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With pitch-perfect honesty and heartwarming humor, this captivating debut explores marriage, motherhood, identity, and what it takes to love someone—family members, friends, or spouses—for life.
Former folk singer Helen Sear was a feminist wild child who proudly disdained monogamy, raising three daughters—each by a different father—largely on her own. Now in her sixties, Helen has fallen in love with a traditional man who desperately wants to marry her. And while she fears losing him, she’s equally afraid of abandoning everything she’s ever stood for if she goes through with it.
Meanwhile, Helen’s youngest daughter, Liane, is in the heady early days of a relationship with her soul mate. But he has an ex-wife and two kids, and her new role as a “step-something” doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Ilsa, an artist, has put her bohemian past behind her and is fervently hoping her second marriage will stick. Yet her world feels like it is slowly shrinking, and her painting is suffering as a result—and she realizes she may need to break free again, even if it means disrupting the lives of her two young children. And then there’s Fiona, the eldest sister, who has worked tirelessly to make her world pristine, yet who still doesn’t feel at peace. When she discovers her husband has been harboring a huge secret, Fiona loses her tenuous grip on happiness and is forced to face some truths about herself that she’d rather keep buried.
Interweaving the alternating perspectives of Helen, her daughters, and the women surrounding them, “each new chapter brings a wise and tender look at single life, dating rituals, and marital unease” (New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Close). In this “absolute feat of storytelling” (bestselling author Grace O'Connell), Marissa Stapley celebrates the many roles modern women play, and shows that even though happy endings aren’t one-size-fits-all, some loves really can last for life.
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Marissa Stapley is the author of the bestselling novel Mating for Life, and Things to Do When It's Raining, which has been published in nine countries and translated into seven languages. Her journalism has appeared in newspapers and magazines across North America. She lives in Toronto with her family. Visit her at MarissaStapley.com or follow her on Twitter @MarissaStapley.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Mating for Life
Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)
Unlike other turtles, the common snapping turtle cannot hide in its shell because its body is too big. These turtles snap as a defense mechanism, but aren’t actually vicious. However, perhaps because of the misconception of aggression, snapping turtles are often targeted, and are endangered in North America. When mating, snapping turtles sometimes engage in an elaborate dancelike ritual in the water that involves eye contact but no touching. Snapping turtles have no defined mating season: they court and mate only when conditions are exactly right.
When Liane swam into the snapping turtle, she screamed. He didn’t bite her, but clearly he wanted to. Then he was gone, dipping first his head and then his shell underwater. (She didn’t know he was a he, but she assumed; there was something placidly male in his glare.)
She sensed the turtle was still there, somewhere below. She turned to float on her back, hearing her mother’s voice in her memory as she did. “If you ever feel scared, don’t panic. You’ll drown,” Helen had instructed from the edge of the floating dock while Liane paddled below. Liane’s eldest sister, Fiona, had already been front-crawling to the middle of the lake, where Helen had placed a DIVER DOWN sign. Ilsa had been lying on the floating dock, too, but then she rolled off and swam, dolphinlike, toward Liane, grabbing her sister’s ankle from beneath the waves. Liane had shouted and flailed. “Exactly! Thank you, Ilsa. That’s a perfect example of what you don’t do. Back float instead.” Liane remembered her mother’s red suit, brown skin, blond hair, and the way she talked to them as though they were already grown-ups. The swimming lessons were the one thing Helen insisted on during summers that spiraled out slowly, like the pucks of Bubble Tape gum they would buy at the marina for $1.25. The girls didn’t even have to unpack their bags if they didn’t want to. They were never asked to make their beds.
Now Liane looked up at the clouds and tried to fill her belly with air. But her breath was too shallow and she had to kick. Panic soon forced her to flip to her front and start to swim, fast, for the floating dock.
She wanted to go home, and it had only been one day.
Her plan: to swim and eat salads (mostly because she hated to cook, or couldn’t cook; it was a chicken/egg situation she didn’t care to analyze) and work on the final pages of her thesis. By the end of the week, when Liane’s mother and sisters arrived for their annual early summer cottage weekend, she would have finished it. Then Adam would stop asking her when she was going to finish it and she would stop feeling guilty for not responding in a more appropriately proactive way to his father’s offer of a job on the faculty at the university, as a teaching assistant, pending her thesis defense.
The other part of her plan, and one she hadn’t told anyone about, involved the hope that by coming here alone, by treating this as a regular cottage and normal lake—and not the site of one of her life’s greatest tragedies—she could erase the past and turn herself into a normal person. The kind of person Adam wanted her to be. The kind of person she didn’t think she could be but knew she should at least try to be.
Liane ducked her head underwater—eyes closed, testing herself—and resurfaced with a gasp. In addition to the big fears, her week-alone-at-the-cottage plan hadn’t accounted for her many small fears. (Turtles. Seaweed. Algae. Other things too embarrassing to mention. Like ants. Beetles. Walking into cobwebs.) All of these things seemed more frightening without company. (Currently: she could still sense the turtle near, perhaps now waiting at the base of the ladder to bite one of her toes.)
She went down again, and this time kept her eyes open. Then she surfaced, blinked the water from her eyes, and saw movement to her left. The turn of a page. There was a man sitting at the end of the dock at the cottage next door—it had been the Castersen place, but the Castersens had sold it, or were renting it out, or something. Liane couldn’t remember but knew Helen had explained it last year when the new dock had appeared and, next, a pair of kayaks had replaced the motorized pontoon boat Mr. Castersen had once called his “Party Boat.”
The unfamiliar man sitting on the dock reading looked up and Liane looked down, focusing again on her path through the water. But she should have waved. She was in cottage country. In cottage country, you were supposed to wave (even if you were swimming) and mouth, Hello, to people (regardless of whether you knew them). But she was too embarrassed. He had probably heard her screaming about the turtle. He had probably seen the awkward way she’d jumped off the dock, plugging her nose and splaying her legs. And either way, it was now too late because the man—who had copper-blond hair and a matching shadow of a beard—was reading his book again. She kept swimming and looked away from him, but looking away meant she had to look at the shed, so she closed her eyes and ducked under again.
“Why do you keep it?” she had asked Helen, years before, referring to the kayak that hulked in the shed just up from the water. “What am I going to do with it, throw it away?” Helen had asked. “I couldn’t live with the idea of it in a garbage dump somewhere until the end of time. And it seems wrong to sell it. So we’ll keep it. Maybe one day you’ll take it out.” “Never,” said Liane. What a macabre idea. Horrible. Sometimes she wondered if Helen meant to be so insensitive. She tried to love her mother as she was, did love her as she was, but she also wished Helen was more like other mothers. Other mothers would never have left that particular kayak in the shed or suggested Liane go out on the lake in it, for example.
Liane climbed the ladder of the floating dock, wincing and curling her toes against the algae on the steps. Then she sat, hugging her knees to her chest and wishing for a towel. She squinted. The spine of the man’s book was orange. A paperback. His head was bent and his shoulders were hunched and he was leaning forward a little. As though he wants to actually get onto the page, or into it. As though he isn’t just reading it but inhabiting it. Or maybe he was just nearsighted. Still, Liane found herself thinking about a book she had read as a child, about a boy (or was it a girl?) who found a tree with a door in the trunk and when he (she?) opened it, there was another world that had always been there. Liane still asked Helen about it. “Maybe you imagined it,” Helen said once. “You were very creative.” But Liane still believed this book existed somewhere. She was certain her father had given it to her and had written an inscription on the inside cover she could no longer remember the words of but longed to read again.
She straightened her legs, shimmied forward, and slid into the water. The new dock, the one at the Castersens’/Possibly Someone Else’s Place Now, was closer than the other Castersen dock had been, and bigger. Its blond wood planks stretched out, around, and out again.
Closer now. A few more strokes and she would have a clear view. At the perfect moment, the man leaned back to stretch, tilting the book. She saw white, yellow, black writing.
Junkie by William Burroughs. Disappointing. And slightly alarming. Liane gulped air and dove, thinking about how Burroughs had shot his wife in the head. Accidentally. Who could possibly shoot someone in the head accidentally? A dozen worst-case scenarios surfaced. She was alone on an island with a man who appeared to want to inhabit a book written about rampant drug use by an “accidental” wife murderer.
Except, Liane reminded herself, they weren’t actually alone on the island. It just felt like it because it was still late June and the lake was fairly quiet. The island had plenty of other cottages, most of them tucked behind trees above the granite. When the long weekend came, it would signal the true beginning of summer and the place would feel less isolated. The sound of motorized boats would cause Helen to shake her head and cluck like an irritated hen. She would start talking again about sending around a petition, but she wouldn’t. Helen could now identify a lost cause when she saw one.
Liane had reached the ladder of the main dock. She put a foot on the first slimy ledge and pulled up, then took her towel from the closest Muskoka chair, stepped off the dock, and headed for the cottage without looking back at the man. When she was in the shade, she stood on the steps made of stones that had apparently been dragged out of the lake years before by Helen’s father. This grandfather Liane had never met had purchased the property in the 1940s and bequeathed it to Helen—and not Helen’s brother—when he died. Helen rarely said anything more about this, except that the brother (none of the girls had ever met him, either) had tried to fight Helen for it in court, saying it wasn’t fair that she get such a valuable property when she already made such a good living from her music.
Water dripped down Liane’s back. She flipped her head and wrapped the towel like a turban, then kept walking. At the door of the screened-in wraparound porch she dipped her feet into the bucket of lake water she had set outside for the purpose of not tracking sand (and bugs, and Lyme-disease-carrying ticks) around the cottage and dried them on the towel folded beside it. When Ilsa arrived at the end of the week, Liane knew, she would good-naturedly shun her younger sister’s custom, saying she wasn’t sticking her feet in dirty water everyone else had been sticking feet in, and that she definitely wasn’t then wiping her feet off on a musty towel. (“You want Lyme disease? Take this towel to a lab and have it analyzed.”) The sand underfoot would bother Liane, but not as much as it would bother Fiona. Liane would sweep but it would be Fiona who would eventually drag the old vacuum out of the closet and pull it around the main floor. Helen, of course, would have no part of any of it. “I vacuum when I’m about to leave,” she would say. “You’re wasting a valuable portion of your life by doing so now.” “I’m wasting something,” Fiona would say. “Probably the long-term health of my back. Tell me again why you don’t get a new vacuum?” “Because that one still works!” And then somehow, Helen and Fiona would be arguing over an old vacuum versus a new one, landfill versus convenience, and Liane would either glance at Ilsa and roll her eyes or leave the room feeling guilty about causing the fight with her silly bucket of water.
Liane pushed open the screen door and let it bang shut behind her, the sound jarring in the quiet of the morning. From behind the screen she had a view of the dock and she saw the man look up from his book.
· · ·
Liane napped. She made soup. She did the Globe and Mail crossword as a warm-up and then failed, as usual, at completing any of the crosswords in the New York Times. She stared at Sudoku boxes, but could make no sense of them. “Your brain just doesn’t work that way,” Adam had once said, meaning it to be an affectionate remark—but there was the superior undertone. He was one of those people whose brains worked every way. She had said this to him and heard the unintended resentment. This must be what old married couples feel like. And we’ve only been together three years.
She painted her nails with polish she found in Ilsa’s room. (Dark red.) She found cream in a drawer in Helen’s room and rubbed it all over her face, then broke out in red bumps from the essential oils. (This always happened, yet she always tried Helen’s creams.) She iced the bumps. She removed the polish. Then she went up to the closet her father once used and opened it. But there was nothing in it but old jackets, none of them his. She stared into the closet until her breathing became slow and even. She wished that if she pulled aside the jackets, she would be standing before a whole new world, like Narnia. She pulled aside the jackets. This didn’t happen. She felt childish and foolish, but also wistful.
What Liane did not do was work on her thesis. When she wasn’t inside, she was on the dock. She and the neighbor—the Reading Man, as she now called him in her head—were now on cottage waving terms. He had finished Junkie and started on The Sound and the Fury. She had started bringing her textbooks and reference materials down to the dock. Lying parallel to him, also reading, felt strangely intimate.
Then, on Tuesday afternoon, it rained and she was forced inside, where the blinking light on her still-plugged-in laptop seemed to pulse with neglect. She forced herself to write two paragraphs. Then she reread the words on the screen. They no longer made any sense. She held her breath, and heard the clinking of dishes from the cottage next door.
Liane’s thesis was called “The Evil Eye: Envy’s Hidden Threat.” Apparently it had the potential to be something of a sensation, even publishable, although Liane didn’t understand how any of her findings could be a surprise to anyone. Perhaps it was because she had lived with them for so long that she was now like a woman shocked to find her husband of thirty-some years the center of attention at a dinner party due to the intrigue of his conversational paths.
“It’s the way you present it,” Tansy Miller, a brown-trouser-and-black-oxford-wearing academic, had explained to her when Adam’s father, the dean, had arranged for Liane and Tansy to meet for coffee. It was Tansy whose teaching Liane would assist, if she ever finished her thesis. “It’s your frankness. It’s the fact that reading your work isn’t boring and the students are bound to see it as such. You mention celebrities. They love celebrities.” Tansy talked like she had once been a theater major, enunciating her words and using her hands. Liane liked her and wanted to work for her. This had done nothing to spur her into thesis-finishing action.
The problem was that Liane’s work had become boring, at least to her. Adam had once said, “Well, of course it is, that’s what happens, but you’ve found your niche and you need to stick with it now. You’ll get out of the slump.” Except she was afraid she wouldn’t. Once, the folklore-related work of Alan Dundes, discovered by Liane during her undergrad years, had seemed to hold secrets. She had believed these secrets might even reveal an important point about humanity as a whole.
If she could just get back that fervor, maybe everything would be okay.
Now Liane took out a pen and started to make notes by hand, snapping the screen of her laptop shut. Her pen scratched against paper: Envious gazes, Dundes has written, are driven by envious thoughts and have the potential to do actual physical damage. The evil eye is not a black-magic-related curse, as most people believe, but rather the embodiment of an envious glare—an instant curse that anyone is capable of, even without intent. It is the lack of intent that is the point: Can we control something we do not intend to do? She paused and thought suddenly of William Burroughs. It is as though everyone is in possession of a loaded gun he or she could accidentally set off at any moment, she wrote.
Liane was not an envious person herself and did not believe she possessed anything in particular for others to be envious of (she considered herself average-looking, hated he...
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Book Description Condition: New. Seller Inventory # 21181146-n
Book Description Washington Square Press 7/1/2014, 2014. Paperback or Softback. Condition: New. Mating for Life. Book. Seller Inventory # BBS-9781476762029
Book Description Washington Square Press. PAPERBACK. Condition: New. 1476762023 Special order direct from the distributor. Seller Inventory # ING9781476762029
Book Description Condition: New. Seller Inventory # 21181146-n
Book Description Washington Square Pr, 2014. Paperback. Condition: Brand New. 315 pages. 8.25x5.25x1.00 inches. In Stock. Seller Inventory # x-1476762023