Cathi Hanauer Sweet Ruin: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780743277358

Sweet Ruin: A Novel

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9780743277358: Sweet Ruin: A Novel
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Elayna Leopold, 35, works from home in New Jersey so that she can raise her young daughter, Hazel, while her husband puts in long hours as a lawyer in New York. Elayna is typical of women who spend their twenties chasing dreams in the city only to spend their thirties chasing children in the suburbs. Yet no one knows better than she that life can change instantly. Two years ago her infant son died, sending her into a depression from which she's just emerging. Now, suddenly -- thrillingly -- Elayna finds herself craving life's passions again. When she meets Kevin, a young artist and neighbor, she discovers a version of herself she thought was gone forever. As she uncovers yearnings that could destroy everything she cherishes, a threat to Hazel emerges from an unlikely source, making Elayna's choices and decisions that much more critical.

Riveting, tender, and utterly real, Sweet Ruin is a gripping story about one woman's search for passion amid the challenges of ordinary life and a triumph of contemporary fiction from a writer known for her candor and wisdom.

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About the Author:

Cathi Hanauer is the author of the novels My Sister’s Bones and Sweet Ruin and the editor of the New York Times bestselling essay anthology The Bitch in the House. Her articles, essays, and/or criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self, Parenting, Whole Living, and other magazines. She lives with her family in western Massachusetts. Visit her online at CathiHanauer.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

I suppose, for literary effect, I should start with how everything was dying that year -- how the riverbed dried up into a brown Brillo pad, the wisteria shriveled on their vines. But the truth is, that brilliant April, after rain had soaked us all March, it felt to me as if the earth and the plants, the insects and trees just couldn't stay in their pants. Daffodils unfurled and grinned into bloom; tulips reached up their orange and crimson cupped hands. Across the street, the Japanese weeping cherry tree exploded into a firework of lilliputian pink clouds, while down the block Mrs. Zuppo's lily garden peeked out from its bed weeks early. All the world was a stage, and I walked around in a daze beholding the spectacle that was life. It seemed to me it had never been this way. But then, I was waking up again, after all that time.

During the more than two years since Oliver's death, my goal had been simply to get myself through the days. After dropping Hazel at preschool or kindergarten or first grade and dragging myself through the errands (grocery shopping, bill paying, dry cleaners for Paul...all those things that plague the work-at-home wife), I'd simply returned to my house and crawled back into bed, where, between the empty escape of deep naps, I did my editing work -- its own kind of refuge -- until it was time to pick up Hazel again. Then, with what felt like superhuman effort, I would act out the role of the cheerful, inspired mother I was not, somehow getting us through the hours until we were at last back in bed again -- her bed, this time, where we'd both fall asleep, me half-waking only to switch to my own bed and continue my dreamless coma. I never felt Paul slip into bed hours later when he finally got home. Really, it was as if I were dead, except when taking care of Hazel or working, and then I operated on automatic pilot: numb, simply soldiering on.

But this year, with the first signs of spring in my New Jersey town -- a slowly gentrifying commuter and college hub where octogenarian Dominicks and Guiseppes bordered thirtysomething Manhattan transplants like me, with handfuls of crunchy Gen X-ers tossed throughout -- something had started to change. I felt my old self, the one I'd thought was gone forever, sending out tiny shoots from deep in my bones -- stiff, strong, green tips to tell me the roots were still in there, I was still in there, somehow...and wanting, at last, out again. On the day this story begins, I had taken a morning walk, peeling my old Eileen Fisher cardigan from my arms to let the sun drench my pasty, winter-sapped skin. I'd headed to the fish market for two slabs of salmon, then to the bakery for a crusty ciabatta. Then a bottle of sauvignon blanc from the liquor store and a bar of fine dark chocolate for dessert. I suppose I was celebrating my rebirth. At any rate, when I got home I was ravenous, and by the time my piece of fish was done broiling I'd already sampled a few bites, standing at the oven forking the salty pink flesh into my greedy mouth, burning its tender skin. I didn't care. It was worth it to taste that delectable bliss, and to finally crave food again.

On the way to the table, I dragged my hunk of bread through the circle of salted olive oil I'd drizzled onto my plate, bit it hard, and swallowed it practically whole. Unlike Paul, who'd always been someone who eats to live, I had been -- and now, it seemed, was on my way back to being -- a happy fat person inside a genetically thin body: always anticipating my next meal, savoring it when it came. Today, I'd fixed Paul the other piece of salmon -- lemon, olive oil, splash of tamari -- and left it front and center in the fridge, just so he'd know, when he got home, having long ago eaten the dinner his law firm had called in from some trendy restaurant nearby in the financial district, that I had thought of him, that I loved him. Elayna, the loving wife. I'd also left him a salad and a couple of wedges of a perfect blood orange. Placing my dish on the table, I uncorked the wine, poured a glass, and sat down.

I ate in rapture, licking the plate at the end. Well, why not? I was alone, after all.

My work lay open next to me, a manuscript of the latest soon-to-be issue of Popular Poetry magazine. Each month, the journal reproduced classic and some contemporary poems in a palatable and accessible form for those who wanted to see what they'd missed in college or who wanted a tiny, digestible version of the contemporary poetry scene. My job, bestowed on me by an old English-major colleague at Barnard, was, frankly, a dream: I proofread and lightly edited the copy, not so much for mistakes or typos (thankfully, there was someone else for that) but for content and appeal. In essence, I was simply an early reader who each month sent back a detailed critique. I made minimal suggestions -- "Flip-flop the two Hopkins poems," or "More of an intro on the Dickinson might be nice" -- and sometimes I suggested stories. ("How about a feature on Edward Lear?") The pay was laughable, of course -- the job amounted to half-time work for an hourly salary barely above minimum wage -- but Paul's hefty lawyer paychecks made that okay, and since he worked heftily to make those paychecks, it had been more important, once we'd had Hazel, for me to do something close to home than to pull in a decent salary.

When Hazel was young, the job had provided me the perfect escape from the obsessive mothering and brutal self-examination full-time parenting can bring. Once Oliver died, the work kept me from descending into darkness when Hazel wasn't around. In fact, most of the time I'd looked forward to it -- as much as I could look forward to anything then. But today, after my feast (for dessert, I melted squares of the chocolate bar in the microwave and poured them over a fat ball of coffee ice cream), I was distracted, unable to focus. I glanced out between the little white curtains in my kitchen and saw a smattering of dark clouds moving in. Trees blowing, swaying. Immediately, I grew anxious. Hazel was phobic about storms, and I couldn't bear to think of her panicked out there.

I glanced at the clock above the stove. Still almost two hours until I had to get her from Pansy's house, where she went on Wednesdays -- half days at her school -- from noon until three (more days in the summer or if I got busy). I got up, wandered into the living room, and glanced out the windows. This was the ugly side of our house, and the neighborhood canine Porta Potti -- a small strip of dead grass between house and sidewalk, overly shaded by a big old hemlock tree. Anything that did manage to grow there the neighborhood dogs quickly dispensed with. I couldn't do much about their pissing, obviously, but the rest of what they did was illegal and infuriating when left there. Yesterday and today there had been fresh loads of poop to greet me, and looking out now, I spotted a third and felt the rage rise up through my blood, almost thrillingly. If I found out who was doing it, I'd tear the hair from his head.

I wandered to the back door and then outside, onto the deck, and I leaned over the edge of the rail, letting the balmy breeze breathe over me. It was unseasonably warm; the air felt pregnant with pollen and humidity. I closed my eyes and shook my hair down over my bare arms, then inhaled deeply, sucking in the splendor through every pore. The cicadas shrieked; the atmosphere seemed to vibrate. I could feel the charge seeping through my skin, making me tingle with life. Life, at last. I could have wept with joy.

Someone went by, walking a dog: I heard a collar jingle, loud panting, canine toenails on tar, and then I saw them, a silver Weimaraner with an orange sneaker in its mouth, leading a cute, crew-cut boy by the leash. Guy, not boy, I should say, though he was a boy compared to me. He was wearing jeans and no shirt, exposing his lightly freckled white chest. His arms were curved and ample for his otherwise lean frame. Maybe gay, I reasoned, but either way, a Gen X-er for sure, or was it Gen Y-er, these days? I watched boy and dog pass by, cross the street, and head into the driveway of the small apartment building Paul and I jokingly called the Tenement. With its Victorian charm and two sugar maples out front, it was as unlike the tenement where we'd lived in New York -- broken buzzers, roaches, filthy stairwell -- as our tree-lined enclave of a New Jersey town was unlike Manhattan. Anyway, they mounted the steps, boy and dog, and climbed to the top floor, the fourth, dog still carrying the sneaker. In they went.

I was surprised. I hadn't seen them before, and, ashamed as I am to admit it, I knew virtually everything about the area from my house to Hazel's school (and little, these days, about much of anything beyond) -- and certainly who'd moved into and out of the Tenement. The place was filled with young people like him, not-quite-kids with tattoos and pierced noses, tongues, lips, ear cartilage, and (yes) chins, hair of blue and green and nickel gray and magenta that stuck up with faux messiness. They were soon-to-be graduate students at the nearby university, or philosophically inclined slackers, artists, aspiring "filmmakers," living off their parents till they figured out a bearable way to make a living or invented some iPod facsimile and set themselves up for life. I loved the Tenement; it reminded me that there were people in the world with obsessions other than their commute or what preschool was best. These were people waiting for their lives to begin, people who, for all their manifestations of depression and grunge and loneliness, were secretly full of optimism and promise and the blazing, glorious arrogance of youth. Their mistakes didn't count, because their Real Lives hadn't yet begun. Things could change for them in an instant.

I glanced up at the apartment boy and dog had gone into, but other than a couple of potted plants on the fire escape, there was no sign of life. Beyond the Tenement, houses speckled the hills; if you climbed a hill at night, y...

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