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  • Written by Louise Shaffer
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A Novel

Written by Louise ShafferAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Louise Shaffer

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On Sale: May 31, 2005
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-48433-8
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Charles Valley’s legendary dowagers, the three Miss Margarets, have lost one of their own: Peggy Garrison, who married into a huge fortune but was constantly overshadowed by the legacy her husband’s first wife, the great Myrtis Garrison. When Peggy’s will is read, the news of who will take over the Garrison fortune shakes the town to its core. To everyone’s shock, Peggy has left all of the Garrison holdings–the world-famous botanical gardens, the massive resort, and the lovely Garrison “Cottage,” where FDR once visited–to the town’s down-and-out wild child, Laurel Selene McCready.

Laurel was like a daughter to Miss Peggy, but the last thing she wants to do is step into Miss Peggy’s shoes as the wealthiest, most powerful person in town, especially since the Garrison fortune never bought Peggy any happiness. On top of that, when Laurel reluctantly explores her hew home, the storied Garrison Cottage, she discovers that mysteries abound when it comes to the great Miss Myrtis. What clues are hidden in an old suitcase containing a child’s dress and sheet music dating back to the Southern Vaudeville circuit? Who is the elderly woman outside Atlanta who has been keeping track of the Garrison estate’s every development via the Charles Valley Gazette? And how will Laurel avoid the fate of her two predecessors whose secrets have far greater implications than Laurel could ever have imagined? Culminating in an unforgettable sleight of hand, proving that behind every great fortune there is a great crime, The Ladies of Garrison Gardens is as page-turning and irresistible as its predecessor.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter One

OLD MISSUS 2004

Something was up. From the hallway outside her bedroom she heard the words Old Missus murmured--or possibly they were shouted; her ears were sharp for a ninety-year-old, but even she couldn't hear through thick pine doors the way she used to. For a moment she contemplated protesting. Essie, who had been her housekeeper, cook, and general factotum--for, was it twelve years now?--knew that using the hated Old Missus title was a call to arms, even if the sweet young thing Essie had just hired did not. Sharp words were called for. But it would take energy to deliver them. And one had to be careful how one spent that precious commodity at her age. Besides, she wasn't sure she wanted her faithful retainers to know exactly how much of the conversations that swirled around her she managed to pick up. Eavesdropping was one of her main pleasures--there were so few left.

She hoisted herself out of bed as quickly as ninety-year-old joints would allow, so she could begin assembling the various parts--dental bridges, eyeglasses, and medications--that now made up the whole of "Old Missus."

Twenty minutes later, she climbed back into bed. There were additional rustlings and murmurings in the hall, and the sweet young thing entered with a breakfast tray. She had initially balked at hiring the child, whose name was Cherry and whose job description was companion/helper. But Essie had put it in terms she couldn't fight. "I can't keep up with this big old barn of a house on my own, and you can't go on living in it all by yourself," she'd said. "I ain't coming in some morning to find you dead in your bed or lying on the bathroom floor with your other hip broken. You let me get someone in here to sleep through the night, or I quit."

So now young Cherry was standing in the doorway, holding the breakfast tray and wearing a fond if slightly patronizing grin. "The Charles Valley Gazette is here, Old Missus," she announced.

After delivering that piece of good news, the child could call her Old Missus or Old Mushroom, she didn't give a damn. "Give it here," she said eagerly. The Charles Valley Gazette was supposed to be a weekly paper, but it hadn't come for two months, and she had missed it desperately.

The Cherry child carried the tray full of clanking china and cutlery across the room with the concentration of a tightrope walker. Breakfast in bed was an indulgence Old Missus had started allowing herself lately, but she still cringed slightly when it appeared.

The girl finally came to a shaky halt at her bedside. "The paper was in your mailbox down at the post office yesterday," she announced. "They must have sent it out from Charles Valley last week."

"Probably. I'll take it now, Cherry."

"Where is Charles Valley?"

"Lawson County. May I have my newspaper, please?"

But the girl wasn't through cogitating. "I thought it wasn't anyplace around here."

"No." Silently, by reflex, she added, God forbid! Although by now it probably wouldn't matter how close she got to Charles Valley. She could march down the main street of the town shouting out her life's story over a bullhorn. No one was still alive who could possibly care. Or would they?

"Why do you get a newspaper from a town that's miles away?" her new helper asked, breaking into her thoughts. Clearly, they were making sweet young things much sharper than they used to. "I mean, it's not like there are any stories in it about the whole state or the country or anything but Charles Valley. You couldn't even buy any of the stuff in the ads over here."

It is never easy to pull yourself up to your full height while fighting bedclothes, but she didn't get to be Old Missus for nothing. "Cherry, dear, I want my breakfast before it congeals on the plate." She was trying for a regal tone, but it came out cranky-old-lady. These days that seemed to happen a lot.

The Cherry child settled the tray over her midsection and helped her adjust her pillows. The Gazette was under the bowl of oatmeal that her enthusiastic young doctor said was a real heart saver. What the hell the boy was saving that aged organ for was anyone's guess.

She pulled the paper out from under the bowl and positioned herself under the fancy new natural-light lamp she'd allowed Essie to put on her night table. She'd insisted she didn't need the damn thing, but the truth was it did make the small print easier. And the print used by most newspapers, including the Charles Valley Gazette, was infinitesimal. She should start a lawsuit on behalf of elderly Americans across the country being driven mad as they attempted to stay informed.

As usual, the first thing she did was look through the newspaper's table of contents for articles written by Laurel Selene McCready. For the past seven years, Ms. McCready had been listed on the paper's masthead as the assistant to the editor, Hank Barlow, although she also did double duty as a writer. But about three months ago her name had disappeared, after which there was no newspaper for two weeks. When it appeared again, a new assistant was listed on the masthead; soon that name was gone and two others appeared and disappeared in rapid succession. And the arrival of the Gazette, which had been a regular feature of Old Missus' Saturdays, suddenly became a random event. Sometimes it showed up on Tuesday, sometimes on Friday--if it showed up at all.

Clearly, the loss of Ms. McCready was a major catastrophe for the paper. And not just because of whatever she had done to make sure it was published each week. Since her disappearance, the damn thing was loaded with typos. But in the humble opinion of Old Missus, it was Laurel Selene's writing that was the biggest loss. The absent Ms. McCready had had a nice way with a phrase and an irreverent slant on life that gave her stories an unexpected and welcome tartness. They were better than the swill turned out by the man she had assisted, that much was sure.

"What's that picture?" asked Cherry peering over her employer's shoulder at the front page of the paper.

"Those are the azaleas at Garrison Gardens."

"I've heard of that--some kind of vacation place, isn't it?"

"It's one of the most important horticultural centers in the country," she responded huffily. "Didn't they teach you anything in school about your own state?" This was an overreaction, but Cherry wouldn't take offense. No one ever did when you were over ninety. No matter what you did, you were cute.

"That garden place is in Charles Valley?"

"Yes."

But mere geographical location didn't begin to explain the relationship of the gardens to Charles Valley, Georgia. The little town owed its livelihood to Garrison Gardens. Students from around the world came to study the work being done by their botanists. Tourists poured into the Garrison Gardens resort to enjoy the lodge, the restaurants, the golf course, the man-made lake, the tennis courts, the RV campground, the hiking and biking trails, the country store, and the phenomenal thirty-thousand-acre Garrison Nature Preserve. Ms. McCready's boss at the Charles Valley Gazette genuflected in print whenever he mentioned the gardens or the resort or the Garrison family that had built them. The family no longer owned the gardens, which were now part of a charitable trust. But the Garrisons--or, more accurately, Peggy Garrison, who had inherited the whole shebang from her late husband, Dalton--had a controlling voice on the board that ran the trust and retained full ownership of the very profitable resort attached to the gardens. The Garrison name--if not the bloodline--remained the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the area.

"Would you like me to read the paper to you?" Cherry asked brightly. The girl was terminally perky. "You seem to be having a little trouble this morning."

"I'm fine," she answered firmly--not, she hoped, crankily. "I'll call you if I need you, dear."

"Okay," Cherry said, in the indulgent tone that young people used with her now. She vanished and Old Missus reached up to turn on her fancy lamp. She was having a little trouble this morning. With her hands, not her eyes, thank you.

Cherry had touched a nerve. It was foolish to keep renewing her subscription to the Gazette. Her only connection to the town had been gone for many years. But the little newspaper had become a part of her life. Some names had appeared regularly in it for so many years they were like old acquaintances. She liked to keep tabs on them. At her age, it was hard to make new friends. And it wasn't true that she had no connection to the place--there was still one person whose comings and goings had personal meaning for her. So it was with a gasp that she scanned the front page and read that Peggy Garrison was dead.

Chapter Two

LAUREL 2004

A little alley alongside the one-story brick building that housed the Charles Valley Gazette functioned as an unofficial parking lot for the newspaper's staff. Hank parked his car there, and Laurel had too, when she was his assistant. In the past week, a beat-up blue Buick had been in her old spot every time Laurel drove by--which she had done a little too often to be totally healthy. The presence of the new car confirmed the rumor that Hank had hired a new assistant. Again.

But the Buick wasn't in the alley this Saturday morning. Nor was it parked on the street in front of the newspaper office. Hit by a sudden impulse, Laurel pulled into her old space, walked quickly to the big bay windows in the front of the newspaper building, and looked in. No one was inside. When she'd been his assistant, Hank had insisted that she be on duty at the crack of dawn on Saturday. She'd done it because he threatened to fire her if she refused, and because the Gazette was the only newspaper in town and it made her feel special to work there. Her other options for employment had all involved food services.

She checked the street quickly. The tourists who would be swarming around in a few hours were still sleeping in their beds in the resort or in the less pricey motels and B and Bs that jammed the area. The locals, who wouldn't be caught dead in tourist territory on the weekend, were nowhere around. She took a set of keys out of her purse--her spare set of the office keys Hank had forgotten to take when he dumped her--and let herself into the Gazette building.

Inside, it was dark and still relatively cool. Later in the day, the heat would accumulate under the tin roof and drift downward, defeating the efforts of the ancient air conditioner and turning the place into a hot box. The newspaper took up the entire building, including a basement that was used as the morgue. At the back of the ground floor, where the air rarely circulated, was her desk--what used to be her desk. In front was Hank's desk, and in between was the space with the computers where she and Hank used to lay out the paper in an all-night marathon each week.

Hank had paid her a salary that was low enough to qualify her for food stamps, and there were undoubtedly laws against the working conditions she'd put up with, to say nothing of the hours. She'd had the job from hell. And she missed it like hell.

She stood in the empty space, breathing in the quiet. Ironically, what she missed most of all was the Saturday morning shit shift. The time alone in the silent office had been hers for writing and thinking. That was when she worked on her story for the next week and checked the issue that had just come out for mistakes they'd been too busy to catch. Laurel was murder on punctuation and spelling, a fixation that would have surprised most people who knew her. She had a reputation--well earned, she had to admit--for being a wild child. Actually, white trash was more like it.


The newspaper could have been hers. Hank had been toying with the idea of selling it for a couple of years, and Peggy had offered to buy it for her. Peggy Garrison had been her friend, as were the two other members of a trio of older women known in town as the three Miss Margarets. They were Dr. Margaret Long, Margaret Elizabeth Banning, and Mrs. Margaret Garrison, known as Dr. Maggie, Miss Li'l Bit, and Miss Peggy, respectively.

Dr. Maggie was in her late eighties and still ran the clinic where she'd been treating patients since the 1930s. Miss Li'l Bit was in her late seventies and had a pedigree as impressive as the fortune she used to fund charities throughout the state. Miss Peggy was in her mid-sixties, and while her family tree might not have been as illustrious as the Bannings', the fortune she'd inherited when she became the Widow Garrison was even bigger than Miss Li'l Bit's. And she used it just as generously.
Most of Charles Valley addressed the trio formally with the emphasis on the titles "Doctor" and "Miss." Laurel was one of the privileged few who was close enough to call them simply Maggie, Li'l Bit, and Peggy. She was the only person in town who joined them every afternoon on the porch of Li'l Bit's antebellum home to chat and sip the beverage of her choice as the sun went down.

There could not have been a more unlikely combo than thirty-five-year-old Laurel and the three older women, who were all icons of Charles Valley respectability. Laurel's past was, to put it politely, colorful. Her mother, Sara Jayne, had been a drunk with a high profile at the major and minor honky-tonks along Highway 22. Her daddy, who hadn't lived long enough to see Laurel born or give her his name, was equally well known as a murderer who then went out and got himself killed over the affections of a black woman in a scandal that still lived in the hearts and minds of many of the townspeople, even though it was thirty-six years old. The fact that Laurel Selene, with her family history, was welcome at the sacred afternoon gathering of the three Miss Margarets drove the Charles Valley grapevine nuts.

But two years ago, on a cold autumn evening, the three women had told Laurel a secret--one they'd kept since before she was born. In doing it, they had given her a kind of peace about her past, but they'd put themselves at great risk. If Laurel had chosen to betray them she could have destroyed them and might even have sent them to jail. But Laurel had kept their secret, and the three Miss Margarets considered her a friend for life. Only they weren't the three Miss Margarets anymore, because Peggy was gone.


From the Hardcover edition.
Louise Shaffer|Author Q&A

About Louise Shaffer

Louise Shaffer - The Ladies of Garrison Gardens

Photo © Bill Morris

Louise Shaffer is the author of Family Acts,, The Ladies of Garrison Gardens and The Three Miss Margarets. A graduate of Yale Drama School, she has written for television, and has appeared on Broadway, in TV movies, and in daytime dramas, earning an Emmy for her work on Ryan’s Hope. Shaffer and her husband live in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Author Q&A

Interview with Louise, Myrtis, and Peggy

(This interview takes place in the main living area of a house that either is, or looks exactly like, Garrison Cottage.)

Louise: Okay, this is even weirder than the interview I did for The Three Miss Margarets. I mean, not to be rude, but you guys are dead.

Peggy:The dying thing was your idea, Sugar.

Myrtis: Not that we’re complaining.

Peggy: Actually, I was kind of ticked off when I first heard about it.

Myrtis:The point is, you are the author. This interview is your choice.

Louise: Right. And remind me again why I picked this way to do it?

Peggy:Well, you have been under a bit of stress lately.

Myrtis: Shall we begin? Peggy, do you have the list of questions?

Louise:You have a list? It’s all written down and everything?

Peggy: Miss Myrtis is very organized. Here we go: Why did you decide to write The Ladies of Garrison Gardens?

Louise:The thing is, I wasn’t planning to go back to Charles Valley after The Three Miss Margarets. I thought I was finished with all of you. No offense.

Myrtis: None taken, but you could have phrased that a little more gracefully.

Louise: Sorry. But back to reasons for writing The Ladies of Garrison Gardens. The first thing that happened was, I started getting e-mails from readers saying they wanted to know what happened to Laurel after she came back home. And my editor said that the publisher would love a sequel if I thought I wanted to write one. Then I was having lunch with my agent and he said, “You know, Peggy and Li’l Bit are both pretty well off and neither of them has a family, so when they go, who gets all the stuff ?” And that started me thinking.

Peggy: So it’s your agent’s fault that I’m dead.

Louise: Not totally. After that lunch, I decided I liked the idea of writing about a legacy, which means somebody has to kick off, and then when I was trying to decide who it should be . . . well, let’s face it, it’s not like you took very good care of yourself.

Peggy: All right, moving along.

Louise: Once I started thinking about Laurel and what happened to her after The Three Miss Margarets, I realized there were some issues I wanted to explore. At the end of the first book, I had a character who
had been angry all her life—that was her big motivator—who had made her peace with the three Miss Margarets, and with at least a part of her past. I wondered what you do when all of a sudden your reason for getting up in the morning is taken away? Even if it was a bad reason, it did get your blood flowing. And then when Peggy left Laurel all the Garrison holdings, she had a whole new set of problems. We always think that if a person inherits a fortune their life will be perfect, especially if it’s someone who’s been poor—like Laurel Selene. But it almost never works out that way. Well, you two should know that more than anyone.

Peggy: Oh yes. Be careful what you wish for. I know I . . .

Myrtis: Excuse me, I think we all need to remember that Peggy and I are not the ones being interviewed. Now, getting back to the first question, it seems to me that what you’re saying, Louise, is that several people helped you decide to write The Ladies of Garrison Gardens.

Louise: Absolutely. And I like that part of the writing process—that a person can say something to you or ask you a certain question and that sparks a whole new book.

Myrtis:That sounds a little . . . random.

Louise: It’s totally random. That’s what makes it exciting. You don’t know where the ideas are going to come from. It’s still a new way of working for me, because television, which was where I worked before, is a very structured environment. At least, it was on my level, so I love this. Athough I have to admit that I was nervous about The Ladies of Garrison Gardens.

Peggy:Why?

Louise: A friend of mine calls it Second Book Syndrome. People had liked The Three Miss Margarets and you’re afraid that you can’t do it again, or maybe someone won’t like the way you’re letting the characters develop, or . . . something. The funny part is, the things that worried me haven’t bothered anyone else.

Peggy:Why did you decide to write about Miss Myrtis? She only appeared in The Three Miss Margarets very briefly.

Louise: That was part of the reason—I don’t like sequels that are too linear. Plus, she seemed so buttoned down and . . .

Myrtis: Icy? I think that’s the word you’re looking for.

Peggy: She gets that a lot.

Louise: Actually, I was going for remote, but icy’s good. And I wondered how you got that way, Myrtis. That meant figuring out your childhood. I don’t think we ever get away from the early years. Especially women, because we adapt so much to the circumstances around us when we get older—at least we do on the surface.

Myrtis: So that’s another legacy—what we get from our own past.

Louise: And what we do with it—or try to do with it. In The Ladies of Garrison Gardens, even Stuart Junior, the lawyer who makes things so rough for Laurel, is only trying to take care of what he thinks is his legacy.

Peggy: He’s a jerk.

Louise:Well, yeah. But he’s got issues.

Peggy: One of which is, he’s a jerk. The way I heard it, a lot of people wanted you to have a scene in which Laurel tells him off. Why didn’t you?

Louise: Because I think Laurel has grown up enough to know that it would be counterproductive to alienate any of the guys who’ve been running the gardens and the resort—even though it might be fun. If suits want to stay on and work for her without any of the perks, she’ll be glad to have them. They’re good at their jobs, even if they are greedy. And she knows she has a lot to learn. Personally, I think the only exec who will stick around is the one who bought the hot rock massages for his mistress.

Peggy: And he’s already getting his perks.

Myrtis: Peggy, please. Next question: What about Perry?

Louise:You mean the Wiener?

Myrtis: If we must call him that. How did he come about?

Louise: I think Laurel has to have someone who knew her when she was down and out and saw the good in her anyway. She’s not going to trust anyone else. And I like the whole idea of a Cinderella guy who goes away from home as a mess and comes back gorgeous and smart and loving.

Peggy: Do you think Laurel is ready for him?

Louise: I hope so.

Peggy: Now we get to the biggie. So many of your readers wanted the letter to be delivered to Laurel so everyone could know Myrtis’s secret.

Louise: I’d never do that.

Myrtis:Thank you. Why not?

Louise: Because it would be too pat and too simple. I believe that the past keeps its secrets and we never know what we think we know—especially when it comes to an icon like you, Myrtis. But I also think without knowing it, we are handed the unfinished business of previous generations. That’s why Laurel is going to try to bring about all of Myrtis’s hopes and dreams for the gardens and the resort. And she’s going to fill the house that Myrtis and Peggy lived in without much happiness with kids and life and love. Or, at least she’s going to give it her best shot.

Myrtis: I think you just answered the question of why you chose to have us interview you. It’s our legacy Laurel is living out.

Louise:You know, I think you’re right.

Myrtis: And that wraps up all of our questions.

Louise:Thank you. This was fun. In a very strange way.

Peggy: I have one more thing for you. I understand that your husband is really upset that you had Laurel trade the Viper for an earth-friendly car. He says it was a prissy thing to do.

Louise: Does he? Well, you can tell him for me that it’s a question of maturity—which some people can understand.

Peggy: Maybe, Sugar, but it was awfully prissy.

Praise

Praise

Praise for The Three Miss Margarets

“Rich, funny . . . Fans of Fannie Flagg and Adriana Trigiani, take note. Shaffer has created a little piece of heaven.”
–The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A romp of a read–warm but never smarmy, wise without pretense of profundity. Shaffer tells a good story that’s part mystery but mostly an exploration of loyalty and friendship.”
–St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“The Miss Margarets are treasures. . . . Shaffer unfolds the story deftly. . . . Each of the three Miss Margarets is a wonderfully realized character; each has a closely guarded secret life.”
–The Boston Globe

“A high level of suspense . . . Drop by this charming Southern town. No doubt you’ll be invited to join the three Margarets on the veranda and sip sweetened tea, lemonade, or even Gentleman Jack . . . and enjoy the promise of a good read.”
–The Roanoke Times


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Did you agree with Laurel’s decision to offer the board members of the Gardens a chance to stay even though they have been abusing the privileges of their positions for so long? Would you dismiss them or ask them to stay if you were in her position? Do you think any of them will stay without their privileges?

2. When Laurel gathers her “gifts” for future women at Garrison Cottage (p. 317), she creates a sort of time capsule in a suitcase. What items would you put away? Why would you choose those things? If you have mementos from previous generations in your family, discuss their meanings to you and why you have chosen to pass them down over other objects.

3. Have you discovered something in your house that belonged to a previous owner? Did you create a story around the object or trace the true history of it?

4. At the end of The Ladies of Garrison Gardens, Peggy says that “more than anything else she would have wanted her daughter to have courage.” What are some qualities you would wish upon your daughters, or upon women in general? What is the most important quality for a woman to cultivate in herself ? Which qualities do you wish you had more or less of and why?

5. Was Iva Claire a strong woman? Is Laurel a strong woman?

6. Did you find Iva Claire’s Mama to be a sympathetic character? Was her behavior toward her daughter justifiable in your view?

7. Were you surprised by Iva Claire’s decision to “pull a switch”? Was she justified in taking over Myrtis’s persona?

8. Do you think Laurel would have done anything differently if she had received Tassie’s letter or if she knew Miss Myrtis’s true story? Was Essie right to tear up the letter?

9. Louise Shaffer made a conscious decision to withhold information from Laurel (i.e. Miss Myrtis’s history). How did this affect your reading of the novel? Were you frustrated that Laurel did not receive Tassie’s letter?

10. With recent corporate scandals and malfeasance filling news headlines, how did you view Stuart’s actions and manipulation? Or his colleagues’? Did his behavior seem to be average for the business world, in your opinion? How accountable do you feel executives should have to be for their behavior, and what are appropriate perks for chief executives?

11. Do you think Louise Shaffer’s experience as an actor and television writer has influenced her novels? Are there telltale traces of her former professions in her dialogue, plots, or characters? Did you find these enriched your experience of the novel?

12. Play casting director and discuss who you would cast in a movie version of The Ladies of Garrison Gardens.


  • The Ladies of Garrison Gardens by Louise Shaffer
  • August 29, 2006
  • Fiction
  • Ballantine Books
  • $13.95
  • 9780812968835

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