Any Place I Hang My Hat

A Novel

About The Book

No matter which side of the nature/nurture debate you're on, Amy Lincoln's prospects do not look good. Her mother abandoned her when she was ten months old (just a couple of months after Amy's father went off to serve his first prison term), leaving her in the care of Grandma Lil, who shoplifts dinner on the way home from her job as a leg waxer to the rich and refined.

When Amy is fourteen, she gets a scholarship to a New England boarding school -- her exposure to the moneyed class. After Harvard and the Columbia School of Journalism, Amy becomes a political reporter for the prestigious weekly In Depth. While covering a political fund-raiser, Amy meets a college student who claims to be the son of one of the presidential candidates. It's precisely the sort of story that In Depth wouldn't deign to cover, but the idea of tracking down a lost parent and demanding recognition intrigues Amy. As she begins a search of her own past as well as the candidate's, she discovers a new and unimpeachable grandmother and a mother who is much more than she bargained for. Most important, she finally comes to understand the stuff she's made of and finds the perfect place to hang her hat in the world.

Bold, insightful, witty, and exhilarating, Any Place I Hang My Hat is a novel about one extraordinary young woman looking for a place to belong -- by one of the most compelling and beloved voices in contemporary fiction.

Excerpt

Chapter One

I stepped off the elevator right into the entrance gallery of the co-op. Wow. It was oval. White marble floor, black lacquered walls, ringed with eight or ten white columns topped with marble busts, like a hall of fame for some minor sport. The hostess of the fund-raiser eyed my photo ID, which hung from a metal bead chain. "Well," she said, "In Depth magazine. I absolutely adore it."

"Tha -- " I replied.

I didn't get out nk you because she cut me off: "Is the photographer meeting you here?"

"Sorry, we don't use them. No photos, no illustrations." She'd had her eyes done, so they couldn't open wider than they already were. Still, I sensed she was surprised. "Only text," I explained. "We're the serious, boring weekly."

"Right. Of course no photos. I don't know what I was thinking. But don't call In Depth boring. I think people are feeling desperate for depth these days. Well, enjoy. Feel free to help yourself to hors d'oeuvres." Her dress, I noticed, was the 2003 New York noncolor, white. Ivory silk bands were sewn horizontally, making her look as if she'd stopped her own mummification to join the party.

Although the words In Depth on my press credentials were clear enough to her, I could see she couldn't quite make out my name. I helped her. "Amy Lincoln." A microsecond of hostess uncertainty: Lincoln? Her upper lip twitched. Should her first smile have been warmer? Her heretofore unlined forehead furrowed as she pondered asking: Any relation to the -- ?

If she could have seen the rest of the fruit on our family tree, she wouldn't have pondered. Any relation to the -- ? Please! So where did the name come from? Though highly unlikely, it's conceivable that Grandma Lillian Lincoln's explanation of the family surname was a misconception, not her usual flagrant lie: something to the effect that in the penultimate year of the nineteenth century, some Protestant clerk on Ellis Island with an antic sense of humor wrote down "Samuel Lincoln" when my great-grandfather -- full of beard, dark of eye, and large of nose -- stepped before him.

More likely, Great-grandpa Schmuel Weinreb heard the names Washington and Lincoln while hanging out around the pickle barrel in downtown Nizhni Novgorod listening to stories about the Golden Land. Flipping a kopek, he got tails. Could he truly have believed that by being a Lincoln, he could keep anyone in New York from noticing his six extant teeth and ten words of English? Probably. My family tended to prefer fantasy to actual thought.

Take Grandma Lil. She took the subway uptown a day or two or three a week to fill in as a substitute waxer, ripping the hair off the lips, legs, and random chins of the famous and the merely rich at Beauté, an uptown, upscale salon.

From the jet-set and celebrity clientele, Grandma learned about the finer things of life, information she felt obliged to pass on to me, mainly because no one else would listen. Inadvertently, she also taught me what not to do. Early on, I sensed that pointing out that one shouldn't wear white shoes before Memorial Day was not the way to endear oneself to one's neighbors in one's low-income housing project.

Anyhow, a hundred and five years after Great-grandpa Schmuel, there I was, Amy Lincoln, at a political fund-raiser hosted by some men's footwear magnate in his ten-room co-op on Central Park West. His wife, now high on the abracadabra combo of In Depth and Lincoln, murmured to me: "If you want something more than hors d'oeuvres, I can have our chef, Jean-Pierre, whip up a light supper." This time she aspirated the hors hard enough for me to get a whiff of the garlic in Jean-Pierre's boudin blanc terrine. I said no thanks.

Listen, I was there to do my job, to observe the most recently declared Democratic candidate for the presidential nomination, Senator Thomas Bowles of Oregon. Originally the scion of an old and still-monied New York family, Bowles had gone west and made a larger, eco-friendly fortune for himself by finding some new way to recycle tires.

Normally, reporters were not allowed into private homes for events like these, probably on the theory that they'd pick up a disparaging remark and use it as their lead. Or they'd glom a thousand bucks' worth of Beluga, leaving seventy-five potential contributors with two hundred pygmy buckwheat blinis and a surfeit of lemon wedges. The senator's campaign manager, normally a human piranha, had made an exception for me because In Depth was so dignified it never published bitchy observations regarding a candidate's dyed hair or ferocious temper. And naturally, any insinuations about unconventional sexual predilections, even really sick and/or fantastically interesting ones, were left to lesser periodicals.

Anyhow, I'd been traveling with Senator Bowles's campaign for a few days now. I'd watched him avoid probably thirty thousand empty calories by sipping bottled water, and was awed by his willpower and robust bladder. Politically, he was a little to the left of where I stood; the word evil -- à la Reagan's evil empire and W's axis of evil -- wasn't in his vocabulary, and corporation was consistently a pejorative. Still, going on this campaign swing had been a plus for me. I was impressed by the thoughtful way Thom Bowles spoke about his big issues. With eagerness, too, as though complex ideas were not to be recoiled from but enjoyed. I admired his I-dare-you-to-call-me-liberal American flag pin as well as his clarity: Two days earlier, in Story City, Iowa, his explanation of the social and psychological underpinnings of global terrorism had turned an audience of small business owners from thinking "pinko weenie tree-hugger" to "Hey, he really knows his stuff."

Bowles was in his second term in the Senate, and from the start of his political career, he'd been a frequent talking head on news shows. His depth of knowledge, aw-shucks persona, and seeming lack of self-righteousness combined with a bit of humor made his the perfect response to all those ranting right-wing babes with Alice-in-Wonderland hair and Jewish neo-cons so low-key they appeared anesthetized. Also, he could make ordinary voters comprehend the gravity of issues -- the greenhouse effect, the crises in Social Security funding and in the penal system -- that usually left them snoring.

Alas, his campaign had gotten off to a bumpy start. During his announcement of his candidacy, the senator proclaimed: "Our penile system is in atrocious shape!" A single, nervous fluff in a career remarkably free of bloopers and gaffes. After cruel and hilarious coverage on The Daily Show, the other late-night talk show hosts kept it alive for two weeks. This had been Thomas Bowles's first penile-free week, but his usual fluency and light touch had diminished; he actually seemed rattled. Day after day, sprinkles of sweat covered his forehead. He couldn't seem to stop inserting uhs as if they were commas, so on guard was he against a "pubic policy" suddenly bursting forth.

I glanced toward the living room. I figured the senator must be in the center of the herd of Manhattanites standing between the marble-covered Italian console that was serving as a bar and a Louis-probably-XV chair so commodious that at least three Bourbons could have sat side by side by side on its gold-damask-covered seat. However, Thom Bowles was not easy to spot. While he photographed as Strapping Western Outdoor Man, with rectilinear jaw and skin the color of a sun-dried tomato, he was not much more than five foot seven and built along the lines of a gazelle.

Before I get to what happened to Thom Bowles at that fund-raiser (and after), I should return to me for a minute, because this narrative is only peripherally about the senator. His fund-raiser is simply a good place to start my own story of loss, love, passion, abandonment, social mobility, and Discovery of Missing Person -- not necessarily in that order. I don't want to sound overly dramatic, but my existence has had a fair amount of Drang, if not bona fide Sturm.

Okay, so there I was, Amy Elizabeth Lincoln, journalist. With an A.B. (Harvard, '94) and an M.S. (Columbia School of Journalism, '96). The sort of woman who ought to be self-confident enough not to have to flash her academic credentials. I stood on the border of entrance gallery and living room in the headache-inducing heat and Saharan aridity of that apartment on Central Park West, wearing a too-woolly gray herringbone pantsuit under which -- in thrall to some idiot early-morning sexual fog -- I'd put on my one and only thong. So I'd had a daylong itch I could not scratch. Admittedly, I had a fair amount of self-discipline, both below the belt and above the neck. People usually make associate editor at In Depth in their mid-thirties. I'd done it at twenty-eight. I could be very focused.

A little more about the magazine: No Spielberg cover photos à la Newsweek for us. No cartoony drawing of some schmendrick on a cloud to go with "Does Heaven Exist?" à la Time either. In Depth's cover was merely its contents listed on the front page. As for our readers, they were educated, the sort who did not have to be reminded of the difference between monetary and fiscal policy. They could nod knowingly at a reference to Keats's epitaph.

My beat was the Democrats, an assignment that ought to have gone to a staffer with a more mordant sense of humor than mine. However, a sense of humor and focus were necessary not merely to face Democrats, but also to deal with one's personal issues. Ergo, a brief step off the footwear mogul's seventy-five-thousand-dollar, creamy yellow and pink Savonnerie rug and onto the grimy, commercial-grade gray carpet in my cubicle at In Depth. The photos on my desk best introduce my family and my life.

My parents were framed in burled bird's-eye maple. It was the only photograph I'd ever seen of them together.

First, father. Charles "Chicky" Lincoln, a.k.a. Chaz Linconi, a.k.a. Dallas Armstrong, a.k.a. Charles Von Hamburg. In that picture, Chicky was sitting comfortably on a high stool -- bar, not soda fountain -- with Phyllis Morris Lincoln, a.k.a. my mother, albeit not for long, perched atop his knee. The photo, one of the few of my father that wasn't a mug shot, was taken a few months after I was born, probably in late '73 or early '74.

Except for Chicky's amiable expression, he looked like the sort of guy a teenage girl would go out with to frighten her parents. Tall: six feet two inches. Long black sideburns, longer hair. Not bushy like Woodstock guys' of that era. Chicky's hair was held in place by some kind of James Dean slime. His biceps looked so buff they stretched out the sleeves of his tie-dyed T-shirt. Back then, in the early seventies, he was working as a part-time driver for Frank ("Clockwork") Silvaggio, a caporegime in the Gambino family, who had originally hired my father in the mistaken belief that all Jews are smart.

My mother? From their size differential, it seemed clear she was somewhere between tiny and petite. That could have made her look like a ventriloquist's dummy on Chicky's lap. Except with her arms pressed stiffly against her sides and her lower legs parallel lines ending in espadrilles, she looked more rigid than any mere block of wood. The marriage had clearly gone south by then.

From the bits of information I'd gleaned over the years from assorted relatives, neighbors, and the random social worker, my parents' troubles began with the Housing Issue: Their love nest was a walk-up on the Lower East Side of New York, a few blocks north and west of Grandma Lil's housing project. At the time my parents lived there, it had been one hundred and fifty years since the neighborhood had gone from humble to slummy. It would be another twenty-five before it was rehabbed enough for cool Jews to move back -- along with the hip of all races, creeds, and national origins.

The story went that Chicky tried to pass off their two-room apartment as in a "happening" part of town. My mother told him it was a hellhole. Chicky once admitted to me that the three of us had shared the premises with a rodent. "It wasn't like huge. Sort of like...cutely chubby." He said he'd named it Mickey, "because Phyllis was having hysterics. So I made a joke about it." My mother, however, didn't laugh. She called it a rat.

There was also the Money Issue. They had next to nothing. That was because Chicky was paying off a loan shark from whom he'd borrowed to take my mother on an extravagant honeymoon to El San Juan Hotel that included gambling and pearls. "Amy, babes, you never saw pearls like that! Like from chickens instead of oysters."

Despite the pearls my mother was discontent. I can say that with great assurance because the week before my first birthday, she left me with Grandma Lil while she ran some errands. "See you later, sweets," my mother is said to have called out to me as she walked out the door. She never returned.

A couple of days after she left, she mailed a brief letter postmarked New York to say she wasn't dead. I suppose that was the good news. The bad news was her certainty that I'd be better off without her. She wasn't coming back. Eventually, through the George Washington Plunkett Apartments' grapevine -- where someone knew someone on Bank Street in Greenwich Village who was the great-uncle of one of my mother's blabbier girlfriends -- Grandma Lil learned my mother had been keeping company with a guy whose first name sounded like Maumoon. His last name was some variation of Hussain, and he was said to be a bodyguard for the Consul of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Maldives to the United Nations. My mother supposedly met him at a hot dog stand outside a B.B. King concert at the Fillmore East. Whether she'd actually run off to Suradiva with him or ditched him was anybody's guess.

Getting back to my parents' photo: Despite its being an interior shot in a dark bar, my mother wore large sunglasses. Because she was on Chicky's lap, I couldn't gauge her height, but obviously I got my stature -- or lack of it -- from her. Also, since it was a black-and-white picture, she appeared to have shoulder-length charcoal gray hair and ivory lips. Chicky told me she was a "stunning redhead." Grandma Lil swore her hair was brown.

Through the years, I'd tinted the chiaroscuro photograph two ways. First, my mother has my color hair, red-highlighted brown; she's wearing a headband. Red-highlighted Mom isn't the least bit wooden. She's adorable, exuberant, doing such a fabulous adaptation of the Frug or the Monkey that all the other dancers have stopped to watch her. My other image is Sophisticated Mom, languid on a chaise longue in Cap d'Antibes, flaming hair dipping, Nicole Kidman-like, over one of her huge green eyes. (Mine are large and hazel, nice enough, but there has never been a sonnet extolling hazel eyes.)

I guess it's important to mention that just three weeks before my mother took off, Chicky also had to say his good-byes. He was making his first trip up the river, this time to the Downstate Correctional Facility, to serve four to six for grand larceny, to wit, stealing a five-carat diamond ring for my mother.

With good time, he returned when I was four. We moved out of Grandma's into a room with kitchen privileges in an apartment in the West Thirties. The bathroom only had a shower, so I had my baths in the kitchen sink. We stuck to each other like glue. Luckily, he loved as much as I did. I recall our TV had a screen so wide and luminous that it lit the entire room. I fell asleep most nights watching the colors flickering through my closed lids. I was convinced that if I concentrated, I'd be able to see whatever grown-up movie Chicky would be watching after my bedtime. How did we get such an extravagant TV? I suppose one of Chicky's high school friends -- men I knew as Uncle Denny, Uncle Moose, Uncle Chuy -- must have stolen the television for him as a Welcome Back, Chickman! gift.

"Amy babes," Chicky would ask every day, "what you want for lunch?" Naturally I was in on the joke, knowing that no matter what I said it would be macaroni and cheese -- whatever pasta he'd gotten on sale plus half a can of undiluted Campbell's Cheddar Cheese Soup. We'd share it, eating from the pot. Sadly, my father was back inside a little more than two years later. Grand larceny again. This time, assault as well.

He'd committed this crime for me. Chicky had decided I needed a more stable environment. Instead of trying to get a job, not easy with a criminal record, he determined he should be self-employed. So he set himself up as a limo driver with a car that had his name on it. He accomplished that entrepreneurial coup by stealing a 1979 Lincoln Continental. Then he talked his old boss, Frank Silvaggio, into hiring him back. On one of my quarterly visits to the prison, when I was nine, he raised his right hand: "I swear on my mother's grave, Amy babes. That assault thing? I'm innocent."

"Grandma's still alive," I pointed out. "I live with her. Remember? They gave her custody again because you had to go away."

"Yeah. Sorry, Ame. It stinks for you, it stinks for me. So listen to what really happened." Chicky explained he'd merely been driving his new Lincoln. Yeah, yeah, it was stolen and he'd been a moron because he'd left the New Jersey plates on overnight thinking, Hey, the guy I'm gonna get nonhot New York plates from wouldn't want Chicky Lincoln knocking on his door at three in the morning, and also I didn't wanna leave you at Grandma Lil's overnight because I knew you hated Raisin Bran. But he swore all he'd done was drive the Lincoln with Frank and Vinny DeCicco, along with some poor schnook of a restaurateur, to a remote section of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. "It was Frank and Vinny that roughed up the guy. I was, you know, sitting behind the wheel, looking the other way, listening to my Temptations tape. On a stack of Bibles, babes, I was minding my own business."

"You call what happened to that restaurant guy 'roughed up'?" I demanded. "Chicky, he was in the hospital for three weeks."

"Yeah? And what did he prove in the end? Huh? He could've gotten his tablecloths and aprons and crap from Silvaggio's Linen Service and not wasted all that time in the hospital."

So my upbringing was pretty much left to Grandma Lil, not the brightest bulb on the menorah. However, it was convenient for me to have someone to blame for my preference for schmaltzy movies over exquisite literature, as well as my secret belief that Polyhymnia's muse-dom should be abrogated in favor of Estée, goddess of makeup. Also, Grandma taught me all the indispensable life lessons she'd garnered from her ladies at Beauté. The best skiing in the world is at Chamonix. The only permissible color for patent leather accessories is black.

Grandma Lil's photograph is in a tasteful russet leather frame. Even in my office's harsh fluorescence, her photo bore no resemblance to me or my father. (God is good.) As a kid, I thought she looked like a relative of the Potato Heads. She had Mrs. P's Oooh! thick ruby lips, Oh-my-God! eyes, and front-facing ears. Though not Mrs. P's sweetly dumb demeanor. Grandma could have been the start of a whole new product line, the Supercilious Potato Heads.

Whenever there was a camera around, Grandma Lil got grander than usual, as though she should be posing for Sargent and photography was a comedown. She'd perform her concerto of sighs, then shrug, acknowledging defeat. After that, she'd spit delicately on her palms and slick down her Dutch girl-style blond hair over her ears. She'd lift her chin, suck in her cheeks, and dilate her already-sizable nostrils. In the photograph, she looks not merely haughty, but also capable of exhaling two grapefruit. In all fairness, however, what look like arrogantly elevated eyebrows could be open to exegesis. Drawn on each day with light brown pencil, they never were in the same place. Their raised position might have indicated disdain or that the bulb on her magnifying mirror had blown.

Grandma Lil's blondness? Once every three or four weeks, she'd pocket a bottle of Beauté's Morning Sun formula. At our bathroom sink, she tried to duplicate the Look that murmured New York socialite. But whether because of ineptitude or some missing secret ingredient, her hair always turned out the brash yellow of egg yolk rather than the pale, high-fat-content French butter blonde of the Ladies.

Finally, one more Lincoln, Aunt Linda. Breaking stereotype, my father's sister was a beautiful but dumb brunette. She had married an amiable, handsome fireman who was her intellectual equal. I remember as a kid, whenever they took me somewhere for the day or had me over for a weekend, my jaw would be charley-horsed afterward from smiling. I suppose I was hoping that they'd be so enchanted they'd take me back to Brooklyn to live with them. They didn't. They never had children, so probably it wasn't anything personal. In any case, they were only inches from Grandma Lil, in the heart-shaped Lucite frame they'd given me for my twenty-first birthday: Aunt Linda and Uncle Sparky (actually Anthony) Napolitano.

Oh, my own curriculum vitae: By age fourteen, I sensed a change of scenery might be salutary. Chicky was still in the big house. With each visit, I grew unhappier about the lulls in our conversation. How come we couldn't kid around anymore? With each visit, I'd get more revolted by the stink of the inmates. Eventually, whenever I climbed onto the bus to go up to Sing Sing, I was already nauseated. With each visit, I'd get more leers, more tongues ostentatiously trailing over lips, more rasping queries -- "You bad girl?" -- from the prisoners and their visitors, to say nothing of the guards.

Back home, two of my good friends from school, Alida and Lucy, both smart girls, dropped out to take care of their babies. Another, Jade, left to support her family. She was earning fifty bucks a head performing fellatio on homebound New Jersey commuters who would have otherwise gotten peevish during the usual thirty-minute wait to get into the Holland Tunnel. Some other girl, a couple of years ahead of me, became paranoid from a crack overdose and wound up stabbing her sister to death.

Around that time, my social worker, Joan Murdoch, mentioned that some of the best New England boarding schools were looking for girls from poor families. "What for?" I demanded, immediately seeing myself on my knees in a scullery maid's outfit -- minus the singing mice and a fairy godmother.

"They want their students to get to know all different types of people -- "

"Like one of those Rich or poor, black or white, Native American, Asian, we're all one big American family who accepts each other's differences videos?"

"Partly, but -- "

"They always play 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee' and show five million faces, but -- I swear to God -- they use the same Orthodox rabbi in every one."

"Don't interrupt me, Amy. They also know they're lucky to have such wealth. They think it's only fair to give some promising girls from low-income families the opportunity to get the same education rich girls get."

"What's the catch?"

"Well," she said slowly, "you wouldn't be living at home during the school year -- " Sold!

My guidance counselor at Intermediate School 495 genuinely believed I could do well anywhere, but she asked: "How about Bronx Science, Amy? I don't know if you'd be comfortable at a place like...Ivey-Rush." Yes, that Ivey-Rush. Even I knew about it. But then, for years I'd been reading the copies of Town and Country Grandma Lil swiped from her job. I knew from boarding schools.

So I said to my guidance counselor: "Don't worry, Ms. Buonavitacola. If I get in, I'll be fine."

The brochure was printed on shiny paper so thick it didn't squeak: Located in the serene and verdant Connecticut Valley, the Ivey-Rush Academy was founded in 1903 by Susannah Ivey and Abigail Rush. These two young graduates of Mount Holyoke College were determined "to provide young women with an education as rigorous as that offered to young men."

Serene sounded good. As far as the verdancy business went, the only things not green in the brochure's photographs were Tuttle Chapel (redbrick) and the students (white and yellow, as well as browns ranging from beige to mahogany), although once I got there I realized that about two-thirds of the nonwhites in the photo must have been hired for the day from some Diversity, Our Specialty model agency).

Joan Murdoch helped me fill out the application. When we finished, I told her that if I were half as gifted as all my teachers raved I was, I had a shot. She agreed. Once Grandma Lil discovered she would still be my legal guardian and that my going away would not jeopardize her monthly check from the City of New York, she signed her name to my application in the rounded, overlarge letters of the semiliterate.

With the application, I submitted a heart-wrenching essay about visiting Chicky in prison: "Father's Day" was full of shocking language -- in quotation marks, to assure the admissions committee that I, personally, wasn't the kind of girl who'd say "cocksucker." Having the typical fourteen-year-old's penchant for the lurid, I filled it with graphic descriptions of disgusting smells, oozing sores, plus wails from junkie girlfriends begging for money. Ivey-Rush was thrilled with such a well-phrased account of degradation. And to show you how refined they were, when the first alumna interviewer discovered that Amy Lincoln, the leading candidate for the year's Fahnstock Scholarship -- the school's guarantee of at least one black face in the class photograph -- was white, not only did she do a reasonably good job of hiding her dismay, she recommended that the admissions committee let me in. Graciously, they designated me a "full needs" student, which meant all fees, room, board, and books plus ten dollars a week spending money were on the house.

But to get back to work, and to the Democrats: A waiter was offering tiny circles of pumpernickel overlaid with curls of smoked salmon, which in turn were topped by minuscule twirls of crème fraîche. Most of the guests appeared to be going through the predictable internal debate -- How much sodium how many calories how many carbs can this three-quarter-inch canapé contain? -- before wolfing down a few.

Senator Thom Bowles declined the hors d'oeuvres without a second's consideration and remembered to flash a fast, egalitarian, vote-for-me smile at the waiter. The candidate had been to enough parties like this that he knew even slightly salty salmon could cause dry mouth; caviar was also a no-no, not just because of its salinity, but because a really fine Beluga might turn his teeth gray.

By this time, it was a little after eight-thirty on a Monday night late in February. The sleet and hail beating against the windows sounded like hundreds of angry women tapping acrylic nails. I had spent the afternoon with the senator's top adviser on taxes, mostly in a dark conference room, drinking a dangerous amount of Diet Dr Pepper to keep myself from getting comatose as I studied her graphs and pie charts. My pantsuit itched and I was so tired I felt my immune system was compromised. Lichen could grow on the insides of my cheeks and over my tongue.

At that point, it occurred to me that I ought to get the hell out of the fund-raiser, get home, and go to bed. Any details I'd forgotten? I knew that the footwear king's name was Harlan Kleinberg, but I had to get his wife's first name, though it was dubious that I would mention them in the article. Still, if I did I wasn't going to be able to refer to her as the Missus. I headed toward her, figuring she was just the type to have an annoying name -- Tawnee Blankenship-Kleinberg -- when I heard a voice above the Manhattan murmur of the guests. I turned and saw a guy at the door. He was about nineteen. Clean-cut, but not overly so, not like those kids who try to grab you in airports. He wore jeans and a sweatshirt with CCNY, City College of New York, in an arc across his chest. His black hair was soaked into a tight cap from the weather and sparkled with flecks of hail that had not yet melted. Café-with-a-lot-of-lait skin. Built small, one of those mini-men who make the average woman standing beside him appear the size of a Thanksgiving Day parade balloon.

"I'm here to see the senator," the kid was telling the Missus and a man who looked like he might have difficulty spelling cat. I assumed the latter was part of Bowles's security detail. Even though the CCNY guy didn't appear nuts, the Missus and Security seemed to be blocking his entrance. Their heads, however, were turned away from him, toward the living room, as if seeking instruction on what to do. I figured the kid might be a too-enthusiastic Bowles Brigade volunteer. "I said" -- his voice got louder, though not aggressively so -- "I'd like to see Senator Bowles, please." I strolled toward the front door until I was about four feet from him. He glanced at me, at my press ID, then immediately looked back at the guests. "Senator Bowles," he announced. Really loud.

Well, he caught the attention of everyone in that endless living room. Forty or fifty people in four-hundred-dollar shoes swiveled in a single direction: toward the door. They then spread out, opening up like a line of chorus cuties, with Thom Bowles having the star tapper's center spot. He stood still. Although I was too far away to really be sure, it seemed to me I could read something out of the ordinary in the movement of his eyelids. Flicker, flicker, flicker, flicker, fast as a strobe. CCNY, though unsmiling, had the pleasant expression of someone selling Boy Scout cookies. So what was the senator's blinking business? Fear? I couldn't stop thinking: Wow! Could this be my dream? A sensational story?

Sure, I worked for In Depth. Yet now and then I'd sensed in myself the instincts of a tabloid reporter. Any sign of Crash! Clash! Conflict! was music to my ears. Unfortunately, the magazine's unofficial motto was Shhhh! Anyhow, my gut began screaming out to myself: Shit! Why can't you keep a disposable camera in that abyss of a backpack? My intellect then reminded me that in this era of almost incessant visual excitation, only In Depth deliberately stayed away from the cutting edge.

Now all eyes were riveted on the kid except mine, which were on Thom Bowles. From where I was, near the front door in the vast entrance gallery, the senator's sun-dried face was growing redder. Cut the crap, I told myself. He's not afraid, he's perfectly...And if he seems afraid, well, what candidate these days can endure even the pop of a champagne cork without a shudder?

Suddenly, Bowles's stick of an index finger began stabbing the air in a forward direction. Out! A vicious stab. Get that kid out of here! Except CCNY and I were probably the only ones who saw it, as everyone else's eyes were fixed on the kid. Out! Out! OUT! the finger shouted. I turned back to the kid. No twirling eyeballs. No threatening gestures. Certainly no weapon. Just another college guy who chose that moment to cry: "I am Senator Thomas Bowles's son!"

Which was interesting because Senator Bowles and his wife only had two daughters.

Copyright � 2004 by Susan Isaacs

Reading Group Guide

QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

1. It has been nearly three decades since Amy's mother left her with Grandma Lil. What is it about Freddy Carrasco's story that makes Amy seriously consider looking for her mother after all this time? Why does she go out of her way to help Freddy, even referring him to a lawyer?
2. Amy spent her childhood in a low-income housing project, and in her teens she attended an elite private boarding school. How has each of these experiences contributed to shaping who she is? Has being a part of these two very different social classes actually been an asset to her?
3. What makes Amy and Tatty's friendship so strong? They are different in many ways-both in lifestyle and personality-but is there anything they have in common?
4. In one instance Amy reveals, "For the five thousandth time in my career I wished that instead of being a writer at In Depth, I could be something else, something with emotion" (pg 190). Why do you suppose Amy chose a career as a journalist? Does it have anything to do with its emphasis on fact and not on emotion, as she seems to indicate? How important is professional achievement to Amy?
5. As a reporter, part of Amy's job is to interview, evaluate, and observe other people and then depict them accurately in print. How does Amy see herself? How do others see her, including Tatty, John, Gloria, Chicky, Rose, and Aunt Linda? Compare Amy's public persona with the private person.
6. "I was quite young, sixteen or so, when I decided I wanted a child no matter what. Even back then, I understood I might not be anyone's idea of a prize in the marriage sweepstakes. So husband or no, I would have a baby. Be in a family" (pg 84). Are you surprised that Amy wants a child of her own? Why or why not? What do you think of her motivations for wanting a child? How does she reconcile her desire for a family with her fear that she might abandon her child, as her mother did?
7. How would you describe Amy's meeting with Rose? Did anything about their visit surprise you? What similarities do Amy and Rose share?
8. Tatty says to Amy, "Compare [Rose] to Grandma Lil and ChickyŠ. Lil was responsible. She probably even loved you in her own self-centered, clueless way. Even if she didn't, she did what was right. She stuck by you. And look at Chicky. He got out of jail and what was the first thing he did? Took care of youŠ. Both of them had good character" (pg 233). What does Amy come to realize about Grandma Lil that she might have misjudged? How about Chicky?
9. How come it took Amy until her 29th year to begin the search for her mother?
10. The first thing Véronique says to Amy when she sees her in the parking lot is, "Get away from me!" What does this reaction to Amy's appearance say about Véronique? When they sit down to talk, how does she justify leaving Amy? Do you have any feelings of empathy for Véronique?
11. Did Amy's conversation with her mother unfold as you expected it would? Why or why not? Does it unfold as Amy thought it would? Does Amy's conversation with her mother give her the closure she seeks?
12. In the beginning of the story Amy is intending to break off her relationship with John. What makes her realize that he is the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with? Do you think she and John are right for each other? Are the ups and downs Susan Isaacs portrays in their relationship realistic?
13. Who is more responsible for their breakup, Amy or John?
14. Susan Isaacs has said that "dialogue has always been the easiest for me. I hear it whether they're a fishwife in Brooklyn or like Tatty." What do you think about the dialogue in this book? Is this where the characters show their characters? Is it what makes the book vivid and lively?
15. Amy could easily have lived the life of "victim." What is there in her character and background that make her so resilient?
16. What does Amy learn about family during her search for her mother? Along the way, how do her relationships with the people around her change? What is the greatest change that happens to Amy? In the end, does she find a place to hang her hat?

About The Author

© Deborah Feingold

Susan Isaacs is the author of thirteen novels, including As Husbands Go, Any Place I Hang My Hat, Long Time No See, and Compromising Positions. She is a former editor of Seventeen and a freelance political speechwriter. She lives on Long Island with her husband. All of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (August 14, 2012)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476704234

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Raves and Reviews

"A book with substance and a big heart."
-- The Seattle Times

"Nobody does smart, gutsy, funny, sexy women better than Susan Isaacs.... A merrily observant, moving, and -- as always with Isaacs -- very entertaining novel."
-- The Washington Post

"A witty, warm-hearted novel, with a heroine you'll cheer for until the final page...an absolute treat."
-- Jennifer Weiner, author of Goodnight Nobody

"Well-written, very funny, and incredible smart."
-- O, The Oprah Magazine

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