This novel will surely resonate in the heart of anyone who’s had a best friend, a love lost, or a past full of regrets…
The complexities of friendship. The unraveling of a neglected marriage. And the redemptive power of literature…Julie Buxbaum, the acclaimed author of The Opposite of Love, delivers a powerful, gloriously written novel about love, family, and the secrets we hide from each other, and ourselves.
On a cobblestone street in Notting Hill, Ellie Lerner’s life-long best friend, Lucy, is stabbed to death in front of her eight-year-old daughter. Ellie, of course, drops everything – her job, her marriage, her life in the Boston suburbs – and travels to London to pick up the pieces of the life Lucy has left behind. While Lucy’s husband, Greg copes with his grief by retreating to the pub, eight-year-old Sophie has simply stopped speaking.
Desperate to help Sophie, Ellie turns to a book that gave her comfort as a child, The Secret Garden. As the two spend hours exploring the novel, its story of hurt, magic and healing blooms around them. But so, too, do the secrets Lucy kept hidden, even from her best friend. As Ellie peels back the layers of her friend’s life, she’s forced to confront her own as well – the marriage she left behind, the loss she’d hoped to escape, and the elusiveness of the place we choose to call home.
Let’s pretend that things are different. That in the last couple of days, I haven’t become the kind of person who resorts to wishing on eyelashes, first stars of the night, and the ridiculous 11:11, both a.m. and p.m., in earnest and with my eyes closed. That Lucy and her family haven’t transformed into tabloid stars with a full picture on the cover of the Daily Mail with the headline Notting Hill Murdergate!, and the lead story on the BBC evening news. Let’s pretend that I am home, on the right side of the Atlantic, the one where I understand the English language, and that tomorrow will be just like early last week, or the week before that one, when the days were indistinguishable. That it’s not necessary to resort to memories—to a time before—when I think of Lucy.
How about this: Let’s just pretend that Lucy is not dead.
That she will not continue to be dead now, even though that’s what that means—dead.
“Want some more?” I ask Sophie, Lucy’s eight-year-old daughter, but she seems uninterested in the elaborate bowl of ice cream I’ve doused with concentric circles of whipped cream. She sits with her knees drawn to her chest and her arms wrapped around them. An upright fetal position, a pose that has been as reflexive for her as irrational wishing and pretending has been for me. Striped pastel pajamas ring her legs—pink, blue, yellow stripes—and on top, she wears a long-sleeved T-shirt with a decal of a purple horse with a silver mane. Her socks have abrasive soles that scratch and swish along the kitchen tiles, a sound I haven’t heard since my own childhood and that I associate with my younger brother, Mikey, asking for a glass of water before bedtime.
She shakes her head no.
“Is it good?”
She stays noncommittal. Her tiny glasses slip down her nose and are caught by her finger, pushed back up with an efficient tap. They are tortoiseshell frames, brown on the outside, pink along the inner edges, like an eyelid, and they magnify her already large brown eyes, so that she always looks just a tiny bit moony.
Sophie has not been speaking much since the accident. That’s what we’ve been calling it—Greg, Lucy’s husband, and I—“the accident,” a comforting euphemism despite the fact that there is nothing accidental about what happened. The word homicide is one that no eight-year-old should ever have to hear. Using accident makes us feel better too. As adults, we can handle an accident; that’s in our repertoire.
I am not sure when Sophie last spoke out loud. She was interviewed by the police on Thursday, right afterward, and somehow Lucy’s little girl found the strength to use her words and describe the unspeakable. When I arrived less than twenty-four hours later, blurry from grief and the red-eye, she said, “Hi, Auntie Ellie,” before putting her arms around my waist and burying her face in my shirt. But since then, since that first greeting, spoken in her crisp British accent, I can’t remember the last time I heard her voice. Did she say good night to Greg before he went upstairs and knocked himself out with Xanax?
“Where did you get that shirt? It’s pretty. And that horse has really cool hair.”
“Soph, sweetheart, are you not talking?”
Sophie just looks at me, her eyes burning in a silent protest.
Shrug number three. She looks impossibly small and thin, the stringiness of her arms and legs exaggerated by the unforgiving cotton of her pajamas. I wish she’d eat more. I want to feed her cookies and sugar cereal too. Tomorrow, first thing, I’ll replace their two percent milk with full fat.
My mother, a therapist, warned me this might happen to Sophie. That kids often go quiet for a while in the wake of a traumatic loss. Their only way of exerting control in a world in which they clearly have none.
It’s been only twenty-nine hours since Lucy’s funeral, an event so improbable that pretending still works. Surreal, too, like the news vans that are idling out front of her house, waiting for a sound bite. I want to scoop Sophie up into my arms and let her cry into my shoulder, but she is not the sort of kid you just scoop up. She would know that I was doing it more for my comfort than for hers.
“Okay,” I say, as if she’d actually answered me. “It’s all right if you don’t want to talk for now. But not forever, right? I love that voice of yours. Cheerio. Let’s take the lift and go to the loo,” I say in my best British impression, which used to be a surefire way to make her laugh.
“Speak like me, Mummy, Auntie Ellie!” Sophie used to demand of Lucy and me when I would come to visit, and the two of us would go back and forth, spitting out all of the British expressions we knew. Even after nearly a decade in London, and despite a husband and child whose inflections were as posh as the Queen’s, Lucy’s Boston accent had barely softened. She always paa’ked her caa’ in Haa’va’d Yaa’d.
Today, Sophie ignores me and looks around like she’s not sure whose kitchen this is. We are in the breakfast nook, with its Americana diner style, the sort you would see in a cornflakes commercial: two kids, two bowls of cereal, and two glasses of orange juice, with two parents—always two cheerful parents—rushing everyone out of their red pleather seats and off to school after their nutritionally balanced breakfast. I can picture Lucy deciding to put a booth in the corner, knowing that making your house look like a home is the first step.
“We’re going to be okay, you know,” I say, and run my fingers through Sophie’s curly dirty-blond hair; they get caught on a knot. I remember the first time I held her, when she was less than a week old, bald and tiny, and how she would sleep with her mouth opening and closing against my arm, her dreams, no doubt, filled with glorious imaginary milk. She had seemed so fragile then, so far from a real person, that looking at her now, a fully formed little girl, beautiful and tough and exerting her power in the only way she can, makes me glow with a vicarious pride for Lucy. My best friend did a lot with her thirty-five years on this planet; her exposé on the corruption in the Chilean government should have won her a Pulitzer. But of one thing I am sure. Making this creature, this fierce mini-Lucy, is my favorite of all.
When did I start speaking a language I don’t recognize as my own? I dismiss the stalking reporters with copied phrases I’ve learned from watching TV, please respect our privacy during this very difficult time; reassure Sophie with silly platitudes, we are going to be okay; lie to all the well-wishers at the funeral Greg and I hastily planned, Lucy spoke so highly of you. I guess when your world blows up, when you lose the person you were closest to for thirty-one years—almost my entire life—language skills are the first to go.
Here is what happened: Lucy woke up a few days ago, happy and healthy, trapped in a tent of all the clichés of a perfect modern adult life, with the international glamour of an American ex-pat thrown in to boot, and one hour and forty-five minutes later, while walking Sophie to school, she died. Just like that. No, she didn’t die, just like that. She was murdered. Apparently, there was a knife and a meth-head overly interested in her two-carat diamond ring, some idiotic resistance on Lucy’s part, and then it was over.
And, yes, there is a worst part of all: Sophie saw the whole thing.
I am not surprised Lucy fought back—she’s always had an inhuman amount of courage—but I am surprised she fought back for that ring. She hated that ring.
“Who buys a diamond-shaped diamond?” Lucy would say. It was one of her favorite bits when Greg wasn’t around. “I mean, seriously, a diamond-shaped diamond? It’s so redundant. I swear, all men think about is size.”
And now I am here, in her kitchen, sitting next to her daughter—my goddaughter—trying to adjust to this new world we have entered. After Lucy. I am sipping tea because, from my experience over the last few days, that seems to be what the British do in situations like these. As if consuming mass quantities of flavored hot water with a spot of milk and sugar will make everything better. But it’s too late for stopgap measures. The grief has started to burrow into my skin like a parasite, slow and steady, in inverse proportion to my disbelief.
“Soph, what do you want to do? You want me to be quiet, too, for a bit? We can just sit here.” I get a nod, slow, as if she wants to say, Yes, please. I can tell simply by looking at her that we both want exactly the same thing. For it all to stop for a little while.
And so the two of us do the closest thing I can think of. We sit in the booth and stare straight ahead at nothing in particular. I pull her in closer, and her head rests against my shoulder.
We pass the next hour this way. Silent and watchful. Like we are waiting for a bus that may never come.
Excerpted from After You by Julie Buxbaum Copyright © 2009 by Julie Buxbaum. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Julie’s path to becoming an author is an interesting and inspiring one..especially for anyone who has dreamed of quitting his/her days jobs to pursue their passion.
Julie’s path from Penn undergrad to author HERE
Get After You HERE
More Penn authors HERE
More “Winning Women” alumni HERE
Tagged Julie Buxbaum
As part of my "Winning Women" week (and "Music Mondays" series), I recently discovered an emerging Penn alum singer with...