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  • A Road Through the Mountains
  • Written by Elizabeth McGregor
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780553586718
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A Road Through the Mountains

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From Elizabeth McGregor comes an unforgettably moving, richly layered novel with a timeless love story at its core. Beautiful, suspenseful, hauntingly erotic, A Road Through the Mountains tells of one woman’s extraordinary journey to a new life with the help of the man she thought she’d lost long ago—a journey that will take hold of your heart.

Anna Russell is a talented painter and single mother. Her daughter, Rachel, is a ten-year-old whose undoubtedly gifted mind is trapped by a form of autism known as Asperger Syndrome. When a car accident leaves Anna in a coma, both their lives—and the lives of all those around them—are changed forever.

Across the Atlantic, David Mortimer receives an unexpected phone call from Anna’s mother. The scientist is stunned to learn that he’s a father. His long-ago affair with Anna was short and intense; when she suddenly returned home to the States, David slipped into a reclusive life of research, haunted by memories of the girl who’d left him without explanation. Now he knows he must break his self-imposed isolation, go to Boston and the woman he’s always loved, meet the child he never knew he had—and perhaps coax them both out of their silence.

But as David attempts to put together the puzzle of Anna’s life as an artist, mother, and daughter, he finds himself involved in a relationship with Anna far more intimate than he expected. Why did she leave him so many years before? Where, as she lies in a coma, is she now? And how is it that he loves this woman even after all these years? When he stumbles across Anna’s mysterious fascination with the rare flowers that were once their shared passion, he and Rachel, their beautiful, sensitive child, may just have discovered how to help Anna find a way back—a road through the mountains.

Lyric, tender, as fragile and enduring as love itself, A Road Through the Mountains draws upon its author’s personal experiences and establishes Elizabeth McGregor as a major storyteller.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

One

Most of the houses at Ogunquit were shuttered against the blinding day, silent in their gardens above the beach. They stood back from the road, pale blue clapboard battalions on their green lawns. By the Bay Cove Hotel on the corner, a smoke tree hung over the gate to the pool, its spring bronze leaves now green, the threadlike stalks of the flowers fluttering faintly in the July heat.

Anna came up the hill, looking back over her shoulder. Her ten-year-old daughter was trailing her wet towel on the path, and her feet were bare against the grass and stone.

“Honey, put on your shoes,” Anna said. She walked back to her, but in a second, Rachel was running past her, uphill, and into Grace’s yard, where she flung herself down in the shade.

Anna paused, then picked up the dropped towel, and followed. As she turned in the gate, the suddenness of a memory sur- prised her.

Rachel, perhaps only two or three years old, in that same deep shade, in this same garden, chasing Grace’s cat, and wrapping it in her arms. The cat, resigned to the show of ardor, submit- ting grudgingly, with a single twitch of its tail. The shade of the tree was dappled, the light a changing kaleidoscope on Rachel’s arms, on the fur of the cat, on the sparse grass. In spring, the sweet chestnut shed its pollen in this same place of racing shadows and light.

And here was another summer. Another memory flooding in upon the first.

Rachel was eight; they were on the road to Provincetown in the early morning; sand was blowing across the end of the highway. Anna’s broken-down old Chrysler was hiked on the verge, with the hood raised. As if they were there again in this moment, Anna clearly saw the repairman cocking his head toward her child, grinning; and Rachel, staring, rapt, into the smudged gray distance. Seven a.m., sand underfoot, sea grass, the sound of Provincetown boats setting out for the whales on Stellwagen Bank.

Anna had a sudden strange feeling, a sense of disorientation.

It was as if she had stepped out of the day, and, for the few short seconds that she had been gone, time had folded in upon itself, stretched like soft candy.

She heard the opening of the screen door, saw her mother emerge onto the porch. Anna walked down the path.

Grace was even taller than her daughter, and her hair that even up to last year had been a great iron gray color, was now almost white. She was sixty, but looked more. They regarded each other solemnly for a moment. Then Anna opened the door to the house.

The rooms inside were blissfully cool, blinds pulled down on the side of the sun, and windows open on the shade. Sea air was blowing through the house, caught from the edge of the bluff above the stony shoreline. From the back, they could see Perkins Cove, the arc of houses facing the Atlantic; beyond that, Grace’s view, in winter, when the trees had shed their leaves, was almost completely ocean. Anna walked over to the lawn side, to the shade, to the ripple of air. She looked out the window at Rachel, who was still lying on her back spread-eagled, eyes closed.

“Did she say anything about going back?” Grace asked, as soon as the door closed.

“No,” Anna replied softly.

Grace put an arm around her shoulder. Briefly, Anna rested her head against her mother’s, before they both turned back toward the room.

It bore all the hallmarks of Grace’s life. Anna couldn’t recall a day when Grace’s house had not looked like this: a deep couch with hand-sewn cushions, newspapers on the table, empty coffee cup. A pack of cigarettes. A big box of household matches balancing on the ashtray. The English Roberts radio on the fireplace, the old Norman Rockwell print, the basket of cones and wood. Anna’s own paintings, and her mother’s, everywhere.

The pictures traced the years. There in the corner were Anna’s teenage collages, lovingly framed. On the facing wall, Grace’s bold blue seascapes, and Anna’s response—her miniatures when she had been pregnant with Rachel, when her world had seemingly diminished to tiny five-by-five watercolors. By contrast, over the fireplace, was an abstract riot, four feet by six, of Anna’s first year in the Boston apartment: a blast of pleased independence. And, of course, the cartoons.

In her twenties, Grace had drawn comic strips. She had syndication in the Midwest, and down into Florida, for the Daisy and Mike series, and the raggedy Mike now hung at the foot of her stairs, framed in mid-fall over a muddy waterhole, fishing pole spinning out of his grip, while the freshly starched and aproned and plaited-hair Daisy held her hands to her face in the background. You cain’t catch ’em all, read the caption.

Grace would repeat that when things got rough. It was her mantra; part too, now, of both Anna’s and Rachel’s childhoods.

Anna’s gaze rested on Mike again now, faded by the sunlight of years, but still sailing into midair. She bit her lip unconsciously.

“You could go and meet James at Logan, and talk to him by yourself,” Grace said, interrupting Anna’s thoughts. “Come back for Rachel. Do it that way.”

Anna looked at her mother, smiling at Grace’s enforced reasonableness, the determined lightness of her tone.

“Why try to get her in the car?” Grace persisted. “She’s tired. Leave her here, and come back. It’s no bother. Come back in a couple of days.”

Anna shook her head. “No, it’s fine,” she murmured. “She’ll be fine once we get going.”

“OK,” Grace said, raising her hands, palms outward, to show that she was giving up the argument. “I said my piece.”

“You said it over and over,” Anna told her.

They set off at three.

James’s flight got in from Dallas at five.

Anna took Route 1 first, instead of the turnpike, because they had always done it that way, from the time that Grace, eleven years ago, had lived briefly between York Harbor and Kittery.

Twenty minutes out, it began to rain.

Not a sweet soft rain, like the kind that sometimes drifted in from the sea with a slow-driving breeze, but a hard downpour, the sky blackening quickly. In her driving mirror, Anna now saw the billowing clouds, and the flash of lightning.

“Storm,” Rachel murmured, from the backseat.

Anna glanced over her shoulder. She looked at her daughter’s face, so fair and light, like a small round moon in the back- seat. Her green eyes—eyes the same color as her mother’s and grandmother’s—were overly bright, as always.

“Soon pass,” Anna reassured her.

The road surface was slick, oily: weeks had passed of hot weather, and, when the drops poured down now, there was an illusion of road dancing over road—one dark surface slipping over the other, like the mirage of water glimpsed in a desert.

Anna felt the wheel jump a little as she steered to overtake a station wagon, its roof crammed with children’s bikes. She glanced at her speed. Not too fast. Forty. But the car was sliding, for brief moments. She braked a little. She caught sight of the trees to the side, leaves flipped to show a fainter seam of green. Spray fanned up; she turned the wipers to full, and flicked on the headlights.

There were trucks ahead, one loaded with logs. Her lights picked them out in sudden Technicolor. She saw a white pickup, and a dog in the back of it. She was distracted a moment by the dog, wondering why it was there, crouched up against the cab, a German shepherd, with a chain around its neck. It looked miserable in the rain, leaning against the body of the cab, ears flattened.

Then Anna looked behind her.

The Mack was accelerating to take the outer lane; huge, bright red and chrome, a blurred splash of color through the rear window. She had a second to think that it was coming too fast, not accounting for the jumble of cars and trucks ahead of her, all of them jostling for position on the greasy, rain-smeared road.

She thought she heard Rachel say, Look at him, look, and she did look, first back at the Mack roaring toward them, and then, very slowly it seemed, at the bikes on the station wagon. Their wheels were turning, and the taillights of the station wagon were suddenly showing. The crowded family car had braked hard. She heard the squeal of tires.

And then she saw the dog—poor dog, poor dog, she immediately thought, before anything else had time to register—the dog scrambling for purchase on the edge of the pickup, and the lazy circular motion of his tail as he lost his footing . . .

And the motion of the cat’s tail in Grace’s garden came back to her, and the flashing of sunlight through leaves, light on shade, and Rachel’s hand slipping from hers as she pulled away from her in the street, and raced to the house.

It was over in an instant.

Anna’s hands flew from the wheel on impact, as the station wagon slid sideways into the trucks, and the whole interior of their car filled with a strange watery light, the light from the Mack as it wailed into them, smashing the car like a mighty fist, lifting them momentarily from the road and slamming them back down hard to the grinding and keening of metal.

And—as the sound escalated to something hellish, demoniac—Anna was still thinking, still absurdly thinking, poor dog, poor dog—catching just a glimpse of its body thrown into the car on the near side. She saw the thick chains on the log truck, that smaller truck ahead of the station wagon, now slewed sideways, glisten as the load danced in slow motion against its restraints.

“Mommy!” Rachel screamed. A faint and receding echo of her own mind. “The dog, oh, the dog . . .”

And then, she was here.

She was here, inexplicably, at the side of the road, under the branches of the trees, watching herself.

For a while Anna concentrated on the people, on the purposeless way that they ran between the wrecks. There was a terrible noise, a grinding sound, something to do with the truck. The driver was still in the cab, still with his hands fastened to the wheel. Smoke poured from the Mack’s engine.

There were the shouts of children in the station wagon, and a woman’s voice raised in an agonized cry. Other voices joined them: people who had stopped on the other side of the road. Calls for help. Yelled instructions. Figures moved, it seemed, like silhouettes on a screen.

A magic lantern show, Anna thought vaguely, knowing full well that the thought was absurd. A magic lantern show, just for me.

For a while—and she had no idea how long—she waited for someone to come to their car, for someone to open the door and find Rachel. It took forever. If the accident had been over in a moment, the aftermath was long. Her body began to feel numb. She saw that she was standing at the fence, right on the edge of the trees, alongside them, almost enveloped by them; and she was part of that living scene, rooted to the ground, away from the crash. She was a dumb onlooker, part of the landscape.

She began to feel cold.

She watched the ambulances from Boston, and the warning barriers, and the trickle of other cars on the other side of the high-way, slowing to rubberneck the drama. She waited until she saw Rachel on some man’s arm, stumbling, her mouth a perfect little circle of dumb shock.


From the Hardcover edition.
Elizabeth McGregor|Author Q&A

About Elizabeth McGregor

Elizabeth McGregor - A Road Through the Mountains

Photo © Ian Brooke

Elizabeth McGregor is the acclaimed author of The Ice Child and A Road Through the Mountains. She lives with her daughter, Kate, on the south coast of England, in Dorset, where she is working on her next novel.

Author Q&A

A Note About The Seed of the Idea Behind A Road Through the Mountains
By Elizabeth McGregor

Like The Ice Child, this book is about a journey. Although I never consciously plan the books around my personal life, nevertheless these last two have turned out to be quite revealing. The Ice Child was written at a time when my twenty-two year marriage had come to an end and my mother had died, and I look back on it now and see that I was in the same sort of ends-of-the-earth landscape. Similarly, A Road Through the Mountains coincided with a period when I was looking back over my relationship with my father, who died ten years ago.

Dad was hard to know, never revealing any feelings. It wasn’t until I read an article by Oliver Sacks in which the writer drew a pen portrait of an Asperger sufferer that I realized I was reading an exact description of my father. Intelligent, off-the-wall, intensely focused, curiously critical: all of these described the person whom I had longed to be close to all my life. One memory in particular sticks to my mind: of the day of my wedding, when I clasped my dad’s hand as we entered the church and he immediately withdrew it. Asperger’s hate to be touched. Finding a way through to him was a near impossibility, like finding an unmarked road through the mountains.

I began to think about trying to get close to the ones we love. About what a parallel might be. And I came up with the idea of a couple who have been parted by a misunderstanding but who, ten years later, still love each other.

Sometime at this point of what I call “simmering”—which is when a book seems to cook itself slowly in my mind without my paying any direct attention to it—my love of gardening and trees suddenly chimed into the story.

I had read about Ernest Wilson, the plant collector who traveled 11,000 miles to find a single specimen of a new tree. All at once the stories wove into each other—passionate people trying to find the things they love, trying to bring something beautiful out of what seems like an impossible, unreachable landscape.

If anything, A Road Through the Mountains is about faith in the future. It doesn’t matter if the journey so far has been difficult; we can last that much longer, and find places that otherwise we might have missed. A Road Through the Mountains gave me an understanding of my father, and a relationship with him, that I had never had before.

Some of the settings in A Road Through the Mountains have a real resonance for me. Lewesdon Hill, described early in the novel, is about ten miles from my home, and is a real “heart-stopping cathedral of trees.” The stream in which David’s sister watcher her son playing exists, too, with its slow-moving chalk stream and abundance of stickleback fishes! The village that they live in is typical of Dorset: farming communities in idyllic landscapes that have changed very little since Thomas Hardy’s time. Dorchester is Hardy’s hometown, and every day, taking my dogs for their walk, I pass the field that Hardy used in Tess of the D’urbervilles—the summer field where Angel Clare finally falls in love with Tess.

The childhood home that Grace remembers is a real place, too: I owe a debt to my friend Liv Blumer for introducing me to it, a piece of paradise on the edge of the Appalachians.

Perhaps the chapter in the book that means the most to me is the one in which Sara remembers her father’s final days in the hospital: how a series of minor strokes release his inhibitions and show the real, loving man underneath. These scenes are taken directly from my own experience with my mother, who, just before she died, said some wonderful things to me—things she’d hidden or kept back for years. This chapter has the knack of always reducing me to tears, no matter how often I reread it!

I do enjoy the journeys that my novels offer to me. I hope the reader does, too. I really believe that, providing we have the will, no route in life is closed to us.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

"Lyrical  ... a poignant tribute to the tenacity of love."
--Booklist


“I really loved the book. A Road Through the Mountains is a powerfully moving novel, vivid and passionate. The characters are so real and the story so poignant...I never wanted the novel to end. I read it straight through and couldn't stop crying. Elizabeth McGregor is a wonderful writer.”
New York Times bestselling author Luanne Rice


From the Hardcover edition.
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The timeless story of a love tested in every way, and a life held up to the fragile prism of time, A Road Through the Mountains takes readers on a journey that will linger in their hearts.

Anna Russell is a talented painter whose career is vaulted into prominence by a Boston art dealer. She has never told him the true inspiration for her work: David Mortimer, a young Englishman she fell in love with a lifetime ago at Oxford. And though David doesn’t know it, he is also the father of Anna’s child, a vibrant ten-year-old trapped within the labyrinth of Asperger’s syndrome. But when a tragic accident takes Anna to the brink of death, her secrets are no longer so easily kept. Summoned by Anna’s mother, David pieces together the truth about Anna’s love for him, and in the process tries to find a healing path for her—a road through the mountains of her physical and emotional injuries.

Rich with enchanting landscapes and poignant turns of fate, A Road Through the Mountains is a novel that itself offers many roads of discovery for every reader. The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Elizabeth McGregor’s A Road Through the Mountains. We hope they will enrich your experience of this haunting and beautiful novel.

About the Guide

A NOTE ABOUT THE SEED OF THE IDEA BEHIND
A ROAD THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS
by author Elizabeth McGregor

Like The Ice Child, this book is about a journey. Although I never consciously plan the books around my personal life, nevertheless these last two have turned out to be quite revealing. The Ice Child was written at a time when my twenty-year marriage had come to an end and my mother had died, and I look back on it now and see that I was in the same sort of ends-of-the-earth landscape. Similarly, A Road Through the Mountains coincided with a period when I was looking back over my relationship with my father, who died ten years ago.

Dad was hard to know, never revealing any feelings. It wasn’t until I read an article by Oliver Sacks in which the writer drew a pen portrait of an Asperger sufferer that I realized I was reading an exact description of my father. Intelligent, off-the-wall, intensely focused, curiously critical: all of these described the person whom I had longed to be close to all my life. One memory in particular sticks in my mind: of the day of my wedding, when I clasped my dad’s hand as we entered the church and he immediately withdrew it. Aspergers hate to be touched. Finding a way through to him was a near impossibility, like finding an unmarked road through the mountains.

I began to think about trying to get close to the ones we love. About what a parallel might be. And I came up with the idea of a couple who have been parted by a misunderstanding but who, ten years later, still love each other.

Sometime at this point of what I call “simmering”—which is when a book seems to cook itself slowly in my mind without my paying any direct attention it—my love of gardening and trees suddenly chimed into the story.

I had read about Ernest Wilson, the plant collector who traveled 11,000 miles to find a single specimen of a new tree. All at once the stories wove into each other—passionate people trying to find the things they love, trying to bring something beautiful out of what seems like an impossible, unreachable landscape.

If anything, A Road Through the Mountains is about faith in the future. It doesn’t matter if the journey so far has been difficult; we can last that much longer, and find places that otherwise we might have missed. A Road Through the Mountains gave me an understanding of my father, and a relationship with him, that I had never had before.

Some of the settings in A Road Through the Mountains have a real resonance for me. Lewesdon Hill, described early in the novel, is about ten miles from my home and is a real “heart-stopping cathedral of trees.” The stream in which David’s sister watches her son playing exists, too, with its slow-moving chalk stream and abundance of stickleback fishes! The village that they live in is typical of Dorset: farming communities in idyllic landscapes that have changed very little since Thomas Hardy’s time. Dorchester is Hardy’s hometown, and every day, taking my dogs for their walk, I pass the field that Hardy used in Tess of the D’Urbervilles—the summer field where Angel Clare finally falls in love with Tess.

The childhood home that Grace remembers is a real place, too: I owe a debt to my friend Liv Blumer for introducing me to it, a piece of paradise on the edge of the Appalachians.

Perhaps the chapter in the book that means the most to me is the one in which Sara remembers her father’s final days in the hospital: how a series of minor strokes release his inhibitions and show the real, loving man underneath. These scenes are taken directly from my own experience with my mother, who, just before she died, said some wonderful things to me—things she’d hidden or kept back for years. This chapter has the knack of always reducing me to tears, no matter how often I reread it!

I do enjoy the journeys that my novels offer to me. I hope the reader does, too. I really believe that, providing we have the will, no route in life is closed to us.

About the Author

ELIZABETH MCGREGOR is the author of the acclaimed novel The Ice Child. She has worked as a patent attorney manager, teacher, and antiques dealer, but winning a national short story competition summoned her passion for writing. She lives with her daughter in Dorset, on the south coast of England.

“A powerfully moving novel, vivid and passionate. . . . The characters are so real and the story so poignant. . . . I never wanted the novel to end. I read it straight through and couldn’t stop crying. Elizabeth McGregor is a wonderful writer.”—Luanne Rice, New York Times bestselling author of Dance with Me


From the Hardcover edition.

Discussion Guides

1. Both Grace and Anna raised their daughters essentially alone. What are the similarities and distinctions between the ways they experienced motherhood, and love?

2. In what way do Anna’s artistic sensibilities complement David Mortimer’s scientific ones? What was the basis for their initial attraction?

3. Discuss the ways in which botany makes for a rich backdrop in the novel, and in Anna’s paintings. Why was this an appropriate choice on the part of Elizabeth McGregor when she was crafting David’s character?

4. The concept of art as commodity drives much of the novel’s tension. Does James Garrett also see love as a commodity? What is his motivation in seeking power over Anna?

5. What parallels did you find between the story of Ernest Wilson’s experiences in China and David’s journey to America? What other forms of destinations and journeying are portrayed in the novel?

6. Discuss the landscape of Anna’s comatose world. Is its scenery completely foreign to her? What elements of familiarity and imagination does it contain?

7. What does the absence of Grace at the novel’s conclusion indicate about the role of fate versus willpower in the lives of these characters?

8. How does the author’s rendering of Oxford compare to that of Cape Cod and Boston? How does each locale suit the events taking place there? What cultural comparisons can be made between the novel’s American and English elements?

9. Why was Anna unable to stay in England? Do you attribute her departure to her pregnancy, or the fear that David would become like his father, or were there other unspoken factors in her decision? What drove David to leave his family?

10. Who appears to have had more power in the relationship between Anna and David? How did they change during the decade of their estrangement?

11. What does the novel convey about the physical world versus the one inhabited by the mind and soul? In what way does the portrayal of Rachel as a child living with Asperger’s syndrome reinforce these observations? Does Rachel’s struggle mirror her mother’s in any way?

12. Sara is an integral part of the novel’s concluding scenes. What was her role in guiding David?

13. Early in the novel, James Garrett’s early years are depicted. Was his upbringing very different from Anna’s? In what ways was he transformed by meeting Catherine Graham? Does knowing about his life before Anna affect your opinion of him?

14. What are James’ reasons for wanting to gain custody of Rachel? Does he have any capacity for loving her, or Anna?

15. What comparisons can be made between Anna’s art and the abstract work that launched James’ career (in particular the Mark Rothko painting he acquired from Catherine)?

16. To what or whom do you attribute Anna’s recovery?

17. Describe the metaphoric mountains you have faced. How did you find your way through them? Who was your primary guide?


  • A Road Through the Mountains by Elizabeth McGregor
  • May 31, 2005
  • Fiction
  • Bantam
  • $13.00
  • 9780553586718

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