The Essential Charlotte

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9780312311650: The Essential Charlotte

Now in paperback: Libby Schmais follows the success of The Perfect Elizabeth with another charming and poignant novel featuring a young woman finding her way through her single 30s in Manhattan.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Libby Schmais is the author of a previous novel, The Perfect Elizabeth, and the coauthor of Living Well with Cancer. She lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

FLOWER REMEDY OF THE WEEK

"For times of extreme stress, Ask the Doctor recommends taking a few
drops of Rescue Remedy under the tongue. Carry a small bottle with
you at all times."


CHAPTER ONE

Charlotte would have cried during the funeral service except for her mother's voice in her ear, nudging her to pull herself together, sit up straight, embrace life. The first time she heard the familiar deep voice, she wondered if she was going crazy.

'Come on, Charlotte, get it together, you're my representative.'

Charlotte knew she should feel sad. After all, this was her mother lying in the funeral parlor. Her mother had always insisted on being called Corinne, even by her daughter. Surprising everyone, she had left instructions for a traditional Catholic service. Although Corinne was technically half Jewish, half Catholic, she had been a devout atheist all her life, aside from a brief flirtation with Buddhism and a cult or two. But for this final performance, she must have decided that the old-fashioned Catholic service, with its incense and Latin words, was the most dramatic.

I'm an orphan now, thought Charlotte. No matter how old you are, when your parents are gone, you are alone--an orphan. Charlotte was thirty-three, the same age as Christ when he was crucified. I am an orphan, Charlotte repeated to herself. She found the word strangely
comforting. It reminded her of her favorite book as a child, "A Little Princess," in which young Sara Crewe, motherless and believing her father dead, is forced into a life of humiliation at a rich girls' school. She is moved from her luxury suite up into the decrepit attic, where she is forced to do menial tasks and eat old crusts of bread. As a child, Charlotte used to imagine facing all sorts of indignities, with all the courage of little Sara Crewe.

'Don't be maudlin, Charlotte,' came the unmistakable voice of her mother, much too close for comfort. Charlotte looked over warily into the velvety darkness of the closed coffin, half expecting to see her mother stride out of it in her favorite black suede boots, as if this whole funeral were a new kind of performance art. She looked around to see if anyone else was hearing what she was hearing, but they were all bent over their prayer books, attempting to look somber.

If she had tried, her mother couldn't have orchestrated a more theatrical exit, crushed by her own sculpture, a jagged monstrosity whose price had risen astronomically since her death. A whole retrospective was at this moment being planned at the Guggenheim Museum.

Actually, the sculpture didn't kill her, as everyone believed. It was her heart. The medical examiner wrote the cause of death "as a sudden cardiac event." What actually occurred was that at the exact moment her heart stopped beating, Corinne had fallen between the two
looping figures of her latest sculpture.

Her mother was known for huge abstract metal sculptures. Although listed in the catalogue simply as 17 or 23, at certain angles they all looked like the interlocking limbs of sexually ambiguous participants. Charlotte would admire them dutifully but couldn't help feeling vaguely repelled by them.

I'm an orphan now, Charlotte thought, touching the soft leather of the prayer book. Her mother was never very clear on the issue of paternity. When pushed, Corinne would say he was dead, but Charlotte didn't want to believe her. Sometimes, it was difficult for her to believe that she had ever had a father, that her mother hadn't hatched her in the studio from sheer creative force of will. Charlotte used to imagine her father sweeping in to rescue her. 'Charlotte is too delicate for this bohemian existence,' he would say. 'I'm taking her to my castle in Austria.'

When she used to ask her mother about him, Corinne would say, "It's too painful to talk about, Charlotte," with an eloquent sigh that made Charlotte think Corinne could have succeeded at a career onstage. "I loved your father, but now he is gone. We are alone in the world, you and I."

The reality was they were hardly ever alone. Friends dropped by the loft at all hours of the day or night, smoking Galoises, ordering out bad pizza and consuming endless jugs of red wine. Charlotte would be exhibited at bedtime like a piece of sculpture. She always felt like an early, rather unsuccessful, work.


0As the funeral drew to a close, her mother's agent and best friend, Tanya, grabbed her arm.

"We're all going for a drink--Charlotte, you simply must come. I won't take no for an answer."

Charlotte protested, "I really think I need to go home."

"Don't be ridiculous. You need to mourn, Charlotte. This will be a catharsis."

Charlotte shook her head, but the woman wouldn't let go of her arm. She finally unhooked Tanya's clawlike hand and tried to head for the door, but people kept stopping her, saying her name, touching her, sighing, breathing on her, pulling her along with them onto the street. The last thing Charlotte wanted was to go to the Spring Bar, but what she wanted didn't seem to enter into it anymore. So she let go of her free will and let herself be led. Into a cab. Into the
bar.

When she got there, it was like an opening for a new exhibit. Bloody Marys and Chardonnays (and cranberry spritzers for the alcoholics) were being passed around freely, people were jostling to get their favorite seats at the bar and air-kissing each other with relief at still being alive and back in their element. Every once in a while, each small group would come to a standstill and lose their train of thought and remember why they were there, but it was only for an instant, and then everything was back to normal. They would call for another drink, more bar snacks, start trashing a critic. People told stories about Corinne: "Remember the time when she threw that vase at Robert...got drunk and passed out...belly danced on the railing
of that apartment?"

Charlotte was sitting at the bar on an uncomfortable tall stool with a hard, slippery seat. She sipped her peppery Bloody Mary, her feet dangling above the floor like a child's, trying to remember the names of all her mother's friends. There was Elaine, obnoxious friend and hanger-on, and Tanya, Corinne's agent from hell. But who was that woman standing right in front of her, the one who always wore those incredibly ugly scarves (today a mustardy geometric pattern)? What was the point of scarves anyway? They were like cigars for women. The uglier the woman, the bigger the scarf. Then, of course, there were the artists: Stan, heavy and sloppy, who painted delicate medieval looking portraits; that girl with the severe bangs who did the tiny dioramas with mutilated troll dolls; all the sculptors. As a child, Charlotte had been dragged to more galleries than she could remember. She always stood in a corner trying hto look inconspicuous, so no one would come over and ask her what she thought of the artwork.

Now people kept coming over to her to tell her how wonderful her mother was, what a presence. What an artist. What a loss.

Charlotte felt like she couldn't breathe. People kept hugging her, she had lipstick smeared on her dress, her mother was dead and she just wanted to go home. She got up to leave, but people kept putting their hands on her arm, telling her to stay, to relax, how sad they
were, giving her drinks and tiny Japanese crackers.


Copyright (c) 2003 by Libby Schmais

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Libby Schmais
Published by St. Martin's Griffin (2004)
ISBN 10: 0312311656 ISBN 13: 9780312311650
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