A sweeping, propulsive, darkly humorous new novel by the best-selling author of Snow Falling on Cedars: a story of destiny, desire, and destruction that reimagines Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex for our own era.
In Seattle in 1962, Walter Cousins, a mild-mannered actuary—“a guy who weighs risk for a living”—takes a risk of his own, and makes the biggest error of his life. He sleeps with Diane Burroughs, the sexy, not-quite-legal British au pair who’s taking care of his children for the summer. Diane gets pregnant and leaves their baby on a doorstep, but not before turning the tables on Walter and setting in motion a tragedy of epic proportions. Their orphaned child, adopted by an adoring family and named Edward Aaron King, grows up to become a billionaire Internet tycoon and an international celebrity—the “King of Search”—who unknowingly, but inexorably, hurtles through life toward a fate he may have no power to shape.
An instant classic—David Guterson’s most daring and dazzling novel yet—that brings a contemporary urgency to one of the greatest stories of all time.
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David Guterson is the author of the novels East of the Mountains, The Other, Our Lady of the Forest, and Snow Falling on Cedars, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award, as well as a story collection, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind, and Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense. He lives in Washington State.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In 1962, Walter Cousins made the biggest mistake of his life: he slept with the au pair for a month. She was an English exchange student named Diane Burroughs, and he was an actuary at Piersall-Crane, Inc., whose wife, that summer, had suffered a nervous breakdown. Diane had been in his house for less than a week—mothering his kids, cleaning, making meals—when he noticed a new word intruding on his assessment of her. ‘Here I am,’ thought Walter, ‘an actuary, a guy who weighs risk for a living, and now, because I’m infatuated with the wrong person—because I’m smitten by an 18 year old--I’m using the word fate.’
Diane had been peddled to Walter, by an office temp familiar with her current host family, as “a nice girl from the U.K. who needs work to extend her visa.” Walter, who at 34 had never left North America, thought “au pair” sounded pretentious—“you mean babysitter,” he told the temp. Immediately he regretted his provincialism, so he added, “I could also go with nanny.” The temp’s comeback was sharp. She was younger than he was, wore formidable boots, and had an air of immunity to an office flirt like Walter. “No, definitely, it’s au pair,” she said. “She’s here on a visa. She’s from out of the country. If you take her on, you become her host father, and you give her an allowance for whatever she does for you—child care or housework or whatever.”
Au pair it was, then. Walter took down the phone number, chatted with Diane’s host mother, then spoke to the girl herself. In no position to be picky--he needed help yesterday—he hired Diane on the spot.
“This is hard to explain,” he’d explained, “but my wife’s . . . hospitalized.”
Back came the sort of English inflections it was difficult for him not to be charmed by. “In hospital,” she said. “I do hope it isn’t serious.”
“No,” he said, “but meanwhile there’s the kids. Four and three. Barry and Tina. Out of diapers, but still, they’re tricky to corral.”
“Then allow me just a smidgeon of shameful self-promotion. What you need is an English au pair, sir, adept with a rodeo rope.”
“I think you mean lasso.”
“A lass with a lasso, then, for when they’re mucking about starkers.”
“That’s what I need. Something like that.”
“Well,” said Diane. “I’m your girl.”
This flagrantly forward use of language—neat, cunning phrases and bald innuendo--from the mouth of a high school girl jockeying for work was new in his American ear. Diane sounded quick-witted and cheerfully combative--qualities he’d always found winning and attractive--as in her screed on the U.S. State Department and its byzantine visa requirements. “I’m still keen to go to college in America,” she told him, “but at the moment I’m furious with your Seattle passport office. They’re trying, actually, to throw me out.”
The next Sunday, with his kids complaining in the back seat of his Lincoln Premiere, Walter went to escort this girl from her host family’s large Victorian near Seward Park to his brick-veneered ranch house in Greenwood. He hoped Diane wouldn’t be too disappointed when she discovered she was moving down in the world, and as he parked on the cobbles fronting the Victorian, he imagined himself apologizing for having nothing to offer in the way of gilding or ambience. Seward Park, after all, dripped old money and featured lake views; Greenwood, by contrast, was dowdy and decrepit, with summer-arid grass patches and sagging gutters. Walter, of course, would have liked a better neighborhood, but his was a notoriously mid-wage profession, a fact he hadn’t reckoned with at Iowa State but was reckoning with now, too late. Not that it was bad at Piersall-Crane, where he held down a cubicle by a window. Walter took certain consolations there—in collegial hobnobbing, in crisply dressed women, and in the higher realms of actuarial science, which for him had innate satisfactions. That the predictive power of numbers on a large scale could be brought to bear on future events—for Walter, that was like an esoteric secret and, as he put it to himself, sort of mystical. Okay, it wasn’t art or philosophy, but it was still deep, which almost no one understood.
When he first saw her, the au pair struck him, when he saw her first, as nowhere close to legal. She looked like a child, unfinished, a sprout--no hairdo or make-up, no jewelry, unadorned-- she looked like the younger sister of a girl he’d dated long ago, in high school. Her abraded, leather suitcases, strapped and buckled, and riddled with tarnished rivets that looked shot from a machine gun—a matched set, though one was a junior version of the other--waited for Walter on the porch. Propped on the clasp of the larger one was a transistor radio with an ivory plastic strap and ivory knobs. Feeling like a porter—but also like a honeymooner--he hauled her over-stuffed luggage to the Lincoln’s trunk while Diane, in dungarees, doled out last minute hugs and delivered farewells in her disarming accent. “Lovely,” he heard her say. “Perfect.” Then he held the car door wide for her, and when she turned, brightly, to greet his kids in the back seat, he looked, surreptitiously, down the gap that opened between the rear waist of her dungarees and the nether regions of her back, at the shadow there, the practical white undies, and the reddish down along her tailbone.
It was so—you never knew; you couldn’t predict. Not even an actuary knew what would happen—there were broad trends, of course, he could express in tables, but individual destinies were always nebulous. In Walter’s case, this meant his wife was out of the house while he, against the odds, on a fair summer morning, was collecting up this enticing piece of luck to install in the bedroom across the hall from his. How had this dangerous but fortuitous thing happened? What had he done to deserve this risk? With these questions and her underwear in mind, he chose, as his route, Lake Washington Boulevard; there might be, he sensed, an intangible benefit in such a sinuous and scenic drive. He also decided to take all 3 kids to the booming, newly opened Seattle World’s Fair, because in its context he could function like a grandee, bestowing cotton candy and largesse, before introducing Diane to Greenwood. With this plan in mind, he motored past pleasure craft and magnificent trees while, on the passenger side, twined hands in her lap, Diane answered questions, ingratiated herself skillfully and easily to his offspring, and brought to his mind the pert and perfect Hayley Mills, that upbeat, full-lipped, earnest starlet who, on the cover of Life recently, in a sailor outfit, had puckered, naughtily, for a kiss. In fact, as Diane chatted up his progeny in lilting tones but with a teasing irony that, over their heads, might be aimed at him, she was a drop-dead ringer for the 16 year old Disney darling who’d been in newspapers and magazines lately for turning down the lead role in Lolita. A morsel, a nymphet, in frilly socks and Keds, a junior high date—the beach walk, for sodas—and at the kind of youthful sexual crest that even a 4 year old could sense. Sure enough, Barry, with a 4 year old’s primal yearning, leaned over the front seat and settled his head on his hands, like a cherub posed for a Christmas portrait, the better to bask in Diane’s nubile aura. Flicking 2 fingers against his bony shoulder, the object of his son’s newly stirred affections chirped, as if on cue, “I love your name, Barry, really I do. And Tina,” she added, “is so lovely.” After that, she shot Walter a look, and winked as though he, her new employer, was instead her intimate chauffeur.
“You truly have great names,” he tossed out.
“Tiptop, the best, brilliant.”
“Barry and Tina: it’s genius, it’s beautiful.”
Diane, and then Walter, laughed.
And she laughed an hour later—the same truncated notes, issued through her nose and throat--when, on the mammothly rising Space Wheel, they all rocked precariously in the apex tub, 90 feet above the mania of the fair grounds. She laughed because, taking hold of the lap bar, he’d muscled them into rocking harder while Tina put up conflicted resistance (“Daddy!”) and Barry applied a grit-filled assist. “Beastly!” hissed Diane, pulling Tina toward her. “Never mind such recklessness, love--he’s only toying with your dear, precious life.”
“But Tina absolutely adores danger. Don’t you,‘luv’.”
To this his daughter had a one word reply, delivered while clutching the au pair’s stellar thighs: “Diane.”
On the fairgrounds, Walter followed Diane like a dog, so he could admire how she wore those dungarees. There were a lot of bare-armed dresses on the midway, and peppermint tops, and circus stripes, but nothing that could beat Diane in dungarees. Nothing could beat Diane’s tilting ponytail when she lifted her chin to pack in wads of cotton candy; nothing could beat her in the Fine Arts Pavilion with her lovely, little hands at the small of her back, leaning toward a painting called “ Oedipus and the Sphinx.” Barry stood beside her with his head on her hip, and Walter stood alongside with Tina in his arms. The odd and slightly uncomfortable thing was that Oedipus had been painted monumentally naked--two spears, points down, beside one foot--while the Sphinx, half in darkness, winged and severe, pointed her bare breasts, from startling c...
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Book Description Knopf, 2011. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0307271064
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