Losing Charlotte

Losing Charlotte

by Heather Clay


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Raised on their family's Thoroughbred farm in Kentucky, Charlotte and Knox Bolling grow up steeped in the life cycles of the horses surrounding them. Despite their opposing natures, the connection between these two sisters is unbreakable, even when Charlotte abandons Four Corners Farm in favor of Manhattan. But a single day changes everything for Knox, and in order to confront the ways her sister defines her, she must leave the home she’s always known. A powerful story of love, duty and family, Losing Charlotte reminds us that there are some bonds that cannot be broken.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400031719
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/05/2011
Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.04(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.73(d)

About the Author

Heather Clay is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She has published short fiction in The New Yorker and written for Parenting. She lives in New York City with her husband and their two daughters. This is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt


The summer that everything happened was the hottest summer Knox could remember. Heat pooled around them all, a soft, wet heat that nobody talked about. It was just what was.

Her students didn’t talk about it, but stumbled out the side doors of the center when it was time for their breaks and stood mutely in twos and threes that didn’t correspond to any friendships or alliances that Knox knew of but seemed the result of an uncharacteristic economy of movement. Stood with whomever they happened to find themselves next to, blinking, kicking occasionally at pieces of gravel, until they were called inside. On the farm, the foals stood the same way in the fields, unless they had shade or water to retreat into, in which case they drew together with their mothers into a mass of shifting rumps and bobbing necks, sometimes lowering themselves onto their sides, one by one, until the ground was piled with shapes that panted so slowly that Knox would fret about death, respiratory failure, pulmonary arrest if she watched too long, and so turn from the kitchen window of her cabin, or walk on.

Dumbstruck. Struck dumb. Knox could describe almost anything this way, on the hot days. The town and the farms that spread around it were quieter now that the July sales were over and the buyers had flown away. The land seemed to buzz like the insects did, with vibration rather than sound. Felt, not heard, its tongue thick in its mouth.

“He calls you Ugly?” Marlene said. Her mouth was half full of sandwich, so calls came out callfz. They were sitting in the lunchroom, watching the students through the large window that faced onto the courtyard of the learning center. Nine more minutes until break was over, according to the wall clock above Marlene’s head.

“Well,” Knox said, eyeing Brad Toffey as he stepped onto a picnic bench and seemed to ponder whether or not to jump off it, then stepped down and sat heavily on the ground, staring into the middle distance, “yeah. But it’s just a nickname. I think it’s funny, actually. He’s always called me that.”

Marlene chewed, her eyes fixed on Knox’s face. Knox looked back at her and smiled, knowing that it would be long seconds before Marlene could swallow her bite and respond, that the delay was killing her. Marlene, forty-six and well into her second marriage, liked nothing more than to discuss Knox’s lack of savvy when it came to “relationships”—or, more accurately, the one relationship she’d ever had. Marlene’s hair was frosted and faded into overlapping patches of white, russet, and dark brown and shook a little as her mouth worked.

“Take your time,” Knox said. “Wouldn’t want you to choke, Mar.”

“Screw you,” Marlene mumbled. A fleck of mayonnaise dropped onto her chin, and she scratched it away with a manicured nail. “I don’t understand it. You’re not ugly. At least, not most of the time.”

“It’s a nickname, Mar. Not important,” Knox said.

“Mmm,” Marlene said, squinting at her. “I guess.”

Knox shifted in her plastic chair, trying to work some feeling back into her legs and lower body. Last night, Ned Bale had proposed to her again, in his way, as they lay on a quilt at the music festival, finally cooled by the dark and the beer they had drunk while they listened to the amped-up Dobros and fiddles. Jerry Douglas was on the stage, plucking the melody for “Wildwood Flower” over a steady line of bass notes, when Ned rolled toward her and said, “We should do it, Ugly. I mean, why not?”

That was how he asked.

Knox had been watching an old man dance on a toting board near their blanket. He was wearing a T-shirt that said badass from skeleton pass and jerking a little mountain clog, keeping his torso rigid and still, his hands limp at his sides, his face impassive, his legs flailing quickly like a marionette’s. His shorts hung so low that Knox could see the exposed jut of his pelvic bone when he kicked his foot back and slapped it with one of his hands in response to a high whoop from the second picker. The woman with him—a wife or daughter, the bloat on her face making it somehow hard to tell which—lolled on her side in the grass beside the board, as still as the man was lively. Knox briefly wondered how far they had come for the music; Skeleton Pass was surely one of the holler towns far to the east. She knew she shouldn’t be wondering anything about anyone’s driving distance—she should only be reacting, plumbing for words, using them or not, moving toward Ned or moving away.

She made herself say: “I love you.” Then she said: “Ned.”

It was true that she loved him, she thought. And she did appreciate Ned asking the way he had. The impossibly vague it. She considered its imprecision appropriate. How could one better capture the cloudy concept of “making a life together”? It was a fine word. It also allowed her to rationalize, while she kept her breaths shallow and her eyes on the dancing man, that Ned might have been talking about going somewhere for the weekend, or trying the new Indian restaurant on Vine. She’d told Marlene this, at least.

“I’m just talking,” Marlene said, rolling the top of her pretzel bag closed with a clip she kept in her lunch pack. “But I want you to do what’s right for you. You’re getting well past thirty, and this guy’s been hanging around for half your life. What the hell are you waiting for?”

“I don’t know.”

Marlene sighed. “Did he press you to say anything else?”

“He just said I should think about it.” Knox tried, unsuccessfully, to picture something other than Ned’s face just after he said this. He had been rubbing at his glasses with the corner of their picnic blanket, his eyes cast down, when his mouth flashed into a little smile. He had looked apologetic, as if he were telling the glasses to be patient, that in another moment they would be clean.

Knox concentrated on Brad Toffey as he stood and began swinging his arms in wide circles. Round, round, round, faster and faster. She allowed herself to be lulled into imagining that it didn’t matter what she did, really, and wasn’t this the chief beauty of her life? It traveled in concentric circles around her, like orbiting matter, and her job was to stay put, stay fixed, and let that happen. Look at Marlene—did she really care what Knox’s reply to anybody’s proposal might be? She was zipping the pretzel bag into her lunch pack, along with her balled sandwich wrapper and empty Diet Coke can. In thirty seconds she would be smacking a Winston out of the pack she kept in her skirt pocket, offering Knox a cigarette of her own, which Knox would refuse. The information they traded with each other was immaterial compared with the fact that they were simply placed in proximity to each other in the universe and found the proximity pleasant. Marlene’s husband’s colon cancer scare last year could have been a heart murmur; Knox could be holding forth on the fallout of a one-night stand or the progress of a lesbian courtship right now, instead of on Ned Bale’s ongoing . . . pursuit of her. The events she hauled in from the outside like lunch could be real or not real; what was important was the cadence, not the content, of the babble between them. Actually, this wasn’t altogether true—Knox had risen and fallen according to the daily news of Jimmy’s recovery from surgery and felt deliriously buoyant when Marlene told her the tumor was officially benign. She hoarded specific details about Marlene’s life: the hell-raising, punked-out daughter on scholarship at Wake Forest, the cardinal at her kitchen window that Marlene believed was an emissary from her dead Papaw. It was just that Knox sensed she could be whoever she wanted to be, expend as much or as little effort as she chose, and their break time companionship would not oxidize with untruth or neglect. It would simply . . . remain.

“Did Brad take his medication this morning?” Marlene asked. She was peering out the window. Outside, Brad lay on his back in the bleached grass, bicycling his slender legs at the sky.

“He did,” Knox said. “He’s just being Brad, I guess.”

“I don’t know how he moves in this heat.” Marlene looked at her. “You want a cigarette?”

“No thanks, Mar.”

“Well. I guess I’ll call everybody in,” Marlene said, fiddling with the matchbook in her palm. “Unless you want to give me any more gory details.”

Knox did want to. She wanted to tell Marlene about the dancer, how she had seen something magnificent in the way he pounded on the board with his slight feet, their tops corded with tendons and flashing pale, even in the darkness—and in the way he had stood between acts, looking wildly expectant, one hand pressing at the small of his thin back, two fingers of the other hand thrust between his lips. He’d blown a wolf whistle that knifed the air so cleanly, without reverberation, like a child’s scream. She wanted to tell her about driving home with Ned, how they had talked and laughed together about the usual nothings, and how, once he’d parked his truck, Knox had entered his house without asking and taken the toothbrush she always used out of the bathroom cabinet and begun to brush her teeth with it when Ned came into the bathroom and put his arms around her waist and pulled her backward against him, more roughly than he might have on another night; but she didn’t comment, only swallowed the bits of foam and water in her mouth and let him turn her to face him, let him pull her shirt over her head and scratch her breasts with the stubble on his cheeks and chin as he sank lower until his tongue was circling one of her nipples, then the other. How she watched him work from above for a moment, and ran her fingers through his hair, making little tents with it, until Ned pulled her onto her knees and she knelt, facing him, while he unbuttoned her shorts with such concentration that Knox wondered if he might be deliberately avoiding her gaze. How she placed her hands in his hair again and felt the smooth knobs that his skull made behind his ears, and then moved her hands onto the back of his neck and guided his head toward hers, so that they were both closer together and blurred to each other. That had seemed a kindness, to let herself be blurred for Ned, so that he wouldn’t have to watch her watching him.

But there was no way to tell Marlene these things. Knox pushed up from her chair now, said, “I’ll call them in, you just enjoy your smoke,” and leaned out the lunchroom door to yell “Time for class!” into the heat, so loudly that it startled her.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Heather Clay’s Losing Charlotte, a moving exploration of  the complicated ties between two sisters and the effects of loss on an entire family

1. What does the prologue tell you about the relationship between Charlotte and Knox and the roles they have in the family? What responsibilities does the young Knox assume and why?

2. In considering her life, Knox says, “It traveled in concentric circles around her, like orbiting matter, and her job was to stay fixed and let it happen” [p. 16].  Does this reflect a sense of contentment or does it represent a willful passivity and even smugness?  What aspects of her interactions with Marlene support your view?  In what ways does teaching dyslexic children satisfy Knox’s image of herself and her place in the world?

3. To what extent is Knox’s attitude toward Ned based on her father and the family dynamic she has always known? Why does she find male vulnerability off-putting? Does this explain her antipathy to Charlotte’s choice of a husband and her own reluctance to marry Ned or are there other factors at work?

4. Discuss the conversation between Charlotte and Knox [pp. 25–30]. Is reverting to childhood patterns—“to love and hate each other so nakedly, and so simultaneously”—common between adult siblings? Are the thoughts and feelings of each sister presented fairly or are they seen solely through Knox’s eyes?

5. Why does Bruce’s narrative begin with the flashback to his childhood and his reaction to the disappearance of his friend’s mother [pp. 43–54]? How does it relate to the descriptions of Charlotte’s childhood home? 

6. How would you characterize the relationship between Bruce and Charlotte? What needs does Charlotte fulfill for Bruce? What does Bruce provide for Charlotte? Why does Charlotte create false or at least fanciful images of herself and of Bruce? What do Bruce’s description of their relationship and his confession [pp. 147–148] suggest about his commitment to Charlotte? Do most couples experience “a moment—or many—that would remain forever inexplicable to anyone else but was understood within their universe of two, rendering them bound in a new way” [p. 149]?

7. What do the family’s reactions to Charlotte’s death show about the ways people cope with tragedy [pp. 117–118]?  What do their emotional states, both at the hospital and when they return to Kentucky, reveal about Knox’s understanding of herself, her father, and her mother? What role does Robbie fill for her? 

8. Discuss Bruce’s impressions of Charlotte’s childhood and the conclusions he has drawn about her parents and Knox [pp. 142–143].  Why does he accept  “the synopsis Charlotte had arrived at after years spent in therapy and engaged in the burial of her former self” [p. 143]?  How does this influence his behavior with Knox? 

9. What does the Christmas dinner [pp. 153–161], as well as the conversation the sisters have at the bar [pp. 166–169], show about the beliefs, real or imagined, that shape the way they view each other? Do you think Knox misreads, misremembers, or exaggerates Charlotte’s behavior and its effects on the family? 

10. How do alternating perspectives of Knox and Bruce affect the portrait of Charlotte? What do their descriptions of Charlotte’s behavior and attitudes have in common? Is one perspective more reliable than the other?  Is Bruce more willing than Knox to acknowledge personal hang-ups and biases? In what ways does the time she spends in New York force Knox to explore and come to terms with her mixed feelings about Charlotte [pp. 198–199; 204–207; 214–216]? 

11. What propels the growing intimacy between Bruce and Knox? Contemplating the consequences, Knox thinks, “She couldn’t claim not to have chosen it, or to have been swept into something she wasn’t conscious of, or couldn’t control” [p. 235].  Do you think that Bruce feels the same way?

12. “There were moments in everyone’s life, Knox supposed, that showed you that you weren’t the person you thought.  Maybe these moments taught you something good about yourself, or shamed you” [p. 248]. What has Knox learned about herself by the novel’s end?

13. In an interview Heather Clay said “I had heard of maternal deaths like the one that occurs in Losing Charlotte . . . . And the idea of something so Victorian happening in a modern hospital setting led me to wonder how such an event would affect the modern family” [randomhouse.com]. What historical or literary traditions does Clay draw on?

14. What does Losing Charlotte illustrate about caretaking and parenting? What is the significance of Knox’s view that the sisters had "been forced by birth into mutual territory and yet emerged . . . as if they'd been raised in separate countries” [p. 30]?  To what extent are Mina and Ben responsible for the competitiveness and resentments that exist between Charlotte and Knox? In what ways are Bruce and Knox transformed by the obligations as well as the pleasures of taking care of the twins? How does Knox’s notion of herself as family caretaker evolve throughout the novel?

15. Part of the novel takes place in Kentucky and part in New York City. How does the contrast between the two settings enrich the themes of the novel? How do the depictions of the secondary characters—Marlene and Ned in Kentucky, Bruce’s mother and his friend Jeb Jackman and Charlotte’s ex-boyfriend Stephen in New York, for example—reinforce the sense of place and culture?

16. The rhythms of nature and the breeding cycles on the stud farm are an integral part of the novel [p. 33, for example]. How do these descriptions serve as metaphors for human behavior?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit: www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

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Losing Charlotte 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
tammathau on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After Knox's sister Charlotte dies giving birth to twin boys, she moves to New York to help her brother in law with the newborns. A good story about overcoming grief, the bond of sisters and moving on.
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Jen-Austin More than 1 year ago
I saw a write up of this book in a magazine and thought it sounded so good. However, I was bored from the beginning. I made it about half way through the book and I just couldn't take any more. I didn't find any of the characters terribly likeable either.
parishnurse More than 1 year ago
I had to read some reviews to see how others found this book as my own feelings were somewhat mixed. I did finish it but was disappointed in the ending. Things were left up in the air. In fact, it really didn't end for me. Perhaps a sequel? I liked the concept of tragedy bringing two unlikely people together but I didn't like the way their relationship developed. Also, most of the characters were difficult to like. One aspect of the book was Charlotte's presence. Even after she died, the flashbacks of events in the lives of the family made it seem like she was still around. The descriptions of Knox and Bruce taking care of the babies was something any mother or nanny could have written so I found that part quite boring. There were other times when the story seemed to drag on and I wished to know more about the feelings and behavior of the characters. Then when the feelings and behaviors were described, they were just too weird. For example, Knox wearing Charlotte's slip under her shirt and jeans and Bruce have sex with a hooker because he was afraid of how much he adored his wife didn't make sense to me. I did like the way the memorial service was described with Knox holding one of the babies when she attempted to speak of her sister and Bruce coming to take the baby from her when he got fussy. Naming the boys for their maternal and paternal grandfathers was also a nice touch. Naming the main character Knox was just dumb when there are so many other nice names for a girl/woman. I don't think I would recommend it, however, as there are better books out there to read.
avidreaderVC More than 1 year ago
I had read a very positive review on this book and was not disappointed. Certainly, it was very sad, and the father became my hero, as he took charge of caring for his twin boys after the death of his wife without a lot of whining and self-pity. I know few that would have handled it as well. The sister, unselfishly, came in to help, and the relationships that evolved were poignant.
Laughing_Orca_Ranch More than 1 year ago
I was so excited about reading this book, as it was described to me as book with a large focus on horses. Even the cover has a blur of galloping horses. While, yes, it is set on a Thoroughbred breeding farm, that is more of a background..a very quiet background. This background is there only for the main character's thoughts on a complicated life, difficult choices, in-depth memories, and many regrets. I can count on one hand, the number of times, that any detailed horse encounters are brought up. There was the discussion of what happens inside a breeding barn, and the stallion that bit the tip off of Knox's boyfriend, Ned's finger. And there was the mare in her stall that miscarried her foal, which seemed to be added as an afterthought, because there really wasn't any special moments shared between this mare and Knox. Then the reader must wait until the very last paragraph to see anymore mention of horses. And even then, it was more of an absent-minded filler than anything meaningful. For all of the many in-depth details that Heather Clay uses throughout her book, she fails to do the same when it comes to her characters' relationships with horses. For someone that grew up on the same horse farm, Three Chimneys, where the famous race horse Big Brown resides, I found this lack of horse focus, surprising and disappointing. I wanted to like this book, especially since one of main characters, Charlotte was the Mother of twins, like me, but I couldn't get past the melancholy I felt that was woven throughout this book. The seeming lack of caring by the author made the story painfully slow. She spends too much time describing in minute detail every tiny thing, like the varieties of scents her character smelled. These details don't matter to the plot or character development. Personally I was offended by Heather Clay's use of crude words where I wouldn't think an author should (especially a Mother of two young girls). She describes the smell of feces in the hospital as 'sh-t'. And she had her character Knox use the word 'f-ing' when Ned made love to her. Even if this act didn't matter to Knox, was it necessary to use the 'F' word? She tosses that word throughout her book, seemingly for shock factor. Like when she overslept and woke up too late to care for her infant nephews, and thought 'F---K!'. And her use of the word 'piss' for an infant's pee. This kind of writing made it difficult for me to connect with her characters. In addition, the first few pages of this book were confusing to figure out who the characters were and what their ages were. I incorrectly assumed that Knox was a man and Charlotte was his lover. I also found it odd that Heather Clay allowed her character Knox to be amused by her boyfriend's nickname for her, 'Ugly'. And we never find out what Ned's mysterious e-mail to Knox said. The only part of the book that I enjoyed was the chapter that detailed how Charlotte and Bruce began their relationship together. There was a beautiful, innocent magic between these two characters and Heather Clay seemed to wake up and smile on them. Then she ruined that feeling by allowing Bruce to hire a prostitute. The author states it took her 9 years to complete this book. I wonder if during that long period of time she just lost interest, because there seems to be no passion for her characters or the storyline, and the end of the book just sort of peters out like a deep, uncaring sigh.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
fog More than 1 year ago
I didn't enjoy this book. It looked interesting when I read the jacket but fell short when I read it. I just could not fall in love with any of the characters. The female character was flat and the husband was also. He started out promising and fell flat of my expectations. I couldn't even be outraged when he screwed up. He didn't even insight that much enthusiasm from me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ok i think that this is a great book but serously anonymous did you even read the whole book cuase if not then why even judge i mean really this is a great book abd the best part is mname is charlotte so it majes it even better for nme and if you are thinking well thats why you like it no i like it because ita butieuful stroy not BORING ANONYMOUS so there
harstan More than 1 year ago
Sisters Charlotte and Knox Bolling grew up on their family Four Corners Kentucky horse farm. Each knows thoroughbreds as well as they know people and in many respects are more comfortable with horses. When Charlotte leaves for New York, Knox resents her leaving her to remain on the farm. Charlotte marries finance manager Bruce Tavert. They move to the West Village of Manhattan, but though geographically apart, the siblings remain close yet apparently different. Charlotte gives birth to twin boys, but dies soon after her sons are born prematurely. Although hardly knowing one another except through Charlotte and their grief for her, Knox and Bruce raise the babies together as she leaves the farm for the big city. Losing Charlotte is a fascinating character study of three people who are tied together through the death of one of them and the births of the next generation. Bruce and Knox grieve their loss, but the latter is the more fascinating protagonist. Whereas Bruce is New York banker stereotype; Knox struggles to adapt to Manhattan after the Kentucky farm especially raising her nephews and finally dealing with her assortment of contrary feelings towards Bruce, the twins and ultimately Charlotte. She changes throughout the story line as she goes from ire for what she perceives is her sibling's desertion to innocent caretaker to almost in love with her brother-in-law to finally uplifting nurturer. She makes this family drama an entertaining deep tale Harriet Klausner