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  • Written by Laura Catherine Brown
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  • Written by Laura Catherine Brown
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A Novel

Written by Laura Catherine BrownAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Laura Catherine Brown

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41646-9
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

“Get ready to meet a quirky and poignant heroine who will grab you from the first page and won’t let you go. Love, grief, loss, confusion, the search for identity–it’s all here, and it all feels fresh and new. Laura Catherine Brown is a terrific new writer who shoots straight from the heart.”
–DANI SHAPIRO
Author of Slow Motion

All lives contain growth spurts–physical ones, most obviously, but emotional ones as well. Laura Catherine Brown’s powerful fiction debut focuses on just such a crucial time in the life of a determined young woman. For nineteen-year-old Mandy Boyle, moving away to college means a chance to sever ties with her impoverished blue-collar family and strike out on her own. But Mandy is soon transformed in ways she had never imagined. Her father’s sudden death sets in motion a wrenching chain of events that forces Mandy to grow up fast. The stage when a fetus first shows signs of life is known as the “quickening.” This is the story of Mandy’s adult quickening–an engrossing read about the search for identity, reckoning with the past, weathering unexpected twists of fate, and at last choosing a life of one’s own. . . .

Excerpt

IMPULSE

The morning I was leaving for college, Mom fainted. She had been playing solitaire at the kitchen table and had stood up too fast.

I was washing the car with Dad, who'd gone inside for matches, then came back out and said, "She's down."

I dropped the hose. Water pooled in the crevices where weeds grew, ran down the driveway and out into the street. "Did you call Dr. Wykoff ?" I followed Dad into the kitchen.

"Now, how'm I going to do that, Mandy?"

Of course. The phone had been cut off. We hadn't paid the bill.

The cards were scattered over the table. Mom lay on the kitchen floor, her pilly pink robe half buttoned and wrinkled around her fleshy splayed legs, slippers still on her feet. Her blue eyes bulged and blinked. "It took you long enough," she said as we bent over to help.

She twisted my forearms in a vise grip while Dad, wheezing, cigarette hanging from between his clenched lips, hoisted her up from behind. "Be careful, for God's sake," she said. "You know how easily I bruise."

"Can you make it to the car?" he asked. "We'll drive you to Ransomville General."

"I'm not going to the hospital looking like this! It's just a meegrain. The dizziness will pass. Help me to bed."

"They're called migraines, Mom." I took one side and Dad took the other.

"Would you listen to smarty-pants!" Mom was short but wide, and solid, still a dead weight after her faint. Her robe smelled of trapped sweat.

"Are you sure you don't want to go to the hospital?" I asked.

"Didn't I just say no? Don't treat me like I'm stupid, Miranda. I had the brains for college, too, you know--"

I should have guessed it was about college.

The three of us stumbled through the kitchen door, down the little hall, into the bedroom. The bed springs squeaked and squealed as Mom settled in. "Oh dear," she muttered. "I won't be able to drive with you to your college."

"Gee, what a surprise. But I'm still going." All through high school, I had worked toward college. I had been in the honor society, had gotten a partial scholarship, a federal grant, a student loan, and a work-study grant. This moment of leaving had been the point whenever I thought, What's the point?

"And you can't stop me." I walked out as Dad was turning on the electric space heater and the humidifier, pulling the curtains shut.

"Did I say anything? What's the matter with her!" Mom shouted. "Bring me my pills, Miranda Jane!"

She hadn't left the county in years. It was predictable. Why did it upset me? I didn't even want her to go. My heart banged out of control against my rib cage, in panic and hope that Mom would just disappear, even if it meant her dying. I took the flat plastic box out of the refrigerator and brought it to her. It was separated into compartments designating times of the day and days of the week, the measure of Mom's life.

For her migraines, she took Fiorinal or Naprosyn, depending on the nature of her pain. For the lupus, she took Prednisone twice a day. For her postpartum depression, she had been on Elavil for eighteen years. Halcion to fall asleep. Dexamethasone for her asthma. Premarin since the hysterectomy. And Xanax for the panic attacks.

When I was little, we did drills where she pretended some health crisis and I rushed to the refrigerator to give her a pill. "No!" she would scream. "I'm a dead woman. You've just given me the wrong medication!"

I had since resolved never to take pills, not even aspirin.

"Do me a favor. Tell your father to shave before he goes. He looks like a bum." Her round face was as pale as her worn pillowcase.

I handed her a Naprosyn and a small glass of water.

"Be a daughter to me, please." She pointed to the chair by her bedside table. The humidifier blew steam on the wallpaper, which bubbled and buckled in the damp corner. The room stank of camphor, menthol, and bad breath. I wanted a cigarette. How had Dad slipped out of the room so quick? "I have to finish washing the car," I said.

"Your father said he would finish."

"No, really, I. . ." I edged toward the door.

"Frank!" Mom bellowed. "Tell Miranda you'll finish the car."

I heard the back door slam.

"He said he would finish," she insisted.

I sat down. Her bedside table smelled charred and musty. She had bought it years ago at a fire sale. Cluttered on its surface were a bell, a box of tissues, a thermometer, Vaseline, and a battery-powered blood pressure machine. The place of honor was held by a framed picture of Mom's mother, sitting on the porch, squinting and mean. Dad had taken it. Every night before she went to sleep, Mom kissed this picture. Or so she claimed.



"You're all packed," she said. "You've got your clothes."

How long was she going to keep me here? "Yes. I've got my clothes."

We had gone over them last week, and all the dresses Mom had sewn for herself years ago were mine now, for college. All the little replicas of those dresses, also sewn by her but worn by me until I was twelve or so, were packed in cardboard boxes and piled in the basement. In my bag was the floral-patterned skirt with the ruffle at the bottom and buttons running all the way up. I managed to button it only by holding my breath. It had a blouse with bell sleeves that matched. There was a green dress with a princess collar that choked and a too-tight skirt with a houndstooth-check pattern.

Mom and I just weren't shaped the same. I was taller, rounder, bigger. Mom called me chunky. She had said, "We can let out the waist in that one."

But she hadn't sewn in ages, and I didn't want to be the reason for her starting again. I wasn't going to wear her dresses anyway. I had jeans, T-shirts, normal things. "It's okay, Mom. I like it this way." I had minced after her in a skirt so tight that I couldn't take a normal step.

"I'm sure that sewing machine is somewhere around here." She had opened closets, peeked along shelves, pulled open dresser drawers, wandered out to the kitchen, a wake of hanging doors behind her. But she didn't think of the basement, and I was careful not to suggest it.

"Yes," I repeated. "I've got my clothes." I folded my hands in my lap. My fingertips were raw, chapped, my nails bitten to the quick. Big hands. Ugly hands.

"I remember you as a little girl, picking daisies out in the backyard in your sunsuit. You made a daisy chain for me. You were such a precious thing. Now you're going to college!" Mom inhaled sharply, exhaling a sob.

"Don't cry, Mom. Please." Her sobs always forced me open. I fought it. No. I didn't remember any daisy chains. No, I wasn't going to cry. But the tears welled up and I bent my head to wipe them away, imagining a child in a sundress picking daisies for a healthy, vibrant mother who laughed a musical laugh. It was only a fantasy.

I was surprised she had declined Dad's offer to drive her to the hospital, her second home. She seemed happier in a hospital bed, attached to intravenous devices, her face flushed and cheerful against a clean white pillow. "I got 'em stumped," she would say.

She had actually been written up in a textbook called Autoimmune Disease: Symptoms and Pathology. Her case appeared in a section on the difficulty of diagnoses and the flare-up remission pattern of symptoms. Her name wasn't mentioned. She was the thirty-seven-year-old female patient of Bernard Wykoff, M.D. It was back in 1975, ten years ago, and she still kept the book under her bed.

"You can bring me my jewelry box," she said.

I got up, sniffing down my tears, and walked around the bed to the dresser. There were weeping willows trailing sun-dappled leaves by a brook on the ceramic lid of Mom's jewelry box. She thought she was giving me a treat by going through her jewelry, but I was too old. I felt another sob coming. "I don't have time for this, Mom."

"Just open it. Pull out the top bit. Ow! This pain is like trolls throwing stones in my head. I should be used to it, God knows. The only meegrain-free period in my life was when I was pregnant with you." She was stroking her stomach, rustling the housedress she wore beneath her robe.

I pulled out the top container of the jewelry box, where she kept her earrings, and squashed inside was a roll of bills.

"That's for you." Mom said from her bed. "For college. For the niceties."

The bills were greasy, soft from handling.

"I've been saving it, and you're going to need some cash. And . ."  She shut her eyes. "Don't tell your father."

The scent of calamine lotion wafted from her skin as I leaned in to kiss her forehead, but she tilted her face back, her mouth pink with the Pepto-Bismol she took to counteract the nausea from the painkillers, and our lips mashed moistly, hers soft and open and mine clenched shut.


From the Hardcover edition.
Laura Catherine Brown|Author Q&A

About Laura Catherine Brown

Laura Catherine Brown - Quickening
Laura Catherine Brown has been awarded residency fellowships at the Ragdale Foundation, the Norcroft Writing Retreat, the Hambidge Center, and the Ucross Foundation. Quickening is her first novel. She lives in Manhattan.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Laura Catherine Brown

Dani Shapiro
is the author of the novels Playing with Fire, Fugitive Blue, Picturing the Wreck, and most recently a memoir, Slow Motion.

Dani Shapiro: Mandy's voice is a wonderful first-person voice of a character who doesn't quite know as much as she's telling us. How did you find Mandy's voice for Quickening? What was that process like?

Laura Catherine Brown: Actually, it was a long and convoluted process. The book was initially written in a third-person voice. I never used to like first-person novels when I was young. If it was an "I" book--that's how I thought of first-person narration--I didn't want to read it. I always wanted to read about he, she, and they. So the first draft of Quickening was in the third-person past tense, and that wasn't working. There was no real voice or point of view. It felt distant and generic to me. Also, I didn't know a lot about writing, so it wasn't crafted--my sentences weren't really complex. So then I took it to the first-person present, believing that made it really immediate--which is something I think a lot of beginning writers believe. But the present tense wasn't working, either, because Mandy could only know what was right there in front of her. She could only comment on what was going on in her mind. There was no sense of distance or perspective-- there really couldn't be. So it wasn't reading as I hoped it would; instead, it was reading as immovable. Finally, I tried first-person past tense--a very close past tense. She wasn't far from the events, yet she had gotten through them, so she had a slight sense of perspective. And suddenly it seemed to work. The idiosyncrasies of her speech and ways of thinking suddenly had room to exist. And once I had that, there was a momentum to the writing. I think I learned how to write while writing this book.

DS: Let's talk about that for a minute. How long did it take to complete the novel, and what was that experience like?

LCB: It took seven years to complete the novel. I had a full-time job as a computer graphics designer, and it became very hard to do both. Eventually I quit my job and went freelance. And for a while that was harder because I became paranoid about money and couldn't write at all. There was no time. I took on every freelance job offered me. I never refused a job. But eventually I learned to turn down those jobs. I learned to have faith in what I was doing, and I gave myself permission to write the book. Once I gave myself the time, the final draft probably took only a year, after all that slowly building momentum.

DS: Quickening can be described as a coming-of-age novel. Is that what you intended?

LCB: I see it more as a coming-of-adulthood novel. Coming-of-age usually is more about a younger protagonist and a loss of innocence. Whereas I think that in Quickening, Mandy isn't entirely innocent in the beginning. She's on the latter end of her adolescence, and she's leaving home. The book isn't about discovering an ugly truth about life--it's about leaving home to enter the world at large. In the beginning, she leaves home believing herself to be free, finally away from the limits and confinements of her background. But, in fact, although she physically leaves, she has not left, and she is pulled back. The whole novel is, in a sense, a struggle to leave. I would say that even her relationship with Booner is part of that struggle. He's from the same area, and even though he lives in Queens, basically the area travels with him. He re-creates the small-town life--something she thought she was escaping. By the end of Quickening, Mandy has truly left home, and that leaving is something that happens internally.

DS: Mandy's father dies fairly early in the novel, and just after she's met Booner. Do you think she would have gone off with Booner if her father had still been alive?

LCB: No. I don't. I think she may have had a relationship with Booner--he might have been a long-distance boyfriend--but she definitely would not have left college for him. She was grieving her father and falling apart, and what Booner offered was a form of love and safety. And if Mandy's father hadn't died, she would not have needed that.

DS: There are several characters in the novel who might be read as somewhat unlikable or unsympathetic, and yet they are entirely understandable to the reader. How did you go about creating those characters--particularly that of Mandy's mother?

LCB: I have a lot of sympathy for Mandy's mother. She has a lot of characteristics of various people in my life. One of the things I thought made her sympathetic was that she's in a bind, and she's trapped--economically, by her health, by the fact that she's not loved--so she grasps what she can to get through her days. Unfortunately, in this case, what she grasps is her daughter, but I think that impulse is understandable. As far as some of the other characters, Booner was far less sympathetic in the early drafts of the novel. I really had to work on his good side. I remember in a writing workshop one of my classmates saying, "We've all had those bad boyfriends, Laura. It's up to you to tell us why."

DS: In certain respects, it seems that Mandy's art--her photography--saves her. What were you trying to do there?

LCB: In every other part of Mandy's life, she's looking to see how she's reflected in the eyes of others. In photography, Mandy discovers a way of looking from the inside out. And that is where her strength ultimately comes from. That's where she learns what is true to herself. There is also a connection to Mandy's father through the photography--after all, she's using his camera. Mandy adored her father, though as it turned out he wasn't the god she thought he was. But that doesn't detract from the fact that he did love her, whatever his flaws. And he believed in her. He's the one who really pushed her, and believed she could get into college. So the taking of pictures, with his camera, was a way of beginning to believe in herself.

DS: There's a sense of a hidden truth, a secret, in almost every character in Quickening, whether it's Booner's childhood abuse, or Priscilla's married boyfriend. Is this something you were actively trying to do?

LCB: No--actually, that's interesting. I guess I do think people have secrets--a facade they put forth. Everybody has hidden griefs that they have learned to live around. For instance, Booner's abuse: It's not something he ever dealt with, but it's there, and it drives him. His inability to love fully, his anger, his need come from a stunted place inside him. And Priscilla, on the outside, looks like a very successful, polished woman. And yet she's gotten herself into a relationship in which she'll never get what she needs; she'll never be the central person in that man's life. And that's a private compromise she's made. And Mandy's mother had a dream of a family and a life that she was going to be living, and reality fell far short of her dream. And that is a lot of what motivates her behavior.

DS: The possibility of terminating an unwanted pregnancy is in many ways at the heart of the novel. Did you know it was going to be such a big part of the story when you started out? The abortion scene is particularly vivid. Was that a difficult part of the novel to write?

LCB: I did sort of know that it was going to end that way. I went to high school upstate New York, and I can't tell you how many girls dropped out and had babies. And it seemed to me such a tragedy. And abortions, at least where I lived, weren't common. They were private and shameful. And yet these young girls having babies was somehow far less of a stigma. So to me, it seemed that Mandy's getting an abortion--although that is a very hard and difficult choice to make--offered her a great deal of perspective. Sometimes when you have a loss there are positive aspects. One, an acknowledgment of your own strength. Two, a hard-won maturity. And a sense of self, and perhaps a larger compassion for others. And that was what I was hoping for, for Mandy.

DS: So that must mean that you have a less hopeful prognosis for Tracy, Mandy's high school friend who did, in fact, drop out and have a child?

LCB: Well, I don't know if the prognosis is less hopeful, but I do think it would take Tracy a longer time to get back to herself. When Mandy discovers she's pregnant, she thinks of Tracy and the closeness and love Tracy has with her toddler son. And Mandy envies that closeness, she wants that. On the other hand, Tracy's youth ended abruptly when she had her son, and the wild side that she once had doesn't just vanish. It goes underground. Tracy's life is going to be more limited because of her choice, and her son's life may be affected, too.

DS: Mandy's other friend in the book, Barb, is a sharp contrast to Tracy.

LCB: Yes. She comes from a certain amount of privilege, and the expectation that she will be somebody. She has a fair amount of self-esteem. And actually I think she's a pretty good friend to Mandy. When you're young, there's a certain amount of self-absorption that can happen if someone else is suffering. I think Barb had to distance herself. In the end, there were limitations to how much she could do for Mandy. People have had different responses to Barb. Some readers have felt she was the best possible friend Mandy could have had, but when I was writing the book, I saw her as a pretty fair-weather friend.

DS: Let's talk about Pastor Bob. He seems like a pretty strong counterpoint to the abortion story line. I wondered what, if anything, you were saying through his character about the role of religion in the life of a character such as Mandy's mom.

LCB: I guess I saw the role of religion for Mandy's mother as a place where she felt she belonged. She had formerly belonged to this religion, but was estranged from it when she suffered her miscarriages. Her beliefs hadn't protected her. Because she had prayed, she had done the right things, and still, she hadn't gotten what she was due. So here, she's lost her husband, and now in Pastor Bob she's found someone who thinks she's worthwhile. The religion offered her a greater sense of purpose, and I think it does that for a lot of people.

DS: Near the very end of the novel, Mandy thinks to herself: I wasn't pregnant. I could call the university and ask them what to do. I would find another place to live. I would go to work, become successful, pay Priscilla back. I would take pictures. The possibilities were endless. What did you envision for Mandy at the end of Quickening? Was she going to pull it together? Was her story one of a particularly bumpy coming-of-age that would wind up as happily-ever-after?

LCB: Happier. Happier than she had been. I did think she would pull herself together. That it would mark a turning point in her life--that she wouldn't be so passive anymore. She had to choose herself over Booner. There was pressure for her to have the baby, even reasons for her to have the baby, and the reasons were somewhat known to her: she knew what Booner was offering. In choosing not to have the baby, and to leave Booner, she was choosing the unknown. She was choosing herself, rather than fitting herself into someone else's idea of where her future lay.

Praise

Praise

"In Quickening , get ready to meet a quirky and poignant heroine who will grab you from the first page and won't let you go. Love, grief, loss, confusion, the search for identity--it's all here, and it all feels fresh and new. Laura Brown is a terrific new writer who shoots straight from the heart."        
                                            
---Dani Shapiro, author of Slow Motion


"The heroine of this remarkable novel may have to wait for her quickening, but for the reader, happily, it begins on the opening page. Laura Catherine Brown writes with remarkable authenticity about the struggles and setbacks of crossing into adult life. This is a terrific debut."        
                              
---Margot Livesey, author of The Missing World and Criminals


"Laura Brown eschews the trendy, the glitzy, and the experimental and goes straight for the heart with her tender portrayal of an impoverished           upstate New York teenager fumbling over the first steps of adulthood. She has a gift for writing scenes that are sharp, poignant, and suspenseful. And she excels in creating characters who are weak and even cruel and yet achingly sweet. Mandy Boyle's determination, her unwillingness to abandon hope, and her generosity of spirit make Quickening a grace-ful and uplifting read."

---Douglas Glover, author of Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon


From the Hardcover edition.
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

This discussion guide will assist readers in exploring Quickening. Hopefully, it will help create a bond not only between the book and the reader, but also between the members of the reading group. In your support of this book, please feel free to copy and distribute this guide to best facilitate your reading program. Thank you.

Discussion Guides

1. QUICKENING by Laura Catherine Brown Reading Group Guide What role does money play in Mandy's personal development and in that of those in her world such as Tracy, Booner, Barb, her mother, her father, Priscilla, Doug?

2. How do you feel about Gert's cruelty toward and domination of her daughter? Is Gert a sympathetic character, given her own background? How are Mandy and Gert different? How are they alike? What does Gert's character reveal about motherhood, about what makes a good or bad mother?

3. How does Gert shape the person Mandy becomes? How does her father shape her? In what way does the loss of her father become an opportunity for Mandy to grow? What ideals must she surrender during her grief process? What beliefs form in their place?

4. What is the significance of the title Quickening? At what point in the book does Mandy's 'quickening' occur? Why do you believe it occurs there?

5. Compare Tracy and Mandy. Discuss their different childbearing choices, and the benefits and losses of each choice.

6. What is it about Booner that Mandy finds so compelling? What drives her to leave college and its opportunities to go and live with Booner? Why, ultimately, does the relationship between Mandy and Booner turn sour?

7. What role does alcohol play in Mandy's life and in the lives of the people in her world? What role do drugs play? How does Mandy's relationship with alcohol and drugs change in the course of the story? How do alcohol and drugs change her?

8. What is the significance of Gert's rediscovery of religion? How is Mandy's dedication to photography similar to or different from her mother's dedication to the Church of Assemblies?

9. Discuss the nature of the coming-of-age genre. How does this book adhere to the conventions of that genre? How does it differ? How is a female coming of age different than a male coming of age?

10. Do you see Mandy as a victim? Does your opinion of her change over the course of the book? What do you think will happen to Mandy after the novel's conclusion? Do you agree with the choice Mandy ultimately makes? If so, why? If not, why not?

11. Do you think of this novel as having a feminist point of view? Why or why not?




From the Hardcover edition.

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