Madeline King and Grace Pancik are best friends and the envy of Nantucket for their perfect marriages, their beautiful kids, their Sunday night double dates with their devoted husbands. But this summer, something's changed, and if there's anything Nantucket likes better than cocktails on the beach at sunset, it's a good rumor.
And rumor has it...
...that Madeline, a novelist, is battling writer's block, with a deadline looming, bills piling up, and blank pages driving her to desperation--and a desperately bad decision;
...that Grace, hard at work to transform her backyard into a garden paradise, has been collaborating a bit more closely that necessary with her ruggedly handsome landscape architect;
...that Grace's husband, successful island real estate developer "Fast Eddie" Pancik, has embarked on quite an unusual side project;
...that the storybook romance between Madeline's son, Brick, and Grace's daughter Allegra is on the rocks, heading for disaster.
As the gossip escalates, and they face the possible loss of the happy lives they've worked so hard to create, Grace and Madeline try mightily to set the record straight--but the truth might be even worse than rumor has it.
Release date: June 16, 2015
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 384
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
She knew what Angie was going to say because Marlo had been quite effective at hammering home the point: they needed catalog copy for the new novel by Friday, or Monday at the very latest. Theirs was a business of deadlines.
As Madeline listened to Angie’s message, she held the phone several inches from her ear, as if the distance would soften the blow.
New novel. Friday. Monday at the very latest. As I’m sure you’re aware, Madeline.
Madeline was at her kitchen counter, with her blank legal pad sitting in front of her. Her previous novel, Islandia, had come to her like cold syrup out of a glass bottle. The progress was slow—line by line, paragraph by paragraph—but the path it would take had always been clear to her. Islandia had been a dystopian tale of Nantucket four hundred years in the future; the island was being consumed by the Atlantic Ocean, thanks to global warming. Everyone was doomed except for Madeline’s teenage protagonists, second cousins Jack and Diane (so named after Madeline’s favorite song growing up), who survived in a dinghy until the novel’s end.
Madeline credited inspiration for this novel to the seven months she had spent nursing her father-in-law, Big T, before he died. His prostate cancer had metastasized to his brain and then his liver, and though this had crushed Madeline’s spirit, it had been beneficial to her imagination. Her prevailing thoughts were ones of illness, the decay of the body, the decay of mankind. She had then read a fascinating article about global warming in The New Yorker (which she had started subscribing to at age nineteen, in order to better herself). The article said that if humankind didn’t change its pattern of consumption, islands like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and barrier islands like the Outer Banks, would be subsumed in less than four centuries.
Islandia was a departure from the autobiographical nature of her previous two novels, The Easy Coast and Hotel Springford. It had been warmly welcomed by her publishing house and deemed a “bigger” book. Madeline’s agent, Redd Dreyfus, had negotiated a brilliant deal, a low-six-figure advance for two books. This was such an exciting and unexpected development that it had nearly set Madeline’s curly blond hair on fire.
Now, however, most of the advance was gone in an investment with Eddie, and Madeline was on the hook to deliver at least an idea for a second novel. She was supposed to come up with a hundred-word description for the catalog that would go to the sales reps.
But Madeline didn’t even have that much.
She was blocked.
She was disrupted from her anxiety by the rumble of the UPS truck and the thump of a package on the front porch. She hurried out, hoping to find a box containing an idea for a brilliant new novel, but she was treated instead to the school portraits of her son, Brick.
Madeline sat down on the front step of the porch, even though it was freezing and she didn’t have a coat on. She was mesmerized by how the portrait contained both the little boy Brick used to be—with his thick blond hair and the deep dimple in his right cheek—and the man he was rapidly becoming. He would look like Trevor and Big T, but with Madeline’s blue eyes and her smile (which showed a little too much gum, she’d always self-critically believed). She carried the portraits inside and pulled all of Brick’s school photos from the secretary, lining them up on the rug, from kindergarten through high school.
Good-looking kid, she thought. She had desperately wanted another child, but after three miscarriages, she gave up.
She wondered if Grace had gotten the twins’ portraits and if she was going through this exact same ritual at her house on Wauwinet Road. Madeline grabbed her phone, thinking only briefly of the awful, soul-shrinking message from Angie, and she called Grace.
No answer at the house. Maybe she was out with the chickens. Maybe she was in the garden. Maybe she had a migraine. Madeline used to keep track of Grace’s migraines on a special calendar, until Trevor found the calendar and told Madeline that one of the reasons she might not be as productive with her writing as she wanted was that she allowed herself to worry about things like Grace’s migraines. Madeline had thrown the calendar away.
Should she call Grace’s cell? Grace never answered; she checked her texts every two or three weeks. Madeline would have better luck mailing Grace a letter.
She hung up without leaving a message and then collected the pictures of Brick. It was official: she could get nothing done in this house. The dishwasher called to her: Empty me! The laundry in the dryer called to her: Fold me! The countertops said: Wipe me down! There was always something—the house phone rang, the garbagemen came, there was dinner to plan, shop for, prepare—every single night! Brick needed to be dropped off or picked up; the car had to be inspected, the recycling sorted, the checkbook balanced, the bills paid. Other mothers commented on how nice it must be that Madeline was able to “work from home.” But working from home was a constant battle between the work and the home.
Friday. Monday at the very latest.
The mudroom door opened and shut, and Madeline heard whistling, something from Mary Poppins. Was it that late already? Madeline’s husband, Trevor, strolled in, wearing his very cute pilot’s hat. “Chim-chiminey, chim-chiminey, chim-chim-cheroo!” Trevor fancied himself the second coming of Dick Van Dyke.
“Hey,” he said. He gathered Madeline up in his arms, and she rested her face against the front of his shirt and airline-issued polyester tie. Trevor was a pilot for Scout Airlines, which flew from Nantucket to Hyannis, Boston, and Providence. “How was your day?”
Madeline started to cry. She couldn’t believe it was five o’clock already. How was her day? What day? Her day had evaporated. She had exactly nothing to show for herself. “I’m blocked,” she said. “I don’t have a single idea, and the wolves are at the door.”
“I’m telling you,” he said. “You should just…”
She shook her head to silence him. She knew what he was going to say. He was going to tell her to write a sequel to Islandia. It was a logical solution to her problem, but in her heart, Madeline felt this was a cop-out. She had ended Islandia with her characters heading safely into an unknown future; that, she felt, was the right ending. She didn’t want to tell readers what happened next. If she wrote a sequel, she would be doing so only because she couldn’t come up with new characters and a new plot.
She couldn’t come up with new characters or a new plot.
So maybe Trevor was right. A sequel. Could she undo the end of the world?
She wiped her eyes and raised her face for a kiss. Trevor said, “What’s for dinner?”
“Pizza?” she said. “Thai food?”
His expression fell. She hadn’t gotten any writing done, but she hadn’t shopped for or made dinner, either. How could she explain that trying to come up with an idea to write about was even more time consuming than writing itself?
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He kissed her forehead. “It’s okay,” he said. “Let’s get pizza from Sophie T’s. Is Brick getting a ride home from practice?”
“Yes,” Madeline said. “With Calgary.”
Trevor loosened his tie and pulled a beer from the fridge. “Guess who was on my first flight this morning.”
“Who?” Madeline said.
“Benton Coe,” Trevor said.
“Really,” Madeline said.
Benton Coe was the owner of Coe Designs, the island’s most prestigious landscape architecture firm. He was the man who was turning Grace’s three-acre property into the most dazzling yard and gardens on Nantucket Island and possibly in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Benton Coe was back.
Well, that would explain why Grace hadn’t answered the phone.
She had started her transformation secretly, just after the first of the year, in anticipation of this very day.
She had started taking spinning classes at the gym, and she had lost twenty-one pounds—most of it weight she had gained when the twins were born and that she’d never quite been able to shed. Now, she was down two dress sizes and in need of new jeans. She had also, finally, allowed her stylist, Ann, to get the gray out of her part and add some chestnut highlights to the front of her dark hair. And all of the time she’d spent outside getting the preliminary gardening done and dealing with the hens had given her face the glow of the season’s first sun.
She felt better about herself than she had in years.
Madeline had commented on this on Saturday night, when they were out to dinner at American Seasons. She and Grace had gone to the ladies’ room together, and when Madeline caught sight of Grace in the mirror, she said, “You look hot, sister. Downright gorgeous.”
Eddie had noticed the weight loss (“You look good, Gracie—skinny”) but not the hair, and the girls had noticed the hair (“Highlights,” Allegra had said, “—smart move”) but not Grace’s new, svelte figure. Grace wasn’t surprised. Eddie was consumed with his spec houses, Hope with her studies and the flute, Allegra with her romance with Brick Llewellyn and her potential modeling career. To the three of them, Grace was wife, mother, cook, housekeeper. She was the raiser of chickens and purveyor of organic eggs, she was a hypochondriac with her “recurring migraines.” She was Eddie’s lover every Sunday morning and on certain random nights of the week. Grace knew that her family loved her, but she wasn’t their focus the way she had been when she and Eddie were first married and the girls were small.
Did she feel taken for granted? Sure, a little. She supposed she was hardly the only wife and mother to feel this way.
At ten o’clock on the dot, Benton’s big black truck pulled into the driveway, and the tops of Grace’s ears started to buzz. They would be turning pink, a sure sign that she was nervous. She had a bit of a crush on Benton Coe, a harmless crush that was never going anywhere, because Benton had a girlfriend named McGuvvy, and Grace, of course, was married.
She watched him climb out of the truck. Did he look different? No, he looked the same. Tall, tall, tall—a full eight or nine inches taller than Eddie—and he had the shoulders of a king or a conqueror. He had ginger-colored hair that curled up from under his red Ohio State Buckeyes hat, and laugh lines at his brown eyes. He was wearing his usual spring uniform of a navy-blue hooded sweatshirt with a four-leaf clover on the front—the logo for Coe Designs—jeans, and work boots. He was lightly tanned. He had spent the winter in Morocco.
They were friends. She had missed him. Grace ran to the door to greet him.
“Benton!” she said.
When he saw her, he did a double take that made Grace’s heart sing.
“My God, Grace,” he said. “You look… wow. Just wow. I’m speechless.”
She stepped out onto the front porch and hugged him tightly. He was so strong, he picked her clear up off the ground. And then they both laughed and Benton set her down.
“Good to see you!” he said.
“And you!” she said.
They stared at each other. Grace couldn’t tell if it was romantic or awkward. Awkward, she decided. They were friends; conversation was supposed to come easily. She couldn’t work with the man all summer and achieve their goals if she was going to act like a thunderstruck thirteen-year-old girl. She had to snap out of it!
“Thank you for the postcards,” she said.
“You got them?” he said. “You never know with foreign mail.”
“I got four or five,” Grace said, trying to keep her tone casual. Those postcards, numbering five and tucked safely into her lingerie drawer, had fueled her little crush throughout the chilly, gray winter.
Benton Coe. His reputation preceded him: the most talented landscape architect on Nantucket, even though he was barely forty. He had been on the island five years by the time Grace had hired him, having been brought over originally by the Nantucket Historical Association to overhaul the grounds of their twenty-four properties. Before coming to Nantucket, Benton Coe had designed gardens in Savannah, Georgia, and Oxford, Mississippi—places so lush, he said, that he could hear the grass grow. He’d grown up in Youngstown, Ohio, and gone to college at Ohio State, where his work-study job had been with the grounds crew, fostering his love of landscaping. He did a semester abroad in Surrey, England; he was still partial to English gardens. Nothing like them, he told Grace. The British were good at world domination but even better with phlox, foxglove, boxwood, and the rose.
By the time Benton Coe had finished with the NHA properties—winning awards from every horticultural and historical preservation organization in New England—he was in high demand. He did gardens for the Amsters out in Dionis, and the Kepplings in Shimmo—work that Grace was lucky enough to see through her involvement with the Nantucket Garden Club.
When Eddie bought the house in Wauwinet, with its three undeveloped acres of surrounding land, Grace had her chance. She hired Benton Coe.
They had been in sync from the beginning. Last summer, they had planted grass and carved out beds; they dug, tiled, and filled the swimming pool, and they constructed a footbridge that spanned the creek. Benton supervised the building of the garden shed and the henhouse. There were fifty decisions a day. Normally with clients, Benton was given free rein. But, he admitted, he was enjoying collaborating with Grace. It was more fun than deciding everything himself, he said. It was stimulating to execute plans with someone whose sensibility dovetailed so nicely with his own.
Grace was charmed by Benton Coe’s choice of words. Sensibility: Had anyone before ever appreciated Grace’s sensibility? Her aesthetic? Her taste? Her instincts? No, she didn’t think so. She had been a dutiful daughter and granddaughter, a tolerant sister, a diligent student, a halfway-decent breakfast waitress, a devoted wife and mother, and an exceptional friend. But had anyone—including Eddie, including Madeline—appreciated Grace’s sensibility?
Dovetail: it was such a delicate word, such a sweet and tender way of describing how Grace and Benton matched up, how they fit together without gaps or leaks, without strife or collision.
It was stimulating, he said, a word too sexual for Grace to properly contemplate.
At the end of last summer, Benton confessed that coming to Grace’s house out in Wauwinet had been the high point of each day. He said that the reason he had never brought along his manager, Donovan, was because Benton had wanted to keep this project for himself.
Grace understood. She had begun to feel a flutter in her chest every time his black pickup pulled into the driveway.
Benton stopped by at ten o’clock, Monday through Saturday, even when it wasn’t required. Sometimes, he stayed only ten minutes, enough time for a quick tête-à-tête, another phrase of his that Grace relished. She imagined their foreheads touching. She imagined them kissing.
But… only imagined.
Fall arrived, as it always did, and they put the garden to bed. Then it was winter, and Benton embarked on his travels. The first postcard arrived from Casablanca, postmarked January 4, the day he arrived. Two weeks later, one came from Essaouira, on the coast; a week later, one from Agdz, in the desert; two weeks later, one from the Ourika Valley, in the Atlas Mountains. All of these were signed exactly the same way: Look at this! XO, Benton
Twenty days passed with no postcards, during which time Grace figured he’d forgotten about her; or possibly his girlfriend, McGuvvy, had flown over for a visit. But then a postcard arrived from Marrakech that said: My favorite place by far. I wish you could see what I’m seeing. XO, B
This card set Grace’s “sensibility” ablaze; she read it a thousand times. She used it as a bookmark in the novel she was reading, The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, chosen because it was as close as she could get to wandering through the souks and traversing the sand dunes of northern Africa herself.
She thought endlessly about Benton’s change of wording. I wish you could see what I’m seeing. The skeptic in Grace said that this was merely a variation on the old postcard message Wish you were here. But the blossoming romantic in her pictured a tête-à-tête, their heads together, their eyes seeing the same thing, their sensibilities dovetailing.
She loved that he had shortened Benton to B.
Grace had gathered all the postcards together and placed them in her top dresser drawer with her underwear, bras, and her black silk pajamas.
Grace said, “Can I get you anything to drink?”
Benton snapped his fingers. “Darn it. I got you a present while I was away, but I forgot it. I’ll bring it tomorrow.”
“You didn’t have to get me anything,” Grace said. A present from Morocco! Grace’s mind raced. She thought of the gauzy harem pants that belly dancers wore. She thought of silver finger cymbals, tasseled silk pillows in deep, rich colors; she thought of burled wood boxes with secret compartments. She thought of a hookah pipe packed with strawberry tobacco. She thought of exotic oils and fragrant spices—threads of saffron, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods. She thought of the belly dancer again. Benton had bought her a present!
“Did you bring back gifts for all your clients?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “Only you.”
Only her! She practically backflipped her way out to the garden.
They spent nearly an hour inspecting each section of Grace’s property, discussing possible changes and enhancements. They started at the far edge, way out by the Adirondack chairs that overlooked Polpis Harbor—the water still resembled a cold steel plate—and they meandered over the rolling, grassy knolls to the swimming pool and hot tub (both still covered, although Grace and Eddie had used the hot tub late one night back in January, when the spec houses were on schedule and Eddie was more relaxed). They lingered at the tulip bed—Benton’s baby—and at the rosebushes, which over the winter had become a thorny, inhospitable tangle.
“Things are coming along,” Benton said. He touched Grace’s back lightly, and an electric current ran up her spine, to her neck. “I think this year is our year.”
They had a shared goal: they wanted a photo shoot in a major media outlet. Benton was partial to Classic Garden magazine, but Grace was thinking of a spread in the home-and-garden section of the Sunday Boston Globe. She had convinced Eddie to hire a publicist, Hester Phan, to whom he was paying a small fortune—but it was the only way to get news of their collaboration out there.
“Let me see the shed,” Benton said. “I’ve missed it.”
Grace unlatched the door. Benton ushered Grace through the door first, then followed. The space was tight with both of them inside; Grace feared he would hear her heart pounding.
The garden shed had been modeled after a traditional Nantucket home: gray shingles with white trim. Inside, it featured a soapstone counter and a copper farmer’s sink. The far wall was covered with pegboard, on which hung Grace’s rakes, hoes, spades, trowels, and pruners. There was a potting bench, handcrafted from reclaimed pine barn board, and shelves that held Grace’s collection of watering cans and her decorative pots. A painted sign hung over the farmer’s sink: A garden is not a matter of life or death. It is far more important than that. The shed had an annex off the side that held the riding lawn mower and the three weed whackers. Although Grace had hired Benton, she did all of the hands-on gardening herself—the mowing, the weeding, the mulching, the pruning and deadheading. Along with tending the hens and running her organic-egg business, it was a full-time job. It was her passion.
The shed was the crown jewel of the yard. A garden was a garden was a garden, but magazine editors loved bricks and mortar. They wanted an interior space that was crisp, organized, and as whimsical as Santa’s workshop.
Grace and Benton stood facing each other, their hips leaning against the edge of the sink. Benton was so tall that the top of his head grazed the slanted ceiling. Grace’s ears were bright pink; she could feel it.
Benton took an exaggerated breath. “I love how this place smells,” he said. “Cut grass and potting soil.”
Grace too loved how the garden shed smelled. She loved it better than almost anything in the world.
“Do you want to see the hens?” she asked. “You know they’ll cluck themselves into a frenzy for you.”
Benton laughed. His eyes crinkled. Grace’s ears burned like glowing coals. He said, “I have to hit the road, I’m afraid. Things to do, people to see.”
People to see. Even this innocent phrase made Grace jealous. Her face must have shown her disappointment, because Benton said, “Don’t worry, Grace. We have all summer in front of us.”
Grace was still in a daze—she had broken two of Hillary’s eggs accidentally—when the twins walked in, home from school.
Hope entered first, carrying her flute case. Then Allegra, carrying only the twelve-hundred-dollar Stella McCartney hobo bag she had bullied Eddie into buying her when Eddie took her to Manhattan for the modeling interview. Not a book or paper in sight, which was why Allegra had straight C’s. Eddie let her slide because he had graduated from New Bedford High School with C’s, and look at how successful he was now! Grace shook off the residue of whatever inappropriate emotions she’d been having for Benton Coe and focused on her girls, her sun and moon. Allegra was the sun—bright and hot and shining. Hope was the moon—placid, serene, inscrutable. Grace was a little more in awe of Allegra because… well, because she was Allegra. And Grace was more protective of Hope because they had almost lost her at birth.
“Hello, lovelies,” Grace said. She tried to scoop both girls up in an embrace, but they executed a perfectly synchronized bob-and-weave to avoid her—Allegra to the left, Hope to the right—and headed toward their bedrooms, where they would remain with the doors shut until dinner.
Which, tonight, would be quiche Lorraine and spinach salad. Eddie liked meat and potatoes, but since he’d taken on the spec houses, he appreciated the frugality of eating their own home-farmed eggs.
Grace tried not to take offense at the evasion—not a word of greeting, no thought to ask how her day had been. If Grace were to be very honest, she might admit that lately her daughters made her feel more lonely instead of less so.
“How was school?” Grace called after them. But there was no response.
“We’re having quiche for dinner!” Grace said. “Around six!” No response.
There had most certainly been days this past winter when being so thoroughly ignored had sent Grace into a fog of depression. She yearned to make the girls cups of hot tea and bake them chocolate chip cookies and sit around looking at fashion magazines while Allegra talked about her weekend plans with Brick and Hope pulled out her flute and played a few bars of a Mozart concerto. But even Grace realized this was unrealistic. They were, after all, teenage girls and could be counted on to think only of themselves.
Today, Grace didn’t care. Today, Grace headed back to her master bathroom to paint her toenails.
Benton Coe had returned. This year was their year. They had all summer in front of them.
Sometimes she wished her parents had never told her the story of her birth, and yet it had been part of her personal narrative since she was old enough to understand it. Hope—or baby number two, the smaller, weaker twin—had had her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, a fact that escaped the obstetrician’s notice because Allegra had popped out healthy, whole, and hogging the entire room’s attention for the first time of a million in her life. Once the doctor noticed that baby number two was in distress, Grace was raced to the operating room, where Hope was delivered by emergency C-section four minutes later. But she was nearly dead by the time they got her out. She was, her father liked to dramatically say, the color of a damson plum, and he had thought, There’s no chance. But the doctor had resuscitated Hope, kept her alive on a ventilator, and she and Eddie had been taken in the MedFlight helicopter to Boston while Grace and Allegra stayed at Nantucket Cottage Hospital.
Hope had been in the NICU for a week before she was named. The name her parents had picked out was Allison—Allegra and Allison, for nauseating twin symmetry—but after all that transpired, they changed their minds and decided to call her Hope, no explanation needed.
She was a survivor, an underdog who had prevailed; she was the smaller, weaker twin, all but ignored while her sister took center stage; she was lucky just to be alive. The doctors had told her parents that Hope might be brain damaged or hindered in some other way.
“But,” her mother said, “you are just as right as rain.”
Hope had no idea what that meant, but she did wish her parents had kept the story of her birth to themselves. She wished it were secret history that nobody ever talked about, rather than being the event that defined her.
Smaller, weaker, lucky to be alive. Wherea. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...