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Authors: Kate Hilton

The Hole in the Middle

BOOK: The Hole in the Middle
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PRAISE FOR
THE HOLE IN THE MIDDLE

“I loved
The Hole in the Middle
. It is honest, it is deeply moving—and it is really, really funny. In this, her debut novel, Kate Hilton captures the delicate and often unforgiving balancing act that is everyday life for so many women, and she does so with a graceful and nuanced eye for the absurdities of modern life.”

—Jennifer Robson, international bestselling author of
Somewhere in France
and
After the War Is Over

“Kate Hilton delivers a clever and compelling novel about second guesses and second chances. With equal measures of hilarity and heartbreak, Hilton weaves an honest and engaging story of middle-life struggles. Hilton gives a touching, true-to-life account of today's busy woman and the choices she makes—and later questions.
The Hole in the Middle
is filled with witty, authentic characters we root for and fall in love with—flaws and all. With issues and struggles every woman can relate to,
The Hole in the Middle
is the perfect read for any woman who has ever questioned the choices she made or wondered what might have been. An impeccably written, highly entertaining novel that kept me turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. Kate Hilton's debut marks the entrance of an exciting, fresh, and funny new voice in women's fiction.”

—Lori Nelson Spielman, #1 international bestselling author of
The Life List

Written by today's freshest new talents and selected by New American Library, NAL Accent novels touch on subjects close to a woman's heart, from friendship to family to finding our place in the world. The Conversation Guides included in each book are intended to enrich the individual reading experience, as well as encourage us to explore these topics together—because books, and life, are meant for sharing.

Visit us online at
penguin.com
.

“Hilton's characters are authentic, unique, and unforgettable, and 
The Hole in the Middle
 is an engaging novel that is both unexpectedly funny and remarkably wise. I loved this novel because I saw myself, my friends, and every woman who struggles with the modern paradox of having it all versus keeping it together—but I also loved it because of Hilton's perfectly rendered revelations about life and love, and the beautiful honesty of her writing.”

—Marissa Stapley, bestselling author of 
Mating for Life

“I thoroughly enjoyed it. Kate Hilton has created a warm, memorable, and insightful heroine.”

—Joy Fielding, author of
Someone Is Watching

“A wise and witty book that every woman who has ever tried to juggle kids, a job, and a husband will relate to. The pacing is fast; the suspense is strong from start to finish. This book is ‘unputdownable.'”

—Roberta Rich, author of
The Midwife of Venice
and
The Harem Midwife

“Smart, spirited, and fiercely honest,
The Hole in the Middle
illustrates, with pinpoint accuracy, the pitfalls of juggling work and family. Sophie Whelan is a modern Everywoman, admirable, lovable, and exasperating, and I cared about her intensely. Hilton keeps the pages turning with crisp prose and convincing dialogue, delivering an authentic and entertaining story brimming with wit and compassion.”

—Sonja Yoerg, Author of
The Middle of Somewhere

“As moving as it is entertaining . . . crammed with funny, truthful moments that will strike a chord with overextended women everywhere.”

—
Hello! Canada

“Full of things that are not said enough. . . . [Hilton] writes about matrimony with rare honesty.”

—
National Post

“Hilton's novel beautifully captures the daily grind and obstacles women face in a story that continually entertains. . . . While incredibly funny, the novel is written with a level of sophistication that caters to the intellectual side of her readers . . . accurate, humorous, and gentle.”

—Leah Eichler, columnist for
The
Globe and Mail
(Canada)

NAL ACCENT

Published by New American Library,

an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

This book is a publication of New American Library.
Previously published in a HarperCollins Canada edition.

First NAL Accent Printing, January 2016

Copyright © Kate Hilton, 2013

Conversation Guide copyright © Penguin Random House LLC, 2016

Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

New American Library and the New American Library colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

For more information about Penguin Random House, visit
penguin.com
.

eBook ISBN 978-0-698-40584-4

PUBLISHER'S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

For my sisters in outrage

December 2013

Dear Friends,

Another Christmas season is here, and for all of us in the Walker-Whelan clan, it has been a year rich in love, friendship, health, joy, and professional fulfillment. Here's our news in a nutshell, from smallest to tallest:

Scotty, our baby, turned three in July. He is showing a real talent for music, and the whole family loves to hear him play his pint-sized piano. Since moving into the toddler room at the Progressive Center for Child Development and Care, Scotty has become so comfortable expressing his authentic feelings! We are lucky to have found a daycare center that is aligned with our “whole foods” philosophy, and that is such a partner to us as parents. The dedicated staff members really feel like family.

Jamie is seven this year, and he's thriving in Grade 2 at Watkins Elementary School. Watkins is a very special place with a strong emphasis on volunteerism and parental engagement—that's the “Watkins Way”! We feel fortunate to belong to this warm and accepting community. In this nurturing environment, it's not surprising that Jamie is embracing his creative side. We are so inspired by his emerging passion for the cello!

Jesse is doing what we all dream of: making the world a better place. With his amazing business partner, Anya, by his side, Jesse's company is growing by leaps and bounds. He's saving the planet one project at a time, using cutting-edge technologies to reduce environmental impact in commercial and residential buildings. All this, and a perfect husband and father, too! I don't know how he does it.

As for me, I'm thrilled to report that I'm still running the Communications department at the Baxter Children's Hospital. Even after six years, I still love going to the office every morning. I get to work on challenging and important projects with great colleagues. What more could I ask for? As for hobbies, I stay grounded with yoga and literate with book club. And Jesse and I celebrated our eighth anniversary this spring with a romantic getaway to Las Vegas.

All in all, it was an action-packed twelve months, and we are looking forward to a peaceful holiday season. We wish the same to you!

With lots of love from the Whelan-Walker clan,

Sophie, Jesse, Jamie, and
Scotty

CHAPTER ONE

monday, december 2, 2013

It's Day One of my BlackBerry diet, and I'm huddled in my minivan in a windswept parking garage across the street from my office. The heat's going full blast as I commit various environmental sins against the forlorn stand of leafless maple trees that passes for a view here. It may be short on ambience, my parking spot, but it has cell phone reception, which makes it an important plank in the BlackBerry diet strategy.

The BlackBerry diet is my latest effort to bring my stress level down to nontoxic levels. I'm allowing myself voice mail–only access to the office before I arrive in the morning. Phase Two will involve reduced e-mail access on weekends, but it's only Monday, so we'll have to see if we get to that stage. Success is unlikely, which is why the BlackBerry diet is a strategy and not a plan. A strategy requires less commitment, and therefore less guilt in the event of failure.

I dial into the voice mail system, punch in my code and wait.

The disembodied voice speaks:
You have eleven new messages
.

Eleven. That's not so bad.

First message
. Click. Barry, definitely. He never leaves messages.

Next message
. Click. Ditto. But two hang-ups before nine o'clock is unusual. I feel my shoulders start to creep up with anticipatory tension.

Next message. Message marked urgent
. Uh-oh. “Hi, Sophie. It's Barry. I see that you're not in yet. I need to speak to you about the Gala as soon as you do get in. There's a problem and you need to get on top of it.”

Next message
. “Hi, Sophie. It's Anna from the toddler room at daycare. Scotty is pulling on his ear and seems a little fussy. He can stay for now, but if he gets any worse we'll have to ask you to pick him up. Sorry about that. We'll call you later with an update.”

What? No. I dropped him off half hour ago and he was fine. A little phlegm-riddled, maybe, but nothing more. If I believed in God, I would pray. Maybe I should anyway, just to hedge my bets.

Next message
. “Soph, it's Zoe. This is your warning call. Book club is on Thursday at Sara's house. Line up a babysitter, tell Jesse to be home, do what you have to do, but you are not bailing again this month. Seriously. I always fight with Megan when you're not there. I'm your best friend and you don't want to piss me off. Love you, bye.”

Next message
. “Hi, Sophie. This is Kelly Robinson. I'm the chair of the Parent Council for Watkins Elementary. I wanted to talk to you about your volunteer hours—” I skip the rest of the message and delete it. I've been avoiding calls from Jamie's class parent all year, but now it seems that she has handed my file to someone more senior in the Parent Council hierarchy.

Next message
. “Hi, Sophie. It's Janelle Moss.” Janelle is the lead volunteer on the Gala, an event controlled by a group of very wealthy women who have intense and competing agendas that I don't even begin to understand. Every conversation with these people is a minefield. Happily, managing Gala volunteers is one of the few things in the office that I'm not responsible for, and whatever the problem, I'm going to punt it right back to Justine. “I don't know if you've had a chance to talk to Justine yet, but we're looking at a little change in direction on the creative for the marketing materials. Happy to chat once Justine has filled you in. Bye now.”

Next message
. “Sophie, it's Justine.
Major
screw-up at the Gala meeting last night. We need to talk
urgently
. Call me.” Justine is my colleague and sometime friend, when it suits her. She runs the Event Planning department, which means that the Gala is
her
problem.

Next message
. “Sophie, my dear. It's Lillian. I was hoping to catch you in person. How I hate these dreadful machines! Do give me a call today if you can. The issue is rather time-sensitive, as you young people are fond of saying.”

Lillian Parker has been one of my favorite people on earth since my last year of university, when I lived in her rambling house, paying criminally low rent in exchange for house-sitting services during her frequent sojourns abroad. Her annual holiday party is this weekend, and I can see the invitation in my mind's eye now, poking out of the pile on the corner of my desk that I lovingly call my Guilt Stack. It's not like Lil to get worked up about RSVPs, which is why the card is still buried in the Guilt Stack, but I'll move it up to the top of the pile and deal with it once I get into the office—or by Thursday at the latest.

Next message
. “Hi, Sophie. It's your mother. Look, honey, I know you're busy, but we have to talk about Christmas. It's
urgent
.”

Instinctively, I check the date on my BlackBerry. Have I lost a week somewhere? But no, it's only December 2.

“First of all—dinner. I'm going to do a turducken again this year, but did Jesse like it last year? I know he said he did, but he didn't have seconds, so I'm not convinced. Your brother and Dana liked it—come to think of it, did you like it? Anyway, if you and Jesse agree, we'll go with the turducken again, but I want you to be honest with me if you don't like that plan. Anyway, assuming that you do, we'll go with the usual sides—mashed potatoes, turnips, that rice dish that you like and probably some creamed spinach or something. I was going to do mini shrimp cocktails for the appetizer, but did you tell me that Jesse isn't eating seafood these days? If not, I could always just do a soup, maybe roasted red pepper—that would be nice with the turducken. I've been talking to your brother about dessert—he says that he doesn't care, but I know he prefers the pumpkin pie and you always say that you prefer the lemon meringue. So I guess I could make both, if it's really important to you to have lem—”

Next message
. “It's your mother again. The machine cut me off. Anyway, call me about dinner. And then I need you to think about what the kids want for Christmas. Are you doing stockings at your house or mine?
If you are doing them at mine, I'll need to get the old stockings out and do a few repairs—they were pretty threadbare last year. And also I'll need to know if you are bringing everything for the stockings or if I need to buy some things as well. Are you going to stay overnight here on Christmas Eve? Because if you are, we'll need to make a plan for dinner on the twenty-fourth. Beef might be nice. Does Jamie still like those transforming robots? Because I saw a robot kit that he would just love! It said it was for thirteen years and up, but Jamie is
such
a smart little boy, and he could use a challenge with all that energy he has, don't you think? Maybe it's something that he and Jesse could do together; Jesse's been working so hard. And for Scotty I was thinking that it's probably time to get him playing hockey. Wouldn't Jesse love that? Maybe some little skates and a helmet and a stick? How cute would that be? I'm around this morning, then out for lunch with Jennie Birkin—you must remember Jennie; you went to school with Andy Birkin. Then I'll be back for a couple—”

End of messages
.

I feel a little warm and light-headed now, and I pull down my visor mirror for an assessment. Every day of my thirty-nine years looks back. Gray coat, gray suit, and gray roots: I really need to get my highlights done. More alarmingly, I can feel an aching weariness in my chest. I've noticed it with some regularity lately, and it makes me nervous. Some days it's just a knot of anxiety, but today it feels like the hole in the middle of a donut: empty but for the wind whistling through it. I know I shouldn't feel this hollowed out and used up at thirty-nine, but I don't have time for that kind of reflection today.

I rummage through my purse and locate my triage kit to deal with the problems I can solve. I pull out the bottle of cough suppressant and take a long swig that burns going down, and then squeeze a couple of drops of Visine into each eye. Then I attack the area under my eyes with concealer and everything else with bronzer. And with that, I'm ready to brave the germ-screening desk.

The germ desk is a fairly new addition to the Baxter, since a terrible outbreak of the flu at another children's hospital made headlines last year. Now everyone entering the hospital is screened at every entry point and
doused with hand sanitizer. I've invested considerable time and energy in my relationship with Max, the guy who has been guarding the germ desk for the past six months; I know the names of his grandchildren and their ages, and how Max developed a herniated disk last year, and that Max's wife wants him to get a storage locker for his model trains. And because our conversations have covered extensive areas of Max's life and times, there has been little opportunity to explore the subject of my health, which is exactly the way I want it.

But today, Max is missing. Nigel, according to his security tag, is sitting in Max's chair. And judging from the length of the line, Nigel takes his job very seriously. When I get to the front, I consider batting my eyelashes, but I suspect that insouciance of this kind has a shelf life, and mine is getting awfully close to the expiration date. I give him what I hope is a winning smile instead.

Nigel is clearly unmoved. He picks up his clipboard and clears his throat. He's going to make me do the survey. I can't believe it. Max never made me do the survey. I wonder if that's why Max isn't working here anymore.

“Have you experienced any coughing in the past twenty-four hours?”

“No.” This is absolutely true.

“Sneezing?”

“No.” Not more than everyone sneezes when they wake up in the morning, that is. Take Jesse, for example. He sneezes practically every morning, sometimes eight times in a row. It doesn't mean that he's sick. I myself am not a chronic sneezer like Jesse, but there is no reason to draw any dire conclusions just because I was sneezing this morning.

“Vomiting?”

“No.”

“Fever?”

“No.” I can't say for sure. I don't have a thermometer in my portable pharmacy. And again, there are lots of other possible explanations for the flush in my cheeks today.

“Flu-like symptoms of any kind?”

“No.”

Nigel peers at me over the top of the clipboard. If Nigel wants to, he can insist on taking my temperature, and then I'll be in deep trouble. But as much as he wants to, he can't find justification today. I almost pump my fist in the air as he moves on to the next person in line. But with Max gone, I know this is only a temporary win. Nigel is cut from a different cloth entirely. Society requires people like Nigel; without them there would be no parking officials or mall cops or hall monitors, and we would live in a state of anarchy. And it's important to remember this, because I dislike Nigel so intensely at this moment that I'm beginning to imagine terrible events that might befall him and prevent him from coming to work ever again. Not death, of course. I'd never wish for that. A debilitating injury would be quite enough.

For the record, I approve of the hospital's infection-protection measures, at least in a theoretical sense. And I would definitely comply with them if I were providing frontline health care and believed that I posed any risk whatsoever to the hundreds of sick children upstairs. But I'm the director of communications for the hospital, so I spend my days reviewing press releases and dealing with media requests, ducking my boss and trying to persuade my assistant to do some work. I'm not saving lives. There are lots of people in this building who do, but I'm not one of them. And if I followed the letter of the law and kept my flu symptoms at home, I would have worked exactly thirteen out of the last forty-five days.

In the meantime, though, it's already 9:10 and I'm late for work.

My assistant, Joy, is at her desk: a mixed blessing. She raises her tweezed eyebrows at me and murmurs, “Slow start this morning?” before turning back to her computer, where she is communing with her Facebook friends, or possibly buying designer knockoffs on eBay. But I'm not ready to declare this day a complete write-off, at least not yet, so for now I'll act as though she works for me and we're both happy about it.

“Good morning, Joy,” I say. “I need to speak to Justine right away. Can you find her and see if she can pop by?”

She eyes me with a combination of contempt and petulance, and my
request hangs, unacknowledged, between us. “Your phones's been lighting up all morning,” she says. “And Barry's been by twice looking for you. It's about the Gala.”

The Gala is the hospital's major fund-raiser of the year. It is a lavish dinner-dance for two thousand of the city's established and upwardly mobile, and it raises over a million dollars for our medical research each year. It is organized by a committee of well-heeled volunteers who have lots of extra time and opinions about everything from the shade of the napkins to the font on the table cards. It is also—mercifully—not in my portfolio, except in a tangential sense, since I oversee the marketing for the event. I've attended a few committee meetings, mostly as moral support for my colleague Justine, but I begged off last night to nurse my cold.

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