A baking class instructor, her haunted assistant and a youth reeling from a family tragedy discover the power of community while navigating complicated choices and uncertain futures. By the best-selling author of The Story of Arthur Truluv.
Elizabeth Berg is the author of many bestselling novels, including The Story of Arthur Truluv, Open House (an Oprah’s Book Club selection), Talk Before Sleep, and The Year of Pleasures, as well as the short story collection The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted. Durable Goods and Joy School were selected as ALA Best Books of the Year. She adapted The Pull of the Moon into a play that enjoyed sold-out performances in Chicago and Indianapolis. Berg’s work has been published in thirty countries, and three of her novels have been turned into television movies. She is the founder of Writing Matters, a quality reading series dedicated to serving author, audience, and community. She teaches one-day writing workshops and is a popular speaker at venues around the country. Some of her most popular Facebook postings have been collected in Make Someone Happy and Still Happy. She lives outside Chicago.
Mason, Missouri, is a small town, and that's exactly what the residents like about it. The regulars at Polly's Henhouse don't need menus, Tiny Dawson's taxi business keeps him abreast of all the best gossip, and Lucille Howard's baking classes double as social hours. When Abby and Jason Summers, Mason's newest arrivals, find out that Abby has acute myelogenous leukemia, the town bands together to support their family. Though she's getting on in years, Lucille takes the Summers' son, Lincoln, under her wing. Lucille's been pretty set in her ways, but a new perspective on the difficulties facing the Summers family forces her to rethink her own challenges. Berg brings back many of the characters first introduced in The Story of Arthur Truluv (2017), though new readers won't be lost. Berg is a master of the ensemble cast, twining character arcs together, teasing knots apart, and tying the entire plot together beautifully. This will delight and inspire fans of Anna Quindlen and Amy Bloom and anyone who's ever imagined living in Gilmore Girls' Stars Hollow. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
Berg's sequel to The Story of Arthur Truluv (2017) checks in with Arthur's friends, neighbors, and beneficiaries. When the saintly Arthur Moses, dubbed "Truluv" by his de facto ward, Maddy, dies, he leaves behind a legacy of kindness. Maddy inherited Arthur's Mason, Missouri, home, now occupied rent-free by Lucille, his elderly former neighbor. Lucille is the central figure of this installment, although, judging from her dream visitations by the angel of death, it won't be long before she follows Arthur and her own late beloved, Frank, into the afterlife. For the nonce, however, Lucille's baking talent has led to a popular class hosted in her kitchen, and her cakes are hotly sought after by Polly's Henhouse, a local diner. The Henhouse is the site of one major subplot: Iris, a well-off resale maven from Boston, notices that Monica, a waitress, and Tiny, a regular, appear to have a crush on each other but are each too shy to act. Iris and Lucille share a longing for the childr en each, for different reasons, never had. Iris' decision was compelled by her ex-husband, Ed, now remarried—with child!—whence her flight to a small town. Seeking distraction, Iris answers Lucille's call for an assistant. The deepest dives are into Lucille's sugar- and fat-laden creations—no diabetes fears here. Link, short for Lincoln, Lucille's neighbor, is raised by vegetarians and must be disabused of such scruples by Lucille, who babysits for him while his mother, Abby, receives treatment for leukemia. We long for more substance as Berg touches on, but does not really engage, topics like aging, mortality, and America's obsession with appearance. She never acknowledges the contradictions—or the opportunities—presented by Iris' strange compulsion to forgive Ed, Lucille's devil-may-care attitude toward buttercream, the weight issues Tiny and Monica share, and the fact that the person with the healthiest diet gets cancer. In this small town, t r uisms prevail over truth every time. Psychological realism sacrificed on the altar of niceness. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Surely you’ve had this happen. You are seated by choice or misfortune in a window seat on an airplane. You look out as the plane takes off, rises up higher and higher, levels off. If you chance to glance down, you see a particular kind of order not realized on earth. You might feel a kind of hopefulness at the sight of houses clustered together in their various neighborhoods, at roads running straight or artfully curved, at what look like toy cars. You see the lakes and rivers, occasionally the wide stretch of ocean meeting horizon. You see natural quilts formed by the lay of fields and farmlands, you see the grouping of trees into parks and forests. Sometimes you see the splendor of autumn leaves or Fourth of July fireworks. Or sunsets. Or sunrises.
All of this can inspire something unnamable but nearly graspable, a kind of yearning toward a grand possibility.
And then you land.
But what if you landed differently?
Diamonds in a Box
After she has dried and put away her supper dishes, Lucille Howard sits at her kitchen table and contemplates what to do with another empty evening. A few years back, she might have sat out on the front porch with her former neighbor and then roommate, Arthur Moses, a man too good of heart for this world, in Lucille’s opinion, though she and many others profited plenty from his continual kindness.
She pushes herself up from the table and goes out onto her front porch to stand with her hands on her hips, taking in a better view of the night sky. From the kitchen window the stars are so clear they look like diamonds; out here, it’s even more glorious.
As a child, Lucille thought stars were diamonds, and that if only she prayed in the right way, the cigar box she kept under her bed would be filled with them some morning, and she could make a necklace out of them. Never happened. Well, of course it never happened, stars are not diamonds. They’re suns, really, just balls of gas. If there’s one thing Lucille hates, it’s how science has to rain on whimsy’s parade: Rainbows not a gift from leprechauns offering pots of gold, but only a trick of refraction. A blue sky not a miles-wide painting done by a heavenly hand, but molecules scattering light. Still, when Lucille sees the stars strewn across the sky on a night like tonight, they’re diamonds, and she thinks they might end up under her bed yet. Maybe she’ll put a box back under there. Tradition. Whimsy. Hope. Magical thinking, oh, she knows it’s magical thinking; and she knows, too, that she’s more prone to it now than she ever was. But what fun to imagine kneeling down to lift the dust ruffle and just check. And there they are at last, diamonds in a box, shining so hard they light up the surprised oval of her face.
It’s cold enough for a jacket, this being the first of October, but Lucille is still in the habit of summer (the roses still blooming!) and so has neglected to put one on. It feels like too much work to go back in and get one, so she settles into a rocking chair, wraps her arms around herself, and moves vigorously back and forth. There. That’s fine. It’s good for you to be a bit uncomfortable from time to time, especially if you’re only a few steps away from relief. People forget about the value of adversity. It was something she always tried to teach her fourth-grade students, how adversity can strengthen character. She also tried to teach them the value of having to work for something instead of it being handed to you the instant you said you wanted it. That’s what happens these days, no one waits for anything. But Lucille used to give her class construction-paper coupons with points for good behavior or for scholastic merit; and when they had enough points, she’d bake them a little baby pie in a five-inch tin, whatever kind they wanted, and they got to keep the tin. They’d loved that. Once, a boy named Danny Matthews had wanted to cut his pie up so that everyone in the twenty-three-pupil class could have some. That had been a good lesson in mathematics. Danny was one of those kids who was never much liked, no matter how hard he tried. He was a very clumsy boy (the kids called him Mr. Magoo for the way he tripped over and bumped into things), and perpetually disheveled. Well, Lucille liked him and his crooked grin, and he loved her—he might act up with others, but he always listened to her. She heard he’d enlisted and gotten killed in Afghanistan.
It was true what they told her on the first day of teachers’ college: you never forget some of your students. For Lucille, it was the cut-ups she could never keep from laughing at, the dreamers she had to keep reeling back into the classroom, and little Danny Matthews, with his ragged heart of gold.
Lucille gives herself a challenge: she’ll stay out here until it feels like her teeth might chatter. Then she’ll go inside, draw a bath, and have a soak in Epsom salts. One thing she’s grateful for are the grab bars she’s had installed, though even with them, getting herself down into the tub is a herculean task that reminds her a bit of elephants lowering themselves onto tiny stools, the way they used to have to do in the circus. She’s glad no one can see her, the way she grunts and huffs and puffs. Lord! they would say. Why don’t you switch to showers? You’re eighty-eight! True, but mostly she feels like she’s sixty-eight. When she was sixty-eight, she felt like she was forty-eight. And so, although she knows the logic is off, she tells everyone that she feels forty-eight.
Lucille will not give up her baths. No. In the tub, she is what she thinks being stoned must be like: she enjoys a feeling of timelessness and wide content. A float-y, perfumed detachment. After her bath, she’ll read her Maeve Binchy book, and then she’ll go to sleep.
Maeve Binchy died young. Seventy-two. Lucille bets there are seventy-two-year-olds who can still do the splits. If she could have given Maeve Binchy a year from her own life, you can bet she’d have done it. She actually cried when Maeve Binchy died, she sat in a kitchen chair and twisted a Kleenex in her hands and cried, and she felt a little tornado of frustration in her midsection because there was another good one, gone too soon.
Well, bath and bed and then another day will be done, and she’ll be another step closer to the exit grande. She’s not morbid, she’s not sad, she’s just a realist. She is closer to death. Everyone is, from the moment they slide out of the womb. From time to time, Lucille even feels a jazzy jump of joy, thinking about the journey to the place no one knows about, really, never mind the stories of the bright light and the tunnel and whatnot. No one really knows.
Just as she’s ready to get up and go inside, she sees the neighbor who bought her old house, right next door to the smaller house she lives in now, which was Arthur’s house. He willed it to Maddy Harris, the girl who used to live here with them, and Lucille now rents it from Maddy, if you call “rent” simply taking care of the place. The neighbor is coming out to walk his dog. Lucille has nothing against dogs, but that one is the ugliest thing she’s ever seen. An ancient, mid-size gray mutt who looks like he needs a shave. Bugged-out eyes like a pug. A bit bowlegged. A tail that looks more like Eeyore’s than a dog’s. And his name: Henry. Now, why in the world would you give a dog that looks like that a name befitting a king?
“Hello, Lucille,” the man calls over.
“Hello, Jason,” Lucille answers, though she muffles the name a bit. Is it Jason? Or is it Jeremy? Or Jeffrey? It’s a little past the point where she can ask; the neighbors have been there for almost a year. The J. person, his wife, Abby, and their ten-year-old son, whose name is . . . well, for heaven’s sake. Starts with an L. Liam? Leroy? Lester?
She closes her eyes to concentrate. Lincoln! That’s it. Another strange name, if you ask her. What’s become of Spot and Rex and Champ for dogs? What’s become of Mary and Sally and Billy for children?
This is what happens. You live past your time of importance and relevance and the world must be given over to the younger ones. Lucille is all right with that notion. As the old folks yielded to her as a young woman, she will yield to the young folks coming up after her. But there is one thing she’s going to get before she is here no more. And that is a very specific miracle, which she feels is owed her. In spades.
Lucille has kept her eyes closed and is startled now by the sound of footsteps: J. and his dog, coming up onto her porch. She cries out and leaps to her feet.
“Sorry,” the man says. “Did I scare you?”
“It’s all right.” She pulls her hand down from where it had flown up onto her chest.
“I just wanted to ask you if you’d be free to come to our house for dinner tomorrow night. Abby’s been meaning to ask you forever, but we—”
“Tomorrow night? What time?”
“Seven! How can your son wait that long to eat?”
“Six?” the man asks, smiling.
“Okay, good, we’ll see you then.” J. pulls at the leash, but Henry apparently has no interest in going anywhere. He stares up at Lucille as though he’s forgotten something in her house and won’t leave without retrieving it.
“Run along now, Henry,” Lucille says. “Obey your master.”
The dog moves closer to her, sniffs at her toes, then at the hem of her pants. “I was just going in . . .” she says, and Henry barks: once, twice, excitedly.
Lucille puts her hands on her knees and bends toward the dog. “What is it, girl?” she asks. “Is Gramps in trouble?” She looks up at J., grinning.
The man stares at her blankly.
“Lassie?” Lucille says.
“A show that used to be on TV? About a collie dog? And his boy, Timmy?”
“Ah,” J. says. “Right.” He pulls harder at the leash and the dog finally comes to him. “See you tomorrow.”
“I’ll bring dessert,” Lucille says. She has some cake left over from the last class she taught. Her baking classes have been getting so popular that she recently put an ad in the local paper to hire some help.
The man turns around. “Uh, we don’t . . . I hope this doesn’t offend you, but we don’t eat dessert.”
Lucille cannot think of one thing to say, but finally manages a stiff, “I see.” And here is a bit of a miracle right now, because what she really, really thought she’d say is, “Never mind, then. I don’t want to come.”
They’re probably vegans. They’ll probably have a square loaf of some brownish mass on an ugly pottery platter and a bunch of vegetables so barely cooked they’re next to raw. Lucille will put a potpie in her oven before she goes over, so she can eat when she gets home.
She goes inside, and the warmth of her house settles around her. Come here, dearie, says the kitchen. Come and have a nice slice of cake.
She does exactly that. Yellow cake with milk-chocolate frosting, a classic, but if you use Lucille’s recipe for yellow cake and buttercream (Southern, of course) it’s a bit more than a classic. It’s a table-pounder. It’s a groaner. “Oh, my goodness, this is five stars!” said a woman who took the class, after she tasted the cake. “Six!” said another, her mouth full, and Lucille has to agree. She never expected that the adult response to her desserts would be more enthusiastic than the kids’. But then for the young children she teaches (ages five to seven, no older, no younger, no exception), everything is still a wonder. One day, teaching a fancied-up version of Rice Krispies Treats, she had to compete for their attention with a squirrel that came to the kitchen window to look in. The weather’s another distraction. Let big fat snowflakes fall, or thunder boom, or a sudden wind whoosh through the trees, and she’s lost the entire class.
After Lucille eats the cake, she weighs herself in an effort not to have a second slice. It does not work, which she might have predicted, and so she does have a second slice. Well, she finishes the cake. Maybe it’s two and half slices. Maybe it’s three.
She bathes, and she supposes it’s having eaten all that cake that makes it even more difficult than usual to get out of the tub. Worth it.
She climbs into bed, reads for a while, then turns out the light. She lies flat on her back and stares at the ceiling, aware of a throbbing loneliness that comes over her from time to time. “Lucille Pearson,” she says into the darkness. And then she says it again, more slowly, “Luciiiiillllle Peeeearson.” Still not right. “Mrs. Frank Pearson,” she says, quite briskly, even authoritatively. That’s the one. That’s how she would have said her name, if she’d had the opportunity.
This is the first time she’s ever said out loud what she would have been saying for five years now, had she married him. The words make for a quick mix of emotions: First a zippy thrill, then a big ploppy sense of contentment, and it’s like butter in a pan, that feeling of contentment, melting and spreading out inside her. Then a terrible bitterness, because she is not Mrs. Frank Pearson, nor will she ever be.
She sighs and turns onto her side. Tears slide down her cheeks and she wipes them away. She supposes she’ll always cry over Frank: finding the first and only love of her life in high school and losing him, then finding him again—at eighty-three!—only to lose him again, to a heart attack, just like that. Here, then gone again. So very much here, then so very much gone.
She closes her eyes and tells herself to dream of him. Oftentimes, it works, telling herself to dream of someone, and her dreams are increasingly very real-seeming. After the death of her friend Arthur, she could summon him up on a regular basis. She dreamed of Arthur sitting on the porch with her, as he so often used to do, eating cookies, taking his tiny bites and brushing crumbs carefully into his hand.