Best Contemporary Women's Fiction: Six Novels

Best Contemporary Women's Fiction: Six Novels

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Six novels in one volume by today’s most outstanding female writers—includes The Magician’s Assistant, Those Who Save Us, and more.
From the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of Commonwealth and Bel Canto, to the multiple award-winning author of This Must Be the Place, this collection gathers a half-dozen top-notch literary talents in a treasure trove for fiction lovers. Included:
Almost by Elizabeth Benedict chronicles the attempt of writer Sophy Chase to come to terms with the death of her almost ex-husband—who may have committed suicide on the New England resort island where she left him just months before.
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum follows Trudy, a professor of German history, as she investigates her mother’s past in WWII Germany, combining a passionate, doomed love story; a vivid evocation of life during the war; and a poignant mother/daughter drama.
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss is a heartwarming story of a young woman with the rare talent of “gentling” wild horses, and the unexpected and profound connections between people and animals.
The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones takes readers inside the hidden world of elite cuisine in modern China, through the story of an American food writer in Beijing who discovers that her late husband may have been leading a double life.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell is a gothic, intricate tale of family secrets, lost lives, and the freedom brought by truth.
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett tells the story of the death of a secretive magician—and how it sets in motion his partner’s journey of self-discovery.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547661520
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 12/22/2010
Series: Best American Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 208,889
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Jenna Blum is the New York Times–bestselling author of The Stormchasers. Blum is of German and Jewish descent and spent four years working for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, interviewing Holocaust survivors. She teaches fiction for Grub Street Writers. Please visit her at, on Facebook and on Twitter: @jenna_blum.
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of Almost, which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book, a Washington Post Book World Book of the Year, a Newsweek Best Fiction Book of the Year, and a Best Book of the Year by National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. She is also the author of three other novels, as well as The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


A High Note

I HAVE this boyfriend who comes to visit me — it's mostly a sex thing. Unless I visit him, in which case it's mostly a babysitting thing. I'm not sure which turns me on more. You don't think of British Jews, if you happen to know any — and I didn't until Daniel Jacobs — as world-class lovers, but he must be an exception, or it could be the antidepressants he takes, which not only keep the blues at bay, but orgasms too. In Daniel's case, for, oh, forty-five minutes, give or take a few. My friend Henderson calls him the Bionic Man.

That's how I'd have begun this story if I'd sat down to write it two months ago, instead of now. I'd have put it firmly in the present tense, the intense present, a time that felt electric to me and that I know I don't want to part with yet. Two months ago, the story would have been all about the sweet madness and the math. And why not? When the numbers are in this range, you feel some obligation to history to keep a record. Remember that old Irving Wallace novel The Seven Minutes, about what goes through this woman's mind in the seven minutes of intercourse? Not one reviewer griped, Seven? That's it? Not one of them said, Irving, you sure this isn't autobiography?

Without my telling him, the doorman knows not to buzz me if packages, even groceries, arrive after he's seen dashing Daniel come upstairs. Phone messages on my machine pile up as thickly as pink While You Were Out slips impaled on an upright skewer. I always turn off the ringer on the phone and mute the voices on the machine, incoming and outgoing, so that we're not distracted. Or bombarded. My almost-ex sometimes calls, in tears, to say he wants me back, and my editor, practically in tears, to remind me that my novel based on the life of Lili Boulanger is budgeted for this year and I am eleven months late. And my other editor, a guy I call the Eighth Deadly Sin, who tries to tempt me to ghost another celebrity autobiography. He is a twenty- seven-year-old manic depressive with his own imprint who hired me to write the life story of a daytime TV personality, which I finished in three months and is about to be published without my name on it, thank God.

As book-writing goes, other people's autobiographies are child's play. You're handed the central character, the dramatic highs and lows, the bittersweet, inspirational ending, a deadline that leaves no room for writer's block, and money, real money. Enough to leave my husband, Will O'Rourke, and dog Henry, move back to New York, and live for a while in this studio-with-alcove furnished sublet in Greenwich Village with two walk-in closets, galley kitchen, central air, and a look of Pier One exoticism on the cheap. An abundance of wicker, batik, cotton throw rugs, and bayberry-scented candles that I often light when Daniel leaves.

The other people I don't want disturbing us are my mother, whose memory is on the fritz, and who sometimes calls to ask how old I was when my father left, and my best gay friend, Henderson, whose messages I love, except when they're broadcast into the boudoir, as this one was on an overcast afternoon: "Sophy, I trust you're not picking up the phone because you and Daniel are having one of those marathon sessions. Hi, lovebirds. Would you believe I lost the name of that guy who does interventions again? My birth father was absolutely blotto last night at Cost fan tutte, and my wicked stepmother and I have decided it's time to send in the Eighty-second Airborne. I hope this is a quickie, because I really need to talk to you before the sun goes down."

Since I moved back to the city in March, my life often feels surreal and overloaded, like an electrical extension cord with too many attachments, on the verge of blowing a fuse. Henderson claims I'm suffering from what Jack Kerouac called "the great mad joy you feel on returning to New York City," though I think it's the generic great mad joy of jettisoning a tired old life for a shiny new one. Some days I'm Gene Kelly doing his waterlogged soft-shoe and singin' in the rain, happy again. On more difficult days, I'm Dorothy, wide-eyed at the phantasm of Oz but terrified I'll never find my way home, or never have another home to find my way to. Being able to focus completely on Daniel for several hours at a stretch keeps me from going off the deep end. Or maybe — maybe Daniel is the deep end, and we are a couple of ordinary junkies who don't even know we have a problem. You forget, being married, that sex can take up so many hours of the day.

A quickie in Daniel's book is half an hour, and never mind foreplay, never mind the nerves on the back of my neck, the world of whispering and slowness. Daniel's cut-to-the-chase is an acquired taste, I know, but now that I've got it, I'm not sure I want to go back to the evolved, sensitive-guy approach. When I told my best woman friend, Annabelle, that on my birthday Daniel and I were at it for forty-three minutes — according to the digital clock on my microwave, which I can see in certain positions from the bed across the room — Annabelle said, "That's a very good birthday present, Sophy." Afterward he gave me another present, a framed gelatin print of a photo of my beautiful, sad-eyed Lili Boulanger he had an art dealer colleague in Paris track down, wrapped in wrinkled Pocahontas gift paper. Then we staggered to his house at the end of Waverly Street, stopping at Balducci's and Carvel to pick up dinner for his four Vietnamese orphans, Tran, Van, Vicki, and Cam, two boys and two girls.

Of course they're not really orphans, because Daniel is their legal father, but so far they have lost two mothers apiece, the Vietnamese women who bore them and Daniel's wife, Blair, who is, as it says on all those old tombstones, Not Dead Only Sleeping, in a nursing home on the North Fork of Long Island, with a spot-on view of a meadow, a salt marsh, and the daily sunrise, none of which she is ever likely to lay eyes on again.

Daniel explained all of this to me over coffee, days after I had moved back to the city and we met at the gay-lesbian-all-welcome AA meeting in the gay-lesbian-all-welcome neighborhood where we live. But by all welcome, they don't only mean boring straight people like Daniel and me; they mean cross-dressers, transsexuals, and a surprising number of people who haven't made up their minds. He and I ended up there separately and by accident, thinking it was nondenominational, but we stayed because, story for story, it's the best theater in New York, a darkly inspirational, Frank Capra-in-drag movie that could be called It's a Wonderful Life One Day at a Time. It's also a place where a man telling his life story can say, "During that period, which went on for five years, I was so busy drinking — I mean, honey, I was taking Ecstasy as a mood stabilizer — that I forgot to meet men and have sex, which brings us to Fire Island," and seventy- five people will howl with sympathetic laughter.

Daniel and I innocently sat next to each other, and he invited me out after for coffee at Dean & DeLuca on Eleventh Street. I was still thinking about the speaker at the meeting whose name was Robert'S., and who wore a platinum pageboy wig and a chartreuse DKNY miniskirt and said to us, "Girls" — though I was the only one in the room — "I am waiting for God to work her magic," and I suppose I was waiting myself. That's what made me ask Daniel, at the start of our first date — as I began to take inventory of all the ways he appeared different from my gray-haired, salty-looking husband — where he stood on God.

"Off to the side," he answered, "quite a way. But here I am, knee-deep in drunks who talk about the Almighty as if he lives next door. It's a lot for an Englishman to sign up for. We have a long tradition of drinking ourselves to death quietly and all alone. Then again, this wasn't my idea." Daniel had the look of a youthful Tom Wolfe, long-limbed, clean-shaven, wearing a suit I didn't know then was an Armani; and there was not a strand of gray in his fine brown hair. He might have been my age, mid-forties, or a few years younger.

"Whose idea was it?"

"My physician advised me three years ago that I'd die in short order if I didn't quit. And what about you? Where do you stand on God?"

I said that for the first ten years I went to meetings, I had a difficult time overcoming my godless Unitarian upbringing, but in the last six months, I found myself leaning in another direction, dispensing with some of my skepticism. I wasn't a practicing Unitarian any longer, I told him; I considered my self lapsed. Trying that out for the first time, the "lapsed." Daniel laughed out loud. But I wanted to play it for laughs; I was flirting like crazy. I hadn't slept with anyone but my husband for the ten years of our marriage, plus the two years before, and I wasn't leaving anything to chance.

"And what's at the core of a lapsed Unitarian's belief system?" he asked.

"Nothing to speak of, so there's room for reconsideration, but not much motivation for it. What about you?"

"I'm Jewish," he said, "but in the English style, sort of half a Jew, as if it were only one of your parents, and you're not certain whether to take it or leave it."

"What's the other half, in your case?"

"Pure capitalist. I come from a long line of merchants. Fur and microchips. My great-grandfather was furrier to the czar. My father was the last furrier in London to move away from the East End when the Bangladeshis moved in. He went to Golders Green in 1962 and sold dead animals until the PETA people threw a can of fuchsia paint on my mother's full-length sable, which coincided roughly with the discovery of the microchip. He and my older brothers are computer consultants to the Queen. They have the lucrative gift of being able to endure long hours of bowing and scraping. I'm the youngest of four sons and, some say, the family rebel. Instead of software, I peddle paintings."

In AA, of course, you are not supposed to tell anyone your last name, but Daniel blithely told me his. I knew it from going to galleries during all the years I lived in New York and reading art reviews in the Times during all the years I didn't.

A cappuccino or two later, we were swapping infertility stories like girlfriends, by way of explaining how he ended up with four imports and I ended up with no offspring at all, ex cept this gryphon-like dog Henry, whom I had left with my husband until I got settled. I didn't tell Daniel that night that Henry had been Will's present to me when I quit trying to get pregnant. "I still carry around a picture of him, ugly as he is."

"Your husband?" Daniel said, visibly startled.

"The dog."

And I didn't tell Daniel about the immense sadness that had made me stop trying to have a baby. It was our first date, after all, and I wanted him to think my past was safely behind me, buried like nuclear waste, in airtight containers, even though I'd walked out on it only a handful of days earlier. Instead, I entertained Daniel with stories of my test-tube encounters with Green-Blue, the code name for the nuclear physicist at the California genius sperm bank I had wanted to be the father of my child, after it became clear that Will's sperm motility wasn't what it had been when he'd fathered my two grown, soon-to-be-ex stepdaughters.

"Green-Blue is six-one, IQ of one fifty-six, and the father, as of two years ago, of thirty-one children of lesbian mothers and straight single women scattered across the fault lines of Southern California. They Fed Exed me the stuff in tanks of liquid nitrogen. But I ovulate funny. It was like waiting for three cherries to come up on a slot machine. And my husband was convinced that the only sperm donor in the joint was the skaggy-looking guy who ran the business and called me at seven in the morning — mind you, that's four A.M. in California — to say, 'Sophy, I have to know, is your temperature going up or down?'"

Daniel told me that he and Blair had done the temperature business, test tubes, and Pergonal injections. She had even made an appointment with a faith healer named Falling Rain Drop, who insisted they participate in a fertility dance in Washington Square Park every day at dawn for a week. Daniel refused.

The years of trying piled up, and Blair, pushing forty-three, grew impatient and fearful. In one fell swoop, they adopted three siblings, two boys and a girl, ages approximately six, four, and two, who had been living in an orphanage in Hoa Binh for six months, and a fourth child, Vicki, whose sad face in a photograph Blair could not resist. They nearly emptied out the orphanage and filled every room in the narrow, turn-of-the-century brownstone Blair had inherited from her stockbroker father.

Adopting all those children, you could say she was Mia Farrow minus Woody, and now, poor lamb, poor Blair, she is Sunny von Bulow minus the millions. Not that they are destitute; Daniel's two art galleries are doing record business, despite his long afternoon absences. He was a willing partner in the international quest for children, and he is a devoted father, though he is often sleep-deprived and frequently flummoxed, as when his five-year-old said to him, "If you don't buy me a Beanie Baby, I'll say the F word all the time, starting right now."

He wants me to think and seems to believe himself — and it may be the truth — that his essential nature is now subsumed by the condition of being overwhelmed. "I used to have a personality," he will say, "and a life I rather liked. Now I run an orphanage on a street where I am the only heterosexual man for ten blocks in every blinking direction."

On the other hand, I'm not sure what that personality was, the one he claims to have had. He can predict whether a client will prefer a Miro etching to an obscure Delvaux oil painting, and he is consulted by museums and foreign governments to detect forgeries, but in matters of his heart, nuance is a rare commodity. When I asked him how his marriage had changed over the years, all he said was, "Once the children arrived, we quit having sex on Saturday afternoons."

My friends are divided over the nature and severity of Daniel's affliction. Those who have spent time in England insist that his passport is his destiny, and his answer to my question about his marriage passes in that population for soul-searching. Other friends ascribe his limitations to gender. "He sounds just like a man," Annabelle said, "but worse." It may be most accurate on any continent to say that he is what Winston Churchill said about Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

But there is something else you should know about Daniel: I think he is still in love with Blair. She has this embalmed, waxy, forever-thirty-nine, Dick Clark quality. Perfect, silent, stricken, enveloped in the aura of her New York Stock Exchange pedigree and a life of excruciatingly good deeds. She founded and ran a literacy-and-reading center for inner city families and was always getting plaques and certificates from the mayor, the governor, Channel 7, the Amsterdam News, El Diario, and the Helen Keller Foundation. Daniel sells modern masters, wears Armani underwear, and a wristwatch as thin as a quarter, but his living room walls are now crammed with three-dollar pressed- wood plaques and ersatz diplomas from local TV news anchors who think Blair should have shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela.

Poor thing was hit by a UPS truck the year before while bicycling on Hilton Head Island, where she was attending her only sister's wedding. Can Daniel marry again without divorcing his brain-dead wife? The subject has not come up between us. We are efficient communicators in the sack and above- average conversationalists on terra firma, but on the question of our future — I mean anything beyond tomorrow — we are neophyte speakers of English, permanently stalled in the present tense.

Blair is a tough act to follow, though I give it all I've got. In addition to baking Christmas cookies with Daniel's children in June, I frequently do a full-dress imitation of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, which they have seen on video twenty-five or thirty times. I braid my hair and wear a polka-dot pinafore and a pair of glittery red shoes I found in a thrift store; and I rigged up a little stuffed dog, attached to a real leather leash, which I drag up the stairs of their brownstone and then sling over my shoulder, squealing, "Toto! Toto! I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!"

One night I made the mistake of imitating their father for them. I put on one of his silk suits over my own clothes and carted four metal lunchboxes and a handful of naked Barbie dolls into the bedroom where they waited for me, perched on the edge of Vicki's bed — Vicki, the oldest, Vicki, who keeps a shelf of books about children who have no parents. This child who first heard English spoken three years ago has read The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Peter Pan, Pippi Longstocking, and, in a category of loss entirely its own, The Diary of Anne Frank.


Excerpted from "Best Contemporary Women's Fiction"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents


Those Who Save Us

The Hearts of Horses

The Last Chinese Chef

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

The Magician’s Assistant

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