Meryl Becker is living a mother’s dream. Meg, the oldest of her three beautiful daughters, is engaged to a wonderful man from one of the country’s most prominent families. Of course, Meryl wants to give Meg the perfect wedding—who wouldn’t? But when her two younger daughters, Amy and Jo, also become engaged to celebrated bachelors, Meryl has to admit that three weddings is more than she and her husband, Hugh, can realistically afford.
The solution? A triple wedding! At first, it’s a tough sell to the girls, and juggling three sets of future in-laws is a logistical nightmare. But when Hugh loses his teaching job, and Meryl’s aging mother suddenly moves in with them, a triple wedding is the only way to get all three sisters down the aisle. When the grand plan becomes public, the onslaught of media attention adds to Meryl’s mounting pressure. Suddenly, appearances are everything—and she will do whatever it takes to keep the wedding on track as money gets tight, her mother starts acting nutty, and her own thirty-year marriage starts to unravel.
In the weeks leading up to the nuptials, secrets are revealed, passions ignite, and surprising revelations show Meryl and her daughters the true meaning of love, marriage, and family. Jamie Brenner’s The Wedding Sisters invites listeners to the most unpredictable wedding of the year.
Release date: June 7, 2016
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 336
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The Wedding Sisters
It was an “all hands on deck” kind of night. At least that’s how it felt to Meryl. Unfortunately, judging by everyone else in her family, she would be doing the heavy lifting alone.
It was only noon, but in her nervous excitement, Meryl couldn’t wait to set the table with the good dishes. She hated to put too much pressure on this dinner, but she felt an overwhelming sense that everything had to be absolutely perfect. She couldn’t help but fuss.
“Remember, honey, it’s not about you,” Hugh had said on his way out the door earlier that morning, a comment that both rankled her and served as useful caution.
“I’m doing this for Meg,” she had responded in a huff.
He had kissed her on the forehead with a knowing smile, squeezing her hand.
They were finally meeting the parents of the man her daughter was going to marry. Meryl had read up on them in the New York Times and Vanity Fair, even seen them on CNN, but that had only served to make her ill at ease. They’re just people, she reminded herself. And we’re going to be family.
She dialed her mother’s cell phone despite the odds being that she wouldn’t answer. At eighty-six, her mother did not embrace technology and she made no apologies for it. Still, Meryl felt more comfortable knowing she had a cell phone, though in that particular moment, it served only to increase her frustration.
“Mother, it’s me. I just want to make sure you’ll be ready for me to pick you up at three for the dinner tonight? Please. It’s important to us.”
She hesitated, wondering if she should sign off with “I love you” or “Looking forward to seeing you.” But that’s not how they spoke to one another, and it would seem odd to tack it on now—desperate. As though Meryl needed her there tonight. Except, she did. Meryl hoped beyond hope that, for just one night, they could seem like a normal family. If not for her own sake, then for her daughter’s.
That was the thing about weddings: they forced family members to deal with one another, like it or not.
Meryl drew back the dining room curtains and gazed out at the East River. The view was the best thing about their apartment, her favorite part of her home of the past twenty years. She always found it so calming. Meryl couldn’t imagine living anywhere in Manhattan without a view of the water. But then, there had been a time when she couldn’t imagine the girls being grown up and gone from the nest. And now it was normal not to see them for weeks at a time. More and more lately, it was as if Meryl needed an excuse to see them—to tear them away from their very busy lives.
She missed them.
Meg, Amy, and Jo. Named for the heroines of their father’s favorite Louisa May Alcott novel, the much-cherished book that had set the course for his entire professional career—and their romantic life, if she was being honest.
Carrying the names of literature’s most beloved sisters was a lot to live up to, but Meryl felt that her girls did the originals justice. They had equally as distinct personalities—Meg, the easy daughter. Amy, endlessly dissatisfied. And Jo, the rebellious tomboy with the world’s biggest heart.
Meryl found it infinitely fascinating to watch them clash with and complement one another as they grew up, in a constant primal dance of love and hate, envy and unconditional love. Meryl was an only child, and she took immense joy in bearing witness to sisterhood. She had often felt lonely as a child, much the way she did now.
If only it wasn’t so difficult these days to get them all in one damn place.
She used to be able to rely on Amy to show up regularly. Amy, who still craved Meryl’s undivided attention. But even that was coming to an end; a few weeks ago, when Meryl invited Amy and her boyfriend to their standing Sunday night dinner, Amy had begged off, saying she and Andy were staying an extra night in East Hampton. They never rescheduled.
Amy’s boyfriend was the son of fashion designer Jeffrey Bruce, and Amy was living what—at least to Meryl—seemed to be a very glamorous life, working for the company and traveling the world for industry events. Yet despite all of it, Meryl knew Amy was still playing catch-up to her older sister, Meg.
Meg, Amy felt, was the favorite, the perfect daughter, the one for whom everything came too easily. At the same time, Amy secretly worshipped her. It was a dynamic Meryl had hoped would change as Amy grew older and more confident—when she created an identity for herself outside of being one of the Becker sisters. But so far, no such luck.
Lately, Meryl felt something close to panic. She knew it was irrational, but she felt motherhood slipping away from her. And what was she if not a mother? Was this how it would be from now on? An occasional phone call. Seeing the girls here and there, a family dinner maybe once a year? Unfortunately, she made the tactical error of expressing her disappointment to Amy one night, at which Amy had scoffed and said, “Oh please, Mom. It’s not like you even really cook.”
This wounded Meryl deeply in ways she couldn’t fully pinpoint. True, she didn’t cook—but wasn’t it about spending time together?
Her cell phone rang. Meg.
“Hi, Mom! Where are you?”
“Home, sweetheart. Where are you?”
“Just got into the city.”
“I thought you couldn’t leave D.C. until late this morning?”
A pause. “We didn’t. But instead of driving, Stowe’s dad brought us in the helicopter.”
“Well. That’s one way to beat the GW Bridge traffic!” Meryl laughed, trying to make light of it, but the truth was, she was uncomfortable with the prominence and extraordinary wealth of her soon-to-be in-laws.
Meg’s fiancé, Stowe Campion, was the scion of a Philadelphia steel dynasty. And his billionaire father, Reed, was a Republican senator in Pennsylvania. Republican!
“Reed has a last-minute work event tonight,” Meg added sheepishly. “Tippy wants to meet up with him after dinner. Is it okay if we come a little early?”
“Wait—Reed isn’t coming tonight?” These people were unbelievable. A work event was more important than meeting the parents of their future daughter-in-law? They had a wedding to discuss, for God’s sake. It was bad enough that the Campions had rebuffed every overture Meryl made during the last year. She understood they were busy. But this? Well, it was what her mother would call “insult to injury.” And for once, her mother would be right.
“I’m sorry, Mom! I am. He feels really bad, and we’ll definitely see him another time. But for tonight, a little earlier … okay?”
“No problem,” Meryl said, trying to sound nonchalant. Her timeline was now officially screwed up.
And she still had to pick up her mother—never an easy feat.
“What can we bring?”
“Just yourselves,” Meryl said in a singsong voice that sounded foreign even to herself.
Well, at least she would finally meet Tippy.
Before Meryl Googled her, she had imagined Stowe’s mother, Tippy, to look like Barbara Bush: no-nonsense, sturdy, all-white hair, and pearls. But while Barbara Bush’s whole life was etched on her face, Tippy Campion had the smooth, age-defying complexion of the obscenely rich. A face that, after a certain age, could be achieved only through a regimen of chemical peels and Botox and filler and other things that Meryl probably couldn’t imagine. Tippy had buttery blond hair and a lithe frame that was always dressed in Tory Burch (daytime) and St. John (evening). She was beautiful; not a former, faded beauty, but a contender, even now. And her husband, Reed, had movie-star good looks that had translated faithfully to his son. It was no wonder the media was fascinated with them.
Meryl put her phone in her bag and rushed out to East End Avenue to grab a cab across town to her mother’s. There wasn’t time to wait for the M79 bus. She dialed her mother’s landline and was relieved when the home health aide, Oona, answered.
“I’m on my way now, Oona. Can you please have my mother ready? Sorry—it’s earlier than I said originally, I know.”
Hiring the home health aides had been an extravagance, but also, as Meryl had rationalized to Hugh, a necessity. When her father died ten years ago, she didn’t want her mother living alone, even though she seemed relatively healthy and capable. Unfortunately, moving in with them was entirely out of the question, since her mother and Hugh were oil and water. And Rose would never have agreed to move into an assisted living facility, and truthfully, she didn’t need one. The home health aide seemed like the perfect compromise. Regrettably, there had been an almost semiannual rotation of nurses. Her mother fired them all. Oona, eight months on the job, seemed to be the most promising, and Meryl had high hopes they could make it to the twelve-month mark.
“She told me to tell you she don’t want to go, Mrs. Becker,” Oona said. Her Caribbean accent was musical. It managed to make even this rather undesirable news sound pleasant to Meryl’s ears.
“What? Why not?”
“She says you know why not.”
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” Great.
Her phone vibrated. She was surprised to see her husband’s number appear on the screen.
Hugh, a twelfth grade English teacher, was usually unreachable between the hours of 8:30 A.M and 3 P.M. every weekday. Once he disappeared behind the granite walls of Yardley, an Upper East Side private school that was arguably more difficult to get into than Harvard, he was happily in his own little universe.
“Hugh? Aren’t you at school?”
Of course it was. She was distracted. “Everything all right?”
“It’s Janell,” he said. “She is really starting to push back when I try to help. It’s like she’s afraid to fail, and so she’s purposely sabotaging herself.”
Janell South was Hugh’s most promising student so far that year.
Meryl sighed. She hated to be impatient, but she really didn’t have time for one of Hugh’s student dramas right now, not today.
Hugh prided himself on being a champion for his students, and she had always loved that about him; after all, she had been one herself once. Usually Meryl liked to hear his stories and act as his trusted sounding board. But she didn’t have the mental space for Hugh and the Yardley students today. The Campions were coming for dinner. Finally!
“Hugh, I have to call you back,” she said. “Or call me back. Or I’ll just see you at home later, honey, and I promise we’ll talk all about it. Everyone is coming earlier than I thought, and I still have to get my mother.”
* * *
Meryl asked the cabdriver to let her off at Seventy-second and Broadway. She’d walk the rest of the way to her mother’s West End apartment. Even though she was pressed for time, it was already October, and she couldn’t ignore the orange-gold leaves on the ground or the changing light. Fact was, the truly beautiful days were numbered. And she never could resist walking down the block where she had grown up, the spot where her favorite bookstore used to be. Growing up on the Upper West Side—before it was the least bit fashionable or even particularly desirable—Meryl’s favorite refuge had been Eeyore’s bookstore on Broadway near West Seventy-ninth Street. There, her lifelong love of books had taken root.
The first book she remembered ever so subtly planting facedown by the cash register was Fifteen by Beverly Cleary. Meryl had been ten. It was the most romantic book she had ever read, and by the time she was in middle school and walking to the bookstore by herself, she was snatching up Barbara Cartland and Victoria Holt novels by the excited armful.
In college, the bodice rippers were replaced by the classics and, of course, the mandatory Feminine Mystique and Mary McCarthy’s The Group. But by that time, her obsession with romance novels had been supplanted by her first real-life romance—a romance sparked by the worst English class Meryl had ever suffered through.
It had taken Meryl three semesters to get into the coveted American Literature II: 1865 to the Present class with Professor Dunham. Students who loved reading—who lived and breathed it—wanted Dunham. They knew he was the toughest, but he was also charismatic and brilliant. For true lovers of literature, he was the only one to trust as their guide from Whitman to Roth.
Unfortunately, Meryl got more than she’d bargained for. She struggled with Faulkner and stumbled with Thomas Pynchon. The optional “office hours,” run by Dunham’s TA, became essential to her academic survival.
At first, the soft-spoken TA, Hugh Becker, barely registered with her. He was a means to an end, her lifeline in a class that she had wanted so badly but was now her personal Titanic. Becker was tall and thin, blond and blue-eyed—not at all her type. But he had the artistic hands of a pianist or painter, and when he spoke about “The Beast in the Jungle,” he was as passionate as Neil Young with a guitar. And she noticed—she wasn’t completely blind after all—that when he spoke of Henry James’s heroine May Bartram, he looked right at her. Every time.
Disappointingly, Meryl got a B+ in Dunham’s class. She’d never earned anything less than an A in any English class, ever. She was angry at herself, annoyed with Dunham, and eager to wipe the slate clean with a new semester. She didn’t think about American Literature II, Dunham, or his fair-haired boy Hugh Becker again, until she got an invitation in the mail three weeks before spring semester ended. It was the final days of her sophomore year, and Hugh Becker had invited her to a party—his book party.
He had published a book! Nonfiction. Abby May Alcott: An American Mother. It was incredibly impressive to Meryl, an almost unthinkable accomplishment. She toyed with writing a book someday—a novel. Or maybe short stories like Susan Sontag. But Hugh Becker had done it—he was a published author.
The party was in a town house just off lower Fifth Avenue. Meryl dragged her roommate along, and they were the youngest people there. With feigned sophistication, they drank white wine and ate cheese and crackers. Meryl felt out of place and slightly bored and decided she would eat just enough that she wouldn’t have to buy food for dinner. And then she spotted Hugh Becker across the living room at the same time he saw her, and if there was such a thing in real life as “electricity” between two people, she felt it in that moment—an exhilarating spark.
Hugh Becker was not nearly so uptight as he had seemed in class; he knew his way around the town house (his agent’s), and he confidently ushered Meryl into a small bedroom left vacant by the agent’s college-aged son. There, he proclaimed his overwhelming attraction to her, his desire for her—confessing that he had barely been able to contain it the entire semester and had never been more relieved for a class to finish. Meryl, astonished, asked, “Why?”
“Well,” he said, giving this serious thought, as though answering a question posed in a lecture hall. “You’re beautiful. And temperamental. And you’re not overly impressed by work it’s taken me a lot longer not to be overly impressed by.”
He asked if he could kiss her, and she was thrilled by the shocking turn of events. She had never even fantasized about Hugh Becker, and now she found herself wanting nothing more than to feel his hands on her body. She’d had sex with only two men in her life, and as soon as Hugh Becker’s mouth pressed down on hers, she knew that very night he would be her third. And, quite possibly, her last.
* * *
For the past decade, Meryl’s mother had lived alone in a six-story building that had a tiny lobby. Meryl did not know any of the other tenants; her mother had moved into the place the month she became a widow, and never bothered getting to know anyone. Not surprising: While Meryl was growing up, Rose had kept to herself even as the other mothers formed friendships and alliances at school drop-offs and pickups and on the PTA boards. But Rose kept a low profile. That’s how she put it, “low profile.” “I like it that way,” she’d said.
Growing up, Meryl had taken these things as a matter of course, not recognizing the behavior as odd. Her mother was different from the mothers of her friends, but that was because Eastern Europeans were different. There was a wariness that ran bone deep.
Her mother had stomach problems. And insomnia. All just a part of her mother, like her blue eyes and ash blond hair and Polish accent.
The elevator was small, with a sliding door that had a round, gated window. Something about it made Meryl feel like any ride could be the one that ended in a free fall to the basement, so she opted for the stairs.
On the third floor, out of breath and vowing to make it to the gym sometime that week (month?), she rang her mother’s bell.
“I feel bad you wasted a trip over here, Mrs. Becker,” said Oona, opening the door and shaking her head.
“I’m not leaving here without her, Oona. Now, where is she?”
Oona led Meryl to the bedroom and briskly knocked once before opening the door.
Meryl’s mother was fully dressed in a white blouse, gray tweed skirt, full makeup, her signature eyeglasses with the oversized round black frames, sturdy shoes, and her nails manicured with clear polish. She was watching The Bold and the Beautiful, a show she watched only begrudgingly now that they had recast the leading male character, Ridge Forrester. As a teenager, Meryl had watched soaps like The Young and the Restless and As the World Turns along with her mother. The common vocabulary of soaps was one of the few things they shared. Her mother had never been one for deep conversation. In her world, everything was black-and-white. There was very little to discuss.
“Hi, Mom. Meg is coming early, so we have to get going.”
Her mother shook her head and tsk-tsked. At first Meryl thought it was her irritation at being rushed, but then she realized the disapproval was directed at the television screen.
“Her own sister’s husband,” her mother muttered.
“Mom, did you hear what I said? We have to get going.”
Her mother turned to her. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“What? Why not?”
“You know why not.”
Not this again. Meryl inhaled deeply and took a brief reprieve from her mother’s stubbornness, instead appreciating the rare opportunity to look at Rose’s paintings, which hung on every wall. Her mother had only ever displayed her art in the bedroom while Meryl was growing up. It was as if her mother didn’t want anyone else to know that she was an artist, even now. At times, Meryl had encouraged her mother to try to sell some of her work. But Rose had huffed and said, “It’s just a hobby. Your generation only wants to turn play into work instead of finding an honest profession.” Meryl found it sad that her mother couldn’t even fully embrace the joy she got from painting. Her mother never seemed to find joy in much of anything—ever. And Meryl never quite understood why.
“You’re really going to do this to Meg?”
“I’m not doing anything. This is about the choices you made, Meryl.” When her mother was angry, the Polish accent became more pronounced. “What did you think was going to happen when you married a man of poor character? Of course your daughter doesn’t know any better.”
Meryl sighed. “Mom, it’s just dinner. I’m not asking you to walk her down the aisle. It’s a family dinner, and I’d like for you to be a part of it. Don’t you want to meet her fiancé and his family?”
“I don’t need to meet him. I know all about that family. A bunch of anti-Semites.”
“They are not anti-Semites, Mom.” Just Republicans. Stop it, she told herself.
“I can’t sleep at night, you know.”
“Because of Meg’s engagement?” Meryl asked incredulously.
“The club where they want to have the wedding used to be restricted. I expected more from Meg,” said Rose. “But then, why should I expect anything when you’ve done nothing to make them value who they are and where they come from.”
Meryl sighed. Rose’s criticism was nothing new, but it was difficult to take from a woman who never spoke about the country where she’d been born, never shared photographs of her childhood, had not raised her particularly Jewish—and yet had been endlessly, blatantly hostile toward her marriage outside the Jewish faith. Her mother acted as though Meryl had turned her back on some rich heritage—as if she’d raised Meryl in some parallel universe.
Meryl had thought her relationship with her mother might mend when Meg was born. Surely there was nothing better for a mother and daughter to bond over than a new baby—a first grandchild! But any hope for a new beginning was dashed when, upon hearing Meryl and Hugh’s choice of name for their baby, her mother refused to speak to them or to see the baby for the first month of her life. And then, the only thing she said to Meryl was that she had “dishonored” her grandparents by failing to name the baby after one of them so that “their soul can rest in peace.” To be honest, the Jewish tradition of naming the baby after a deceased family member had never even occurred to Meryl. She had been so charmed by Hugh’s idea of naming the baby after a character in Little Women. Back then, she had found all Hugh’s quirks and obsessions romantic and endearing.
Her mother turned back to the television, tight-lipped, her hands clutching the remote as if it were the controls of a plane losing altitude.
Meryl thought of the food hastily shoved into the refrigerator at home, the flowers that needed to be bought, and the unfortunate possibility of Meg, Stowe, and Tippy somehow arriving at the apartment before her.
“Look, Mom, I really would like for you to be there.”
It was an understatement. She was surprised by how very much she wanted her mother by her side for dinner that night. Yes, she had three grown daughters of her own. Still, she sometimes yearned for her mother. But she had learned long ago to accept Rose’s limitations. As she used to tell Meg, Jo, and Amy: “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”
Meryl took another deep breath, trying not to get too emotional. “And I know the girls want you to be there. It would mean a lot to us. But obviously I can’t force you out of this apartment and into a cab. So I’m going to ask you one more time: Will you please just get your shoes and coat and let me take you to my place for a nice family dinner?”
Her mother turned, her blue eyes as bright and angry as the day Meryl had announced her engagement to Hugh. An anger that had forced them to elope; an anger that had not softened in three decades. And Meryl already knew her answer.
It was Meryl’s own fault, really. It always had been. In the earliest, fragile days of her relationship with Hugh, she’d shared a secret with her mother that should never have been shared.
And she’d been paying the price ever since.
Copyright © 2016 by Jamie Brenner
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