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Louise Shaffer follows her beloved novels The Three Miss Margarets and The Ladies of Garrison Gardens with an unforgettable tale of poignancy, wit, and high drama.
Katie Harder and Randa Jennings live on opposite coasts, have never met, and have almost nothing in common–except that they’re both named after Shakespearean characters. Everything Katie has ever done or possessed–her New York City co-op, her career as a writer for a daytime drama–was given to her by her late mother, in her day a flamboyant soap opera queen. Randa, on the other hand, has escaped the trappings of a difficult past and forged a life as a single mom, juggling her work as a Hollywood business manager with the needs of her precocious eleven-year-old daughter.
Life takes an unpredictable turn for these two strangers when they jointly inherit the century-old Venable Opera House, a stately but run-down theater in small-town Georgia. Puzzled at this peculiar legacy, Katie and Randa are at first eager to unload their white elephant. But as they spend more time in the old theater, they come to realize that a rich heritage is at stake. A line of strong women–starting with Juliet Venable in the late nineteenth century–has been responsible for keeping the grand old place up and running. In the face of huge obstacles, including a dying theater culture and their own personal struggles, these singular women have gone to drastic measures to keep the opera house in the family–including burying a devastating family secret that could destroy the carefully cultivated Venable legend forever.
Now, as a local contractor seeks to tear down the landmark, Katie and Randa must decide not only if they want to unravel their mysterious connection to the theater and maintain its tradition but if they have what it takes to keep the Venable family legacy alive.
A sprawling page-turner about maintaining family honor and lifelong dreams, Family Acts is Louise Shaffer’s most powerful and assured novel to date.
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Louise Shaffer is the author of The Ladies of Garrison Gardens and The Three Miss Margarets. A graduate of Yale Drama School, she has written for television, and has appeared on Broadway, in TV movies, and in daytime dramas, earning an Emmy for her work on Ryan’s Hope. Shaffer and her husband live in the Lower Hudson Valley. www.louiseshaffer.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
New York City 2006
Some genius at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences decided that that they should do a tribute to Katie’s mother at the daytime Emmy Awards ceremony that spring. At first, the timing was a mystery to Katie. Her mother, Rosalind Harder, had died four years earlier, and she’d retired three years before that. In the world of television, seven years was a lifetime. But when she thought about it, Katie understood. Daytime television was in trouble, audiences were shrinking, and two shows teetered on the brink of cancellation. There wasn’t a hell of a lot for the academy to celebrate, so why not take a few minutes to remind everyone of the good old days when Rosalind Harder had over forty million loyal fans tuning in to watch her play Tess Jones on the massively popular soap opera All Our Lives?
They asked Katie, who worked as a writer for All Our Lives, to speak at the tribute. Katie dutifully penned a ten-minute speech that captured the charismatic woman who had been her mother, while not dwelling on the fact that the late Rosalind Harder could also be, in the words of one of her harried producers, “the diva from the dark side.” When she finished writing the speech, even Katie realized it was one of her best efforts. Which meant it was damn good—her standards for her own work tended to be pretty brutal.
In honor of the great event, Katie had her nails done, renewed her prescription for her contact lenses so she wouldn’t have to wear her glasses, and, in a moment of wild abandon, bought a new evening dress. The saleswoman admitted it was an “unusual” shade of green, but she assured Katie that the skirt was slenderizing. Shopping wasn’t one of Katie’s skills. Normally her ensemble for awards shows consisted of her trusty black chiffon palazzo pants paired with a loose-fitting tunic when she was feeling chunky, and a glittery chemise tucked in at the waist when she was feeling more svelte. But, carried away by the excitement of the moment, and the saleswoman’s flattery, she forked over a small fortune for the gown and took it home, telling herself that it would look better on camera than it did in real life.
But two mornings before the Emmy Awards show, she woke up in the throes of a full-blown anxiety attack—something that had never happened to her before—and when she finally started breathing again, she knew there was no way she could face standing up in front of the entire daytime industry, plus whoever might be watching at home. So in spite of the new gown and the snazzy manicure, she conned Teddy Raider, her mother’s longtime agent, who also represented Katie, into delivering the speech in her place. On the great night, Katie planned to sit in the audience with the rest of the All Our Lives writing staff and listen to someone else deliver her words. That was what she had been doing most of her adult life; Katie was one of five dialogue writers working for the show her mother had made famous.
Being a scriptwriter in daytime television wasn’t exactly a glamorous gig. The writing stars in the wonderful world of soap opera were the head writers, who thought up the stories that played out for months—or sometimes years—on the shows. Those who turned out the daily scripts, like Katie, were the invisible drones. The only reason people in the industry knew the name Katie Harder was because of her high-profile mother. So, on Emmy night, when she took her place in the auditorium of Radio City Music Hall, Katie expected to be, as she always was, anonymous. She and her colleagues were relegated to the bad seats at the back of the auditorium because no one ever wanted a picture of the writers.
The tribute to Rosalind Harder took place halfway through the show, at the moment when the highest number of viewers would be watching. The testimonial kicked off with the actor who had played her last husband trotting out onstage to inform everyone that they would now be treated to a montage of scenes from her oeuvre as the star of All Our Lives. The lights dimmed, a huge screen descended onto the Radio City Music Hall stage, and Katie waited in the darkness with the rest of the audience to watch her mother.
Suddenly, there was Rosalind on the screen in front of them, doing her first show; a lanky, eager girl with a mane of silver-blond hair, amazingly blue eyes—her press releases always claimed they were turquoise—legs designed for the era’s short skirts, and a set of cheekbones the camera loved. She seemed to burst through the screen, bigger than life, and the familiar light, high voice filled the music hall.
For the next few minutes, as clips from one scene followed another, the audience watched the adorable youngster grow—God forbid anyone say Rosalind had aged—into an adored icon. Katie closed her eyes, knowing the sentimentalists around her would assume she was grieving for the loss of her mother.
The video finally ended, and as the entire house rose to its feet for the obligatory standing ovation, the screen showed a still shot of Rosalind’s first entrance as Tess. When the audience sat down again, she was frozen in front of them in her heyday, forever young and beautiful, and oh so incredibly alive.
The final item in the festivities was Teddy reading Katie’s speech. Without wanting to, Katie felt herself sit up straight, her manicured nails digging into the upholstered arms of her seat. There was a pause while a mic was set up in the center of the stage, and then Teddy walked out and stood in front of the image of Rosalind.
The speech was as good as Katie had thought it was, and by the time Teddy finished it, there wasn’t a dry eye in the hall. Satisfied, Katie slouched down into the bustier that made up the top part of her green gown, and relaxed. She’d done her best and now the ordeal was over. She could sit in obscurity through the rest of the show. After it was over, Teddy would find her, and they’d go to the must-attend parties. She’d keep her head clear for the political schmoozing, and then drink champagne until she could get the hell out and go home.
As one of the two most successful agents working in daytime, Teddy had other clients he should have been sucking up to, but going to the Emmys with Katie was a tradition he’d started when she was twelve. She’d needed an adult to sit in the audience with her while she watched her mother win that year, and he had offered his services. The fact that he still kept the tradition going was one of the many reasons why Katie loved him mindlessly.
Teddy walked off the stage, and Katie looked up at the screen, waiting for her mother’s picture to fade so daytime television could get on with the business of giving itself awards. But Rosalind’s face didn’t fade. Instead, the talk show host who was acting as master of ceremonies walked up to the microphone and said, “I know we’ve all been moved by this fabulous memorial for one of our great leading ladies. Before we move on, I’d like to ask someone special to come up here. Ladies and Gentlemen, Katie Harder, our beloved Rosalind’s daughter.” Then three handheld cameras appeared out of a nightmare and descended on Katie, who realized that someone somewhere had decided to go for an unscripted TV moment. At the same second, she realized just how hideous her dress was.
There was no way out. Grinning like cold death, she sucked herself up in the bustier so her little rolls of underarm fat smoothed out, and hoisted herself out of her seat. Grabbing a handful of her heavy satin skirt—what the hell had possessed her to deck herself out in fungus-green with a train, for God’s sake?—she stumbled down the aisle which had suddenly become longer than the Bataan Death March, and somehow managed to get herself onto the stage and behind the mic. And there she was for all the world to see, a troll standing in front of, and in contrast to, her glorious mother.
According to Katie’s last run-in with the scale, she was nine pounds overweight. Her dark brown hair had never been tamed by brush or man, and her brown eyes were blinking behind the glasses she’d worn because she wasn’t going to be appearing on the stage that night. Only, now she was. There was applause—considerably less than there had been for Rosalind’s montage, she noted—and then the place got quiet. Still hanging on to her death grin, she racked her brain to think of something to say. It had to be something charming and loving about her mother, and the industry that had been so good to both of them. And she had to do it now, on her feet, without her computer to hide behind.
The mic hadn’t been adjusted to her height of 5'3". She reached up on tiptoe, risking leaving the bustier behind, leaned in, and said to the crowd in Radio City Music Hall and however many millions of her mother’s fans watching at home, “Hi. I’m much prettier in person.”
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