Friendship, loyalty, and love lie at the heart of Meg Waite Clayton’s beautifully written, poignant, and sweeping novel of five women who, over the course of four decades, come to redefine what it means to be family.
For thirty-five years, Frankie, Linda, Kath, Brett, and Ally have met every Wednesday at the park near their homes in Palo Alto, California. Defined when they first meet by what their husbands do, the young homemakers and mothers are far removed from the Summer of Love that has enveloped most of the Bay Area in 1967. These “Wednesday Sisters” seem to have little in common: Frankie is a timid transplant from Chicago, brutally blunt Linda is a remarkable athlete, Kath is a Kentucky debutante, quiet Ally has a secret, and quirky, ultra-intelligent Brett wears little white gloves with her miniskirts. But they are bonded by a shared love of both literature–Fitzgerald, Eliot, Austen, du Maurier, Plath, and Dickens–and the Miss America Pageant, which they watch together every year.
As the years roll on and their children grow, the quintet forms a writers circle to express their hopes and dreams through poems, stories, and, eventually, books. Along the way, they experience history in the making: Vietnam, the race for the moon, and a women’s movement that challenges everything they have ever thought about themselves, while at the same time supporting one another through changes in their personal lives brought on by infidelity, longing, illness, failure, and success.
Humorous and moving, The Wednesday Sisters is a literary feast for book lovers that earns a place among those popular works that honor the joyful, mysterious, unbreakable bonds between friends.
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Meg Waite Clayton is the author of The Language of Light, a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, and literary magazines. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She lives in Palo Alto, California, with her husband and their two sons.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Wednesday Sisters look like the kind of women who might meet at those fancy coffee shops on University—we do look that way—but we’re not one bit fancy, and we’re not sisters, either. We don’t even meet on Wednesdays, although we did at the beginning. We met at the swings at Pardee Park on Wednesday mornings when our children were young. It’s been thirty-five years, though—more than thirty-five!—since we switched from Wednesdays at ten to Sundays at dawn. Sunrise, whatever time the light first crests the horizon that time of year. It suits us, to leave our meeting time up to the tilt of the earth, the track of the world around the sun.
That’s us, there in the photograph. Yes, that’s me—in one of my chubbier phases, though I suppose one of these days I’ll have to face up to the fact that it’s the thinner me that’s the “phase,” not the chubbier one. And going left to right, that’s Linda (her hair loose and combed, but then she brought the camera, she was the only one who knew we’d be taking a photograph). Next to her is Ally, pale as ever, and then Kath. And the one in the white gloves in front—the one in the coffin—that’s Brett.
Brett’s gloves—that’s what brought us together all those years ago. I had Maggie and Davy with me in the park that first morning, a park full to bursting with children running around together as if any new kid could join them just by saying hello, with clusters of mothers who might—just might—be joined with a simple hello as well. It wasn’t my park yet, just a park in a neighborhood where Danny and I might live if we moved to the Bay Area, a neighborhood with tree-lined streets and neat little yards and sidewalks and leaves turning colors just like at home in Chicago, crumples of red and gold and pale brown skittering around at the curbs. I was sitting on a bench, Davy in my lap and a book in my hand, keeping one eye on Maggie on the slide while surreptitiously watching the other mothers when this woman—Brett, though I didn’t know that then—sat down on a bench across the playground from me, wearing white gloves. No, we are not of the white-glove generation, not really. Yes, I did wear them to Mass when I was a girl, along with a silly doily on my head, but this was 1967—we’re talking miniskirts and tie-dyed shirts and platform shoes. Or maybe not tie-dye and platforms yet—maybe those came later, just before Izod shirts with the collars up—but miniskirts. At any rate, it was definitely not a white-glove time, much less in the park on a Wednesday morning.
What in the world? I thought. Does this girl think she’s Jackie Kennedy? (Thinking “girl,” yes, but back then it had no attitude in it, no “gi-rl.”) And I was wondering if she might go with the ramshackle house beyond the playground—a sagging white clapboard mansion that had been something in its day, you could see that, with its grandly columned entrance, its still magnificent palm tree, its long, flat spread of lawn—when a mother just settling at the far end of my bench said, “She wears them all the time.”
Those were Linda’s very first words to me: “She wears them all the time.”
I don’t as a rule gossip about people I’ve never met with other people I’ve never met, even women like Linda, who, just from the look of her, seemed she’d be nice to know. She was blond and fit and . . . well, just Linda, even then wearing a red Stanford baseball cap, big white letters across the front and the longest, thickest blond braid sticking out the back—when girls didn’t wear baseball caps either, or concern themselves with being fit rather than just plain thin.
“You were staring,” Linda said. That’s Linda for you. She’s nothing if not frank.
“Oh,” I said, still stuck on that baseball cap of hers, thinking even Gidget never wore a baseball cap, not the Sandra Dee movie version or the Sally Field TV one.
“I don’t mean to criticize,” she said. “Everyone does.”
“Stare at her.” Linda shifted slightly, and I saw then that she was pregnant, though just barely. “You’re new to the neighborhood?” she asked.
“No, we . . .” I adjusted my cat’s-eye glasses, a nervous habit my mom had forever tried to break me of. “My husband and I might be moving here after he finishes school. He has a job offer, and we . . . They showed us that little house there.” I indicated the house just across Center Drive from the old mansion. “The split-level with the pink shutters?”
“Oh!” Linda said. “I thought it just sold, like, yesterday. I didn’t know you’d moved in!”
“It’s not sold yet. And we haven’t. We won’t move here until the spring.”
“Oh.” She looked a bit confused. “Well, you are going to paint the shutters, aren’t you?”
As I said, Linda is nothing if not frank.
That was the first Wednesday. September 6, 1967.
When I tell people that—that I first came to the Bay Area at the end of that summer, that that’s when the Wednesday Sisters first met—they inevitably get this look in their eyes that says bell-bottoms and flower power, war protests and race riots, LSD. Even to me, it seems a little improbable in retrospect that I never saw a joint back then, never flashed anyone a peace sign. But I had a three-year-old daughter and a baby son already. I had a husband who’d passed the draft age, who would have a Ph.D. and a full-time job within months. I’d already settled into the life I’d been raised to settle into: dependable daughter, good wife, attentive mother. All the Wednesday Sisters had. We spent the Summer of Love changing diapers, going to the grocery store, baking tuna casseroles and knitting sweater vests (yes, sweater vests), and watching Walter Cronkite from the safety of our family rooms. I watched the local news, too, though that was more about following the Cubs; they’d just lost to the Dodgers, ending a three-game winning streak—not much, three games, but then they are the Cubs and were even that year, despite Fergie Jenkins throwing 236 strikeouts and Ron Santo hitting 31 out of the park.
Anyway, I was sitting there watching Maggie on the slide, about to call to her to clear away from the bottom when she did it on her own, and I was just a bit intimidated by this blonde I didn’t know yet was Linda, and that occurred to me, that I didn’t know her name. “I’m Frankie O’Mara,” I said, forgetting that I’d decided to be Mary, or at least Mary Frances or Frances or Fran, in this new life. I tried to back up and say “Mary Frances O’Mara”—it was the way I liked to imagine my name on the cover of a novel someday, not that I would have admitted to dreams beyond marriage and motherhood back then. But Linda was already all over Frankie.
“Frankie? A man’s name—and you all curvy and feminine. I wish I had curves like you do. I’m pretty much just straight up and down.”
I’d have traded my “curves” of unlost baby gain for what was under her double-knit slacks and striped turtleneck in a second, or I thought I would then. She looked like that girl in the Clairol ads—“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”—except she was more “If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em” somehow. She didn’t wear a speck of makeup, either, not even lipstick.
“What are you reading, Frankie?” she asked.
(In fairness, I should explain here that Linda remembers that first morning differently. She swears her first words were “What’s that you’re reading?” and it was only when I didn’t answer—too busy staring at Brett to hear her, she says—that she said, “She wears them all the time.” She swears what brought us together was the book in my hand. That’s how she and Kath met, too; they got to talking about In Cold Blood at a party while everyone was still slogging through the usual blather about the lovely Palo Alto weather and how lucky they were that their husbands were doing their residencies here.)
I held up the cover of my book—Agatha Christie’s latest Poirot novel, The Third Girl—for Linda to see. She blinked blond lashes over eyes that had a little of every color in them, like the blue and green and yellow of broken glass all mixed together in the recycling bin.
“A mystery?” she said. “Oh.”
She preferred “more serious fiction,” she said—not unkindly, but still I was left with the impression that she ranked my mysteries right down there with comic books. I was left shifting uncomfortably in my pleated skirt and sweater set, wondering how I’d ever manage in a place where even the books I read were all wrong. I couldn’t imagine, then, leaving my friends back home, the girls who’d shared sleepless slumber-party nights and double dates with me, who still wore my clothes and lipstick and blush. Though it had never been quite the same after we’d all married. My Danny had seemed so . . . not awkward, exactly, but uncomfortable with my friends. And they weren’t any easier with him. “He’s such a brain,” Theresa had said just a few weeks before, and I’d said, “He is, isn’t he?” with a spanking big grin on my face, I’m sure, and it was only the doubt in Theresa’s eyes that told me she hadn’t meant it as praise. The conversation had left me feeling fat and de...
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