Fiction Susan Wilson Beauty: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780517701522

Beauty: A Novel

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9780517701522: Beauty: A Novel

Every reader is familiar with the popular tale of Beauty and the Beast. But what if the fairy tale came true? Beauty tells the story of a modern woman who learns to love the deeper man, beyond all appearances; it is a totally credible, contemporary retelling of the classic tale. First serial to Good Housekeeping.

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About the Author:

From the time I was a little girl, the word "writer" held a special significance to me. I loved the word. I loved the idea of making up stories. When I was about twelve, I bought a used Olivetti manual typewriter from a little hole in the wall office machine place in Middletown, CT called Peter's Typewriters. It weighed about twenty pounds and was probably thirty years old. I pounded out the worst kind of adolescent drivel, imposing my imaginary self on television heroes of the time: Bonanza, Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Star Trek.
Those are my earliest memories of my secret life of writing. For reasons I cannot really fathom, I never pursued writing as a vocation. Although I majored in English, I didn't focus on writing and it wasn't really until I was first married that I hauled out my old Olivetti and began to thump away at my first novel. This was, as I recall, an amorphous thinly plotted excercise in putting sentences together and has mercifully disappeared in some move or another. I didn't try anything more adventurous than some short stories and a lot of newsletters for various things I belonged to until we moved to Martha's Vineyard and I bought my first computer. My little "Collegiate 2" IBM computer was about as advanced as the Olivetti was in its heyday but it got me writing again and this time with some inner determination that I was going to succeed at this avocation. I tapped out two novels on this machine with its fussy little printer. Like the first one, these were wonderful absorbing exercises in learning how to write.
What happened then is the stuff of day time soap opera. Writing is a highly personal activity and for all of my life I'd kept it secret from everyone but my husband, who, at the time, called what I did nights after the kids went to bed, my "typing." Until, quite by accident, I discovered that here on the Vineyard nearly everyone has some avocation in the arts. Much to my delight, I discovered a fellow closet-writer in the mom of my kids' best friends. For the very first time in my life I could share the struggle with another person. I know now that writers' groups are a dime a dozen and I highly recommend the experience, but with my friend Carole, a serendipitious introduction to a "real writer", Holly Nadler, resulted in my association with my agent. Holly read a bit of my "novel" and liked what she read, suggested I might use her name and write to her former agent. I did and the rest, as they say, is history.
Not that it was an overnight success. The novel I'd shown Holly never even got sent to Andrea. But a third, shorter, more evolved work was what eventually grew into Beauty with the guidance of Andrea and her associates at the Jane Rotrosen Agency.
The moral of the story: keep at it. Keep writing the bad novels to learn how to write the good ones. And, yes, it does help to know someone. Andrea might have liked my work, but the path was oiled by the introduction Holly Nadler provided.
Hawke's Cove is my second published novel, although there is a "second" second novel in a drawer, keeping good company with the other "first" novels.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

My father held out the letter in a hand that shook a little with the tremor he'd had since my mother died, the sheaf of paper quivering like a breeze-rattled leaf.

I wiped the paint from my hand on my rainbow-streaked jeans and took the thick vellum. I scanned the typed letter, two paragraphs, brief and to the point.

"What do you think, Alix?"

"I thought the Crompton line had died out."

"No, this must be the son of the man my father painted." My father shrugged. "Too bad he's decided to follow the tradition. He's out of luck."

"Why?"

"Alix, you know I'm no portraitist."

I did know. The bold talent, which flourished over the course of four hundred years, had been diluted and grown weak until it was only by force of family legend that any of us called art our livelihood. A good commercial artist, my father was not gifted, though he made a good living. I was too honest with my father to disagree with him. Although he could do a credible job, there would never be anything remarkable about his painting. "So what are you going to do? Break with tradition?" My father took back the letter, squeezing it along the fold. "You go. You're the real artist in the family."

"No, I couldn't, Dad. It's your commission, and besides, he wants Alexander Miller."

"He's written to Alexander, but he'd be far more pleased with the work of Alix."

I remembered then the first time my father had seen my work. Not the art projects of an adolescent, but my first real attempt at disciplined art, a portrait of my mother. I'd worked on the charcoal sketch in secret, slipping into the art classroom after school, not letting anyone see it. Drawing my mother's youthful face from memory, trying not to show her recent pain and withdrawal in the picture. It was an optimistic picture, a pretense she'd never left us.

He'd held the small picture out at arm's length. It trembled slightly, making me aware for the first time that his hands would always shake. A curtain fell across his gray eyes and his face became unreadable as he studied the sketch. Picking at the dry skin of my lips, I waited for his verdict. He set it down and slowly shook his head from side to side. Oh God, I thought, he hates it. Then his eyes cleared and he held me close.


"You take the commission," my father repeated.

"You know I dislike portraiture."

"'Dislike' doesn't count." He stuffed the letter back into the tissue-lined envelope and tossed it into a pile of mail. "He's offering good money."

My father rarely yelled when I was a child, but his words often struck their mark, drawing me back in line, and now his words were more than clear. Since my layoff the previous fall from the private girls' school where I'd taught Art Appreciation, my father had financially supported me in my attempt at making a go of being a full-time artist. It was a trade-off: I attended to his household needs and he paid my rent.

"A working artist doesn't always work for his own muse."

I wanted nothing more than to go home. But my paints were open and the canvas stretched and the light in the small studio I shared with my father is best at that time of day. I touched one finger to the envelope. "I'll go for you. But I think you're wrong -- surely you can do a portrait."

He hunched over the kitchen table, pressing his hands down. "Go back to work, Alix. Your paints are getting dry."


"So who is this guy?" Mark slipped his wool sweater over bare skin.

"A rich patron, just like a modern Medici, supporting the arts." I stuffed my hair into a scrunchie and ran some water into the kettle.

"Believe me, I'm not crazy about doing this, but my father can't." I didn't want to go over the same ground with Mark. Once over with my father was enough.

"How long will you stay there?"

"I'm hoping he'll let me take a few Polaroids and come back here to work on it. I'll have to spend a little time interviewing him so that I know him well enough to paint a decent portrait. I simply can't paint someone I don't know."

"Is that why you've never painted me?"

"Who says I haven't?" I countered, pulling down mugs from the shelf. "You were the rooster in the piece I just sold. Didn't you recognize your eyes?"

He smirked and I could see his withdrawal into poutiness, which had little to do with my remark and much to do with my not being around and available. A thirty-something photojournalist, Mark was talented enough to earn a living at it in our small New Hampshire town by freelancing for city newspapers. He was passionate only about his work, and it was often when his artistic star was low in the sky that he would come around and make noises about permanency. Sometimes I was almost suckered into thinking that maybe my determination to be successful in my art could peacefully coexist with husband and children. Then I would come to my senses. What woman could flourish as a painter as long as there were the constant demands of other people's needs?

I set his mug in front of him and kissed the top of his head. "I won't be long."

He didn't answer, instead flipped through an old New York Times Magazine, squeezing the pages at their corners as he turned them, leaving them creased.


The day I left was one of those crystal days in midwinter, the air so cold it hurts to breathe. The sky was an empty jewel-blue. The car, mercifully, turned over on the first try, and I threw the Sentra into reverse. Iced gravel spun out from under the tires as I backed out of my driveway. I spotted Mark's truck coming toward me and we stopped side by side on the deserted country road.

"Don't be gone long, Alix."

"It's a job, Mark. I'll be gone as long as it takes."

"You are a painfully slow painter."

"Only when I'm creating. This is replication of what is there. A man's face."

"Where will you be staying? Maybe I'll come up." The words came out of white puffs darting from between his lips.

"You can't. I'm staying at his house."

"Do you have to?"

"Mark, let's just leave it alone. I'll be home as soon as I can." I suppressed my impatience enough to throw him a kiss, but he made no move to catch it.


Leland Crompton lived at the northernmost tip of the state, beyond the reaches of the national park in the White Mountains. From my southern town it was a drive up the highway for a couple of hours and another hour or so on secondary roads.

"They lived in Boston when my father painted Walter Crompton," my father said, studying the map through his half-glasses. "Beacon Hill." I'd stopped by his house on my way out of town.

"Long way from Beacon Hill, this Riseborough." I took the sheet of paper and folded it, tucking it into my purse. "I'll find it."

With typical, less endearing than annoying, parental cautions, my father urged me to fill up the tank twice and check my tires.

For once I held my tongue and bit back the retort "I'm thirty-six years old, Dad!" I didn't even think to say, "Then you go." Instead I gave him a hug. "I'll be fine, don't give me a thought." I was more mellow than usual that morning. We walked out to my car together; he leaned on my arm as we came across the snowy lawn as if afraid of slipping. When I hugged him good-bye, he felt warm to me and a tiny alarm bell jangled. "Are you okay, Dad?"

"Fine, Alix. Just tired."

Before I backed out I sat and watched as he made his slow way back to the front porch. When had he grown so feeble? Overnight he'd gone from vigorous middle age to old. I was glad then that I'd held my tongue. The stinging sunlight sparkled off the latest snowfall, and traffic was heavy before Waterville, my halfway mark. I allowed myself one quick lunch stop and checked the hand-drawn map Leland Crompton had sent with his retainer. What had seemed relatively clear before now seemed threaded with erratic blue pen.

Now, off the highway, down a switchback road etched into the cleavage of a pair of mountains, I pulled the Sentra off the road to study my map in the waning light. Sunset comes earlier in these regions where the mountains obscure the light by late afternoon. Clouds had come in, urging their way over the tops of the mountains, lowering to meet the rising mists filtering between the pines, and I clicked on the overhead light. Then I got out of the car and took a handful of clean white snow to wash the headlights. I stretched and breathed in the cold mountain air. A light breeze stroked back my hair and I pulled my collar closer. It was suddenly fully dark and the deep blue of it touched me. There were no artificial lights here beyond my headlights. Could I ever imitate this exact shade of blue-black without masking the density or losing the depth? Could I paint the portrait of a stranger? I shivered and climbed back into my car. Illuminated by my headlights, the lumps of snow along the edge of the road looked like pearls.

Another half-hour of right turns and left forks and suddenly I caught sight of lampglow in the distance. A massive iron gate stood open, a wrought-iron rose tooled on it. In the light of my high beams, I could make out iron thorns. Compulsively I checked the directions crumpled in my hand. Yes, this was my landmark. I turned the Sentra into the mile-long drive and wound my way up the hillside between even rows of pines.

The drive circled in front of an imposing fieldstone house with hipped roof. I could see a wing striking out away from the main house, its symmetrical match on the other side. A massive central chimney sent a fine mist of wood smoke to the sky. Twelve mullioned windows looked out over the front, but only two downstairs windows showed any light.

Suddenly the front door opened and an older woman darted out, her hands fluttering as she half-galloped over to the car. "Willie will get your things, never mind that, come in, come in." Her barrage after so many hours of silent thought seemed an assault. "You needn't -- " She stopped in mid-sentence. "I'm sorry, I thought you were the painter fellow. What do you want?"

"I am the painter fellow."

Three distinct lines formed over her nose. She stepped back from the car and let me out. "Willie will bring your car around to the garage." She pronounced "garage" in the English way, a curious affectation in an otherwise ordinary New Hampshire accent.

Like an automaton, I handed my keys to Willie, a stooped middle-aged man who spoke not at all but bobbed his head and would not look at me.

As I slammed the trunk lid down I chanced to look up and thought I saw a curtain move in an unlit upstairs window.

Walking ahead of me, Mrs. Greaves led me into the house. "Well, well, well, you ain't what we expected." She snatched my left hand, darting at it like a pigeon on breadcrumbs. Her hand was soft, the thousand lines in it smooth as lines on paper. "Who are you?"

"I'm Alix Miller. When my father couldn't come I did." A little heat of embarrassment licked at my face. "I'm here to paint Mr. Crompton's portrait." I tugged to release my hand, but her grip was firm.

"Why didn't you tell us you were coming instead?" She strengthened her hold.

"I don't think I thought it really mattered." And I wondered why it should have. "I'm a Miller and an artist."

"You're very pretty." Mrs. Greaves dropped my hand. "Not married?"

Surprised by her non sequitur, I merely shook my head. I followed Mrs. Greaves up a long flight of stairs to my room. A mahogany banister ran in a slow curve up the stairs to the gallery. I trailed my fingers on it, marveling at the warmth and smoothness of its unbroken length. I could not find a join anywhere along it, as though the whole thing had been coaxed out of one great length of wood.

All along the gallery portraits hung. A little beat of excitement lurched in my heart at the sight of my own ancestors' work. I wanted to stop to examine them, but Mrs. Greaves's quickstep along the gallery and down another corridor allowed no dallying.

"Dinner is at eight," Mrs. Greaves said, opening the door to my room. I stepped in and she closed the door, pulling hard against the swollen jamb.

By some magic, my bags and canvases and paint box were already in the room. The room was large -- a pair of long windows filled one wall, a double bed with a blue coverlet stood foursquare on the left, and a double dresser with a narrow rippled mirror stood opposite. Two good engravings were the only decoration. An Aubusson carpet in deep blues and maroons was bordered by a hardwood floor. The walls were the faintest blue. A very masculine room, it had the faint odor of cedar. From somewhere in the house I could hear classical music, then it stopped and I heard nothing more.


I had more than an hour and spent it unpacking and washing up. Dinner at eight. I had brought only one dress and hoped that if dinner at eight was de rigueur here that my host would not mind seeing it on me for a few nights running.

I brushed on blush and stared into my own hazel eyes, recognizing the nervous tension in my smeary attempt at eyeliner. If he was anything like his house, my host would be imposing. I had tried not to imagine Leland Crompton at all. How old he was, forty or sixty, pleasant or taciturn, I had no idea, and my anger at my father for putting me in this position fermented. Had the house been in Boston, or a modest garrison colonial in Newburyport, it might have been easier, but this English country house surrounded by miles of desolate mountains had an ominous quality about it, unrelieved by the cool Mrs. Greaves and the silent Willie.

I was ready when at seven-thirty there was a tap on my door and Mrs. Greaves came in. "Mr. Crompton begs your pardon, but he is not feeling well and will not be able to join you at dinner."

A surge of relief belied a bass note of disappointment, but perhaps it would be easier to meet my patron in the light of day.


A wash of moonlight spread across my room, bathing everything in a silvered half-light. It woke me and I rose to draw the curtains closed. For a moment I looked out of the mullioned window, the bulk of the surrounding mountains a dark backdrop against the milky light illuminating the courtyard below me. Something moved. The pallid moonlight was swept with a shadow, then empty again. I could not tell if it had been animal or human or just my imagination.

Copyright © 1996 by Susan Wilson. All Rights Reserved.

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