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A Novel

Written by Susan MeissnerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Susan Meissner



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On Sale: October 06, 2009
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

When her black sheep brother disappears, Amanda Janvier eagerly takes in her sixteen year-old niece Tally. The girl is practically an orphan: motherless, and living with a father who raises Tally wherever he lands– in a Buick, a pizza joint, a horse farm–and regularly takes off on wild schemes. Amanda envisions that she, her husband Neil, and their two teenagers can offer the girl stability and a shot at a “normal” life, even though their own storybook lives are about to crumble.

Seventeen-year-old Chase Janvier hasn’t seen his cousin in years, and other than a vague curiosity about her strange life, he doesn’t expect her arrival will affect him much–or interfere with his growing, disturbing interest in a long-ago house fire that plagues his dreams unbeknownst to anyone else.

Tally and Chase bond as they interview two Holocaust survivors for a sociology project, and become startlingly aware that the whole family is grappling with hidden secrets, with the echoes of the past, and with the realization that ignoring tragic situations won’t make them go away.

Will Tally’s presence blow apart their carefully-constructed world, knocking down the illusion of the white picket fence and reveal a hidden past that could destroy them all–or can she help them find the truth without losing each other?


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

one

The chilled air inside the Tucson funeral chapel suppressed the punishing heat outside. Amanda shivered as she took a seat on the cool metal chair. She leaned over and whispered to her husband in the chair next to her. “A sweater in Arizona in September?”

He nodded casually, apparently unfazed by the abrupt temperature change from scorching to polar. Neil had worn a suit, though she told him she didn’t think he had to, and she envied his long sleeves. He quietly cleared his throat, opened the program he’d been handed when they walked in, and began to read the obituary of the woman whose casket sat several feet away–the woman neither of them had ever met.

A generous waft of newly refrigerated air spilled from the vent above her head, and Amanda instinctively turned to her niece on her other side. The teenager’s arms were bare under a
flamingo-hued halter dress. Amanda wondered if the foster mother had given Tally any advice at all on what she might want to wear to her grandmother’s funeral. Amanda again turned to her husband.

“I think we should’ve come yesterday.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

Neil looked up from the program. “It wouldn’t have changed anything,” he replied gently. “Besides, we got here as quick as we could. It’s not your fault you didn’t know she was here. Your brother should’ve told you.”

Neil reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. Amanda looked down and noticed a thin line of wood stain under one of his fingernails, evidence that he had cleaned up from his latest woodworking project in a hurry. Neil turned back to the program, and Amanda looked over at her niece.

“You doing okay?” She hesitated, then placed an arm around Tally’s shoulders.

The girl flinched and glanced at Amanda’s arm before turning back to face the casket. The sixteen-year-old shrugged. “I didn’t really know my grandma.” The words were laced with casual regret, as if she knew people were supposed to know their grandparents, but what could she do about that now? Amanda intuitively pulled Tally closer. The girl stiffened at first and then relaxed, reminding Amanda that Tally barely knew her either.

Amanda hadn’t seen her niece in nearly a decade. A handful of phone calls over the last few years, including one from a Texas jail and one from a château in Switzerland, had confirmed that Bart was still alive and that he still had Tally. Bart tended to contact her only in desperate times. And most of the time he didn’t recognize his own desperation.

She had always felt like the older sister when it came to Bart, the one who watched out for him, the one who tried to keep him out of trouble, the one their parents expected more from. It had always amazed her that Bart was just fine with that arrangement. She had been in junior high when he left home at seventeen, and he’d come home only twice in the years before she graduated from high school. Bart missed their parents’ quiet divorce. Missed their mother’s remarriage to an Australian man who had no intention of living anywhere but Melbourne. Missed her wedding to Neil and the births of her two children. Missed their father’s last agonizing days of pancreatic cancer. In thirty years Bart had missed just about everything, including all opportunities for his family to get to know Tally.

The opening notes of the organist’s ballpark rendition of “Shall We Gather at the River?” startled her, and she barely heard the buzz of her husband’s vibrating cell phone. Neil pulled
the phone out of his suit pocket. “It’s a text from Delcey,” he said. “She wants to know if she can sleep over at Mallory’s house tonight. They want to go to the beach.”

Amanda crinkled an eyebrow at the thought of her daughter not being home when they flew back to San Diego. “Tonight?”

Neil looked at her. “Maybe it’s a good idea.”

“No. Not tonight, Neil. She can go to the beach but she should be home tonight. Don’t you think?”

“I guess.”

“Which beach? How’s she getting there?”

“Encinitas. Chase said he’d take her,” Neil said, looking at the tiny screen on his phone.

Amanda wondered for a moment how Chase would feel about making the thirty-two-mile round trip to the beach. With Delcey out of the house, Chase would have the place to himself until she and Neil returned that evening. Their quiet seventeen year-old probably couldn’t wait to get his chatty younger sister out of the house. It hadn’t passed her notice that her children were the same ages she and Bart had been when Bart left home. Chase’s
introspective nature and stark Teutonic features were similar to Bart’s, but beyond that he was nothing like her brother. And Delcey thankfully did not have to mother Chase like she’d mothered Bart. “Tell her she needs to be home by six thirty,” Amanda said. “I want her to be at the house when we get back tonight.”

Neil punched in the message on the tiny keyboard. He nodded to the funeral program as he sent the message. “Did you know Virginia was a nurse in Vietnam? In the Army Reserves.
She was in Saigon when it fell.” He cocked his head as if waiting for a response and slipped the phone back in his pocket.

“I…I didn’t know that,” Amanda whispered back, pulling her thoughts back to the funeral chapel.

“She had medals from the army.” Tally’s head was turned toward Amanda, resting at an angle–like she had been a silent and interested part of the just-finished conversation about Delcey. “I saw them on the wall in her bedroom. But I didn’t get a chance to ask her about them.”

“I’m sorry, Tally.” Amanda stroked the child’s shoulder.

“I don’t think my dad knew that about her. That she was in Vietnam. They didn’t get along, actually. My dad and Grandma. She blames him for what happened to my mom.” Tally swung her head back to face the front. “But you probably already know that.”

Amanda opened her mouth but said nothing in response. Tally’s mother, Janet, whom Bart hadn’t even been married to, had died of an overdose of sleeping pills when Tally was an
infant. Janet was alone when it happened. Alone by choice. Bart was nowhere around. She was about to tell Tally that Bart had never said much to her about Virginia, which was true, but a minister with a white checkerboard square at his throat and a tiny black book in his hands had come to stand next to Tally. Amanda closed her mouth.

“Is there anything you would like to say during the service, Tallulah?” the minister asked.

“Me?” Tally’s voice was edged with astonishment. “Um. No. No, I don’t want to say anything.”

He patted her arm. “I understand,” he soothed. “This is a very difficult time. My prayers are with you, child.” The minister smiled, turned to the next row of chairs, and approached a
woman whom Amanda had met outside the funeral home ten minutes earlier. Virginia’s only surviving child, Jill. Janet’s younger sister. Tally’s other aunt.

Amanda watched as the minister bent down to speak to her. The woman wore a charcoal gray suit, with a silky burgundy scarf frothing at her neck and black stilettos on her petite feet. She had flown in from Miami that morning, probably having made the funeral arrangements by the iPhone she now held in her left hand. Jill shook her head. Jill’s husband and twin teenage sons shook their heads as well. Amanda couldn’t remember which twin was which.

Tally also appeared to be watching the exchange of hushed words between her aunt and the minister. Amanda leaned in. “Do you know your aunt Jill and your cousins very well?”

“I met them once,”Tally whispered back. “When I was four. My dad and I were in Tucson the same time they were. I don’t remember them, though.”

Amanda gently touched the girl’s arm. “Not many people can remember things that happened when they were that little.”

“I remember your kids, though.”

This surprised Amanda, though she knew it shouldn’t. Tally was eight the last time Bart had swung through San Diego on his way to somewhere else. Certainly old enough to remember at least a little of that trip. But it wasn’t Tally’s words that had surprised her. It was the tone. It was hopeful, like Tally was relieved she had memories of her California cousins. And they
appeared to be good ones. “I’m glad to hear that,” Amanda said. “Chase remembers you too. Delcey was too little. But she likes the idea of having a girl cousin.”

Amanda was about to tell her niece that Chase and Delcey had wanted to be here at the funeral today, which wasn’t completely true, but the organ music stopped at that moment. The minister stepped onto the carpeted platform next to the casket. Amanda took a quick peek over her shoulder to see how many others had gathered at the chapel to say good-bye to Virginia Kolander. Thirty or so people sat in the chairs behind her. As she turned to face the front, Amanda noted that Tally’s outlandishly fuchsia dress and matching streaks in her hair offered the only speck of rainbow in the tiny sea of gray and black shoulders. The girl’s ankle tattoo, a ruby-throated hummingbird with its wings extended, was the only divot of extraordinary in a lineup of charcoal pant legs and nude-toned hosiery. Tally crossed her legs and Amanda involuntarily tensed. The movement gave the illusion that the hummingbird was now poised for a beautiful escape, that it was peeling away from Tally’s skin and about to take flight. Amanda pulled her gaze away and exhaled softly, remembering that Bart confessed to buying that tattoo with money Amanda had sent him for car repairs.

The minister cleared his throat to speak, but he paused as the door at the back of the chapel opened. Every head turned to follow the latecomer inside. The dark-haired woman held an iced coffee in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Her white button-down blouse clung to moist skin.

“That’s Nancy. My social worker,” Tally said, toneless. “She’s the one who called you.”

The social worker hurried inside, mouthing the word sorry. She declined a chair offered by the funeral director, choosing to stand against the back wall instead. She tipped her head toward Tally and then smiled at Amanda as she pushed a pair of sunglasses up on her head.

Amanda nodded to the woman she’d met over the phone two days earlier, the same woman who told her that Bart Bachmann was missing–somewhere in Warsaw, they thought–and that his daughter Tallulah was homeless.
Susan Meissner

About Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner - White Picket Fences
Susan Meissner is an award-winning author whose books include The Shape of Mercy, Lady in Waiting, and A Sound Among the Trees. She is the wife of an Air Force chaplain and a mother of four young adults. When she’s not writing, Susan directs the Small Groups and Connection Ministries program at her San Diego church.
Praise

Praise

“I loved looking into the heart of this family whose life looks perfect only from the outside. Meissner’s characters are so real, so haunted by the past, and so in denial for reasons of self-defense that you will be swept away till the final page. You’ll find it hard not to wonder, as one of the elderly characters did, if remembering is a choice that takes courage.”
–Julie L. Cannon, author of Truleove & Homegrown Tomatoes, ’Mater Biscuit, Those Pearly Gates, and The Romance Readers’ Book Club

“To step into a Susan Meissner book is to be blessed by a craftsman’s tender touch. In Susan’s hands, we move carefully into compassion, entering the ordinary lives of people who could be our neighbors, ourselves, each doing what we can to staunch the pain of memory. This book opens a gate in the white picket fences of our lives, helping transform memory and secrets so we are no longer held hostage by the past. Beautifully written by a keen observer of the human condition, White Picket Fence will keep you reading into the night and make you sigh with satisfaction at the end.”
–Jane Kirkpatrick, award-winning author of A Flickering Light

“This compelling story with its wonderful cast of characters offers hope to all of us who live less than perfect lives behind our white picket fences. Susan Meissner skillfully weaves together parallel storylines to show how healing can come when we risk sharing our secret pain with others.”
–Lynn Austin, author of Until We Reach Home

“Susan Meissner just keeps getting better and better. This novel is a deftly woven portrayal of family and friendships, of secrets and sacrifices, one that tiptoes beyond the white picket fence to look at what happens when people stop talking to each other.”
–Siri Mitchell, author of Love’s Pursuit

“Poetic prose and a ‘can’t-put-it down’ plot make White Picket Fences a great read. A thought-provoking look into a dysfunctional family that thinks it is functional and how an outsider can serve as a means of grace. Caution: be ready to lose a few hours of sleep!”
–Elizabeth Musser, missionary and author of The Swan House, The Dwelling Place, Searching for Eternity and Words Unspoken

White Picket Fences is a beautiful, yet haunting portrayal of what lies beneath a seemingly perfect suburban family. Susan Meissner’s powerful storytelling woos the reader into the lives of flawed, needy characters, making us ache with them, rejoice with them. Meissner deftly weaves old and new, producing a seamless, satisfying and enduring story.”
–Mary DeMuth, author of Daisy Chain and A Slow Burn

“Writing as incandescent as pure flame. Susan Meissner delivers again with a family story that wraps you up and stays with you long after the last page.”
–James Scott Bell, bestselling author of Deceived and Try Fear
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Amanda thinks she has the perfect home while Tally's life lacks stability and safety. How do you see this actually being reversed in the story?

2. Why do you think Chase named the fire Ghost? Why might he have felt the need to give the fire a name?

3. What is the significance of Neil's occupation as a financial planner? What do you think that career choice says about him?

4. Do you have any sympathy for Neil's character and the choices he made? Why or why not?

5. What do you think of Bart's parenting skills? Is he a bad father? How do his parenting skills compare with Amanda and Neil's?

6. Why do you think Chase dreamed of Eliasz coming to him in the fire?

7. What, if anything, do Josef and Eliasz represent to Chase?  To Tally?

8. Do you envision Bart eventually finding the jewelry and gold? How do you see the imagined outcome affecting him?

9. Josef says in the last chapter, "[This] is what all survivors must decide. We have to decide how much we will choose to remember and how much courage we are willing to expend to do so." What do you think he means? Do you agree?

10. Did Neil and Amanda make a mistake by never mentioning the fire again after Chase stopped talking about it?

11. Why do you think Chase didn't care for woodworking and instead turned to film-making? Are these two pursuits similar in any way?

12. Are some secrets good to keep? How do we know which ones are meant to be kept?


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