A witty and captivating novel about a modern-day superwoman who leans in so far she falls over
Forty-four, fit, and fabulous, Liddy James is one of New York’s top divorce attorneys, a bestselling author, and a mother of two. Armed with a ruthless reputation and a capsule wardrobe, she glides through the courtrooms and salons of the Manhattan elite with ease. What’s her secret? Liddy will tell you: “I don’t do guilt!”
This is the last thing literature professor Peter James wants to hear. Devastated by his divorce from Liddy six years earlier, the two have a tangled history his new partner, Rose, is only just sorting out. But Rose is a patient woman with faith in a well-timed miracle and she’s determined to be sympathetic to Peter’s plight. Together, Liddy, Peter, and Rose have formed a modern family to raise Liddy and Peter’s truculent teen and Liddy’s darling, if fatherless, six-year-old.
But when Rose announces she’s pregnant, Liddy’s nanny takes flight, the bill for a roof repair looms, and a high-profile divorce case becomes too personal, Liddy realizes her days as a guilt-free woman might be over. Following a catastrophic prime-time TV interview, she carts her sons back to Ireland to retrace their family’s history. But marooned in the Celtic countryside things are still far from simple, and Liddy will have to come to terms with much more than a stormy neighbor and an unorthodox wedding if she ever hopes to rediscover the real Liddy James.
Fun, fearless, and full of heart, The Real Liddy James takes a fresh look at the balancing act every family performs. With the deft characterization and sharp wit that made her first novel an international bestseller, Anne-Marie Casey invites us into the ambitions, passions, and misadventures of this extraordinary heroine.
Copyright © 2016 Anne-Marie Casey
Liddy knew Mrs Vandervorst had been crying because she emerged from the corridor bathroom with her sunglasses on. There had been some confusion over timing, a not unusual occurrence during the holiday season, and Mrs Vandervorst had arrived alone, so Liddy solicitously accompanied her to the conference room and settled her into a velvet upholstered armchair with a cup of camomile tea, which she had made in a white china tea pot with loose buds, not a bag. The buds bloomed into pretty white flowers floating on the surface of the pale yellow liquid and the sight of this seemed to calm Mrs Vandervorst, who sank back into the cushions a little and sipped slowly. Liddy hoped the woman would gather herself before the meeting began. She did not want any scenes this afternoon—accusations, counter accusations, sordid marital mudslinging. Drama inevitably delays everything. She had a twice-postponed interview with the Times at four that afternoon.
‘What colour is this?’ said Mrs Vandervorst, looking at the walls.
“It’s one of those fancy country house colours. Mist on the heather, it’s called, or something like that.”
Mrs Vandervorst took off her sunglasses. Underneath, her eyes were stubbornly ringed white with ill-matched concealer, but the tell-tale bloodshot around her pupils remained.
“I like it,” she said, “it’s very soothing.”
Liddy smiled. It was not the first such comment and she found it gratifying. Before she agreed to join Oates and Associates, in addition to the usual stock allocation, health cover for her extended family, and use of a driver on weekends, she had insisted upon a supervisory role in redecorating the offices and had been delighted that her arrival as a senior partner coincided with the expiration of the lease on the macho, marbled space on Fifth. She had found this townhouse on East 61st through a client, another forced sale after the demise of a third marriage of unseemly haste, and set about refurbishing it in the manner of a boutique hotel or luxury gite, probably one in the south of France but with American owners so the taps didn’t screech like injured animals when turned on. The other partners scoffed at the discussion of a “color palate,” but Curtis Oates, Founding Partner and pioneer in the new world of extreme pre-nuptial agreements (compulsory facelifts, monthly threesomes, or custody of children along gender lines no problem), had dropped into her office one evening brandishing a line drawing from the Hirst studio as a thank you.
“Very clever, Liddy,” he had said in the raspy Humphrey Bogart voice he had affected as a teenager because Leonora Mott, the object of his affection in 1971, had told him it was sexy. “You got a lotta class, kid.” Liddy knew this; she had worked hard to acquire it. “Make ’em relax before we screw ’em.”
Liddy turned to Mrs Vandervorst and hoped she was relaxing, for she was certain tobe screwed.
“Are you alright?” she asked, and meant it.
Mrs Vandervorst looked straight at her. She had the sorrow under control now and so, left with disbelief, she kept digging the nails on her left hand into her palm hard as if she could wake herself up.
“How do I get rid of his name?” she said, “I can’t take it off like the rings.”
Liddy glanced at the enormous pink diamond on the other woman’s finger and,mentally scanning through her list of Mr Vandervorst’s demands, thought he wants the ring,my dear, the name he doesn’t care about, because it didn’t cost him anything.
“You go back to your maiden name,” she said.
Mrs Vandervorst thought about this for a moment.“I don’t remember who Gloria Jane Thompson was.”
Liddy looked away to see if anyone had appeared in the corridor (Mudlark Blue onthe walls, an arrangement of vivid poinsettas on a side table).
“How can you do this to me?”
“Sorry . . . ?” Liddy was not sure if she had heard something or not. Mrs Vandervorsthad whispered, as she was woman frightened of her anger and she did not want to cry again.
“Are you a mother, Ms James?”
Liddy assumed her default, low-register professional voice, designed to convey understanding as well as authority. “Yes, I have two sons.”
“Then don’t take my children away. They need me.”
“Mrs Vandervorst. They need their parents. A shared custody arrangement is not taking your children away.”
Liddy glanced up at the corner of the room where a concealed camera, ostensibly for security purposes, videotaped all exchanges in case of later dispute. Perhaps conversation had been a mistake, she thought.
“I’m going to find out where your attorney is,” she said, moving to leave.
Mrs Vandervorst stood up too quickly, and the camomile flowers in the bottom of her cup spilled onto the cream hand-knotted silk rug.
“It’s Christmas, Ms James, it’s my religious holiday. I want the children. My youngest, Karl. He’s only four. He barely knows his father. My husband travels for weeks on end and Karl cries when I’m not there. Liddy, you must work all hours. You know what it feels like to hear your child begging you to stay-”
Liddy turned. She was not frightened of her anger. Her eyes went beady and cold and her nostrils flared imperceptibly.
“Having reviewed your domestic arrangements . . . Gloria . . . I fear that a woman who left a lucrative job to bring up her children, but who has availed of maternity nurses, day and night nannies, weekend housekeeping and homework assistants for the past fifteen years can hardly claim to have devoted her entire existence to them.”
“I didn’t want it to be like that.”
“Then who did? You say your husband is never there.”
“I suffered from exhaustion after the twins.”
“Yes. I understand you took a two month recuperative break to a spa in St Barts, where you improved both your health and your double handed backhand.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
The change in tone was so abrupt that Liddy almost cheered. Clearly Mrs Vandervorst had suddenly remembered who Gloria Jane Thompson was; the brightest girl in her high school, a woman who spoke four languages including Russian, and had an MBA.
Gloria Jane realized that somewhere on Liddy’s computer might be a j-peg file containing photos of her in white shorts with Carlos, the tennis coach, copies of her bi-weekly therapy bills, and, perhaps most worryingly, recordings of a series of ill-advised messages she had left on her husband’s phone late at night which, if judiciously edited, might make “unstable” sound like an understatement.
“That’s why your husband hired me,” said Liddy, and headed for the door where she paused. “I understand how you feel, Mrs Vandervorst. You want to savage him and I probably would too, but believe me, the price of going to court is too high—and I don’t mean the eight hundred dollars an hour you’re paying Gillespie, Stackallan and Ross.”
She gestured towards the table. “If you want to use the phone, you press extension one.”
Liddy glanced at her watch as she marched up the corridor. 3.25. “Where the hell is everybody?” she yelled into the reception area, where an enormous fir tree decorated entirely in white lights and silver bells twinkled splendidly. There was no reply save an extraordinary honking laugh that Liddy realized was emanating from her new Paralegal, Sydney Grace, a young woman who had given no previous indication that she had any sense of humour at all. Now Sydney was doubled over in hysterics: her right hand clutching the sleeve of a long coat of dark colour worn by the extremely tall man beside her, her left brushing a few stray snowflakes from his shoulders.
Liddy turned to the window in surprise. Outside the first proper snow of winter was falling, and Liddy remembered there were seasons, and that she had not been aware of them for about six years, since her life had changed, since she began moving between office and home by luxury car, since weather became something she looked out of a window at.
“Did I miss something?” she said. Sydney looked up and opened her mouth to speak, but Liddy spoke first. “Hello Sebastian.”
The tall man in the snow-flecked dark coat turned to look at her. “Hello Liddy. I’m here to divorce the Vandervorsts,” he said with a wink at Sydney, who scurried back to her desk collapsing into giggles once again. “I know you were expecting Mr Gillespie, but he’s got food poisoning—a dodgy oyster over the weekend- so I drew the short straw.”
At this moment, Curtis appeared in the doorway of his office, grinning in anticipation. “Top o’ the morning, Mr Stackallan. How are you?”
“I’d rather be negotiating a ransom with pirates in the Malacca Straits,” Sebastian replied.
“Thank you,” said Curtis, genuinely gratified, before ducking back inside again.
From somewhere a tinny version of Danny Boy started playing. Sebastian began first patting the pockets of the coat, then his Donegal tweed suit (authentically matted with what could have been wolfhound hairs), until he located the iphone tucked into a red sock beneath the bicycle clips on his right leg, above his brogues. He pulled it to his ear, his attention caught by the row of legal certificates lining the wall, in particular the one for a certain Lydia Mary Murphy.
He glanced at Liddy.
“Excuse me, Lydia Mary,” he said. “No one’s allowed to call me that, apart from my parents. It’s Liddy. . . ..or Ms James,”
Liddy replied with a half laugh that was not really a laugh at all. Sebastian Stackallan simply grinned, said,”Hello, Gillespie?” and turned away to take the call.
Liddy took the moment to consider how annoying she always found him. And not in an adorable annoying way, not in a way fizzling with sexual attraction like the set up of a Preston Sturges movie or Much Ado About Nothing. She looked at his green tie, patterned with tiny shamrocks, knotted roughly beneath the face of a celtic poet, with an aquiline nose and sensitive mouth. She saw the one graying forelock of his jet-black hair that he flicked absentmindedly away from his blue-gray eyes, his complexion so palely handsome that he seemed permanently to be in black and white.
No, she disliked everything about him because she was a woman who lived in the vivid colour of a constantly re-invented present, and she distrusted those who clung to an idea of a caste or the past. Sebastian was a foreigner’s caricature of a sensitive, sexy Irishman and Liddy had learned in 7th grade writing class that cliché always diminishes what it describes.
“Yes, I understand . . . Holy Jaysuz man, see a doctor!” he was saying as he held the telephone away from his mouth. Liddy and Sydney heard violent retching before he hung up.
“It seems our client wants to agree to your client’s proposal,” he said, fixing Liddy with his blue-gray eyes, his stare no longer pale, but icy.
“Shall I take you to her?” she replied, returning his gaze with wide-eyed innocence, unleashing her killer wide-toothed smile. She gestured for him to follow her down the corridor, where he might perhaps appreciate her perfectly proportioned figure in her plum colored dress, the pencil skirt fitted to just above the knee, all the better to show off the long, slender legs that had walked unscathed through forty-four years, a solitary childhood, one divorce, and two pregnancies. But Sebastian was distracted and, as usual, appeared utterly indifferent to Liddy’s considerable charms.
“Par for the course,” he said, more to himself that her. “Nobbling our client at the status conference and terrifying her out of litigation. Straight out of the Curtis Oates playbook.”
Liddy could not bring herself to defend her boss; Curtis Oates was, after all, a man so loathsome that even his adult children would not tell him where they lived.
“I’ve saved Mrs Vandervorst a lot of money,” she said.
“Fair enough,” he replied, and Liddy was conscious that this had some sort of double meaning.
They were outside the closed conference room door now and for a moment Liddy was struck by how perfectly Sebastian fitted in with mist on the heather.
“We would have got what we wanted, just so you know,” he said, “If we’d gone to court.”
“There are no winners and losers in the field of marital warfare, Sebastian,” she said, mostly because she knew it would annoy him.
He turned to her, the icy stare returning.
“Okay, maybe,” she conceded, “You’re always good at the big emotional appeal out of nowhere. The lilting Irish accent helps.” This was true. She had often seen Sebastian command the attention of a noisy courtroom simply by adjusting the timbre of his voice. “That soliloquy you did for Judge Harris last month about the little boy with his backpack and his teddy on the plane. Genius. You can make the most absurd statement sound moving. Shame you never let fact or precedent get in the way.”
He nodded. “You know what you’re good at?” He did not wait for her to answer. “Making a complicated situation look simple.”
There was something in his tone that went beyond collegial banter and into contempt.
“Someone once said to me that this business makes nice people do nasty things,” she said, stung.
Sebastian laughed rather hollowly and moved his hand to grab the brass door knob. “And for getting what she wants in the long run commend me to a nasty woman,” he muttered, the beauty of his voice sharpening the force of the words.
Liddy flinched, shocked by the force of her reaction.
“Edith Wharton. The House of Mirth,” she said, looking at him, but remembering another voice entirely, in another place, at another time.
“Precisely,” he said, but he was disconcerted. The laconic, erudite aside was something of a trademark of his; normally people responded with a knowing smile or a roll of the eyes. Liddy’s eyes, however, had filled with unexpected tears and she spun away, raising her hand to her mouth. There was no point in claiming she wasn’t upset because she never cried in an understated, glamorous way, and was now red and snotty like a toddler. But before she could wipe her face with her silk jersey sleeves, Sebastian pulled a tatty, but clean, monogrammed handkerchief from his cuff.
“Liddy . . . ?”
“I’m fine,” she said, seizing the handkerchief and bolting towards the corridor bathroom, her sudden grief stuck like bile in her throat. He followed.
“I’m sorry. I was rude.” His tone was gentler now.
“People have been much ruder to me than that,” she said quickly. (She had no intention of qualifying the statement, although she could have said that she was sure there were small wax effigies of her regularly burned throughout the Five Boroughs. And only the previous weekend she had been shunned at a spinning class by a couple of furious first wives.)
“I can imagine.”
She turned and looked at him, askance. He continued. “I mean, it’s what you said about this business. How many more times can I watch wedding videos where the happy couple vow to always smile in the sunshine or, worse, pick up guitars for their customised rendition of ‘Your Song’ and know that one of them was on the phone to me seventy two hours later? My wife says it’s made me irredeemably pessimistic.”
“Not me,” Liddy paused for a moment and blotted at her eyes, although she knew it was too late to regain control of the situation. “I believe in love.”
Now it was his turn to look at her askance. They had been acquainted for over fourteen years, so why she had chosen this moment to say it she did not know; what she did know was that the statement was true. Practising family law had not made Liddy cynical. She did not believe that most couples made those solemn vows with their fingers crossed behind their backs; she knew from experience that it was simply, to misquote the old song, that love and marriage did not always go together like a horse and carriage. (In fact, in Manhattan, by conservative estimate, half the time the horse bolted through Central Park and left the carriage overturned.)
And Liddy still felt empathy for the broken ones, the people like Gloria Jane, blown apart by divorce with no guarantee that the pieces would ever fit back together. She hoped always that kindness and friendship would triumph amidst the wreckage, in the end. But she could not deny that these days, as the economy plummeted but romantic expectations soared, negotiations were growing more and more unpleasant—as Curtis Oates was making a fortune proving.
Sebastian smiled. “How very optimistic of you,” he said, and though she expected this comment to prefigure a further apology, Sebastian waved goodbye to his handkerchief and headed back to the conference room to escort Mrs Vandervorst from the building without as much as a backward glance at Liddy.
In the bathroom, Liddy leaned over the sink and splashed cold water on her face, avoiding the small puddles and pile of snotty tissues Mrs Vandervorst had left behind. But it would be a good five minutes before the angry pink blotches on her cheeks faded, so she sat down on the armchair in the corner and rested her head against the toile de jouy wallpaper. She tried to take a breath and count to five, but her mind wandered. Of course she was annoyed with herself for sobbing in front of Stackallan—although she had occasionally used vulnerability strategically, she knew tears always left professional women open to accusations of hormonal imbalance. But who could have predicted the extraordinary co-incidence of his quoting Edith Wharton? And the very words her ex-husband had said to her, almost seven years ago, in the terrible aftermath of what she had done; a scene she could hardly bear to remember and which she had made her mission to forget. Liddy could sometimes be a nasty woman, it was true, but up to this point in her life that fact had never made her cry.
For a moment, she pondered the possibility of hormonal imbalance.
Sydney came into the bathroom to deliver the news that Mr Vandervorst had finally arrived, only to promptly leave to await papers at his office, but not before fiddling an over-familiar arm around her waist.
“He’s repulsive. Mrs V’s better off without him,” was Sydney’s opinion, but she did not continue for, smitten with Sebastian, there was only one man she wanted to discuss. “But Mr Stackallan’s so cute!” she said, “And that voice. I want to close my eyes and listen to him read. Anything. Even Constitutional Law 17th.”
Liddy said nothing.
“No one makes me laugh really, but he was joking about my name. He says with so many American names you can’t tell if it’s a girl or a guy, a bird or a bloke!” Sydney honked again.
Liddy stood up, smoothed out her skirt, checked herself in the mirror and attempted to affect an expression of complete indifference.
“You know,” continued Sydney, “Mackenzie, bird or bloke? Campbell, bird or bloke? Last week, he was due to meet someone called Roger and it was a woman!”
“That didn’t happen,” said Liddy sourly, walking into the corridor, thinking what is it with all the ‘sharing’ today? Curtis Oates, who was currently in reception barking at the girl to put on the Christmas “chillout” album he had purchased on Liddy’s instruction, would never make such mistakes.
“I asked him out on a date, but he said he was married. I said it didn’t matter, and he laughed and said I was charming, but far too young for him.”
Sydney stopped and looked at Liddy, uncomprehendingly. “I mean, what sort of a man says that?”
“Not me,” said Curtis Oates cheerfully, flashing his pearly veneers and running a hand through his hair transplant. “Liddy, it’s four pm, the gal from The Times is here.”
Over the speakers came the familiar organ introduction of O holy night. The tune did not soothe Liddy and, still discombobulated by the contemplation of her not-niceness and the condescension of Stackallan, she knew the interview would have to be postponed for the third time.
“Oh no,” she said, “I can’t do that now, Curtis.”
“Why not? It’s good for business. Remember to mention our growth areas. Gays and geriatrics.”
“Pfft. . . .” she exhaled. “It’s the Style Section. Do you ever read that? I won’t do it. I’m not in the mood.”
He looked over at her. “Who gives a fuck?” he replied and pointed towards her office, before sashaying into his.
“Quick. Look at this,” whispered Sydney, who had been googling. “I found a photo of Sebastian and his wife at their wedding.”
Liddy glanced over because she couldn’t help herself.
Mrs Chloe Stackallan had straight blonde hair, high cheekbones, and tiny ankles. She wore her cream lace Temperley gown as if it had been made for her, which it undoubtedly had. She had a bouquet of lily of the valley in one hand, as the other rested casually on Sebastian’s arm, and she was staring up at him, adoringly. It was like the cover photograph of Perfect Bride magazine.
“Wow,” said Sydney, mournfully, “She’s . . . perfect. They look perfect together.”
“Nothing’s perfect, Sydney,” said Liddy, brusquely. “No matter how it looks.”
This cheered Sydney up a little. “You’d better go, Liddy,” she said.
Liddy sighed. The journalist had told her that she wanted to discover “the real Liddy James,” but Liddy had just seen her real self, and wanted that Liddy kept hidden.
It’s showtime!, she thought.
~ ~ ~
“I Don’t Do Guilt”
One of New York Magazine’s top ten divorce attorneys, a best-selling author, and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, Liddy James navigates the choppy waters of the Manhattan matrimonial law system with ease, and she does it in slippers. Corinthia Jordan has an appointment.
The fact that Liddy James—mother, art lover, and Senior Partner in the firm of Oates and Associates—is relaxing in her glorious office on the Upper East Side, dunking chocolate cookies into her hot chocolate with her Ugg-slippered feet up, is, she tells me, mainly the result of the new found freedom she discovered in her forties.
“I spent so much of my younger life worrying what people thought of me, and let’s face it, because I am a woman, worrying if they liked me, that it has been the greatest gift of ageing to discover that I no longer care.”
Her green eyes glitter meaningfully as she says this and certainly, with her long, auburn hair and the fair, freckled complexion of a woman half her age—the genetic gifts of her Irish parents who brought her to America when she was nine years old—as well as the distinctive lope in her stride, which she tells me makes high heels impossible, James exudes a blithely unaffected but charismatic air. She leans back, a tableau vivante of magnificent mid-life and, among her botanical prints, I spy a faded polaroid of her with her sandy-haired sons Matty and Cal James, aged 13 and 5, and an adorable scribble picture, emblazoned with superhero stickers, declaring BEST MOM IN THE WORLD. To my surprise there’s no treadmill desk or selfies with celebrity clients to be seen. Only the shark line drawing on her desk gives any indication of Liddy’s formidable professional reputation.
“Oh, that,” she says, smiling when I point to it. “It was a present from a colleague.” I ask her if she is known as ‘the shark’ in the office and she shrugs. “You know the amazing thing about sharks? If they stop swimming they drown. They have to move forward to survive. I totally relate to that.”
On growing up in a low income family in suburban New Jersey, she says “look, my parents were twenty one when they married and had me. They fled the economic deprivation of Ireland in the 1980s in search of a better life here, but it didn’t work out exactly as they planned.” James made her escape through education. She graduated first in her class at Stanford Law School, then had her pick of any top legal firm on either coast. She chose the legendary Rosedale & Seldon in New York where she quickly re-wrote the rulebook on pre-court settlements, only leaving seven years ago when Curtis Oates made her “an offer she couldn’t refuse!”
Since then her career has reached new heights, including the publication of her controversial book Equality Means in Everything; A Divorce Lawyer’s Guide to Modern Matrimony, which came out two years ago in a blaze of publicity that swept it to Number One on the New York Times bestseller list. Does she regret how certain chapters were reported?
“There was certainly a lack of nuance about some points. I mean, I am a feminist, so to be portrayed as somehow anti-women was extremely hurtful. And seeking to punish a former partner through his or her wallet is far from an exclusively female pursuit! But I do stand over my view that marriage (and therefore divorce) isn’t a meal ticket. Women can’t pick and choose what gender equality means and, although I am well aware that nothing affects a woman’s career trajectory like having children, the financial responsibilities of the home should and must be shared, as parenting should and must be shared. No able bodied person should assume that the lifestyle they enjoy because of their marriage will continue if that marriage ends. In other words, don’t give up work, ladies!”
One on one, James expresses her views so forcefully and articulately that resistance seems useless, but many people disagree with her views, commenting that until cultural expectations of a woman’s role have changed dramatically, or women themselves are willing to relinquish the role of primary care taker in the family, such a utopian vision of marital equality is impractical. How, I ask her, has she managed to juggle her own brilliant career with motherhood?
“Imperfectly,” she replies cheerfully, then turns suddenly serious. “I was far too young when I first got together with my ex-husband Peter James, a Professor of English and American Literature. I was a terrible wife and I broke his heart, but thanks to his fortitude, and that of his wonderful new partner, we managed a good divorce.”
So there is such a thing? I ask. Her response surprises me. “Personally, I still don’t believe in divorce, particularly where there are children involved.”
“What about pre-nups?” I ask. She replies without hesitation. “My boss, Curtis Oates, vehemently disagrees with me, but I think that’s like opening the exit doors of the plane before buckling your seat belt. If you’ve got doubts about getting married, don’t do it. That’s my advice.”
And with this, she glances at the antique Jaeger-LeCoultre clock on her desk and shrugs in a disarmingly girlish manner. “I have to go. I’m making tuna surprise for dinner,” and, interview over, she offers to drop me off at a work event on her way home to her magnificent apartment in a landmark building in Tribeca.
“Would you like to marry again?” I ask her as we sit in the back of the car.
“Who would risk it?” she replies, laughing. “Anyway, it’s not on my radar at the moment. I am a single mother of two children, and the father of my younger son is not in our lives, so I don’t have a minute of spare time. Literally.” Before I can ask another question she says firmly, “Cal was very wanted, but not planned,” and I know better than to pursue the subject.
The snow is falling heavily now and James opens her bag and pulls out a light-as-a-feather I pezzi dipinti shawl which she wraps elegantly around her neck. “You must have read the interview with President Obama when he said he had to limit the number of decisions he had to make in one day, so his suits are all the same colour. I share his philosophy. My capsule wardrobe is black and white—although every season I buy one key piece, like this dress, in a colour—but the bottom line is, in my life I don’t want to think too much about anything I don’t have to.”
I am struck by how rarely one meets a woman so bien dans sa peau, a woman at the top of her profession, who so successfully juggles a complicated domestic situation with the extraordinary demands of her career. As someone who struggles most mornings to run a brush through her hair before the school run, I wonder, what is the secret to her super-productive existence?
“My irreplaceable nanny, Lucia, no personal life, and working late at night!” She laughs before continuing, “I accept I can’t do everything and I don’t try. I won’t ever be one of those frazzled women in dirty sweat pants, making brownies for a bake sale. I like order, because I am a Virgo. And I guess I don’t do guilt.”
~ ~ ~
Rose Donato had a secret that made her happier than other women: she was an atheist who knew miracles could happen. This unshakable belief was born from the formative experience of her childhood, when her older brother Michael had fallen head-first off a rope ladder and, in the six seconds he lay crumpled and motionless on the playground tarmac, her mother had fallen to her knees for the brief moments before he blinked awake again. Afterwards Rose, aged seven, turned to her mother and asked what she had been doing. “I prayed for a miracle,” her mother said, before running off to holler at Michael, who was now balancing one-legged on top of a slide.
Rose was an unusually thoughtful and wise child so, once she knew that such things could happen, she decided to harness the power. She imagined that a person might only be allotted so many miracles in one lifetime, but in teenage desperation she squandered two in rapid succession; first, when she prayed that the line of pimples that studded her forehead like red push pins disappear (which they did by magic, two weeks later), and second, when she had to get two tickets to The Jacksons Victory Tour and in the line for returns a kindly woman gave her the front row seats her son was about to throw away. She would regret this when, aged thirty two, at a time when she was not-so-secretly obsessing about rings and reproduction, Frank Pearson, who had been her room and bed mate for ten years, casually left her for a woman he had met on the 6 train. The miracle of her rent controlled apartment in the West Village and the Senior Lectureship she loved seemed as nothing after this and when, three years later, she fell irrevocably in love at the first sight of Peter James, newly appointed Professor of English and American Literature, only to then meet his wife, the incomparable Liddy, she became convinced that she had used up her allocation.
For five years she and Peter worked side by side, sharing milk cartons and ideas on semiotic literary criticism, as Rose discreetly avoided promotion and other suitable men. She re-read Great Expectations and cherished her unrequited passion, until one day Peter appeared in the common room, gray faced from sleeplessness, and told her that he and Liddy had separated. Rose reached out her right hand to touch his, the first time she had dared to be so intimate, and he looked at her as if for the very first time.
She was forty years old that day, it took a year for him to want her, and so, when she moved into the townhouse in Carroll Gardens with the fig tree in the garden, and after three miscarriages in rapid succession, she abandoned her dream of a child and accepted it would be just the two of them. And soon it did not matter, at last she had him, it was the enough miracle—and of course there was his child too, Matty, who she had first met as a tall and winning seven year old boy, and whom she had decided to love as if he was her own. And while their relationship had never become the one she had fantasized about, she dutifully cooked and cleaned and cared for him which, from her outsider’s perspective, seemed at least ninety per cent of what parenting was really about.
“What are you reading?” said Peter. It was a bright February morning and he had walked into the kitchen to kiss the top of her head, but stopped at the sight of her, her hand leaning against her cheek, her soft beauty framed in the winter light of the French windows as if she were posing for Vermeer. “You look completely absorbed.”
Rose gulped. She had woken early and, unable to lie still, had half-dressed and crept down the stairs, kidding herself she would get a head start on a paper about Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. But in fact, after an hour or so she had stopped, too eager to read the Style Section of the Times, which she had bought yesterday evening and had not yet had a moment alone to peruse. Cup of coffee in hand, Rose had crept across the room to the innocuous brown bag, slung across a wooden chair, whose contents seemed to be summoning her with an insistent read me, read me until she gave in and pulled the newspaper out, although as she did this she knew she should have waited until the apartment was empty. Liddy James, one of New York Magazine’s top ten divorce attorneys, stared out at her from the front page, sitting legs crossed on a desk, hands by her sides, her face tilted up in a smile just the right edge of rictus, but still ever-so-slightly fake. Rose began to read in case there was anything she needed to know about and it had indeed been so absorbing she had not heard Peter’s arrival, his socked footsteps on the stairs, the thump of his elbow against the warped wood of the kitchen door they had resolved to fix three years ago.
She stood up, attempting to stuff the newspaper nonchalantly into the table drawer. It was no good. She was being furtive and he knew it.
“What is it?” he said, walking towards her, curious now. Rose was the least furtive person in his acquaintance and she could never not tell the truth, even when she probably should.
“It’s Liddy’s article in the Times yesterday. D’you remember? She warned us about it before Christmas.”
Peter reminded himself that his determination to ignore Liddy’s self-promoting interviews (which inevitably portrayed a version of their marriage designed to fit whatever she was selling) had served him well in the past and, as she had recently reminded him with typical candour, the royalties from her book were paying Matty’s school fees and might even cover college. But there was something in Rose’s face this morning, a different brushstroke across her forehead.
“What did she say?” he asked as he sat down, resolutely pouring his cereal and forgetting to kiss the top of her head.
“Oh, more or less the usual.” Rose paused. “She compares herself to Obama . . .”
Peter groaned and rolled his eyes, anticipating what humorous apercus his colleagues might be practising on their way to work.
“And apparently she was a terrible wife.”
Peter looked up. “Is that all?”
Rose shook her head. “And she says she broke your heart.”
He was silent in an unusual way, so Rose felt the need to keep talking. “I don’t know why she has to do this.”
“Yes you do. Because it makes her feel powerful. It’s a good line, a good story, and
people want to read it. People like you, I might add. Where’s Matty?” Sudden anger had consumed his appetite. “It’s quarter of eight. I can’t be late this morning. Matty! Get down here. Now!” And he marched into the hallway.
Rose hoped Matty was dressed. Though Peter might say his sudden bad mood was all her fault, it was really Liddy’s yet again, and when confronted with his son, the living, breathing embodiment of Liddy, down to the shape of his eyes and the music of his rare laugh, you didn’t have to be a therapist to guess what might happen.
“You go then,” Rose said, calling after him. “I’ll walk with Matty. It’s a beautiful morning. And I’ve got an appointment at the doctor’s at nine thirty.”
Peter picked up his bag and coat and left with a sharp double bang of the warped front door they had resolved to fix two years ago. Rose sighed and stood up, wincing slightly as her knee twinged, and hauling it up the stairs, where she knocked on Matty’s door.
“It’s time to get up, Matty,” she called.
“No!” came the muffled shout from inside the room, so she opened the door, braving the intense odour of growing boy and stale shoes, and switched the light on, cruelly pulling the duvet off him with a flourish.
“Up! Now!” she barked, marvelling how their interactions, once so fluid and fulsome, were now reduced to words of one syllable. Liddy had remarked on the phone to her just last week that she felt like Matty had been invaded by an alien body snatcher who had only one expression, sullen, and only one word of English, “no,” and while Rose laughed politely, she wished Liddy and Peter would talk about it. She saw how they both mourned the passing of their perfect little boy and how hard they found this teenage stranger, full of new hairs and hormones, to deal with. By contrast, Rose had come to learn that her ability not to lose her temper with Matty might be directly to do with her not having given birth to him. She did not take his outbursts personally because she did not see his behaviour as any reflection on her own.
“C’mon! Hurry! I packed your school bag, I charged your phone. Don’t forget to tell Miss Walsh you need an afternoon slot for your piano lesson next week, and you’ve lost your library book so I’ve stuck twenty dollars in your jacket pocket to cover it.”
He shook his head and grunted something unintelligible before picking the duvet up off the floor, rolling onto his side and curling into a ball underneath it.
“Matty!” she said, exasperated.
“Can Dylan and Jack come over tonight?” came his muffled response.
“Yes, if their parents text me. You have to get up now!”
Suddenly, from downstairs, the front door swung open.
At his father’s voice, Matty leapt out of bed, picked his clothes off the floor and hurried into the bathroom, not quite so teenage yet as to brave first-thing paternal wrath. Rose came down the stairs once more. Peter was standing in the doorway, hangdog. Rose smiled.
“You didn’t have to come back,” she said.
“I wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“No. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been reading it. It was insensitive-”
“I can’t believe she said that. It’s so personal. And in the Times. . . .”
But it was the truth and they both knew it. They just wanted it unsaid. Liddy had not just blithely broken Peter’s heart, she had shattered it; but Rose had spent a year picking up the tiny shards so the two of them could piece it back together.
“She makes me look like a shmuck . . .”
“She thinks I’m wonderful.” Rose dared, and wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Something must have happened,” said Peter. “It doesn’t sound like her.”
“What are you talking about?” said Matty from the bathroom door, a toothbrush sticking out the side of his white frothy mouth.
“Your mother gave an interview that upset me and I over-reacted,” Peter announced. Rose smiled forgivingly and hoped Matty would appreciate what a fine example of taking responsibility for negative emotions his father was giving him.
“Is it the ‘broke your heart’ thing? Mom told me about that. She said she was sorry. She said she was in a funny mood that day and she probably made a complicated situation look simple.”
He went back to the sink. This was followed by the exuberant gargling and spitting noises he had been told innumerable times to avoid, but Rose and Peter were too intrigued by his comment to admonish him.
“I love you,” said Rose to Peter. “Go, or you’ll be late.”
In the background now, the sound of Matty pissing, like a horse onto a metal gate.
“Close the door, for Chrissake!” shouted Peter, then whispered. “How do you put up with us, Rose? And why are you seeing the doctor?” He pulled her close. His hand rested gently on her hip.
“Annual physical. My age. My knee.”
“Is it the change of life, Rosey?” said Matty, emerging, a slick of hair gel plastering his fringe to his forehead. “Melinda’s mom’s having that and she’s turned into a monster.”
“C’mon son,” said Peter, chivvying the boy out the door before they could find out if this might be the morning Rose’s legendary placidity deserted her. “I know you haven’t eaten, so I’ll buy you a bun on the way.”
“Cool,” the boy grinned, suddenly looking like a little child again. It was so confusing, this cusp time, thought Rose, for Matty and for her. He was quite right, of course, the change was coming. She had been feeling it for the last couple of months. The two of them were trapped in their mutating bodies, wrestling with the extraordinary confusion of feeling young while growing older.
“I resent so much of our time being taken up talking about her. That’s it really,” Peter said quietly.
“I know,” Rose replied, and he left again, Matty in tow.
Although Rose did indeed resent having to talk about Liddy quite so much, what she really resented was that in all the talking, Peter never said anything about the relationship, dismissing it as “ancient history,” although “secret history” was more accurate. But, over time, she accepted that all new partners are forced to navigate the complicated terrain that their predecessors leave behind. That what Liddy had left behind was more like scorched earth, and because she was vivid, extraordinary, unforgettable and all these things in all ways, Rose had to fight not to become a sort of puny, satellite moon rotating in the gravitational pull of Liddy’s blazing sun. For this reason she had told her mother that, if they ever got married, she would never take Peter’s surname, as she could not face being the second Mrs James when the first was quite so first in everything. (This comment conveniently sidestepped another conversation, which was why, despite their obvious domestic happiness, the marriage had not yet happened. Peter seeming resolved not to make what her mother referred to as “an honest woman of her.”)
Similarly, there had been the issue of what Matty might call Rose, or rather what Liddy might “helpfully” decide she could be called. On this, Rose felt some relief that she was not formally his step-mother. After all, as a person who looked to literature for a map of life, she would shudder and think who wants to be the Wicked Queen torturing Snow White? It could not be helpful to the millions of children who ended up in blended families that the image of step parents imbued in their nurseries was almost inevitably the black horns of Maleficent looming over the crib bars. Thank goodness Matty had suggested “Rosey,” almost by accident when they were playing a game, so Liddy’s suggestions of Aunt Rose, which sounded like a dowager, or Mom2, which sounded like something out of a Disney movie about a family of androids, could be ignored in a way Liddy herself could never be.
Rose had often noticed if there were lulls in any conversation she was having all it took was for Liddy’s name to be mentioned for interest to be revived. Liddy was someone there was always something to say about and as Rose’s doctor, Barbara, strapped the cuff of a blood pressure monitor around Rose’s upper arm one hour later, today proved no exception.
Barbara had resolved not to mention the interview with Liddy in the Style Section but, because she was a single mother of two, too, and was having a bad day, when it fell out of Rose’s bag onto the floor she picked it up, glanced at it again, and could not control herself.
“Liddy James. Superlawyer! Supermother! What a bunch of baloney! With the irreplaceable Lucia, the driver, the personal trainer, the chef delivering the meals and, no doubt, the Life Coach on speaker phone once every two weeks, I’m amazed she ever sees her children. And you seem to look after Matty most of the time.”
Rose looked up, astounded by the accuracy with which Barbara had portrayed Liddy’s life. Barbara, who had been her teammate on the sophomore basketball team at Barnard College, and then her doctor for over twenty years, had many opinions and did not shy from expressing them.
“Liddy agreed that Matty would stay with Peter Monday to Thursday, to be close to the school,” Rose said. “And she’s flexible if he has a soccer practice or a playdate on a Friday night or something—it was all decided with a child psychologist after they split.”
“Just as well she doesn’t ‘do guilt’ then,” continued Barbara. “Huh! Of course she doesn’t. She’s forgotten what it’s like for the rest of us. Guilt is our hobby. It gives us a break from the exhaustion. You ought to see the online comments!”
The cuff gripped Rose’s arm, then seemed to sigh out. Barbara checked the reading.
“Perfect,” she said. “You want to know the truth, Rose? Liddy couldn’t have her life unless she shared custody. I’m telling you. If she really was a single mother with her job and two kids, she wouldn’t cope.”
Rose attempted a non-committal shrug.
“She looks good though. Has she had work done?”
“No,” said Rose, “She says she wouldn’t ever have plastic surgery -she once represented this guy whose wife left him when his nose fell off. “
“Typical. It’s only women who look like her who announce things like that. I’m not talking lifts, or even fillers. I bet she’s had this thing where they inject your own blood into you. The Vampire Facial it’s called. Totes appropes for Liddy, as my daughter would say.”
Rose couldn’t help giggling, suddenly mischievous. “I would like to know one thing,” she said. “What’s tuna surprise?”
Barbara paused as she expertly pricked the vein on the underside of Rose’s elbow with a needle. “The surprise is she actually cooked something.”
And she drew three vials of viscous blood from Rose’s arm, stuck different coloured labels on each, and took out a pen to mark them.
“When was your last period?” she asked. Rose shrugged and said ruefully that she thought that ship had sailed, pulling out the receipt from Duane Reade on the back of which she had scribbled her symptom list (swollen ankles, sore boobs, lethargy), so Barbara handed her a plastic sample jar and ordered her to pee in it . When Rose returned, the hot little pot in her hand, Barbara was still staring at the photograph of Liddy.
“I think she should be worried. She’s got that thing, that thing characters in plays have, pride before a fall. Right?”
“Hubris,” said Rose, thinking. “An overestimation of one’s own competence or capability.”
“Yes,” replied Barbara, sticking the thin paper strip into the sample pot and glancing at her watch. “Hubris.”
“After hubris comes nemesis and then comes the fall,” continued Rose, delighted to change the subject and adopting the beguiling academic tone she used on her students. “It’s from Greek tragedy, like in the Iliad when Achilles, extremely prideful, drags poor Hector’s body over the ground outside the city walls of Troy, and fate deals with him pretty swiftly afterwards. I was thinking about it this morning, because I’m teaching Coriolanus again this semester. Another great man brought low by his hubris. I think he’s somewhat misunderstood, though . . .”
Barbara peered across at her. “Like Liddy?” she said.
“Yes, actually.” Privately, Rose found Liddy’s determination to live life by her own rules nothing less than heroic, particularly given how difficult it must be. She knew many, however, shared Barbara’s view that there was no end to the ways in which Liddy offended the gods of normal.
“You’re too nice,” muttered Barbara and she did not mean it as a compliment, but Rose was thinking about Coriolanus and said, “Would you have me/False to my nature? Rather say, I play the man I am . . .” She trailed off, realizing she must have gone too far, because at the sink Barbara was standing very still in what looked like some kind of shock.
“Are you okay?” said Rose, and then remembering where she was, “Am I okay?”
“Yeah. You’re fine. You’re pregnant.”
Barbara expected a big reaction, but the word on its own would not do it. After all, it had let Rose down three times before.
“Properly pregnant. I’d say nearly ten weeks.”
Rose stayed silent.
“It’s a miracle,” said Barbara.
Excerpted from The Real Liddy James by Anne-Marie Casey. Copyright © 2016 by Copyright © 2016 Anne-Marie Casey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the Author
Anne-Marie Casey is a novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. Her film and TV scripts have been produced in the UK and Ireland and her theatrical adaptations of Little Women and Wuthering Heights enjoyed sell-out runs at the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 2011/12 and 2014/15. No One Could Have Guessed the Weather, her first book, was an international bestseller. She is married to the novelist Joseph O’Connor. They live in Dublin, Ireland, with their two sons.