Vinegar Hill

Vinegar Hill

by A. Manette Ansay


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In her debut novel, Manette Ansay writes of one woman's gradual realization that in order to reenvision her life she must break all the rules. It is 1972 and Ellen Grier finds herself back in the Midwestern hometown she thought she had escaped for good. Worse yet, she and her family have had to move in with her in-laws: narrow-minded, eccentric people who are as tough as the farm lives they have endured. Devout Catholics, they inhabit a world "as rigid, as precise as a church," and Ellen struggles to live by their motto: "A place for everything; everything in its place." But there is no place for Ellen -- fresh, funny, bright with passion -- in a house filled with the dust of routine and the ritual of prayer, the lingering bitterness of her in-laws' loveless marriage. She tries to be the model woman everyone expects her to be -- teaching at the Catholic school, coaxing her traveling-salesman husband through his increasingly irrational moods, caring for his aging parents -- but Ellen's hopes for her family's future collide with life in this bizarre household, and she worries over her wryly observant adolescent daughter and her timid young son. Encouraged by her friend Barb, a woman ostracized for being "modern" and "wild," Ellen begins to consider her own desires and dreams as well. Surrounded by the family's obsession with an exacting, angry God and the disquieting ghosts of the past, Ellen searches for a way to satisfy the demands of this rural community and its traditions until, at last, she discovers the family's darkest secret, one that frees her and changes her life forever.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781402831164
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/28/1998
Series: Harper Perennial Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

A. Manette Ansay is the author of eight books, including Vinegar Hill, Midnight Champagne (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Blue Water. She has received the Pushcart Prize, two Great Lakes Book Awards, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the University of Miami.


Port Washington, Wisconsin; now lives in New York City

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Lapeer, Michigan


MFA, Cornell University, 1991

Read an Excerpt

After the dishes are washed and put away, Ellen bundles up James's coat, because it is warmer than her own, and goes into the living room, where he and Fritz and Mary-Margaret are watching TV. It's a comfortable room with moss-colored carpet, Fritz's La-Z-Boy, Mary-Margaret's embroidered parlor chair, and a long rectangular picture of the Last Supper, done in somber golds and greens. Beside the TV, Mary-Margaret's piano shines with lemon oil. Amy and Herbert are sitting on the floor, pretending to do their homework with their books spread out in front of them. But their eyes are wide and glassy. They are staring at the screen. They look down quickly when Ellen appears, shapeless as a boulder, the coat sleeves so long that just her fingertips show.

"I'm going for a walk," she says.

"Why?" Herbert says.

"I need the exercise," she says, although that is not the only reason. She kisses him, and then Amy. Their skin feels warm against her lips. "If I'm not back by eight-thirty, put yourselves to bed."

"But you'll be back by eight-thirty, won't you?" Herbert says.

"I'll try." She leans over to kiss James good-bye and accidentally blocks the screen. He looks at her irritably, then controls himself.

"Have a nice walk," he says, and he lets himself be kissed. Amy looks from Ellen to Mary-Margaret, then back at Ellen. She is built like her grandmother, tall and thin, with long willowy arms and legs she hasn't grown into yet. Over the summer, she shot up three inches; her face lengthened; her freckles lightened to match the color of her skin. Now her braid reaches down to where her waist dips inward, the first suggestion of a woman's graceful shape. Her eyes are James's dark,worried eyes.

"What?" Ellen says. She is sweating in the heavy coat, edging toward the door.

Amy tosses her head and her long braid swings. "Herbert gets scared when you're gone."

"Mama's boy," Mary-Margaret says. "Hasenfuss."

"I'll be back soon," Ellen says to Amy. They both ignore Mary-Margaret, who speaks in rapid German to Fritz, beginning a long complaint that needs no translation.

Ellen almost trips on the threshold in her hurry to get outside. The cold air tastes sweet; she closes the door and breathes deeply, chasing the sour smell of the house from her lungs. These after-dinner walks are the only time she can take for herself, but even so, as she walks down the steep, narrow driveway, she feels terrible, as though she's stealing. By walking, she's not making sure the kids finish their homework; by walking, she's not available to James if he needs her. And she has papers to grade, one stack of them on the dresser at home, another waiting on her desk at school. Her classroom has three tall windows, each with a chip of stained glass crowning the top. She loves to work there in the late afternoons, composing lesson plans as the sun drizzles gold between the hanging plants, the last echoey voices of the children fading toward home. But grading papers depresses her: this far into the year, she doesn't need to see them to know what grade each student will receive. It seems so unfair, so hopeless. Sometimes she buys brightly colored stars and pastes them on each of the papers just because you're all nice people. But the kids don't buy it: nice doesn't get you anywhere, nice doesn't count. Looks count, and the right kind of clothes counts. Two plus two equals four counts.

From the street the house looks peaceful: 512 Vinegar Hill, a pale brick ranch set too close to the street. The lamp in the living room window glows red; an eye peering back at her, curious but calm. The heads of Fritz and Mary-Margaret are just visible, and they could be the heads of any older couple, sitting side by side. They could be very much in love. They could be talking instead of watching TV, discussing Nixon's re-election, the situation in Vietnam, the weather, the supper they have eaten.

That was a good roast, the man might say. Delicious.

Oh no, it was much too dry.

No, really, it was good.

Or maybe the woman wouldn't answer the man. Maybe she would smile, just a bit, just enough for him to see that she was pleased. There would be history in that smile, and he might reach out to touch her hand, to twist the gold band on her finger, and the feeling between them would be so strong that a stranger walking by would notice the pale brick house set too close to the street and, inside it, the backs of two gray heads, and perhaps would imagine the woman's smile.

But there is nothing between Fritz and Mary-Margaret that might cause a stranger to notice, to slow and watch and wonder without really knowing why. At night they sleep in narrow twin beds as neatly as dolls, flat on their backs, chins raised in the air. Often, before they go to sleep, their voices rise and fall in the singsong way of a prayer. Fritz knows something terrible about Mary Margaret that he ultimately threatens to reveal, and this threat end the fight instantly, with Mary-Margaret saying No, no. There are secrets everywhere in this house. Ellen walks around them, passes through them, sensing things without understanding what they mean.

She heads toward the downtown past other ranch-style houses, each centered primly on its rectangular lot. The doors and windows, the chimneys and driveways are all rectangular too, and the quiet streets cut larger rectangles that cover the town like the neat lines on a piece of graph paper. The most easterly line is formed by Lake Michigan; the coast curves gently until it reaches the downtown, where it juts inland to form the harbor. Perched on the bluff, Saint Michael's Church overlooks it all—the harbor, the downtown shops and businesses, the rows of rectangular houses that sprawl to the west for a quarter of a mile—the clock in the steeple like a huge, patient eye.

Table of Contents

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Vinegar Hill 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 94 reviews.
Auntielou More than 1 year ago
I read this book for book club and I found it very sad and depressing. I did finish the book because I wanted to see how it ended. Not one of my favorite books
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Short and sweet! Written very well! If the author wanted to set you into a tailspin of antidepressants....she succeeded! But sickeningly enough, I couldn't put it down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If a the quality of a book is judged by its ability to trigger the reader's emotions, then I would have to give this book five stars. It is extraordinarily well-written and provocative. However, I was deeply disturbed by the anti-Catholic themes running throughout the book and especially by the fact that our heroine finds that her spiritual ally is a woman who committed infanticide. Instead of suggesting that Ellen honestly reach out to family, friends, and/or clergy for help, the author seems to blame Ellen's Catholicism for her inability to discuss her problems with anyone. Prospective readers should be forewarned about these troubling themes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
95% of this book was dark, dismal, and depressing. It redeemed itself a little at the end. Maybe it’s because I’m not Catholic, or maybe I’m just not a good wife. I would have told Jimmy and his parents just where to stick it and would have taken my kids someplace sunny to start a new life.
melibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
+ Well-written.- No likeable characters, made me feel uneasy pretty much the whole time.
dele2451 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very somber, melancholy tale of cruelty, depression and deep emotional despair. The author did an admirable job of conveying the smothering and oppressed sensations the main character, Ellen, was feeling when forced to live in the house with her cruel in-laws. While the book was a good read overall, I tound some segments (specifically, the distant husband rushing back to give his wife a hug, the part where the family savings is taken, and the final walk with the daughter) awkward and somehow incomplete. This is the first book I've read by this author and I must say Ansay does "bleak" exceptionally well. I'll be very interested in seeing of her work as she matures and grows as a writer.
whitebalcony on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Depressing, and yet so so real! What a family.
mojomomma on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ellen is caught in a time of change--its the 1960's and the role of women is in flux. Her strong Roman Catholic faith is called into question by her failing marriage and her impossible in-laws with whom she is now living with her husband and children. She is expected to be the pillar of strength for everyone else and sacrifice her own needs, and yet she recognizes the desperation other generations of women have felt when she uncovers her mother-in-law's secret. At the novel's conclusion, she strikes out on her own in a way most modern women would applaud.
Spoo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dark, cold and profound. I love books like this.
traczy555 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Horrible book. Not that well written and it just plods along aimlessly, finally reaching a climax in the final few pages. Seriously left me feeling completely empty and annoyed that I put in the effort to read it.
igjoe on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An enjoyable read. Written very well. You can feel the depression and desperation in the characters. A little odd and shocking at times, but what's a story if it doesn't surprise you? Worth the time to read.
jayne_charles on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I wasn't sure about this at first, but the story improved steadily and tension built up. Hard not to sympathise with the main character, oarticularly given the circumstances of her marriage, though I tended to wonder why she didn't just leave. Some interesting moral dilemmas towards the end. Also I also thought the teacher friend was a good, likeable character, her lifestyle providing counterpoint to the main character's own circumstances
drpeff on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Good. I enjoyed it.
CNRH on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Boring and discombobulated. This is the type of book where you hope it gets interesting at some point. You read a chapter and think "What?!? I hope the next chapter explains that." And then there's something else that confounds you. Finally, there's a climax and the book is over. There are better things to be reading than this, I promise.
phyllis.shepherd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A woman's struggle to survive as an individual while living with her in-laws and distant husband. An Oprah book.
saskreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It is interesting that I read this book so quickly because I didn't like any of the characters, there were numerous parts that made me feel quite depressed, and the overall emotion I had while reading it was one of bleak hopelessness. However, it is very well-written with a concise, spare style, which easily made it a page-turner for me.
donttalktofreaks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Moving. I don't know how else to put it. Makes my marriage seem like absolute heaven.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The_Book_Wheel_Blog More than 1 year ago
Wonderful Read Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay tells the story of Ellen, a young woman who is forced to move in with her in-laws after her husband loses his job. Chastised for wanting a college education and never quite good enough in the eyes of her mother-in-law, Ellen chooses to support her husband by silently accepting the decisions he has made for their family.  Set in the early 1960′s, when leaving a marriage was nearly unthinkable, the reader is able to walk alongside Ellen as she lives day to day with her distant husband, violent father-in-law, and subtly cruel mother-in-law. Although Ellen is the main character, various chapters give the reader a glimpse into the minds of the other characters, including the children, which allows for a bit of balance and empathy for the others. When I finished reading Vinegar Hill (an Oprah Book Club pick in 1999), I couldn’t shake the image of a volcano with lava slowly pouring out of it and cascading into neighboring areas. This is not because there are any volcanos or natural disasters in the book, but rather due to the author’s way of telling the story with an underlying heat and a slow and smooth style of writing. At its core, each character is angry and trying to make sense of their current situation. Their angers are bubbling just below the surface and reach out to touch each of the other characters in ways that they don’t anticipate or recognize. Despite each character having their own struggles, they all boil down to their current living arrangements, which has magnified their individual issues into a toxic atmosphere in which each person is feeding off of the negative energy of the others. Despite the steady flow of the book, there were a few story lines that were left unfinished. Granted, they weren’t vital to the story as a whole, but they incited some empathy in me for some of the characters and I was left wondering whether my empathy was misplaced. Vinegar Hill is a book that can be read in one sitting, preferably on a cold or rainy day.  It’s melancholy and realistic portrayal of a difficult marriage in the early 1960′s is heartbreaking and, I can imagine for those a bit older than me, a familiar story. Side note: After reading an interview with the author, I learned that she was in a similar living situation. This added a depth to the book that was not previously there and made me look back on the book even more fondly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book left me with nothing to feel better about at the end of it, completly disheartening.
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