Joy For Beginners
"Moving, touching, wonderfully written, inspiring to read." -Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
At an intimate, festive dinner party in Seattle, six women gather to celebrate their friend Kate's recovery from cancer. Wineglass in hand, Kate strikes a bargain with them. To celebrate her new lease on life, she'll do the one thing that's always terrified her: white-water rafting. But if she goes, all of them will also do something they always swore they'd never do-and Kate is going to choose their adventures.
Shimmering with warmth, wit, and insight, Joy for Beginners is a celebration of life: unexpected, lyrical, and deeply satisfying.
Life came back slowly, Kate realized. It didn’t come ﬂooding in with the reassurance that all was well. The light outside was no different; her daughter’s body, the strength of her hug, was not necessarily more substantial. The delicate veil Kate had placed between herself and the world was not ﬂung away. It clung.
But life is persistent, slipping into your consciousness sideways, catching you with a ﬂeeting moment of color, the unexpected and comforting smell of a neighbor’s dinner cooking as you walk on a winter evening, the feeling of warm water running between your ﬁngers as you wash the dishes at night. There is nothing so seductive as reality.
The women were due to arrive soon; it was quiet in the house, and Kate was glad of the impending company. She was still not used to being alone with her body. For the past eighteen months it had been the property of others—doctors certainly, but also friends, relatives, her daughter—its boundaries and capacities something they measured, gambled on, watched with loving or terriﬁed or clinical eyes. Now the medical professionals had declared it hers again, handing it back like an overdue and slightly scuffed library book. In the weeks between the doctor’s appointment and her daughter’s departure for college, Kate had ﬁlled the space around them with lists and plans, shopping trips for desk lamps and extra-long twin sheets for Robin’s freshman dorm room. Now Robin was off and away and Kate felt sometimes as if she was living in two empty houses, one inside the other.
So it was nice to have the prospect of guests, even if they were hell-bent on jubilation. Kate had heard the excitement in her friends’ voices when she invited them to dinner, a thank-you for all they had done for her, she explained. But Marion had quickly renamed the evening a victory party and insisted that it be a potluck.
“You wouldn’t take the fun out of it for us, would you?” Marion had asked.
As Kate moved about the kitchen from stove to refrigerator to sink, she passed the bulletin board that served as a central hub for reminders and memories, its surface a collage of photographs, a calendar, old ticket stubs and coupons and take-out menus. The week before Robin had left for college, she had surreptitiously added a brochure. Kate had spotted it in the morning when she came into the kitchen to make coffee—the glossy photograph leaping out at her, an extravagantly yellow raft vaulting through churning brown waves, water drops ﬂying off its sides in rainbows. Kate’s friend Hadley, who had once worked in marketing, always called those photos “adventure porn.”
When Robin had come through the kitchen, Kate pointed to the brochure with a raised eyebrow.
“They’ve got two openings for next summer,” Robin said. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic?”
Kate had looked at her daughter’s eyes, so full of anticipation and, deep underneath, a plea for normalcy. They had spent too much of the past year in a world full of exit doors, Kate thought. They could both use a promise that they would be here a year from now.
How could you say no? And yet as Kate had looked at the raft, the water, the size of it all, that had been exactly what— in fact the only thing—she wanted to say.
The doorbell rang, ten minutes early. Caroline, guessed Kate with an inward smile, as she opened the door.
“I thought you might want some help,” Caroline said as she entered, arms overflowing with a wooden salad bowl and a bottle of champagne. She put them down on the small table by the front door and gave Kate a quick, ﬁerce hug.
“What needs doing?” she asked, as she headed toward the kitchen.
Kate followed her and gestured to the wrought iron table on the back patio. Caroline walked over to the silverware drawer, sidestepping around Kate, who had opened the refrigerator to get out the sour cream.
“Cloth napkins?” Caroline asked, a ﬁstful of forks in her right hand.
“The green ones in the sideboard.”
“How’s the house without Robin?” Caroline called as she rummaged through the drawer in the dining room, pulling out seven napkins.
“Quiet. And yours?”
“Empty.” Caroline laughed softly. “We’re quite the pair, aren’t we?”
The kitchen was quiet for a few minutes. Kate could hear the soft clink of forks against knives as Caroline set the table outside. Kate lifted the foil on the pan and the scent of melting cheese and roasted chicken, caramelized onions and a subtle undercurrent of salsa verde rose up from the pan. She inhaled memories.
The doorbell rang again.
“I’ll get it.” Caroline went through the house to the front door. “Marion’s here,” she called out.
“With the last tomatoes from my garden,” Marion said, standing in the doorway, her hair loose and silver. “Hello, darling Kate.” Marion took Kate in her arms and held her for a long moment.
Behind Marion came two younger women, one of them with a cake in her hands.
“Sara, did you bake that?” Kate asked, surprise in her voice.
“I wish—the only thing I’ve put in an oven since the twins were born is chicken ﬁngers,” Sara replied, pushing her hair back from her face with her free hand.
“She wouldn’t have even made it out the front door if we hadn’t been carpooling,” Hadley commented and handed Caroline a loaf of bread.
“Last but not least,” a voice came from the bottom of the stairs. “I’m no cook,” Daria said as she entered, all red hair and curls, handing a bottle to Kate, “but I know a good wine when I see one. Now, can we start celebrating?”
The plates were almost empty, the light gone early from the September sky. The edges of Kate’s patio were lost in the foliage beyond, its contours lit by the back porch light and the candles on the wrought iron table, around which the women sat, talking with the ease of those who have settled into one another’s lives. Out on the road the occasional car drove by, the sound mufﬂed by the laurel hedge that held the garden within its green walls. Everything felt softened, the garden more smells than sights, emitting the last scents of summer into the air.
Kate looked at the women around her. It was an incongruous group—it reminded Kate of a collection of beach rocks gathered over time by an unseen hand, the choices only making sense when they were ﬁnally all together. Daria and Marion were sisters, Sara and Hadley neighbors; Kate and Caroline had met when their children were in preschool— individual lives blending and moving apart, running parallel or intersecting for longer or shorter periods of time due to proximity or a natural afﬁnity. It had taken the birth of Sara’s twins, and then Kate’s illness, to weave their dissimilar con
nections into a whole.
Kate heard a voice coming through the house.
“There you are . . .” A woman, dressed in a loose-ﬁtting jacket and slim jeans, came out onto the back porch. “I’m sorry I’m late; my ﬂight was delayed.” She ran down the steps to the patio and hugged Kate.
“Ava,” Kate said, holding her.
“Did I smell my mother’s enchiladas?” Ava asked, and Kate smiled.
“I saved you some.” She started for the kitchen.
“No, you don’t,” Caroline quickly interjected. “You’re the queen tonight. You shouldn’t have to wait on anybody.” She sent a pointed look in Ava’s direction.
“I’ll get more wine,” Daria added, following Caroline into the house.
Kate pulled a chair up next to her and motioned for Ava to sit down.
Now they were all here, Kate thought.
Daria came out the back door, the glossy brochure in one hand. “Hey, what’s this?” she asked. “I found it tacked to the bulletin board.”
“Robin wants the two of us to go rafting down the Grand Canyon,” Kate said.
“But . . . ?” Caroline had come out on the porch and was watching Kate’s face.
“Have you seen those rapids?” Kate replied.
The women around the table nodded in understanding, although if they were to be honest none of them had ever experienced the Grand Canyon other than to stand on its rim and look down to the river below, which looked only green and far away from that distance. But that, of course, didn’t matter. The women ranged in age, but they were all old enough to know that in the currency of friendship, empathy is more valuable than accuracy.
“It’s scary,” Caroline agreed, coming down the steps and setting a plate in front of Ava.
“Which is exactly why she should do it,” Daria broke in. “Kate, you’re here; you’re alive. You should do something crazy to celebrate.”
Kate simply shook her head and sipped from her wineglass, her thoughts traveling far from them, underwater. It was dark there, cold, where the waves grabbed you and took your life where you didn’t expect it to go.
“Maybe we should give her some space,” Sara suggested.
The women shifted in their seats. Ava picked up her fork and took a bite of enchilada, closing her eyes in happiness. Kate smiled, watching her.
“All right,” Marion said, leaning forward. “Here’s a thought. Kate, when is the trip?”
“Next August.” Kate regarded Marion suspiciously.
“Well, then,” Marion continued calmly. “I propose we make a pact. If Kate agrees to go down the Grand Canyon, we’ll each promise to do one thing in the next year that is scary or difﬁcult or that we’ve always said we were going to do but haven’t.” She scanned the circle. “Everybody in?”
The women looked about at each other. One by one, they nodded in agreement.
Marion turned to Kate.
“All right?” she asked.
It was still for a moment. On the other side of the hedge, a car door opened with an electronic beep; the jingle of a dog’s collar passed by.
“All right,” Kate replied ﬁnally—and then she smiled. “But here’s the deal. I didn’t get to choose mine, so I get to choose yours.”
Things held on to Caroline—the ends of her sleeves caught by doorknobs, her coat in a car door, the knit of her Irish sweater snagged on an errant nail that no one had ever remembered seeing sticking out of the wall. But she had never been as good at catching, holding on to things—taxicabs, elevator doors, a husband, slipping closed and past, already on their way to another ﬂoor, another life.
Her son had nestled into her heart, all tousled hair and awkward elbows, and then he was off to college. Her parents had died. And now Jack had left her, rocketing like a boy down a water slide into the exuberance of his new, deﬁantly not-middle-aged existence.
“I should learn to be slippery,” Caroline said to Marion when they met for coffee a few days after Kate’s celebration in the garden. “I need to be sleek and unobtainable. All silk suits and no commitments.”
“You know what silk is made out of,” Marion commented mildly. She pushed her silver hair back from her face and studied her friend.
Marion was a person who had held on to Caroline. They had met years before, when Marion was writing an article about public yet intimate gathering spots, the modern equivalents of the old woodstove in the general store of pioneer days. The bookstore where Caroline worked was a perfect example, designed as a place to linger as much as shop—incorporating a bakery and cafe, a ﬁreplace surrounded by oversized chairs for colder days and a patio outside for summer ones. It could have felt chaotic, a party full of strangers unable to introduce themselves, but instead was more like a genial conversation—the metallic clink of silverware set against the contented sigh of a book being slid from its shelf, the murmured comments of a knitting group seated at a round table in the three-sided alcove that held—was it intentional or simply serendipitous?—the house/garden/cooking books. Smells of cinnamon and yeast settling in between the covers of books only to rise from the pages when they were opened later at home.
Caroline loved the store. She had started going there almost twenty years before, when her son was in preschool and they would go for story hour. Caroline would buy a mug of coffee and watch her little boy, engrossed, listening to tales of muddy dogs and brave princesses. A few years later, when Brad was in elementary school and she was in what she would later call her “writing phase,” she had come to the bookstore in the mornings to sit at one of the wooden tables in the cafe, pretending to write but really just allowing her eyes to slow and settle on the collage of mismatched chairs around her, the wide-plank pine ﬂoors, the way the bookshelves created a child-sized maze behind her. The espresso machine would make its hissing noise and she would listen to the conversations around her, to lives that were more or less interesting than her own. Later in the evening at home, Jack would ask her what she had written, or rather, how much. She would lie and tell him the stories she had heard as if they were of her creation, grateful for the loan of them, for the free pass they gave her into a few hours ﬂoating in a world not of her own making.
After a while, however, it became obvious that the stories were not connected, were not in any case going to be a book, and Caroline had been grateful once again for the bookstore and the job she was offered as its used-book buyer. Brad had been well ensconced in school by that time, and Caroline had loved dropping him off and driving to the bookstore, anticipating the smell of old paper and warm blueberry mufﬁns, ground espresso beans and nutmeg and ink.
It was quiet behind the counter where people dropped off their bags and boxes of books, then went to wander among the shelves or drink coffee while she assessed the value of their reading habits. First, you had to get rid of the esoteric tomes no one else would want; the beach reads that everyone else had already read and sold, sand ﬁltering out of their pages like used-up words; the books that had been stuffed into the bottom of backpacks along with, she was sure, old bananas. For books in good condition, she would offer a quarter of the original price in store credit. Less, if people wanted a quick exit and cash.
At ﬁrst Caroline had seen the job of used-book buyer as a stepping-stone to the more exciting world of the new releases displayed at the front of the store, their words freshly printed, their meanings clean as new sheets. But she quickly realized she had an afﬁnity for the older books and their muted scents of past dinners and foreign countries, the tea and chocolate stains coloring the phrases. You could never be certain what you would ﬁnd in a book that had spent time with someone else. As Caroline had rifﬂed through the pages looking for defects, she had discovered an entrance ticket to Giverny, a receipt for thirteen bottles of champagne, a to-do list that included, along with groceries and dry cleaning, the simple reminder: “buy a gun.” Bits of life tucked like stowaways in between the chapters. Sometimes she couldn’t decide which story she was most drawn to.
After Jack left, Caroline had found herself standing at her counter, considering the boxes and bags of books in front of her. She was, she realized one day, being traded in for a new release—and as a used-book buyer she couldn’t decide if it was the irony or the triteness of the analogy that she resented most.
The evening of Kate’s victory party, Caroline had been afraid that Kate would challenge her to climb a mountain or go out on a date. But Kate’s assignments were as quiet and unexpected as Kate herself. She had taken a handful of beach rocks from a huge glass bowl in the center of the table and handed one to each of them—as reminders, she said. Caroline was ﬁrst, and Kate had reached across the table, putting the smooth oval into Caroline’s hand.
“Your task is to get rid of Jack’s books,” she said, and Caroline had realized she would have preferred the mountain.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” Caroline said to Marion, lifting up her coffee cup. She saw the expression on Marion’s face. “It’s not just because they’re Jack’s,” she explained. “They’re books. It’s not their fault—they didn’t do anything to anybody; they deserve a home.”
“So do you,” Marion replied.
Caroline couldn’t imagine a home without Jack, even though in reality she’d been living alone for nine months already. Jack had a new sleek condo downtown, bought before he even told her he was leaving, his signature on the purchase documents a commitment, he had explained. He’d bought it with his own money—his inheritance from his father. She remembered the money; Jack had said he wanted to hold it aside, for ﬂ ying lessons. She had thought he meant it literally.
Now, with Jack and Brad both gone, walking through her house was like driving the curves of a familiar but poorly maintained country road. She leaned into its rhythms naturally as she walked in the front door, left her keys in the dish they had bought on a family trip to Hawaii, passed the couch she and Jack had rolled off one night when the bed was too far away, went into the kitchen where it still seemed more natural for Brad to be standing as a four-year-old, head barely at the height of the counter, asking her what was for dinner. Without thinking, she was the person that the house, the furniture, the ingrained patterns of family life expected her to be. And then when she least anticipated it there was a hole that had to be swerved around—Jack’s favorite painting gone from above the ﬁreplace, Brad’s room cleaner than it ever had been before he went to college. How big would the holes in her life be if Jack’s books were gone?
As a child, Caroline had always loved the feeling of being surrounded by books; she had spent summers in the library, winters under the covers of her bed, knees tucked to provide a prop for the book of her choice. As she grew older, she had loved the idea of ﬁlling the shelves of her life with the roles of daughter, friend, girlfriend, wife, mother—like favorite novels she could take out anytime and reread. There was something satisfying in knowing that wherever she went, whatever she was doing, they were always a part of her.
Jack saw it differently. There was nothing romantic, apparently, in a well-stocked bookshelf.
“I’m just thinking,” Marion noted, taking a sip of her coffee, “that it might be nice to ﬁgure out how you want to live.”
“If you’re going to tell me that I can make lemonade out of lemons, I’m going to hurt you.”
“No, but I am saying you can make space for a life.”
Marion was the oldest of their group, at the tipping point of ﬁfty-ﬁve, although she didn’t seem to worry much about it. She was one of those people everyone referred to as grounded— a term that, before Caroline met Marion, Caroline had always thought of in the electrical sense, a live wire somehow muted, made functional, its power dispersed and controlled. But with Marion, the word took on a new meaning. Marion was originally from the Midwest, a geographical inheritance that didn’t so much cling as grow up through her. Her face had the openness of cornﬁelds and river bottoms, a calm belief in herself nourished by thick, green summer air, the feel of slow water moving beneath the hull of a canoe. She had developed a love of gardening early in her life and she used her hands easily and naturally, whether it was touching the earth or the shoulder of a friend.
Marion and Caroline had often laughed at the differences between them—Marion relishing heat and time spent in the dirt, her close-cropped, getting-down-to-business ﬁngernails often carrying thin, black crescent moons that even the most determined scrubbing couldn’t seem to clean. Caroline, on the other hand, was at best a spade girl, her favorite plants held in small clay pots. Better yet, no dirt at all. Jack had always said Caroline’s favorite garden was the ocean.
After her coffee date with Marion, Caroline went to the pool. There was no reason to hurry home and the thought
What compelled you to write Joy for Beginners?
A few years ago, my sister-in-law, who has been part of a band for years, told me that she was going to celebrate her 50th birthday by singing her first solo concert. There was something so bold and liberating in her declaration, especially as it came from someone who is actually quite shy. I loved the audacity of it, the courage behind it, and it gave me the idea for a book. In the end, a group of seven women characters showed up in my imagination, ranging in age and personality and facing an equally eclectic group of challenges, but that first idea of reaching beyond what is comfortable remained the same.
When you gave readings from your previous book, The School of Essential Ingredients, you sometimes mentioned the idea for this new novel, and received a strong reaction from the women in your audiences. What did they say?
I think many of us want to stretch ourselvestry something new, face a fear, break out of a role or a rut we have fallen into. Sometimes we just need an excuse (or a good, firm shove) to get ourselves to do it. I see Joy for Beginners providing that inspiration, by showing readers ordinary, complicated people pushing themselves into new and different territories. I've talked with several book clubs that have decided to read the book and do their own set of challenges at the same time, and I think that's a wonderful idea.
The mysterious power of food to heal and to bring people back to their essential selves was a central theme of your first book. Your new book is not focused on food, yet you see a strong connection between the two books. What is it?
As with The School of Essential Ingredientswhere the focus was food but the point was all the emotional and mental revelations that occurred before, during and because of cookingthe emotional center of Joy for Beginners lies in what the women learn through their challenges, even more than the challenges themselves. As a result, the challenges range from the overtly and physically demanding to ones that might seem simple on the surface. As I was writing, I was thinkingwhat are we truly afraid of? For some, it might mean climbing a mountain or sky diving, but my guess is that for many people fear is often contained within something far less obvious. As Eudora Welty said: "all serious daring starts from within."
Your books are in many ways a celebration of the senses. Why is there such a strong emphasis on the senses in your work?
I think our senses are one of the greatest gifts we have been given, and that our lives only become richer by paying attention to them. Most of us spend so much of our days facing a screencomputer, phone or television. What a delight to remember that we live in bodies with fingers that touch and tongues that taste and noses that have the power to take us, with one inhalation, back in time or into the presence of someone we once loved.
Which of your characters are you most like?
I get asked that question a lot. The truth, as I think is the same for many authors, is that they are all me and none of them are me. I made a promise to myself a long time ago that I wouldn't write any character that I couldn't feel empathy withwhich meant I had to get into their heads and understand how they thought. What surprised me was that it was often the characters that were least like me who really surprised me into empathy.
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