29

A Novel

LIST PRICE $18.99

About The Book

What if you closed your eyes, blew out the candles, and your wish came true?

Ellie Jerome is a young-at-heart seventy-five-year-old who feels she has more in common with her twenty-nine-year-old granddaughter, Lucy, than her fifty-five-year-old daughter, Barbara. Ellie’s done everything she can to stay young, and the last thing she wants is to celebrate another birthday. So when she finds herself confronted with a cake full of candles, Ellie wishes more than anything that she could be twenty-nine again, just for one day. But who expects a wish like that to come true?

 

29 is the story of three generations of women and how one magical day shakes up everything they know about each other. While Ellie finds that the life of a twenty-something is not as carefree as she expected, the sheer joy of being young again prompts her to consider living her life all over. Does she dare stay young for more than this day, even if it means leaving everyone she loves behind?

Fresh, funny, and delightful, 29 is an enchanting adventure about families, love, and the real lessons of youth.

Excerpt

seventy-five

I’m jealous of my granddaughter.

I would never, ever tell anyone that.

Everyone says the older you get, the wiser you get. I don’t feel wise at all.

I’m supposed to feel so blessed to be seventy-five years old. Hell, I tell people that myself, but that’s mostly to make myself feel better. I tell people that the best part of being older is the wisdom that comes with it. Truthfully, that’s bullshit. What else can you say, though, unless you want to completely depress people? Let them find out for themselves when they get here. If someone had told me how much I would truly hate being seventy-five, I would have been out of here a long time ago. Not killed myself. Oh, no, God forbid. I just would have moved to a deserted island and spent the rest of my days away from the harsh reality of a mirror.

So at seventy-five, if I’ve got all this wisdom, why can’t I cure cancer? If I’m so smart, why don’t people trust me to swoop in and save the world from utter destruction? Let my seventy-five-year-old girlfriends and me attend United Nations sessions so we can let them know how to make this world a better place. Since we’re so smart, let us give our opinions. No one ever asks. You know why? No one else really believes we’re so wise. If they did, maybe they’d listen to us more.

I hate being seventy-five. I really do. And I did not want this birthday party tonight, but my daughter, Barbara, insisted on it. Barbara can be a royal pain in the ass sometimes.

After reading what I’ve said so far you probably think that I’m one of those mean, cranky old ladies who complains about drafts that aren’t there, or returns one peach to the supermarket if it’s a little bruised, or steals Sweet’N Low packets from coffee shops. I’m not. I don’t even like Sweet’N Low. My granddaughter always says, “My grandmother is cool.” I think I am cool. I keep up-to-date on things—what’s happening in the news, reality shows (though I hate them)—and I always try to dress fashionably.

Seventy-five.

I am so goddamned old.

(And by the way, I rarely curse. That’s just the best way I can find to express myself right now.)

My girlfriends and I keep telling one another that age is just a number.

“I don’t feel seventy-five,” my lifelong dearest friend, Frida, says.

“I don’t, either,” I lie, knowing she’s lying, too. Frida looks and acts more like she’s eighty-five, but far be it from me to ever say that.

“My mother is a young seventy-five,” my daughter tells people in front of me. I hate when she does that. Why does she have to do that?

“I do it because you look so good, and I want to brag,” Barbara says. Let me say, it’s fine if I admit my age, but not when my daughter does. It’s no one’s business.

“My daughter is fifty-five,” I tell them, smiling.

“What did you do that for?” Barbara will ask when we’re out of hearing range of the person we’ve just inundated with unasked-for age information.

“What?” I ask defensively. “You look good, too!” I tell her, trying to act stupid. My daughter would never accuse me of throwing it back in her face. She doesn’t think I’m smart enough to do that.

Truthfully, the thing that’s pissing me off right now is that if I really stop and reflect, I’ve still got about twenty years max to stew about all the things I really should have done with my life. That makes me sad. Angry and sad.

First things first: I would never have sat in the sun for all those years. In those days, though, no one knew the damage it could do. I guess that’s the wisdom I’ve gained from getting older. Thanks. When I think of the years I sat by the pool bathed in oil without any protection . . . We didn’t have sunblock then. We were supposed to sit in the sun back then; it was good for us. We let our children play in the sun all day because they told us we should. If they burned, we put cold washcloths on them. They didn’t have skin cancer back then; at least I never heard of anyone getting it. Now it’s one of the main topics I discuss with my girlfriends. One of us sees a dark spot on our arm and it’s an all-day episode of House until the doctor tells us it’s nothing. Sadly, it wasn’t nothing for poor Harriet Langarten. That’s why we’re all so scared. I’ve become that old lady on the street who walks around with an umbrella on a sunny day. Through the years I’ve tried every cream on the market to get rid of sunspots and wrinkles. I’ve had chemical peels and let doctors scrape my face in the hope of undoing the damage I did trying to look tanned and sexy for a cocktail party in 1972.

Second, I wish I had exercised more. We didn’t work out when we were younger. We played tennis or golf, but mostly we played bridge at the country club while our husbands golfed. And since most of them are dead, they obviously didn’t get enough exercise, either. I joined a gym with Frida a couple of years ago, but we were the oldest people there by thirty years so I gave it up and bought a treadmill. I walked so many miles on that thing I could have walked to China and back by now. Even though I tell people I feel so much better since I started exercising, it’s a lie. My feet hurt, my joints hurt, my boobs hurt. They say that beauty must suffer. I feel I’ve suffered enough, so I rarely get on that thing anymore.

So I went the plastic-surgery route. I’ve used Botox and Restylane, had one face-lift (talk about PAIN) and a brow lift (waste of money and pain), and electrolysis to make me look younger. I can’t say that I look all bad, but I definitely don’t look fifty, like the doctor told me I would. Quack.

Aside from taking care of my looks more, if I could go back and do it all again, there are a couple of major things I would have done differently.

First, I would have gotten a better education.

In my day, the 1950s to be exact, it wasn’t important for a woman to get an education. I know that sounds crazy, but it couldn’t be more true. Your parents (at least my parents, and all my girlfriends’ parents) discouraged higher education. “You need a good husband,” my mother said to me when I told her I wanted to be an English literature major at the University of Pennsylvania. She handed me the application to secretarial school and drove me there on my first day with a sack lunch consisting of two hard-boiled eggs, some crackers, and a nickel for the milk machine. So I learned how to type. I figured I’d read the classics on my own, plotting as if it was devious and underhanded to sneak James Joyce and Dylan Thomas into my home to read when no one was around. Sadly, though, I never did. Who had the time?

Instead, I met my husband.

That’s the second thing I would have done differently. I never would have married my husband.

Again, please don’t tell anyone I ever said that.

It’s not that I didn’t love my husband; I did love him. I loved him very much. He was a fine man. If I really had to be honest, though, really, really honest, I’d have to say I do not think he was the man for me.

Howard Jerome was a prominent Philadelphia lawyer. I met him when he was a young attorney just starting out and I was one of the secretaries at the firm. He wasn’t the most handsome attorney at the law office, but he was the one who wanted me. Howard was short, bald, and fat, even back then. I was actually smitten with another lawyer there, Burt Elliot, but he had eyes for a different secretary and married her.

“You’ll marry Howard,” my mother said after our second date. “He’s safe.”

So I did.

“Thank God,” my mother said. “I was afraid you were becoming an old maid.”

I was nineteen years old. Nineteen!

Howard was ten years older than I was. We met in September and married in June. That was what we did back then. It was time to get married, so we did. I moved from my parents’ house to my husband’s house, and I never knew what it was like to live on my own. Once—once—before Barbara was born, Howard went on a business trip for two days. That was the extent of my living on my own when I was younger. I smoked a half a pack of cigarettes—the last time I ever smoked—and went to a movie by myself. (And I hope you don’t smoke, by the way; it’s bad for you. I lost a lot of friends along the way because of it.) That was the craziest I ever got. How I would love to get really crazy, just once.

Barbara also followed my route. She married young—her husband, Larry, is a dentist—and had Lucy. I told her to get a job and wait. But did she listen to me? No. I should have insisted she get an occupation as stubbornly as my mother insisted I shouldn’t. I regret I didn’t show her that working was important, not just for money’s sake, but to do something for yourself. I loved having my daughter, don’t get me wrong, but I wish I had done other things first. By the time I was twenty-five, I had a child and a house in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia.

Two years ago, Howard dropped dead while eating a corned-beef sandwich at the Nate n’ Al deli in Los Angeles. It was completely out of the blue. He’d had some heart issues—a bypass here, a bypass there—but no one thought this would ever happen. Heart surgery is so common among my age group that you start to treat it like it’s just another thing you have to do. (“How about dinner Saturday night?” I’d ask a friend. “Oh, Alan is having a bypass on Friday. How about the following Saturday?” she’d reply. Same thing with the prostate operations.)

Anyway, it was the most horrible thing that’s ever happened to me. We were in Los Angeles for my friend Thelma Punchick’s daughter’s second wedding, to an architect. One second we were sitting there having a conversation about whether to go to the Getty Museum or the LACMA, and the next he’s keeled over in his coleslaw. I said: “Howard?”

He didn’t answer, so I said it louder: “Howard?”

Again, he said nothing.

I knew he was dead, with his face on the table like that, but I was so shaken-up that I thought for a second that maybe he really liked the coleslaw. It was very good coleslaw. I don’t know where my mind was. The third time I screamed really loudly: “HOWARD!”

That’s when the whole restaurant went silent and I jumped up out of my seat. Two nice-looking men in their thirties were sitting at the next table. I had noticed them earlier, how handsome they were in their T-shirts and khaki pants, and I wondered if they were in the movies. It was lovely how quickly they reacted. One of the men propped Howard up and laid him down in the booth (thank goodness Howard insisted on a booth or he would have been on the filthy dirty floor at this point) and the other gentleman called the paramedics. The waitress held on to me like she was my sister, and I buried my face in her chest. I should have written her a thank-you note, or at least given her a good tip. Anyway, by the time the paramedics came, poor Howard was already gone, and I had to make plans to get him back to Philadelphia. I don’t even want to tell you what goes into transferring a body. Howard was in a casket down in the cargo hold, and I had my purse on the seat where he should have been sitting. I sort of wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have put my purse there, you know, as kind of a memorial for Howard, but I kept crying and needed my bag handy for my tissues.

The reason I was crying, aside from the fact that my husband had just died and I did love him even though I probably never should have married him, was that Howard always handled everything. I allowed Howard to handle everything, like my mother taught me I should. I was a woman of leisure, while he worried about all the behind-the-scenes stuff. How was I going to get along without him? That was the first time I really started to regret the way I’d lived my life, and every time I thought about it the tears kept coming. Thank God for Barbara. Thank God Barbara knew to call a funeral home to get the body transferred back to Philadelphia. Even though I’d never tell her (Barbara is the type of person who would take a compliment like that and use it as a weapon later), thank God Barbara is there when I need her.

I do miss Howard a lot, more than I thought I would (again, mum’s the word). We were married for more than fifty years. I married a man whom I had nothing in common with, but in those days you had to find someone and start a life. And we did build a life. It wasn’t perfect, but what is? Was he the love of my life? No. Who was the love of my life? Sadly, it’s too late for me to ever find out. Barbara thinks I should date, but who am I going to date? Hershel Neal has had a thing for me since I moved into this building. He’s always asking me to come up to his place to listen to his Chopin records, but I just shoo him away. I should find some other old man with health problems and let him drop dead in front of me again? No, thanks.

Howard worked hard. He played hard, too, though he didn’t think I knew it. Howard had affairs through the years. Did he think I was too stupid not to smell the perfume on his shirt? Did he really think I believed him when he told me he had to work late on Friday nights?

I thought about leaving him when Barbara was little. I thought about just packing up one night and taking Barbara someplace where no one would know us. I fantasized about that a lot when Barbara was young and Howard was having his affairs. It just wasn’t something you did back then—leave your husband.

You know what you did? You kept your mouth shut.

Believe it or not, it was almost accepted for a man to have an affair, but oh, no, never a woman. I remember saying to my mother: “He’s got a girl on the side.”

She shrugged her shoulders and said, “He works hard and he provides for you. Subject closed.” And it was. In those days, you listened to your mother and respected her opinion. Not like now—yes, I’m talking to you, Barbara.

After all, was my life so horrible? No, it was not. Howard never put me on a budget, never once. I had all the money I could ever hope to spend. My child was well provided for. We took trips, wonderful trips, all over the world. I’ve seen everything from the Eiffel Tower to the Great Wall of China. With all the jewelry Howard bought me over the years I could cover myself in diamonds from head to toe. Barbara never wanted for anything. She went to the best schools, and in summer she went to camp and then to the Jersey Shore. In those respects, Howard was a wonderful husband and father. If I had left him, what would have been the alternative? That would have been the stupidest thing I ever did. It wasn’t the time to do that. Today, it’s different; a woman can make a lot of money and be on her own. In those days, do you know that you couldn’t even get a credit card unless your husband opened the account for you? It’s true! Your husband was the one who had to fill out the credit card application, and even then, when you got the card, it never said your first name. All of my credit cards read mrs. howard jerome.

So I kept my mouth shut.

Even now, two years after Howard died, I never have to worry about money. I’ve got all that I need. Howard made sure I would always be taken care of, and I will always be grateful to him for that.

Still, what I wouldn’t have given for a little romance myself in those times.

If there’s any wisdom I’ve gained from reaching seventy-five, sadly, that’s it.

Sex with Howard was fine. At least I think it was fine; I never knew it with anyone else. Howard was the only man I ever had sex with in my entire life. We never had crazy sex—just plain old Howard-on-top or me-on-top sex, three times a week, sometimes four if Howard felt like it, never me. I was never much for sex. I wonder, if I had ever been with anyone else would I have liked it more? Believe me, I was a pretty woman back then, with a cute figure. I could have gotten a lot of men in my time if that was my thing. How wonderful it would have been to have someone in my life who wrote me love letters. Howard never wrote anything. His secretary even signed his name on my birthday cards. How marvelous it would have been to just have that thrill of someone else finding me attractive.

You know, it did almost happen once. I’m not saying I would have actually gone and had the affair, but once at a benefit for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Russell Minden took me aside and told me he thought I was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. He asked to take me to lunch. This was 1962, and I got scared out of my mind. I was sure that everyone at the benefit could hear my conversation with Russell. So I just laughed demurely, and then regretted not doing anything about it for the rest of my life. Russell died a few years back (the C-word, pancreas). I saw the obit in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I sent a donation to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in his memory, to thank him in my own way. I hadn’t seen him for about twenty years, but I never forgot how beautiful he made me feel that night.

That’s another thing I’m angry about. I never knew how attractive I was. When I look at pictures of myself back then, God I was beautiful. Everyone always said so, but I never believed it myself. I wish I had taken more advantage of my looks. In those days I looked good for Howard. I did my hair and ate right for fat-bald-run-around-with-other-women-behind-my-back Howard. If I bought a new dress or a new perfume, it was for Howard to compliment. I should have been doing it for me. I only wish I had taken the time to feel good about myself.

So in a nutshell, take all that—no education, sex with one man, not knowing that the sun was bad for me, and not realizing how gorgeous I was—and that’s why I’m jealous of my granddaughter, Lucy. She’s got her whole life ahead of her, and she lives in the perfect time in history. That’s what I was thinking through my whole seventy-fifth birthday party: I was born at the wrong time. I wish I was Lucy.

You should have seen my Lucy sitting there at the party. She’s got this mini e-mail contraption that she was using to talk to her friends the whole night about where they were going to go after she left my birthday celebration. “Texting,” was what Barbara kept saying, as in, “Lucy, it’s Gram’s birthday. Can you stop texting for two seconds to toast your grandmother?” I winked at Lucy. It was okay with me.

All I wanted to know was who she was talking to and where she was going.

And the way she was dressed! Barbara kept saying all night, “She looks like a streetwalker.” She had on a tiny minidress with platform heels and a jean jacket over it. I thought she looked like a movie star, and I wished I could wear something like that. Lucy has such a figure! She is so trim, not like her mother. Barbara takes after Howard’s side of the family, with their big hips and ample bosoms. Barbara is constantly on a diet. (Ha! I think she cheats more than she diets.) Lucy and I don’t diet. Sure, I watch my figure, but because of my metabolism I can afford to cheat, and so can Lucy. Sometimes Lucy and I have ice cream for dinner. Just last week we got a big tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and went hog wild. Lucy looks like I did when I was her age. I always had great legs, and a great tush like Lucy’s. Everyone said so. I don’t know what happened—my body just . . . sagged. It looks like . . . oh, you know when you put too much paint on a wall and it starts to drip down? That’s what my body looks like. I’m thin, but saggy. But, oh, did I have a great behind! God I miss my cute rear end. I lost my tush somewhere between my forties and my sixties and I’m still looking for it. (And by the way, if you’re reading this and you’re much younger than I am, I have one word for you: moisturize. You’ll still sag like a wet washcloth at seventy-five, but at least you’ll look better than your girlfriends at the same age. At least I do. Oy, if you could only see Frida.)

Anyway, Lucy and I are very close. She only lives about four blocks from me in the city. I’m so happy we live close to each other. After Howard passed on, I had no desire to stay in that big house in the suburbs anymore. A few months after he died, I noticed that the water heater was leaking—just a little puddle, nothing dramatic. The water heater was located in the basement, just a few feet away from the washing machine. I only noticed the leak when I went to grab a new box of detergent. I always bought extra boxes of detergent and kept them right beside the heater. That’s when I noticed the leak. I remember thinking to myself how funny it was that I never noticed that water leaked from the heater. I didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to leak. (Gladys, our dear housekeeper who died last year, was the one who always did the laundry.)

So when I went to take a bath a week later, there was no hot water. They had been doing some construction on Mrs. Lewis’s house next door and I figured that had something to do with it. What can I say? It all seemed logical at the time. Later that day I went downstairs to throw some towels in the washing machine and the whole basement was flooded. Because I had those extra boxes of detergent by the water heater, there were soapsuds everywhere. Everywhere! It looked like a Turkish bath!

I was in such panic that I called Barbara, who came right over. When she saw the mess, she berated me for not having the sense to call a plumber. (Okay, berated is a harsh word, but she treated me like a child. So shoot me. I didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to leak.)

Anyway, that was it for me. I got a new hot water heater and put the house on the market the same day. I moved into a lovely apartment on Rittenhouse Square and I sold my car (word to the wise: when that “service” light that comes up on your dashboard, it is not there for decoration); and I’m so much happier as a result. My days are spent playing bridge or going to concerts at the Kimmel Center. At night I go out to restaurants with my friend Frida or other girlfriends who’ve lost their husbands. I bought in the same building where Frida lives and so we’re always in each other’s apartments. It’s fun actually, and it’s good that we can check on each other. My apartment faces Rittenhouse Square Park and nothing makes me happier than to go down there on a nice day and sit on a bench under a tree and read the newspaper.

Barbara didn’t want me to move into the city. “It’s too far from me,” she said at the time. “Why don’t you get something in the suburbs?” I’ll tell you, I’m even happier that Barbara still lives in the suburbs. Barbara and I are close, too, but not in the way that Lucy and I are close. Lucy and I understand each other better. Barbara and I could never have that kind of closeness. Honestly, I don’t think that’s entirely my fault.

When Barbara and I talk, it sounds like an argument, but it’s really a conversation. With Lucy, it’s a plain old conversation. My daughter keeps tabs on me like I used to keep tabs on her when she was a teenager. I tell her, “For Christ’s sake, Barbara, I’m a grown woman, and I can take care of myself!” She doesn’t listen, though.

“Who is going to look after you if I don’t?” she asks me.

“I can take care of myself,” I tell her, even though I’m not quite sure that’s true.

Lucy comes over about twice a week, sometimes more. She doesn’t have laundry facilities in her apartment so she does it here. Those nights I’ll make us a brisket and we’ll eat and watch her reality shows while she does her laundry. Sometimes we’ll leave the laundry and go to one of the quaint BYOs in the neighborhood. Lucy tells me all about her love life and her job designing clothing, and I listen. I listen to all her gripes about the boy of the week she thinks she’s in love with. At twenty-five, Lucy has yet to have a serious boyfriend, and I’m so happy she hasn’t. She has mentioned this boy Johnny lately, but I don’t think there’s anything serious to that. Who could take a person seriously when his name is Johnny, and not John or Jonathan? Barbara begs her to meet someone and settle down already, but I always pipe up and tell her she’s got a lot of years ahead of her for that. I listen to her stories about work and who she’s met and who she sold her clothing to and how much they bought. I love every minute of it. I always wanted to work with clothes like Lucy does. I used to know the inventory of Saks Fifth Avenue better than some of the women who worked there. My mother’s best friend, Hester Abromowitz, worked there until she died. Hester outlived my mother and her friends by twenty-five years, and she always said it was because she worked. I loved Hester very much and think of her often. Before Hester’s funeral, her daughter Diane, who was much younger than me, asked if I would say a few words about Hester, so I spoke about her time at Saks, since that was where I saw her most. I talked about how she took such great care of her clients, most of whom were at the funeral, and about her great style. People always said I had great style, and I thought so, too, and always attributed it to Hester. Over the years I thought about taking a job sometimes, but I had Howard and Barbara to look after, and even though we had full-time help—Gladys—I still had my role. Also, in my time, you were looked down on if you had a job. I brought it up to Howard a few times over the years, and he laughed.

“What are we, poor?” he’d say and smirk.

A lot of times, Lucy will go out after she visits me. She’ll go to meet her friends in a bar in the neighborhood, and I can hardly keep myself from telling her I want to go with her. Sometimes I joke to her that I’m coming along, and she eggs me on, saying, “You’d be the coolest woman there! Let’s get you dressed!” Once, just once, I’d love to go with her and see what her nights are all about.

Lucy is also much smarter than Barbara gives her credit for. Barbara wanted Lucy to go to law school, like Howard, but I know that’s not my Lucy. Lucy went to the Parsons School of Design in New York City to learn how to design clothes. She worked for Donna Karan herself for two years as her personal assistant, and then she moved back to Philadelphia last year to pursue designing clothing on her own. Oh, and you want to know what else she did? She took my last name! Okay, Lucy Jerome looks a lot better on a design label than Lucy Sustamorn. How horrible is the last name Sustamorn? When Barbara first brought Lucy’s father home and he said his name was Larry Sustamorn, I thought, Oh, that’s just pathetic. It sounds like “such a moron” if you say it quickly. Try it—say the word Sustamorn ten times fast and see what you get. Anyway, Lucy Sustamorn became Lucy Jerome, and although her mother was a little hurt by it, she came around. After all, my Lucy has her dresses in some of the best shops in Philadelphia—Plage Tahiti and Knit Wit and Joan Shepp—and the new Barneys CO-OP on Rittenhouse Square is interested in her dresses. Barneys!

I know. I’m such a proud grandmother.

One of Lucy’s favorite things to do is go through my closet and pick out styles she can copy. I’ve saved everything through the years, and boy do I have a closet to show for it. By the time I moved from the house in the suburbs, I had filled every closet in the house. Barbara’s childhood closet held my Chanel and Halston suits from the sixties and seventies. The guest room closet held all of my beautiful gowns. My furs (when fur was acceptable to wear, and you weren’t in danger of having those people throw paint on you) and other winter coats were downstairs. I had my own closet for all my shoes and the clothes I wear now.

“You could put this stuff up for auction!” Barbara told me when I started to pack up the house.

There was no way I would do that, though. My clothes contain my memories of all the good times. I don’t have scrapbooks full of pictures of old memories; instead, I’ve got the closet of a lifetime. My Oscar de la Renta pale blue taffeta suit from Barbara’s wedding; my gorgeous James Galanos white sequined one-shoulder gown that I bought for a black-tie affair Howard and I went to in New York once in the 1980s—Howard said he’d never seen me look more beautiful. I would never give up any of it. No siree, bob.

So I bought a three-bedroom apartment and turned one room into a closet. It took more than three months for the contractors to get it right, but when they did it became my favorite room in the world. Barbara doesn’t understand it. Lucy does.

Lucy and I could spend hours in there together. She makes sketches of some of my dresses. She even copied a bright pink Lilly Pulitzer shift I bought on a trip to Palm Beach, Florida, in the 1960s, before Lilly Pulitzer was anyone in the fashion world.

Lucy calls it “the Ellie Jerome dress.”

She named it for her grandmother.

When I think of my granddaughter, I glow.

And that’s exactly why I’m jealous of her.

So tonight at my seventy-fifth birthday party at The Prime Rib, all I could think of was how much I wished I could go back in time and do it all over again in this day and age. Even for just one day. I wished that for one day I had my firm tush again, and my smooth, tanned skin. I wished that I could make mad passionate love to someone who only wanted to pleasure me. I wasn’t asking for a lifetime; I didn’t want to be piggish about it. I just wanted to have one day out of my miserable old-fogey life to experience the things that I missed out on and gain some appreciation for the things I took for granted. Do you know that I’ve lived for exactly 27,394 days? I figured that out on my calculator this morning. Out of all those days, would it really be a big deal to take one day off and really go crazy? What a wonderful wish! I thought it was highly creative. I would have shared the idea with someone, but of course you’re never supposed to tell your wish or it won’t come true. Ha!

So that’s what I wished for when Barbara and Lucy came walking in with that big birthday cake.

“I could only fit twenty-nine candles on it,” Barbara told everyone and laughed. Barbara can get on my last nerve sometimes.

So I wished on my twenty-nine birthday candles.

I wished to be twenty-nine again for one day.

If I had that one day, I would change everything.

This time, I would do it the right way.

And I would never regret again.

© 2010 Adena Halpern

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Pinch Me includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Adena Halpern. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

From the author of 29 comes a delightful modern fairy tale about Lily Burns, a young career woman with the perfect life—until an ancient family curse threatens to take everything away. Lily has been told all her life not to marry for love. Then she meets the man of her dreams in Gogo, a handsome, successful pediatrician who wants nothing more than to marry her and make her happy for the rest of her life. But accepting his offer sends her to an alternate universe where Gogo is not only a shell of the man she knew— but he’s already married! If she’s ever going to reunite with her beloved, Lily must first discover how to break her family curse—and learn the true power of love and family bonds along the way.

For Discussion

1. All her life, Selma and Dolly have told Lily to “never marry a man unless he’s short, bald, fat, stupid, and treats you badly” (p. 1). Why do you think Lily never questioned this odd advice?

2. Dolly and Selma keep their family curse a secret from Lily until circumstances force them to reveal it. Why do they hide the curse for so long? What are they protecting her from?

3. When Gogo is first described, he has perfect looks (p. 10) and is a perfect fit for Lily (p. 20). His proposal, on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, is incredibly romantic. Did Gogo seem like a realistic character at first? How did that perception change when Lily describes Gogo’s not-so-perfect characteristics later in the story? 

4. Astrid and Emmalina’s parents doted on the spoiled Astrid and, by comparison, treated the quiet, accepting Emmalina poorly. Do you think parental treatment is that unequal between real siblings?

5. Pinch Me has been described as a modern-day fairy tale. How does it compare to the classic fairy tales you learned?

6. Pinch Me features a curse and alternate realities. What effect does it have on your belief—or suspension of disbelief—in the story?

7. The story’s curse—to never be able to marry for love—causes emotional pain for Lily and her family. However, in the alternate reality Lily makes a wonderful friend in her longlost cousin Rose. Could Lily have broken the curse without Rose’s help? Are there any other benefits to the curse? What does it teach Lily about her family and the strength of her love?

8. Lily shows incredible tenacity in her efforts to break the curse, even when all hope seems lost. Could you have been as persistent as Lily?

9. Lily’s choice to marry Gogo—and go directly against the advice of her mother and grandmother—brings on the curse. In order to break it, she must go further than they, and many generations before her, were able to. What does that say about the importance of following your own heart?

10. Selma and Dolly have suffered heartbreak time and time again because of the curse. As a coping mechanism Dolly cooks up a storm and Selma exercises almost constantly. Yet, despite their loss and struggles, both manage to keep a strong sense of humor. How does that help them? If you were in their situation, what would be your outlet?

11. Lily finds and fights to keep true love. Have you ever struggled to find love? Keep it?
A Conversation with Adena Halpern

With your own website and a presence on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Goodreads, you are clearly very active online. How does interacting with your fans online compare to meeting them in person at book signings or other events?

I love having an online presence to meet and keep in touch with fans. I have “met” so many amazing people from all over the world who I never would have met at a book signing. In addition, thanks to the Internet, I’ve received so many kind letters and have corresponded with fans who might otherwise been unable to contact me.

One of my favorite things to do is to go on Skype and speak at book clubs. It’s always a blast to hear people’s comments about the book, to hear what they liked or wanted to read more about. In fact, the idea for Pinch Me actually came partly from talking to fans who wanted to read my take on a fairy-tale romance. 

Your first two novels, The Ten Best Days of My Life and 29 are scheduled to be adapted into feature films! Have you been involved with the screenplays? What is the most exciting (or nerve-racking!) part about this process of turning your novel into a movie?

Honestly, I have been nothing less than ecstatic about the process of my books being adapted into movies. As I am writing this, I know that the screenplay to The Ten Best Days of My Life has just been completed. It’s just completed so I haven’t read it yet, but the parts that have been described to me gave me such chills they brought tears to my eyes. A lot of people ask me how I feel giving up my babies. I think that’s a strange question. I don’t feel that I gave up my babies. Yes, I created these characters, and they’re a huge part of my life, but coming from a film background, I know it’s virtually impossible to adapt a book exactly as it was written and turn it into a movie. It’s been really exciting for me to give someone else the creative freedom to explore my characters and come up with ideas I didn’t think of. The screenplay of Ten Best Days has a component to it that makes me want to kick myself for not thinking of first. I’ll also be very curious to see how I visualize heaven corresponds to how it looks in Ten Best Days, or if actresses that I thought of when I was writing 29 will see themselves in the parts. 

In a way, I think of optioning my books in terms of renting out an apartment. Once I “rent out” a book, I’m not going to walk in at any moment and ask, “What are you going to do with that wall? I don’t think you should put that picture there, that’s not the way I had it when I was living here.” For now, I put my trust in the screenwriters, producers, actors, etc. The people who are involved in these projects have shown me that they have as much passion for them as I do, and they have valued my opinion the whole way through. I couldn’t have optioned my work if I hadn’t seen their passion for it in the first place. For that reason alone, I can’t wait to see how the work will be interpreted.

Your previous books have received warm critical praise. Did you find that to be more inspirational or intimidating as you wrote Pinch Me?

Any writer who tells you they don’t care what the critics say is probably lying. Obviously, I hope each of my books is well received by the critics. But the most important thing to me is satisfying my readers. The main thing I like to explore in all of my books is the idea of telling a love story of an unsexual nature. If you consider my previous books, Target Underwear and a Vera Wang Gown was my own love story about a girl and her closet. The Ten Best Days of My Life was a love story between a girl and her parents. 29 was a love story between a family of women: a grandmother, her daughter, her granddaughter, and her best friend. In Pinch Me, I wanted to tell a love story about a husband and wife, but I didn’t want it to just be about sex and romance. I wanted to explore the idea of soul mates and what that really means. For Lily, it wasn’t about claiming her man. Lily would have and did do everything she could so that Gogo would be happy and safe, even if it meant never seeing him again. That’s what we do for the people we love most. From what I gather, that’s what people want to see in my books. I have no interest in telling a straightforward boy-meets-girl love story. There are so many amazing writers who already do that. At this point, readers expect me to turn the notion of romance on its side and really explore what it means to be in love.

Although you currently live in Los Angeles, you chose to set Pinch Me and your other novels in Philadelphia. Why does that city hold such allure for you? What is your favorite part of Philadelphia?

This summer will mark the twentieth anniversary of my move to Los Angeles. I’ve now lived in Los Angeles longer than in Philly. That’s crazy to me, especially since I still have my Philadelphia accent. Philadelphia is where I was born and where I was brought up. The city itself has shaped who I am, just as much as my parents and teachers and childhood friends. There is a bond that we Philadelphians have that can’t be broken. We’re a club of folks who, no matter how far we stray or how old we get, will never be considered anything else but Philly kids. I love being a part of that club. It’s a comforting feeling to know that I will never feel lost in my life because there are people who know me so well and for so long I start to wonder if we came out of the same womb. That’s something about Philly that I try to bring out in my books. I am very proud to have been brought up in Philadelphia and to be known forever as a Philly kid. Using that amazing, beautiful city as a backdrop in my books is my way of saying thank you for letting me be a part of the club.

Do you share any characteristics with the main character, Lily? What was your inspiration to create her?

The great dancer, Agnes De Mille, once famously said, “To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful . . . This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.” I think the same holds true for writing a character in a book. Yes, Lily is a part of me. All of my main characters are some form of me, as much as I try, I just can’t help it. But as Ms. De Mille said, they’re on a much grander scale.

The idea for Lily Burns came to me as I stood in line at the hot foods bar in Whole Foods one day about two years ago. Five years earlier, I had pretty much frequented that hot foods bar every day of my life from the day it opened some seven years earlier until I moved into my husband’s home across town. That particular day I happened to be in my old neighborhood and stopped in for a quick bite to eat. As I was standing there filling up my little cardboard container with whatever was there, I suddenly had this bizarre thought: What if I walked outside and my old crappy car from five years ago with the leaking transmission and dented bumper was parked in the spot where I had just left my brand-new sparkling gorgeous car? What if everything that had happened to me in the past five years—meeting my husband, marrying him, moving in with him, etc.—never happened and I suddenly woke up from a dream? What if I was still living in my dingy studio apartment with that freezer contained in a block of ice? What if all those idiot guys I dated (well, not all of them, but you know who you are) were still in my life? I really freaked myself out. Then I started to think, “What would have happened to my husband? Who would my husband be? What would have become of him in those five years? Who would I be? What have I learned since then that I could now tell those guys I dated who weren’t so nice to me?”

Each of your novels features strong elements of magic or the fantastic. How does that help you develop your stories?

I usually start with a question that contains some form of fantasy and go from there. In my worst days of being single, it got to the point where I really had to start to ask myself if there was a curse on me when it came to dating. That question has always stuck in my mind when single girlfriends say the same thing to me about themselves. As I was thinking about the idea for the book, I thought about exploring that idea. What if there had been a curse? What would I have done? That’s usually how it goes for me. I could tell a story about a woman who has bad luck with men, but to me it seems much more fun if there’s a concrete reason why. 

In terms of Lily Burns, I actually went through a couple of drafts where the curse wasn’t there. Gogo pinched her and then he just vanished and she was back in her old single life. I really wanted to tell the old fashioned love story of girl meets boy/ girl loses boy/ girl gets boy back in the end, but every time I tried, Lily just seemed pathetic. Then one day I was watching The Graduate, one of my all-time favorite movies. If you really think about Dustin Hoffman (Benjamin Braddock) in that movie, it’s kind of creepy the way he goes up to Berkeley and follows Katharine Ross (Elaine Robinson). Then I saw a movie with Sandra Bullock called All About Steve. Both movies have that element of chasing their love, but one really, really works and the other just doesn’t cut it (even though I love Sandra Bullock, and in my opinion, that woman can seriously do no wrong). What I discovered was that I was writing a girl-meets-boy story and not the other way around, and sadly, there’s a big difference in that. If a girl chases a boy, it’s really difficult not to make her seem like a stalker to the reader, even if, as in Pinch Me, she was married to the guy in a previous life or whatever you want to call it. It sucks, but that’s the world we live in. 

So I set it in another world. 

I thought, what if there was something beyond her control that prevented her from getting the guy she loved? That’s when I thought of the curse and I got really excited and it all came together after that. If I couldn’t use that element of fantasy, it just wouldn’t have worked for me. 

Your memoir was based on your series of essays for Marie Claire. Do you also incorporate any elements of those essays into your fiction?

Yes, I would say that I incorporate elements of my Marie Claire essays into my fiction, but throughout my books, I’ve created kind of a chain focusing on what readers have told me they’ve enjoyed most. The Marie Claire essays were the basis for my book Target Underwear and a Vera Wang Gown. This was about my love for clothing and how it has affected my life. I carried my love of clothing to Alex in The Ten Best Days of My Life and to Ellie Jerome in 29. They were both passionate about clothing and how it spoke to them. In 29, Ellie Jerome was seventy-five years old and her daughter, Barbara, was fifty-five. So many kind people wrote to say how much they loved hearing the voice of people of that age so I created Dolly and Selma Burns in Pinch Me. In my next book, I’ll probably incorporate something from Pinch Me. I know what it is, but I won’t give it away yet. 

In your author Q&A for 29 you explain that you are very influenced by films, especially the dialogue. You also have a master’s degree in screenwriting. What is your all-time favorite movie?

My all time favorite movie is a lovely, touching, and still really funny movie from 1940 called Christmas in July, which was written and directed by Preston Sturges (who, next to my husband, is my favorite screenwriter of all time). I can still remember seeing it for the first time as a teenager when it came on television at the Jersey Shore in Margate after a hot day at the beach. Dick Powell plays a lowly office worker who dreams of winning a big fortune one day so he can marry his girlfriend. His co-workers decide to send him a phony telegram telling him he’s won the latest contest he’s entered. I don’t want to tell you what happens next because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s so hilarious and earnest at the same time that I have no idea why this movie hasn’t garnered the “classic film” status of It’s a Wonderful Life. This film has definitely influenced my work in terms of writing something that can be funny but heartwarming at the same time. I can only watch it once a year because I don’t want to get sick of it, and when I do, it’s always with someone who hasn’t seen it before so I can see it through their eyes. It never fails to delight. I know it’s on DVD, so if you see it, let me know what you think.

What message do you hope readers will take from Pinch Me?

Like I said earlier, I was single for a really long time. I never thought I would find him. Believe me, I looked everywhere. Now that I have found him, I don’t even care that it took so long. It was worth every minute of waiting. I want people to know that if you are single, no matter how old you are, and you think all the good ones are taken, trust me, your soul mate is out there. You might even start to think that you’ve got a curse on you, but I’m telling you: you don’t. He/She is out there for you. Plain and simple. 

Are you working on a new novel? Will any of the characters in Pinch Me appear in your upcoming work?

Did you catch the cameo made by Barbara and Larry Sustamorn from 29 in the very beginning of Pinch Me? I thought it was fun to bring them in. I thought a nice trip to Paris was just what Barbara would have needed after everything she went through. 

I am working on something new right now, but I never like to jinx what I’m working on by saying what it’s about. So far, none of the characters from Pinch Me have popped up, but it’s not to say they won’t. It’s fun for me to add a brief appearance from a character from a previous book just to see what they’re up to. I miss them when I’m not with them on a day-to-day basis anymore. Sometimes I think about what it would be like if I could have them all over to my house for dinner. I think about what I would serve and where everyone would sit and if they would get along. Who knows… maybe that’s a book somewhere down the line.

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Learn more about Adena Halpern on her website, www.adenahalpern.com. You can link through to her Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Goodreads pages. Use her website’s comment section to ask Adena a question or to tell her about your meeting.

2. Lily uses ancestry.com to find her relatives, eventually locating her cousin Rose, who becomes a great friend. Log on to see if you have any longlost family members in your lineage. Or, try starting a family tree with the help of family members. Share any interesting discoveries with your group.

3. Central to the curse in Pinch Me is the “ill-fated chocolate chip cookie recipe.” Bake your own “well-fated chocolate chip cookies” to bring to your next book club meeting!

4. If you enjoyed reading Pinch Me, check out Adena Halpern’s other novels: 29 and The Ten Best Days of My Life. You can also read her memoir Target Underwear and a Vera Want Gown: Notes from a Single Girl’s Closet.

About The Author

© Stephanie Ellis Humphrey

Adena Halpern is the author of the novels 29 and THE TEN BEST DAYS OF MY LIFE and TARGET UNDERWEAR AND A VERA WANG GOWN- NOTES FROM A SINGLE GIRL'S CLOSET, a memoir which was based on her popular "Haute Life" essays for the back page of Marie Claire magazine. In addition to Marie Claire, Adena has written for Daily Variety and The New York Times. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dramatic writing from New York University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in screenwriting from The American Film Institute. A proud Philadelphia native, she resides in Los Angeles with her husband, television and screenwriter Jonathan Goldstein.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (June 15, 2010)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439171127

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Raves and Reviews

"A joyful fairy tale that will sweep you up and captivate you from start to finish. Sweet, funny, and tender."
--Karen Quinn, author of The Ivy Chronicles and Wife in the Fast Lane

“Take an ingenious idea for a plot, combine it with likable characters and genuine heart and you’ve got ’29,’ a novel about a woman who is full of regrets – until she makes a wish that changes her life and the lives of those she loves. A skillfully told story that will appeal to 29-year-olds of all ages.”
-- Jane Heller, bestselling author of Name Dropping and An Ex to Grind

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