husband, had to keep bringing home paychecks.

Even if what she really wanted was to lie swaying among the blue gill on the lake floor, seaweed entangling her hair, as a skin of thickening ice above shut off all contact with this repulsive world in which people tortured and maimed each other with pleasure.

A couple of weeks earlier, as she chopped kindling in the woods beside the cabin, she watched a man in waders, a red plaid wool shirt, and a green Homelite chain saw cap walk across the brown meadow to the lakeshore. He assembled a cairn of small stones. Then he dropped each stone into his waders-and lumbered into the lake. When his head disappeared, leaving the green cap floating on the gray water, Caroline first grasped what he was up to. It took her a few moments to shake off her admiration and race to the cabin to phone the rescue squad. For several hours she sat on the hill and watched scuba divers scour the lake floor, amphibious wasps in their sleek black wet suits and yellow tanks. The man had been clever: this was the deepest part of the lake. The rock ledges dropped off abruptly into hundreds of feet of frigid water. A gray state police boat circled slowly, trolling with grappling hooks, the snowcapped White Mountains as a backdrop. Along the shore sat relatives, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken beside beat-up Chevies. A child with Down’s syndrome lurched back and forth along the shoreline howling mournfully.

Leave him alone,

WOMEN

Caroline kept thinking. For Christ’s sake, leave him alone. She was sorry she’d told anyone in the first place.

Would it look like an accident, she wondered, if she revved her engine and shot across this parking lot, over the cliff and into the lake? Then she remembered Jackie and Jason. Tall, skinny, shy Jackie, his joints as loose as a jumping jack’s, his voice starting to crack. And Jason, built like an armored truck, with a personality to match. Jackson was all wrapped up in his second wife and new babies. Jackie and Jason had no one but herself. She’d have to kill them too. But she’d put too much effort into keeping them alive all these years. It would feel as unnatural as picking green tomatoes each September before the frosts.

Before Jackie and Jason existed, after Arlene and prior to Jackson (she catalogued the phases of her life according to what person disher days and dominated her dreams; just now she was in her Diana Period), she used to assure herself that if things got too dismal on the evening news, she could exit early. Lined up on the dresser in her Commonwealth Avenue apartment were pill bottles she’d stolen from the Mass General supply room, and she studied them thoughtwhenever traffic through the ER seemed too grim.

But the arrival of Jackie and Jason had sealed off that escape hatch. She still had the pills, but she kept them on a closet shelf now, out of their reach.

She no longer consulted the bottles daily to determine whether to continue to participate in such a disappointing world.

She’d tried all the standard bromides: marriage and motherhood, apple pie and monogamy, bigamy and polygamy; consumerism, communism, feminism, and God; sex, work, alcohol, drugs, and true love. Each enchanted for a time, but ultimately failed to stave off the despair. The only bromide she hadn’t tried was psychotherapy.

Memof the helping professions were supposed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But she’d recently been forced to concede that she was barefoot. Which was why she was sitting in the Lake Glass TherCenter parking lot, planning her suicide and being late for her first appointment.

She climbed out of her car and walked past a copper-colored

OTHER

Mercury with a broken taillight, bits of red glass crunching under her boots en route to the entrance to the large gray turreted structure that had served as a guest house when the town was a summer colony for Edwardian Boston.

“I have an appointment with Hannah Burke,”

announced a young woman in a faded Boston Irish accent to Holly, the receptionist.

Hanna “s’tanding behind Holly, looked up from her phone call. There wA tilde ghtness around the woman’s mouth, bafflement in her eyes. God, she’s in so much pain, thought Hannah. But at least she’s attractive, if I have to look at her for however many months. The woman looked familiar, but Hannah couldn’t place her. Putting her hand over the receiver, she said, “Hi, I’m Hannah. Be right with you.” She recalled the woman’s voice from their conversation over this same phone last week-faint, polite, apologetic … and somewhat belligerent. After the request for an appointment, Hannah had resilent, waiting for her own answer.

She never knew why she said yes or no to someone.

Probably an instinctive sense of whether she’d be able to work with the person. If you cut your losses before taking them on, you could skew your success rate and feel more capable. But this time she said yes. If the woman had bothered to track her down, probably there was a reason, since Hannah didn’t believe in accidents.

BOOK: Other Women
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