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A Soft Place to Land
Table of Contents
About The Book
From the award-winning author of Bound South comes a powerful, moving novel of family loss and sisterly redemption.
For more than ten years, Naomi and Phil Harrison enjoyed a marriage of heady romance, tempered only by the needs of their children. But on a vacation alone, the couple perishes in a flight over the Grand Canyon. After the funeral, their daughters, Ruthie and Julia, are shocked by the provisions in their will…not the least of which is that they are to be separated.
Spanning nearly two decades, the sisters’ journeys take them from their familiar home in Atlanta to sophisticated bohemian San Francisco, a mountain town in Virginia, the campus of Berkeley, and lofts in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As they heal from loss, search for love, and begin careers, their sisterhood, once an oasis, becomes complicated by resentment, anger, and jealousy. It seems as though the echoes of their parents’ deaths will never stop reverberating—until another shocking accident changes everything once again.
In the months following the accident Ruthie and Julia imagined and discussed the last days of their parents’ lives so often it was almost as if the girls had been there, had accompanied them on the trip out west. Except of course they had not. That had been the whole point of Phil and Naomi’s vacation.
Their plane crashed at approximately 3:00 P.M. on Wednesday, March 24, 1993, during the girls’ spring break from the Coventry School, where Ruthie was in seventh grade, Julia a sophomore. Most of the well-to-do families from Coventry, which is to say most of the families, were taking vacations together that week, to the mountains to ski, or to the beach to relax by the ocean. Ruthie’s best friend and sometimes nemesis, Alex, was going all the way to London with her parents. But Phil’s caseload at the firm was especially heavy that year, and Julia had so many late and incomplete assignments to finish that she needed an unscheduled week at her desk just to get caught up.
And so no trip for the Harrisons was planned, until Julia’s theater friend Marissa Tate casually mentioned that Julia could come with her to her family’s beach house on Pawleys Island. Phil and Naomi made a show of extracting promises from Julia that she would spend at least two hours a day catching up on her assignments, but they readily agreed to the trip. Freed of one child, and with Mother Martha—Phil’s stepmom—willing to come stay with Ruthie, they began thinking of a romantic destination for just the two of them.
Phil and Naomi lived for time alone with each other.
Naomi’s favorite place in the world was Paris, in the Sixth Arrondissement, where she would sit for hours in the cafés, drinking espressos, eating pastel-colored macaroons, and observing the sophisticated people around her. In Paris, unlike in Atlanta, caffeine didn’t bother her; she could drink espresso all day and still fall asleep easily at night. Phil’s favorite place was wherever Naomi was happiest, but nearly equal to his love of pleasing his wife was his love of a good bargain. And since there were no bargain plane tickets to be found for a last-minute trip to Paris (he checked), he booked them on a trip to Las Vegas instead, where he got a tremendous deal on their stay at the Mirage and secured tickets for them to watch Siegfried and Roy tame the tigers.
They planned to stay put in Las Vegas for three days. The city’s slightly seedy element was not a deterrent. In fact, it added to the allure of the vacation. How much further could they be from their mortgage-bound life of duty and responsibility in Atlanta than to be playing craps in a flashy casino in the middle of the day after spending the morning in bed? On the fourth day of their vacation, they would venture out of the city, renting a brand-new 1993 cherry red Mercedes convertible that they would use to drive the 270 miles to the Grand Canyon, where years ago Phil and his first wife, Beatrice, had (rather uncomfortably) camped during a cross-country drive to visit his sister, Mimi, who lived in San Francisco.
Naomi would be seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time.
Julia and Ruthie speculated that Phil was probably more excited about driving that new Mercedes than he was about any other part of the trip. Phil was a sucker for cars, trading in his old one every couple of years for whatever was the latest, fastest model he could acquire for a good price. Once he took his wife to look at a BMW he had bought for a tremendous bargain, many thousands below its Blue Book value. It turned out that the original owner of the car had been killed while driving it, in a multiple-car crash that brought traffic to a stop on I-85 for hours. All his widow wanted was to get rid of the car, fast.
Naomi told Ruthie about accompanying Phil to the body shop to see the car while it was being repaired. Its windshield was shattered and there was a little bit of human hair poking out from one of the cracks. Naomi said that she could never ride in that car without feeling queasy. It was a huge relief, she said, when two years passed and Phil traded the car in for another, newer one.
Phil had made other sketchy deals. Ruthie remembered a time when Phil was late coming home from work and Naomi was agitated because he had not phoned to inform her of the reason for the holdup. Ruthie was already dressed for bed by the time Phil finally pulled into the garage, driving a new black Jaguar. He walked into the kitchen beaming, and to an incredulous Naomi he explained: a Middle Eastern man who had once been his client had phoned him at the office, saying that he needed to sell the car within forty-eight hours, and he needed to sell it for cash.
“I had the cash, babe,” said Phil, standing in his blue suit in the red-tiled kitchen while Naomi glared at him, not even saying a word. “You won’t believe the deal I got.”
The thing about Phil’s deals was this: they usually didn’t save him any money. He would often end up buying even more expensive items than he ever intended to purchase, simply because they were offered at a price below retail value. That was why Julia, at sixteen, was given a brand-new Saab 900. Phil had been planning to buy her one of the old Hondas listed in the automobile section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when his eye hit upon the lease deal advertised by Saab. At the astonishingly low rate of $288.99 a month—no money down—how could Phil not lease a new Saab for his daughter, who was actually his stepdaughter but whom he claimed fully as his own?
Julia was embarrassed by the car, which highlighted her self-consciousness about being a rich girl at a rich prep school. The friends she hung out with at Coventry were mostly boys, smart stoners who wore black and loved to make fun of their privileged classmates. (Somehow they were able to overlook their own privileged lives.) They had a field day with Julia’s Saab, and when she told them to shut up and leave her alone—she hadn’t asked for the car in the first place—they told her to please stop with the “saab story.”
As for Phil, he proclaimed Julia a reverse snob, adding, “I can’t wait until the day you have to support yourself. Then you’ll really miss your old man.”
When speculating about their parents’ last days on earth, Ruthie told Julia that she hoped they had ordered dessert after their last dinner, the night before they drove out to see the Grand Canyon, the night before they decided to board that ancient Ford Trimotor—known as “The Tin Goose” to airplane aficionados—that was supposed to fly them into the canyon itself, revealing the canyon’s details up close. Julia assured Ruthie that yes, dessert was ordered, for Naomi loved chocolate above all other foods. Indeed, she was forever breaking her diet by eating chocolate and drinking champagne with Phil, after a dutiful dinner with the girls of overbaked chicken and steamed broccoli, or turkey meat loaf and a microwaved potato, or sometimes Lean Cuisine. During the day, too, she would be diligent, drinking a Slim-Fast for lunch, or having a fruit plate with cottage cheese. But if Phil opened a bottle of bubbly after dinner, she could rarely find the willpower to say no. And loosened by the champagne, how could she refuse chocolate?
The night before they drove to the Grand Canyon, Phil and Naomi had eaten at Kokomo’s restaurant in the Mirage Hotel. Julia and Ruthie imagined that their mother wore the emerald green raw silk top she had purchased from Isaacson’s in Atlanta, that and a pair of wide-legged black satin pants that swished when she walked. She would have worn heels, of course. Tall ones. She always wore heels when she dressed up, and the feet she slipped into them would have been creamy and free of calluses, the toenails painted with Estée Lauder Vintage Cognac. The girls both knew that Phil had a thing for pretty hands and feet, that he encouraged his wife to get a manicure once a week and a pedicure every other week, and that Naomi, though she often spoke of feeling guilty about the extravagant lifestyle Phil provided, loved to be pampered and happily, guiltily, obliged.
Phil would have worn a dark suit and white shirt, not unlike what he wore to the office most days. His tie was most likely the green one with minute white polka dots that Naomi had bought for him at Mark Shale. It would have matched Naomi’s outfit, and the girls knew that he had that one with him on the trip, for it was found, curled up with the others, in one of the suitcases that were returned to their house the week following the accident.
He would have been freshly shaved; he would have smelled like Tsar cologne, which Julia had given him for Christmas to replenish his supply. His glasses might have had a speck of dust or debris or even food on them—they often did—but Naomi would have taken out the special wipes she kept in her purse to clean them. Before they left for the hotel restaurant, she probably pulled out the lint roller from her suitcase and used it on the front of his suit, too.
Phil would have been ready before Naomi, would have been dressed and waiting to go, sitting on the hotel bed and watching a basketball game on TV while she finished applying her makeup, while she dabbed the hollow beneath her ear with Chanel No. 5. Had he been waiting for her to finish getting ready in Atlanta, Phil would have sipped from a can of beer, from whatever brand was on sale at the grocery store. Naomi wasn’t really a beer drinker, and so he didn’t have to suit her tastes when he made his beer purchases. But in Las Vegas, Julia and Ruthie were sure, Phil would have waited until he was at the restaurant to get a drink. Phil’s attitude toward the price of items in a minibar most clearly resembled moral outrage.
“But don’t you think he might have bought a bottle of champagne at the grocery store or something, and surprised Mom with it when she came out of the bathroom?” asked Ruthie. This was during one of their early discussions about what happened the night before, during those first few months when they were still living in Atlanta, supervised by their aunt Mimi, Phil’s sister, who had moved into the house on Wymberly Way for the time being, leaving her husband and her interior design business unattended to in San Francisco, just until everything got sorted out.
The girls were sitting in Julia’s room, on her queen-sized bed with the green and pink floral coverlet.
“That’s possible,” said Julia. “Especially because the trip was such a fuck fest for the two of them.”
“Don’t say that!” said Ruthie, hitting her sister hard on the thigh with her open palm. Ruthie did not want to think of her dead parents disrespectfully. Plus, she hated it when Julia said “fuck.” There was a strong evangelical contingency at Coventry, and Ruthie had been swayed enough by the proselytizers to purchase a necklace with a small silver cross dangling from it at James Avery, the Christian jewelry store at Peachtree Battle Shopping Center, just a mile away from their house.
It wasn’t that Ruthie believed Julia was going to hell for saying such words, but she worried that every time Julia cursed, God turned a little further away from her. And with Julia on the verge of failing out of Coventry, Ruthie felt strongly that her sister needed God on her side. Had Ruthie expressed these thoughts to Julia, she would have snorted, would have asked, “Where was God when Mom and Phil were on that plane?”
Ruthie wondered the same thing.
“I’m sorry, my darling, delicate one. Sorry for springing the ‘f’ word on you, but do you not remember the sound of the train?”
Ruthie was ten years old the first time she heard her mom making the train noises. Her bedtime was hours past, but she was awake, reading the thriller Daughters of Eve by a compact flashlight that she kept under her pillow. She could not figure out where the high, rising sound was coming from. She decided it must be a train barreling down the tracks over by Ardmore Park off Collier Road. Which was strange, considering that the park was miles away. She turned on her side, placed her pillow on top of her exposed ear to block out the sound, and managed to keep reading, holding the flashlight with one hand while turning pages with the other. Pretty soon the train noise stopped.
The next day she asked Julia if she had heard the train that last night. Wasn’t it strange, Ruthie mused, that the noise would travel so far, all the way from the tracks on Collier? Julia looked at Ruthie as if she were a total idiot.
“That was Mom you were hearing, dummy. She and Dad were having sex.”
“But the noise was so loud.”
Julia shrugged. “Don’t ask me,” she said. “I’ve always found that noise during sex is optional.”
Ruthie covered her ears with her hands. “Kittens and puppies and bunnies,” she chanted. “Kittens and puppies and bunnies . . .”
Ruthie didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry at Julia’s allusion to “the train.” Ever since the accident she did both—laugh and cry—at unexpected moments. In the four weeks since her parents’ death Ruthie had already been sent out of the room for getting the giggles in the middle of Bible class, during the discussion of The Hiding Place, a book by Corrie ten Boom, a Christian woman who was sent to Auschwitz after it was discovered that she and her family had helped hide Jews.
There was nothing funny about The Hiding Place, and yet every time someone said “Corrie ten Boom” Ruthie began to laugh. It reminded her of something her uncle Robert once did when she was little. Uncle Robert and Aunt Mimi were visiting from San Francisco, during the summer. One afternoon all of the grown-ups put on bathing suits and went to sit by the pool. It was the first time Ruthie had ever seen Uncle Robert with his shirt off. He had a hairy chest and back, and his belly bulged over the waist of his swim shorts.
“Meet my chubby hubby,” said Mimi. Robert slapped his stomach and said, with gusto, “Ba boom!”
Corrie ten Boom, her uncle Robert’s “ba boom.” This was not a connection Ruthie could explain to her Bible teacher. She didn’t get in any real trouble, though. After the accident all of her teachers were cautious around her.
Even more often than laughing at inappropriate moments, Ruthie cried. During the dumbest times, too, when someone sitting beside her in homeroom complained about what a bitch her mom was, or the math teacher Mrs. Stanford used “Mom’s meat loaf” as a subject for a word problem. Ruthie discovered that the best way to avoid crying was to sit as still as she possibly could and think only about immediate things, such as: would the spider making its way across Jason Purdy’s desk climb up onto his arm, and if it did, would he notice? (Once a bug crawled out of his hair and Jason seemed only pleasantly surprised.)
When Ruthie was home, finally, and alone in her room she cried and cried, all the while trying not to make noise, because it would have embarrassed her to have Aunt Mimi overhear her distress. Even though Aunt Mimi was always telling Ruthie that there was no wrong way to grieve. Especially because Aunt Mimi was always telling her that there was no wrong way to grieve.
Alone in her room after school, Ruthie prayed. Though she wore the cross from James Avery around her neck, her belief in God was not bedrock, and more often than not her prayers to God were pleas for him to exist, for him to be real. If he did not, if he was not, that meant that Ruthie would never again see her parents.
Most afternoons Julia was away at play practice. She had always been a gifted performer, but after the accident her talent deepened, her interest intensified, and she was given the lead in the spring play, even though the lead was usually reserved for a senior. Julia was happiest during rehearsal, happiest inhabiting another person’s life. She would remain this way throughout her life, always writing about others. Only once, in her memoir about rehab, would she focus her gaze almost exclusively on herself. After play practice she would often go to Steak ’n Shake or the OK Cafe with other cast members, or meet up with her stoner friends who wore black and avoided sanctioned extracurricular activities.
Mimi did not keep a tight rein on Julia, and so Julia was not usually home until 8:00 or 9:00 P.M. She would have stayed out even later had it not been for Ruthie. Sometimes Julia would swing home after play practice, pick her little sister up in her Saab 900, and take her out to dinner with her friends. And somehow, even though she, too, had lost her mother, she, too, had lost Phil (he was “only” her stepfather, yes, but she was closer to him than she was to her real dad), Julia was able to give Ruthie comfort.
Whether it was allowing her little sister to accompany Julia to Mick’s for chocolate pie with her stoner friends, or allowing her little sister to sleep in her bed at night because it comforted both of them to be near each other, Julia alone made Ruthie feel better. Sometimes at night Ruthie would wake up crying and Julia, more often awake than not, would wrap her arms around her sister, would hold her tight, would use enough pressure to contain the radiating loneliness Ruthie felt.
It was funny. Ruthie wasn’t used to hugging Julia. As close as they had always been, as much as they had always relied on each other, they had never been huggers. No one in their family was. Even Phil and Naomi, who were so much in love, were not big huggers. Phil always embarrassed Ruthie to death by sensually massaging Naomi’s neck during parents’ events—award banquets and such—at Coventry, and every night while watching TV Phil would rub Naomi’s feet, but they did not hug good-bye in the morning before Phil left for the office. Phil would give his wife a wet smack on the lips, announce, “I’m off,” and be gone.
Before the accident, the only time Julia and Ruthie hugged was while playing Egg and Biscuit. Egg and Biscuit was a game that Julia created, and because she created it, she got to make up all of the rules, the primary one being that Julia was always the Egg, Ruthie was always the Biscuit. Julia would stand on the far side of the room, looking forlorn, casting her eyes about but never resting them on anyone or anything until they rested on Ruthie, who stood across the room, her back to Julia.
“B-B-Biscuit?” Julia would ask, disbelieving.
Ruthie would turn, would look at Julia, would squint her eyes. “E-E-Egg?”
“Biscuit?” Julia would say again, hope creeping into her voice.
“Egg!?” Ruthie would ask.
Finally the two girls would run toward each other, screaming, “Biscuit! Egg! Biscuit! Egg!” They would meet in the middle of the room, Julia lifting Ruthie off the floor and twirling her around and around in a hug while each of them cried, “Oh, my yummy Egg! Oh, my fluffy Biscuit!”
They never really outgrew this game, continuing to play it even after Julia began high school. Of course, it was a private thing for them. Nothing they would play in front of others.
For Ruthie, it was easier to imagine the night before the accident rather than the day of. The night before, her parents were still safe, still tucked inside their fancy hotel with the glittering, flashing lobby and a myriad of overpriced restaurants to choose from. And even though their hotel room was on the twenty-sixth floor, they were, for all practical purposes, grounded. They would not plummet from the sky at the Mirage. And what they did there—the gambling excepted—was not all that different from what they did on Saturday nights in Atlanta. Get dressed up. Leave Ruthie at home with a sitter. Go somewhere expensive for dinner where Phil would order them each a glass of champagne to start and Naomi, temporarily unburdened from her motherly responsibilities, would lean back in her seat, would begin to relax.
Julia was unlike Ruthie in that she obsessively imagined the details of her parents’ final day and she seemed to relish doing so. They did not know yet, during the months that followed their parents’ death, that Julia would one day be a successful writer, would indeed one day write the story of her mother’s early adulthood: her decision to leave her first husband, her young child—Julia!—in tow, in order to marry Phil, the man who had captured Naomi’s heart during their brief romance when she was a freshman at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he was a senior at Duke. Phil would head to Nashville to begin law school shortly after his graduation. And because she was angry at Phil for dashing off to Vanderbilt without seeming to give a speck of thought to their budding relationship, Naomi finally agreed to go on a date with Matt Smith, a North Carolina State sophomore who had already asked her out three times.
It was Matt she would marry, Matt who would give her Julia, and Matt whose heart she would eventually break when she left him for Phil.
And so it made sense, retroactively, that Julia the writer was able to imagine Phil and Naomi’s last day in such unflinching detail. And while Ruthie did not want to imagine the details herself, she allowed Julia to tell of them, because it fixed a story to the horror, which somehow made it less random. (Nothing chilled Ruthie more than the possibility that the world was a random place where parents could die for no reason.) Julia’s story, which she embellished with details plucked from the encyclopedia about the Ford Trimotor, was comforting—to an extent—because it had a defined villain, Dusty Williams, the pilot. In Julia’s version Dusty had started his day with a six-pack of beer, followed by a little weed. In Julia’s version, Dusty’s plane had twice failed inspection.
(In truth, Dusty had possessed a clean flying record, and was by all accounts a model pilot. His plane had recently been inspected. Yes, it was old, but it was in good shape. It should not have crashed. Why it did remained a mystery. Maybe there was a bad fuel load? Maybe Dusty had a heart attack once the plane was up in the air, and no one else on board knew how to fly the old Tin Goose? No one would ever know. It wasn’t as if Dusty’s Trimotor was equipped with a black box.)
“Well,” said Julia. “You know that they got off to an early start. That Phil woke first and went down to the lobby to get a cup of coffee for Mom.”
“With cream and Equal,” said Ruthie. Her mother always took her coffee with real cream and Equal, an incongruity that Julia and Ruthie used to tease Naomi about.
“Right. Mom would have gotten out of the bed and pulled back the curtains, revealing a gorgeous day, the rising sun still a little pink in the sky. She would have looked out the window at the empty hotel pool, blue and sparkling all of those many feet below, too cold to swim in but nice to sit by. She might have wondered why they were leaving the hotel, were driving so many miles only to see the canyon and return to Las Vegas that night. She might have even considered asking Phil to cancel the trip, telling him that she had a headache and that the drive across the desert might make it worse.”
“No,” interrupted Ruthie. “She was looking forward to seeing the Grand Canyon. She told me before she left. Plus, Dad was so excited about driving that Mercedes.”
“I know, I know,” said Julia, impatient. “I’m just thinking that maybe that morning she had second thoughts about all of that driving. You know how bad a driver Phil was. But then he would have burst into the room holding her coffee in one hand, a Danish in the other, looking so eager, so excited, that she would have abandoned her misgivings and gotten dressed for the trip.”
“It was a cool day,” said Ruthie. “That’s what the newspapers said.”
“Cool but not too cold. Perfect for her brown linen pants and crisp white sleeveless shirt that she wore with a thin black cardigan. Phil was wearing khakis and one of those white linen shirts Mom was always buying him, a sweater tied around his waist.”
“Alex’s mom says you’re really not supposed to wear linen until the summer,” said Ruthie.
“You think they gave a shit what Alex’s mom thought of them way out in the desert?”
Ruthie shrugged. No, of course not. In Buckhead, their tony Atlanta neighborhood, and among the other Coventry mothers, Naomi worried about all of the rules she didn’t know, but she wouldn’t have cared out there.
“They would have kept the windows of the convertible rolled up, even though the top was down, so Phil’s shirt wouldn’t get dirty from all of the dust kicked up on the drive.”
“They were on the highway,” said Ruthie. “It wasn’t like they were driving through the desert.”
“They would have had the windows rolled up anyway. To protect Mom’s hair from getting all windblown.”
Their mother, like Julia, had been a natural redhead, auburn, really. But while Julia’s hair grew in loose curls, Naomi’s was straight like Ruthie’s. Naomi, who had been self-conscious about her looks, about her long nose and the little gap between her front teeth, always said that her red hair was her best feature.
“She would have wrapped a scarf around it,” said Ruthie. “One of the silk ones she and Dad bought in Florence.”
“Right. That’s right. A Ferragamo. So they were all dressed and ready to go—no need to pack the luggage; they were coming back late that night—but just before they left the room Mom suggested that they call home, just to check on you, just to say hello.”
In fact, her parents had not called the morning of the accident, and the possibility that Naomi had considered doing so caused Ruthie’s throat to tighten, caused her to have to lay her head on Julia’s bed to account for the heaviness she suddenly felt.
“But Phil said no. If Mother Martha answered they would have to talk with her for at least ten minutes—she was so hard to get off the phone—and besides, they had spoken with you just the night before. Plus, it was already nine A.M., they had a long drive ahead of them, and they did not want to waste away the morning in the hotel room. So Mom said fine, she’d call tomorrow when she could tell you all about seeing the Grand Canyon.
“Phil would have already arranged to have the rental car dropped off at the hotel, and so they would have stepped outside the lobby doors to find the cherry red Mercedes convertible waiting for them, keys in the ignition, top already down.”
“Otherwise Dad wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to do it,” Ruthie said.
(Phil’s lack of mechanical know-how had always been a running joke between the two girls. They used to tease him mercilessly about his habit of watching This Old House every Saturday afternoon.
“Do you even know how to hammer a nail?” Ruthie would ask her father.
You had to be careful about teasing Phil, because if his feelings were hurt he might lash out fiercely. But he always had the same response to his daughters’ jokes about his devotion to This Old House.
“I need to know what to look out for when I supervise the help,” he would say, and Julia and Ruthie would groan and roll their eyes.)
“They would climb in the car, which smelled of new leather, and Phil would slip The Eagles—Their Greatest Hits, brought from Atlanta, just for the occasion, into the CD player. Mom would check and make sure he had his driving directions with him, and he would wave away her concern but then go ahead and pat his breast pocket to make sure the directions were there. And then they were off.”
There was not too much they could imagine about the drive to the Grand Canyon, besides the wind whipping around their parents’ hair, despite the windows of the convertible being rolled up. Neither Ruthie nor Julia had been anywhere out west besides San Francisco, so they didn’t really know what the scenery looked like. They imagined that the road was empty, the sun was big, and there were cacti everywhere.
The noise from the wind would have made it too loud for their parents to talk during the drive, but Julia imagined that Phil slipped his hand onto Naomi’s leg once they made their way out of the city of Las Vegas and onto the open road. And both girls imagined that Phil drove way too fast, for he always sped, even when his daughters were strapped into the back of the car. Ruthie remembered one time when they were driving to Union City, Tennessee, to attend Naomi’s parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary and Phil took the car up to 100 mph. Naomi was asleep in the front seat, her head leaning against the window, but Julia, who was sitting behind Phil in the back, noticed where the needle on the speedometer was and pointed it out to Ruthie, who screamed, convinced that they were all going to die in a fiery crash.
“Phil must have driven even faster than normal to the Grand Canyon, because they arrived at Grand View Flights by two P.M. And we know they stopped for lunch before doing that.”
That detail had been revealed in the front-page story about the accident that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Metro section ran. Of course, you had to read past the jump to learn that Phil and Naomi last dined on huevos rancheros at a gas station in Arizona that housed within it a breakfast counter known for good Mexican food. The owner of the gas station, Javier Martin, a white-haired man with a waxed mustache, said the couple stood out to him, and not just because they were the only folks eating.
“They just seemed real in love, is all,” Javier was quoted as saying. “Making googly eyes and touching their knees together like they was on their honeymoon.”
To Javier Martin, Ruthie and Julia’s parents must have seemed like a couple from a movie: Naomi with her vibrant red hair, her silk scarf, her linen pants and crisp white shirt; Phil with his linen shirt, Stetson hat—surely purchased sometime during the vacation, for it was mentioned twice in the newspaper article, but neither Ruthie nor Julia had ever seen it—and cherry red Mercedes.
Perhaps even Phil and Naomi were aware of the cinematic nature of their jaunt to the Grand Canyon; perhaps that was why they readily signed the pages of release forms at Grand View Flights, agreeing not to sue should anything happen to them on their flight. Perhaps the whole day felt a little unreal and so they took a risk that they might not normally have taken, because, hell, they were on vacation, it was a beautiful day, they were dressed so elegantly: what could happen?
“You know Phil talked Mom into it,” said Julia. “You know she would have been nervous about boarding that rickety old plane, she would have suggested they just look at the canyon through a telescope, or even ride a donkey down into it. And Dad would have thrown his hands up in exasperation, said, ‘Naomi! You look for a snake under every rock.’”
This was something Phil often said to Naomi, who was a worrier like Ruthie. Or he would say, “See what I have to put up with?” when Naomi scolded him about driving too fast, or told him Julia was absolutely too old to order off the children’s menu, despite the deal, or refused to use the “nearly new” Kleenex he dug out of his pocket when Naomi sneezed, the folded halves of which were stuck suspiciously together, even though he promised he had not used it to blow his nose. He would grin at his daughters, repeating himself: “See what I have to put up with?” While everyone—Phil included—knew it was Naomi who had to put up with him.
“He might have talked her into it, but she wouldn’t have boarded the plane if she didn’t really want to do it,” said Ruthie. “She liked adventure.”
“And so they got in, waved to Dusty at the controls, his headphones already on, his eyes a little bloodshot from the six-pack of beer he had finished at his trailer earlier that day. The plane’s interior was elegant if antiquated, its wicker seats bolted to the floor. There was room for ten passengers on the plane, but there was only one other couple besides Mom and Dad on board. A childless couple in their fifties, on vacation from Canada. The rows were only one seat wide, so Mom and Phil had to hold hands across the aisle. They fastened their safety belts tightly against their laps. They waited to take off, excited. And then the engine noises intensified, and they were moving forward, picking up speed until the plane was going fast enough to lift off the ground.
“Everything was so loud around them, louder even than it had been on the convertible ride across the desert, and then they were going up, up, up, toward the clear blue sky. And Mom would have whispered, ‘Off we go, into the wild blue yonder,’ because she always whispered that at takeoff on airplanes. And her heart would have lifted at the excitement of what she and Phil were doing, she would have felt light and free and alive, and then she would have heard a terrible noise and the plane would have shook—”
“Stop,” said Ruthie. “I don’t want to think about that. I don’t want to think about the actual crash.”
But clearly Julia was feeling devilish, was feeling charged. She wanted to finish her story; she wanted to tell all its details, including the conclusion: the nosedive that ended in an explosive crash against the side of the canyon, the crash that left all five of them, the childless couple from Canada, Dusty, Phil, and Naomi, dead. To tell the story was to control it somehow.
“What did Mom think about during those last few seconds? Did she think about what would happen to us? Was she furious at Phil for pressuring her into boarding the plane? Did she try and pretend that everything still might turn out okay, that the plane might touch ground lightly, despite all evidence to the contrary? Did she pray? Did she cry? Did she and Phil kiss?”
Ruthie could not listen to her sister anymore. She banged her fists against her sister’s chest and shoulders, yelling, “Shut up, Julia. Just shut up!”
© 2010 Susan Rebecca White
Reading Group Guide
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After their parents are killed in a plane crash, half sisters Ruthie, thirteen, and Julia, sixteen, are shocked to learn of the instructions left in the will. These tight-knit sisters, who grew up in the shadow of their parent’s romance, will be sent from their Atlanta hometown to separate coasts, to live with very different families.
Cautious Ruthie adjusts to a new life with her generous, fun-loving aunt and uncle in San Francisco, but rebellious Julia struggles against the conventionality of her birth father and disapproving stepmom in a small town in Virginia. The vast differences in their new lives strain the sisters’ relationship to the breaking point, and they drift in (but mostly out) of each other’s orbits for the next twenty years, until an unexpected turn of events brings them together again.
1. Why do Ruthie and Julia so obsessively imagine their parents’ ill-fated Vegas vacation and the airplane crash that killed them? Julia feels “to tell the story was to control it, somehow.” Do you agree?
2. White gives clues early on as to pivotal events in the girls’ futures: that Julia will become a writer, that Ruthie will have an abortion. Why does she include these flash-forwards? How did anticipating these events change your reading of the story?
3. When she hears there has been an accident, Ruthie’s first fear is that Julia has been hurt, not her parents. Discuss the sisters’ bond. Why are the sisters so intensely connected? Do you think Julia and Ruthie would have been as close if their parents had not been so centered on their romance with each other?
4. Was Phil and Naomi’s romance worth the pain it caused others, particularly the pain it caused Julia? Ruthie realizes she “had always viewed her parents’ story through their eyes, the eyes of the victors.” How do you think Julia viewed Phil and Naomi’s relationship?
5. Did Naomi and Phil have any choice but to leave instructions in their will that in the event of their deaths Ruthie and Julia would go to separate guardians?
6. How does San Francisco shape Ruthie? How does Virden shape Julia?
7. Were you angry with Julia for writing about Ruthie’s abortion in her memoir? Are you able to see both sides of the issue?
8. As girls, Ruthie and Julia’s relationship is filled with games of Julia’s imagining. One simple but meaningful game they play is “Biscuit and Egg.” As children, what are some of the games you played with your siblings and friends? Retrospectively, what insights about your childhood do these games reveal?
9. How did you feel about the book’s ending? What do you think happens next, for Ruthie and Julia, and for Ruthie and Gabe?
10. How do you think the sisters’ lives would have turned out if their custodial arrangement had been switched?
11. Discuss the title of the book. Think about where Ruthie and Julia have “landed,” both physically (Atlanta, New York), in their careers (chef, writer), in their relationships with others, and in their relationship with each other.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Play “Seven Steps to an Unlikely Outcome” or “Who the Hell Is He?”
2. Ruthie becomes a chef, and the book includes many delicious descriptions of cooking. Reread the Thanksgiving dinner preparations in Chapter 8, and try making one of the dishes Ruthie and Uncle Robert create together. Or make Ruthie’s signature dessert, “Elvs” (peanut butter cookies filled with roasted banana ice cream, the sides of which are then rolled in crumbled caramelized bacon).
3. A Soft Place to Land focuses on the relationship between two sisters. Talk about your relationship with your own siblings and family members. Is there anyone you feel compelled to reconnect with?
A Conversation with Susan Rebecca White
What inspired you to write A Soft Place to Land? How did you choose to include real-life events, such as 9/11 and the plane crash on the Hudson? Did you begin with the end in mind, or did those elements simply find their way in?
Frankly, I was inspired to write A Soft Place to Land because my mind is filled with morbid “what ifs.” These morbid thoughts especially come to play when I’m on an airplane. Now on a rational level, I know that air travel is actually the safest form of transportation. And on a spiritual level, I think travel is a sublime practice—it’s important to experience new places, new cultures, new foods. But these are all thoughts my mind only allows on the ground. Once airborne, my rational thinking flies right out the pressure sealed window. I think it’s because airplane crashes, while rare, are so dramatic. Usually everyone on board dies, and the last few moments are a horror. Add to that the fact that if parents are on the same plane, a child’s family can be wiped out in one swoop. And what if those parents had daughters and the daughters were actually half siblings, and one still had a biological parent living . . . ?
I’m going to jump ahead to the third question and then work my way back to the second. I had no idea what the ending of this story would be when I started writing about Ruthie and Julia. All I knew was that I was going to tell of half siblings who were split apart after their parents died in a plane crash. In fact, initially I had four siblings in the story, but the more I wrote, the more I realized I needed to boil the sibling relationship down to its essence: that it needed to be about a particularly intense relationship between two sisters. I knew, too, that after the crash the girls needed to land in very different places, and that those places needed to have a profound impact on who they would become.
In terms of incorporating real life events: well, 911 occurred during the time span of the book (1993–2009), and it was such a terrible and defining event with such long reverberations. I don’t think there was any way not to include it. Especially because the actual day of September 11, 2001, was one where so many former grievances seemed petty. It was a day when people reevaluated their lives.
The “Miracle on the Hudson” was, for lack of a better expression, a strangely happy accident. (Not to diminish the horror experienced by those on the plane as it went down; still, the outcome was astonishing.) I first heard about US Air Flight 1549 while driving in my car. They were talking about it on the radio, how a plane had crashed but it looked like everyone on board might survive. I burst into tears while driving. It was just so poignant. Here was this hope, this proof that doom was not always inevitable. It was such a powerful story; I couldn’t stop thinking about it. (Who could?) And then it occurred to me: let Julia be on that flight! That way she could experience what her mother went through in the last moments of her life, an experience that would allow her to try for true reconciliation with Ruthie.
I know that you have a sister; can you tell us a bit about your relationship? Are there any parallels between you and your sister and Julia and Ruthie?
I actually have two half sisters and three half brothers. I have many memories of being the youngest of all of those kids, being caught in the giddy and chaotic swirl of a big family. But my oldest sister Lauren and I did have a special bond. She was, simply, a great deal of fun, and she and I spent an enormous amount of joyful time together. So yes, I absolutely based the love and intimacy that Julia and Ruthie have in their early years on Lauren’s and my relationship. Lauren was a fantastic inventor of games and stories, and I wanted to create that sense of childhood play on the page. (Full confession: Lauren and I did play “Biscuit and Egg,” and if she were beside me now she would insist I tell you that she was the one who made it up.)
That said, Ruthie and Julia are invented characters. And they change so much after they are separated by thousands of miles. So pretty much once the Grand Canyon crash occurs, and the girls are split apart, the resemblance between my fictitious sisters and Lauren and me evaporates.
You include great descriptions of both Atlanta and San Francisco. You grew up in Atlanta, and currently live there. You also spent time living in San Francisco. Did you need to do much research for the settings of your book, or were you already well versed in these cities?
Though I know mistakes happen, I really strive for verisimilitude in my stories. My feeling is that if I want my characters to seem as if they are made of flesh and blood, then I need the world they inhabit to match the world as it is, or as it was during the time the story takes place.
While drafting the book I didn’t do much research about Atlanta, but I did go to San Francisco for about a month, just to reconnect with the feel of the city. During that time I spent a couple of afternoons at the San Francisco public library, researching newspaper headlines from 1993, mainly so I could figure out what Mimi and Robert might discuss during dinner. After I finished a draft of the book I did a ton of research, to make sure that I was accurately describing the way Atlanta and San Francisco would have been over fifteen years ago. It’s amazing the changes that a decade and a half bring.
Here’s a minor example: initially when I wrote the book I had Dara and Ruthie meet at Peet’s Coffee on Market Street in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. (This is the scene during which the two friends play “Who the Hell is He?”) But then I called my friend Ellen Sinaiko, who has run a café in the Castro since the early eighties, and I casually asked whether or not Peet’s had been there in 1993. I was fully expecting her to say yes. But it had not! So I had to change the location to Café Flore, which, in fact, I think works better as a meeting spot for the two girls. So serendipitously, by fact checking I actually found a better place to set the scene. Or maybe serendipitous isn’t the right word, maybe this minor example just proves how good things will come from sweating the details.
There are great descriptions of meal preparations in the book. Do you cook? Did you invent Ruthie’s signature dessert, “Elvs”?
I love to cook. I think of it as my second passion, behind writing. I read cookbooks for pleasure, and spend time imagining which foods might taste good together.
I did invent “Elvs,” but I was greatly influenced by two sources: 1) the “phatty cakes” at Cakes & Ale restaurant in Decatur, Georgia, which are sandwiches of two spicy ginger cookies with a mascarpone cream filling, and 2) a dessert I had at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta. I don’t remember the exact specifics of the dessert, but I know it included caramelized banana, caramel sauce, and bacon crumbles. It was both earthy and sublime.
You’ve mentioned that you have a fear of flying. What made you decide to tackle that fear by incorporating two plane crashes into A Soft Place to Land? What do you imagine your last thoughts would be?
Wow, I wish I had tackled my fear of flying by writing this book. Unfortunately, I have only intensified it, especially after researching the details of the “Miracle on the Hudson” flight. That said, I think it’s important for me not to give into the fear, so I’ve learned to deal with it by 1) getting a prescription for Xanax for flights, 2) adopting the mantra, “It’s probably going to be okay,” and 3) making sure I have a charged iPod before I go to the airport, because listening to familiar music really soothes me on the plane.
I have some idea of what my last thoughts might be because I was once on a pretty intense flight that I thought was going to crash. Now, granted, I have an active imagination. Probably we were just going through severe—and I mean severe—turbulence. But there was a moment in the midst of the turbulence—I was hyperventilating, mind you—when the plane must have dropped 1,000 feet and I suddenly became very calm. I thought, Oh. This is it. This plane is actually going to crash. And suddenly, I was more or less okay. I was distantly sad that I was going to die but I realized that—as Julia says—it happens to everyone. I was glad that I had experienced such a great love with my husband, Alan, and I hoped the crash wouldn’t make the rest of my parents’ lives too sorrowful.
Eventually the turbulence subsided, and I realized we were going to be okay, and I felt panicky all over again, felt like I had to get off the plane that instant even though it was an international flight and we had about six more hours to go. But in those few moments when I honestly thought my death was imminent, I experienced a strange and comforting peace, which I allowed Julia to have during her own experience on Flight 1549.
Julia’s memoir incorporates personal details that Ruthie would rather not share with the world. Julia’s writing seems to be cathartic for her, but it has almost an opposite effect on Ruthie. Do you believe Ruthie is right to want to hold back details she remembers about their childhood? Which sister do you side with?
I don’t side with either. I absolutely understand why Ruthie felt betrayed and I absolutely understand why Julia included the detail about Ruthie’s past abortion, especially because in her memoir she never refers to Ruthie by name, only as “Biscuit.” My showing both sides of the story was probably my way of wrestling with what it means to be a writer.
Have you ever considered writing a memoir?
While I love my life, and feel immensely grateful for it, I’m not sure it warrants a memoir. Basically all I do is read (a lot), write, teach, cook, eat (a lot), walk the dog (not as much as she’d like), spend time with my husband, and eat meals with friends. And do laundry. In the summer I garden. Occasionally I go to the movies. And I’ll take any opportunity I can to escape to New Orleans or New York for a few days. (And in New Orleans and New York what do I do? I read, I spend time with my husband, I eat meals with friends . . .)
Which is all to say that the stories I make up are probably more interesting than my own life.
What are you working on next? Would you ever write a sequel to A Soft Place to Land?
I have just started working on my third book, and while I’m not yet ready to talk about the details of the story, I will say that cooking plays a huge role in it, and a good portion of it is set in New York City during the late 1940s.
Right now I’m not planning on writing a sequel for A Soft Place to Land, but who knows how I’ll feel later. I certainly imagine I’ll continue to explore its themes in my writing.
- Publisher: Atria Books (April 6, 2010)
- Length: 352 pages
- ISBN13: 9781416558699
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Raves and Reviews
"A Soft Place to Land is a beautiful story of the complicated love between two sisters. It's smart, funny, moving and wise. I simply did not want to put it down. If you have a sister, you're going to miss her, and if you don't have one, you'll wish that you did. Book clubs: This is your next pick. I loved this book. Susan Rebecca White is a wonderful writer."
– Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help
"Susan Rebecca White is a true original. She whacks through stereotypes with a machete, ultimately rejecting them all, and finding instead deep compassion for the flaws that make us human. This journey of two sisters' loss and longing is sure to win your heart."
– Todd Johnson, author of The Sweet By and By
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