Virginia and Joe Thorndike have been married for twenty-two years, and now she must tell him she’s moving to Florida. She won’t tell him the name of the man, and he won’t ask. He hates a scene. But she must tell him she’s going to leave their marriage.
Joe surprises her by asking if she wants a divorce. That’s exactly what she wants, and she soon flies to Miami. There, after a single night together in their new apartment, Rich Villamano tells her, “I’ve decided I don’t want to marry you after all.”
In an instant their four-year affair is over. Ginny takes off in his car, heading north with no luggage, no hope, no destination. She buys a bottle of gin and drinks it straight. Then, afraid that she’ll kill herself or someone else on the road, she abandons the car in Georgia, flies to New York and takes an airport hotel room. She has no home and nowhere to go.
Her older son Jamie, a closeted gay student at Dartmouth, has walked off into a White Mountain snowstorm. It’s Ginny who discovers that after faking his suicide, he’s holed up in a cabin owned by Miles, the gay art teacher at his former boarding school. The deceptive suicide, suggested by Miles, has helped save his life.
Once reunited, mother and son wind up in a borrowed house in Sag Harbor on Long Island. Ginny is an anesthesiologist, but in no shape to practice. Her younger son Rob joins her for the summer, as Jamie and his older lover move to Provincetown. Rob, at sixteen, must deal with a shattered and sometimes drunken mother.
Flashbacks call up Ginny’s youth: the half-remembered sexual predations by her father, an affair with her high school diving coach, and her marriage to a jealous first husband, who moves her to Texas. After three difficult years there, she takes a train to New York to visit her parents, and never goes back.
In Manhattan she has an affair with the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. She’s drawn to him, but his eye is on other women. Working at Life, she meets one of the editors, Joe Thorndike, a gentle, restrained and devoted man. They marry in 1940 and soon have two young boys.
In her thirties, Ginny goes back to school and becomes an anesthesiologist. At forty-three, she starts an affair with thirty-year-old Rich Villamano When he abandons her she’s convinced she’ll never love anyone else, or be loved by anyone as young and beautiful. Every day she drinks. She takes too many sedatives and tranquilizers, to which she has endless access. But she does not give up. She joins the Peace Corps and goes to Chile, where she runs a small-town clinic and has an affair with a bulky, chivalrous farmer. After two years of almost-complete sobriety, she returns to the U.S. and loses it all in ten days. She drinks and sobers up, many times. She gets a job at an urgent-care clinic. She flies to Ohio to help deliver a baby at her son Rob’s commune. The birth is long and difficult, but she saves the day by inducing the placenta’s delivery.
After New York health authorities discover that she’s been filling her own prescriptions, her clinic fires her. To hide this from her sons, she signs up for a yoga trip to India. On her flight home, after too many pills, she passes out and wakes up in a New York hospital. Though sober when released, she soon starts drinking again and taking more pills than ever. She wants only to be unconscious, and one cold November night she falls asleep for the last time.
Though your book is a novel, it’s clearly about your mother. You even use her name, Virginia Thorndike. How much of the story is true?
Most of it. The essence is always true, but I’ve invented scenes and filled in plenty of details. I want to say that it’s all true, because it’s written to character. Take the opening scene, in which my father asks my mother if she wants a divorce. I don’t know exactly what they said that day, in their bedroom in the house where I grew up. But I can guess at it. I can make up the dialog and tell a coherent story, and show who my parents were. I invent things, but the core of it is always true.
—What about your father? Were the two of you close?
There was a division in my family, perfectly obvious to me though never acknowledged by anyone. My brother was on one side with my father, and I was on the other side with my mother. She and I were more inclined—as my teenaged son once put it—to “broken hearts, emotions and feelings.” My mother was the one who left books on my bedside table, novels that often hinted at passion and love and their consequences. Lawrence Durrell’s Justine was one of those. She gave me the copy she had read, with her brackets and checks marked on the page, and sometimes a comment.
Did she make those for you?
Maybe she did. Not that I had the courage to ask. On one page, next to a passage about the human heart, she wrote, He pays more attention to the cat than he does to me. I think she wanted me to understand why life with my father was difficult for her. And less than a year after I read that, she left him. I have great respect for my dad. It was hard for him to open up, but he was never repressive. I think he did the best he could. He once gave my mother a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, because it had just been published in the U.S. and she wanted to read it. Then, how disappointed she was to discover that it was an expurgated version. Star-crossed, the two of them.
And your brother?
There I drift further afield. There are traits of both of us mixed up in the two brothers in the book, Jamie and Rob. But while I’m the older brother in my family, in the book I share more with Rob, the younger. Jamie, his gay brother, is pretty much an invention.
Almost from the start of the book, your mother’s life is in chaos. Was this painful to write?
I suffered when my mother died, and I still miss her. But when I write about her, no matter how badly it’s going, I get to be with her. I want to understand her. I want to know—or imagine—everything about her life.
You describe some intimate scenes between your mother and other men. Were you comfortable writing those?
I know most people shrink from their parents’ sexuality, but I always wanted to know more about that side of my mother. I think it’s because it was her sensuality that saved me, growing up in a world that was both prudish and afraid of all emotion. My father was constrained, very much an old New Englander, and most of the adults I knew were the same. This is something of a guess, but before I was twelve I don’t think I ever heard the words masturbate or intercourse or menopause. Sex wasn’t mentioned around young kids, and my mother didn’t talk about it any more than my father did. But later she left those novels on my bedside table, novels in which people fell in love and did have sex—though of course it wasn’t described. I can’t remember when I figured out my mother was passionate. But I knew it. And over the years I came to understand that all through my youth, it was she who had kept me afloat emotionally.
—Have you been to the places you write about in the book? Texas and Chile and Guatemala and Key West?
All of those, sure. But I do switch things around. My Peace Corps years were in Central America, but I send my mother off to the Peace Corps in Chile, where I also lived. In real life she came to visit me there, and we took a trip to the Villarica Volcano, and as we lay in a hotel room one night she told me about leaving her first husband. She described how she got on a train in Beaumont, Texas, headed for New York City with her diaphragm hidden in her suitcase. Of course I had to write about that story. Another night, in a small hotel in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, with a fireplace glowing between the two beds, she told me about her love affair with Rich Villamano. That’s what I call him in the book. She told me how completely he had dominated her, and how she loved that. She said, “I had four years of absolute love, and it was worth any price.” That’s not the kind of talk a young man forgets.
Can you speak about the ending? I don’t want to give anything away, but the final chapters aren’t easy.
Readers tend to like happy endings, or at least one in which there’s some kind of redemption. And there is some redemption for Ginny near the end of her life, on her son’s commune, when she delivers a baby and saves the day. But I can’t escape what happened to her. From the first page I knew how the story was going to end, and the last chapter is as true as anything in the book.
—Are you working on anything new? Another book?
My mother keeps seeping into my thoughts. I’m not sure I’ve written enough about her, even now—so yes, perhaps a sequel.