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The Widow Waltz
Sally Koslow
Hardcover
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INTRODUCTION

Georgia Waltz has much of what most people only dream of—two healthy and bright daughters and a husband with whom she”s madly in love, even after decades of marriage; a plush Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park; a Hamptons beach house; a driver; club memberships; fine art. It”s only when Ben suddenly drops dead from a massive coronary while training for the New York City Marathon that Georgia discovers that her husband—a lawyer who always provided well for his family—has left them exactly nothing. Their idyllic life together, it turns out, was built on lies.

As the family attorney attempts to trace the missing money and explain the mortgaged property, and worthless insurance policies, Georgia has to come to grips with her new reality. Not only must she learn how to manage her household finances with what little income she has left, she needs to face the revelation that Ben was not the perfect husband he appeared to be. Between her efforts to protect his legacy for the sake of their daughters and coping with her critical brother and dementia–afflicted mother, Georgia is fighting to keep her spirits intact.

Meanwhile, her two daughters, now living at home, must also reevaluate their plans in the wake of their father”s death—Nicola”s globetrotting search for a career and Luey”s education at Stanford are now untenable. With no trust funds to fall back on, both young women confront the challenges of adult responsibility even as they come of age and navigate complicated romantic relationships.

When Georgia”s suspicions about Ben”s secrets start to produce leads, through her own detective work she ultimately uncovers truths she would rather not have known. This sudden midlife shift forces Georgia to consider who she is and what she values. The results, including a tender new friendship with romantic potential, surprise everyone—most of all, her.

Told through the alternating perspectives of her female leads, Sally Koslow”s fourth novel offers a droll but heartfelt look at how to summon resilience in a time of crisis and explores the challenges of redefining one”s life in the face of devastating loss. The Widow Waltz is a warm, honest, and contemporary story that will appeal to readers of Elizabeth Berg, Anna Quindlen, and J. Courtney Sullivan.


ABOUT SALLY KOSLOW

Sally Koslow is the author of three novels, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, a Target Book Pick; With Friends Like These; and Little Pink Slips, inspired by her time as the editor in chief of McCall”s; as well as Slouching Toward Adulthood, a witty and insightful report from the parenting trenches. She lives in New York City.


A CONVERSATION WITH SALLY KOSLOW

What was your inspiration for The Widow Waltz?

After writing three novels about thirty–something characters, I wanted to examine the life of a woman in midlife. Reinventing yourself is something many women—I, among them—have faced. This is daunting under ordinary circumstances, but after the Madoff financial scandal, I thought about how exceptionally hard it must be for women who haven”t worked in decades (or ever) yet are now required to support themselves, and sometimes their children, all while they are hurt, enraged, and depressed. Entirely unrelated, I can”t help but notice how at every major marathon some swashbuckling male athlete seems to drop dead. These observations, along with thoughts about adoption, abortion, sibling conflict, my own mother”s dementia, and what it”s like for privileged college graduates to come of age now in the United States, were on my mind when I conceived this novel. I put these ingredients in a cocktail shaker and the result was The Widow Waltz.

New York is the milieu for all of your novels, and your characters seem to be particularly intertwined with their setting. What kind of imprint does New York make on people, both real and fictional?

Thanks to television, movies, and tourism, New York is familiar to most Americans; there”s universality to the setting, which can make a reader comfortable. For me, New York City is also home. I am far from a native New Yorker—I”m a legit hick, born and raised in North Dakota—but I”ve lived in Manhattan since I graduated from college. The city stops never interesting me—as a subway rider, a culture vulture, an eater, a starstruck outsider, a sometime insider, and a writer. For better or worse, New York sharpens its residents” edges. That includes humor, which over the years I”ve grown to appreciate, though if you”d asked me when I was in college what was funny about, say, Woody Allen”s early movies, I would have deadpanned with no irony, “Absolutely nothing.” New York City produces some of the bluntest, least filtered people I”ve ever met. What passes for rudeness elsewhere makes for liveliness here.

Looking back at my years in New York I can honestly say that discounting any number of droning magazine budget meetings I attended, I”ve never been bored here for five minutes. This may be why all of my novels have had, so far, NYC settings.

The Widow Waltz is structured like a mystery—Georgia”s search to find out the truth about Ben holds readers in suspense. How did you come to write the book in this way?

If I”d been in Georgia”s shoes, I wouldn”t have left the fact–finding strictly to an attorney. I”d have felt obligated to turn myself into Miss Marple. Who can resist trying to solve a mystery? I wanted that experience for the reader, too.

With the exception of the first chapter, The Widow Waltz is entirely narrated by women. Why did you decide to open the novel in Ben”s voice?

Although he”s not alive for 99 percent of the novel, Ben Silver is a major character. The reader gets a sense of him through Georgia, their daughters, and Georgia”s mother, but I wanted to give the man a chance to show his face, even if it”s for a mere cameo.

The premise of The Widow Waltz is jarring—particularly the idea that we might never truly know those who are closest to us. What role do secrets play in Ben and Georgia”s marriage? What about in marriages more generally?

I don”t think you need to be a shrink to know that unless it”s, say, a covert trip to Paris your husband is planning for your anniversary, significant secrets within a marriage can be toxic. Even if the lie or undisclosed fact has no direct impact on a partner”s welfare, it”s a barrier to closeness. For Ben and Georgia, posthumously revealed duplicity tilts their relationship in a negative light, putting Georgia through the torture of questioning what aspects of their shared past were authentic. I thought that journey would make for interesting psychological reading.

In each of your novels you”ve written about women in very different stages of their lives. Now you focus for the first time on a woman facing middle age. How does Georgia compare to your other female protagonists?

Turning fifty is alternately emboldening (“Who cares what people think? I”ll do/wear/say/see what I want, thank you very much”) and horrifying (“That”s my butt? Really? And I have to show it to a new man now that I”m single? Ew.”) Georgia experiences different and in many ways, more complicated, stresses than the younger protagonists in my previous books. The focus for Magnolia Gold of Little Pink Slips is primarily work–related. She has no one to rely on but herself, which isn”t easy, but as a childless woman, she also enjoys the privilege of being able to focus exclusively on her own problems. Molly of The Late, Lamented Molly Marx is—no spoiler alert required, thanks to the title—dead, so we have to count her out of this conversation. Hard to trump “dead.” With Friends Like These examines the difficulties of contemporary friendship as women hit the thirties and their lives become increasingly conflicted by dueling loyalties to partners, children, and friends.

Georgia Waltz represents the sandwich generation. She needs to tend to her elderly motherm, who has Alzheimer”s, while her young–adult children require her help as well. This leaves little latitude to grieve for the man she loves, to solve problems both practical and emotional, to find a way to support herself when she hasn”t worked for a salary in more than twenty years, and to create a new social life as a single woman. It”s a heavy load. Women in their fifties don”t all share Georgia”s precise issues, but their lives are rarely simple. In The Widow Waltz that”s an issue I wanted to portray.

Much of Luey”s conversation takes place on Twitter, and you too are active on the site. What draws you to this mode of communication? As an author, how does Twitter allow you to play with the form and structure of a narrative?

Twitter gives people a chance to connect and banter—often with strangers—much like they might at a cocktail party, with flying zingers and news flashes unfolding in real time. It”s the social network site with the least guarded communication, which I love. If you haven”t used Twitter as a companion when you”re watching an event unfold on TV—a presidential election, let”s say—you”re missing out. The lickety–split tweets add a dimension. I felt Luey would embrace Twitter and that her tweets would give the reader insights into the mind and heart of a smart, glib but lonely, confused, and worried young woman. By the way, my twitter handle is @sallykoslow. If you tweet, let”s follow each other.

In some ways it appears that the Silver–Waltz family”s privileges held them back from personal growth—it”s only when they have to start over that Georgia, Nicola, and Luey really investigate their own priorities. What”s your take on the relationship between money and self–actualization?

Fagin may have said to Oliver, In this life, one thing counts, in the bank, in large amounts. I disagree. Having substantial financial resources can make people lazy and one–dimensional. Where”s the motivation? Lack of money creates stress, but along with it can come drive. If I”d had piles of money, would I ever have tried to write books? Become an editor in chief of a magazine? Maybe I”d have shopped every day at Bergdorf”s and had a lot of pedicures instead. Georgia and her daughters needed to lose their security in order to find themselves. Now, could someone please smite me with the curse of great wealth so I can determine if anything I”ve said is true?

Some of the themes of your nonfiction book Slouching Toward Adulthood are explored in the fictional world of this novel. What are the overlaps between your real–life experience as a parent and Georgia”s? Did writing and researching Slouching Toward Adulthood inspire The Widow Waltz, or vise versa?

My children are sons, so I can claim no experience with daughters. I do know what it”s like to have kids in their twenties, though, where you can feel close to your children at one moment and at the next not have a clue about what”s going on in their lives. One of my sons had a girlfriend for years whom I never met because she was eleven years older than he was and he thought I”d be upset. I can”t say I wasn”t.

My personal experience has been vastly enlarged by researching Slouching Toward Adulthood, where I interviewed well over a hundred people ranging in age from twenty–two to thirty–five. Several of the interviewees” lives inspired the character of Nicola, Georgia”s older daughter, who switched colleges and majors several times, then topped off her bachelor”s degree by wandering abroad as an ex–pat, enabled by parental indulgence. There are a lot of Nicolas right now, unhappily searching for themselves here and abroad. Fortunately, when they find a passion, which they often do, they throw themselves into it. I felt Nicola was quite realistic. She could have catapulted out of Slouching Toward Adulthood.

You began your career as a journalist and editor. How has your writing changed since you began writing novels? Will you continue to write both nonfiction and fiction in the future? Do you prefer writing fiction to nonfiction?

Being the author of books has changed my writing. Since a manuscript of three hundred pages, give or take, takes shape slowly, unfolding over one to two years, during the process I”m able to think a great deal about language as well as the architecture of individual sentences, whole chapters and the arc of the entire story. You don”t have that luxury in magazine writing, where deadlines constantly pelt you in the face, and text often gets cut at the last minute to accommodate ads. Online writing/blogging, where magazine writing is headed, accelerates the process even more.

Fiction, for me, is an aberration, since I did magazine reporting and copy for years (as well as assigning and editing) before trying to write a novel. Story–telling requires you to create characters, dialogue, backstories—it”s like playing God. Writing a novel stretches your imagination in every way and brings out the child in you, all of which I love, while nonfiction presents a different set of intellectual rewards. You learn a great deal about your subject and after your mass of research is done, you have the enormous task of synthesizing and organizing it into a logical, flowing form. Nonfiction, as a result, flexes muscles that fiction doesn”t require. But at the end of the day, writing is writing, whether you”re assembling a jigsaw puzzle from thousands of researched parts or you”re telling a tall tale that”s utter fabrication and is true only on an emotional level. Whatever sort of book I”m committed to at the moment becomes my favorite. I”m fickle that way, and also hope that writing both forms is good cross–training for my midlife brain.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. When Georgia”s husband dies suddenly, she learns that he”s left their family nothing. How does she respond to this news? How would you have responded?

  2. Georgia was oblivious to her husband”s secret life. What prevented her from seeing the truth? Do you think this happens to many wives?

  3. The Silver–Waltz” daughters, Nicola and Luey, are as unlike as honey and sardines. How are they different from each other and how does Georgia relate to each of them? Do you think she prefers one daughter to the other? How does the novel comment on nature versus nurture in addressing having an adopted child as well as a biological one?

  4. Sally Koslow alternates perspectives throughout the novel. How does this stylistic choice affect the telling of the story? How do you imagine The Widow Waltz would be different if it was told entirely in the third person?

  5. Georgia”s relationship with her brother Stephan has always been troubled. How do her newfound circumstances change their dynamic and attitude toward one another? Do you know siblings who have grown much closer in middle age?

  6. How do Georgia”s feelings about Ben evolve and shift over the course of the book?

  7. How do Georgia”s feelings about her mother evolve and shift over the course of the book?

  8. Georgia must eventually accept her revised reality and attempt to rebuild her life. Do you feel Georgia made the right process in this process? If faced with this challenge, how would you imagine you”d move forward?

  9. After Ben”s death, Nicola and Luey must also make hard decisions about their futures, including career choices and relationships. What factors come into play that affect their choices? Do you like one sister better than the other and if so, why?

  10. Not all readers may agree with the big choices Luey had to make. What advice would you have given her?

  11. Georgia ultimately discovers what happened to her fortune. How would you have reacted in the same situation?

  12. Consider the meaning of true forgiveness. What allows people to move on from betrayals such as the one Georgia experiences?

  13. Although The Widow Waltz is in many ways a tale of loss and desperation, it is told with witty barbs. What is the role of humor in this book? Imagine how The Widow Waltz might be different without this element.