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  • Written by Joan Wickersham
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  • Written by Joan Wickersham
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Written by Joan WickershamAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Joan Wickersham

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On Sale: October 09, 2012
Pages: 224 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95889-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A San Francisco Chronicle and NPR Best Book of the Year

The author of the acclaimed memoir The Suicide Index returns with a virtuosic collection of stories, each a stirring parable of the power of love and the impossibility of understanding it. Spanning centuries and continents, from eighteenth-century Vienna to contemporary America, Joan Wickersham shows, with uncanny exactitude, how we never really know what’s in someone else’s heart—or in our own.

Excerpt

• •

The News from Spain

The news from Spain is terrible. A bomb under a park bench in a small town near Madrid. Fifteen people have been killed and dozens injured. Harriet tells the aide, who crosses herself; the nurse, who says, “It makes you want to stay home and never leave the house—but that would just be giving in to terrorism”; and her daughter Rebecca, who says, “Why do you spend all day watching that stuff?”

Rebecca is tired. Harriet has been sick on and off for years, more than a decade. Rebecca has just driven four hours from Boston to get to the Connecticut nursing home where Harriet now lives. She is taking two days off from the small bookstore she owns, paying her part-time assistant extra to cover for her. She’s brought a shopping bag full of things Harriet likes: rice pudding with raisins, shortbread, fresh figs, and a box of lame-juns from a Middle Eastern bakery. She has walked into the room and Harriet has barely looked away from the TV to say hello.

What Harriet says is, “They just interviewed a man whose granddaughter died in his arms.”

Rebecca puts down the shopping bag and kisses the top of her mother’s head. Someone has given Harriet a haircut, a sur- prisingly flattering one. Her head smells faintly of shampoo.

Harriet puts up a hand and feels for Rebecca’s face, briefly cupping her chin. “They think it was a Basque separatist group.”

Rebecca nods and goes down the hall to the kitchen, to put the rice pudding and lamejuns in the fridge. The hallway is full of wheelchairs, a straggly becalmed flotilla of gray people just sitting there, some with their heads lolling on their chests. On the way back to her mother’s room, she runs into the social worker assigned to Harriet’s case. Today is Halloween; the social worker is wearing a pirate hat and an eye patch. “How do you think your mom is doing?” she asks Rebecca.

“I think she’s still angry about being here,” Rebecca says. Harriet moved into the nursing home a month ago, after the rehab hospital said she had “plateaued,” and the assisted-living place said they couldn’t take her back.

“I know,” the social worker says. “But they adjust.”

When she goes back into her mother’s room, Harriet is watching for her. The TV is off. “I’m so glad you came,” Harriet says.

“I just ran into the social worker in the hall. She says you’re adjusting.”

“Bullshit,” Harriet says. “Did you bring stuffed grape leaves?”

“I didn’t remember that you liked them.”

“I love them.”

“Next time,” Rebecca says. She pulls over a chair and sits facing her mother. Harriet is in a wheelchair, paralyzed again—it has happened before, she has some rare chronic spinal disease, but this time the neurologist says it is permanent. Rebecca, who came down to go with her mother to that appointment last month, listened while he talked to Harriet about suffering and acceptance, about how what was happening to her was truly terrible, worse than what anyone should have to go through. Rebecca liked the doctor’s humanity, and thought it might be somewhat comforting to Harriet; certainly Harriet has always found it gratifying to be admired for her bravery. But Harriet was furious. “He’s talking philosophy when what I really want to hear about is stem-cell research.”

Rebecca feels guilty about not making it down to see her mother more often. Harriet is always mentioning something she needs—lavender talcum powder, or socks, or an afghan to put over her legs when they wheel her outside, or, she sighs, “just a really good turkey club sandwich.” Rebecca mails what she can, alternately touched by and annoyed by the many requests (are they wistful, or reproachful? Both, she thinks). (But they are also, simply, practical. These are the small things we live with, and Harriet now has no way to get hold of them.) She has talked to Harriet about moving to a nursing home in the Boston area. “It would be more convenient.”

“For you, you mean,” Harriet said. She is adamant about staying in this particular nursing home, because the man she’s in love with is in the assisted-living place next door, and comes over to visit her nearly every day. Rebecca thinks it’s great that her mother has someone, though she could do without some of Harriet’s more candid reports (“Ralph called me this morning and said, ‘I wish I could make love to you right now’ ”).

“How is Ralph?” Rebecca asks now.

Harriet shrugs. “He thinks I’m mad at him because he didn’t give me a birthday present.”


“Yes.” They laugh. They talk. Rebecca heats up some lame- juns in the kitchen microwave and makes Harriet a cup of tea. They hear the woman in the room next door say loudly, angrily, “Who washed my floor?” A low murmuring answer; then the angry woman again: “In the future I must ask that you not wash my floor without first giving me notice.”

Rebecca looks at Harriet. Harriet says, “At first I thought, Oh good, at least she sounds like she has all her marbles. But that’s all she ever says, on and on, day and night about the floor.”

Some lamejun has fallen onto the front of Harriet’s sweat- shirt; when she finally notices and brushes it off, it leaves a spot. “Damn it.” She wipes furiously away at it, but in the midst of the fury is also grinning ruefully at Rebecca—Can you believe it? How does it happen every single time? She’s a very large woman, and she’s been dropping food on her shirt for as long as Rebecca can remember. The last time Rebecca visited, on the day Harriet moved to the nursing home, the aide swathed Harriet’s front in an enormous terry-cloth bib before bringing in her dinner tray. Harriet allowed it, looking at Rebecca with a kind of stunned sadness; of all the enraging indignities of that day, this was the one that undid her. “She doesn’t need that,” Rebecca told the aide.

“We do it for everybody.”

“Right, but my mother doesn’t need it.”

So that was one small battle that Rebecca was there to win for Harriet. Without Rebecca, Harriet could have won it just fine for herself. Both of them knew this—and yet, between them, love has always had to be proved. It is there; and it gets proved, over and over. Some of their worst fights, confusingly, seem to both prove and disprove it: two people who didn’t love each other couldn’t fight like that—certainly not repeatedly.

Still, Rebecca has often wished for something quieter with Harriet. Are there mothers and daughters who can be happy together without saying much?
Joan Wickersham

About Joan Wickersham

Joan Wickersham - The News from Spain

Photo © Nicholas Latimer

Joan Wickersham was born in New York City. She is the author of two previous books, most recently The Suicide Index, a National Book Award finalist. Her fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her op-ed column appears regularly in The Boston Globe; she has published essays and reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune; and she has contributed on-air essays to National Public Radio. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons.
Praise

Praise

“Joan Wickersham has done it again: astonished, enchanted, and moved me. . . . Like Alice Munro at her best.” —Julia Glass, author of Three Junes 
  
“Do not mistake Wickersham’s exquisitely polished prose for good manners. Although she writes with an almost grave formality, a vintage grace  …  she is brutal and funny too. . . . Divine.”  —San Francisco Chronicle
  
“Beautiful.” —Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild
 
“Wickersham shows how the difficult road of one-way affection can be a lot more interesting than something shared; she lends new dignity to pining.” —The New York Times
 
“Joan Wickersham’s brilliant The News from Spain shows, in all its twisty beauty, what a short story collection can do. . . . Truly extraordinary.” —Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
 
“Wickersham [takes an] emotional cannonball into every single one of her characters. The doubts and tenderness they share are ones that only the finest fiction can create.” —Oprah.com, “Best of the Week”

“Great short stories are unforgiving: every world must work overtime. . . . Joan Wickersham [is] a fierce practitioner in the same exacting tradition. . . . At the top of this year’s list.” —Chicago Tribune Printer’s Row

“Captivating. . . . This wise and courageous and often brilliant collection of stories, written in clean, precise prose, is not only a pleasure to read, but also breaks new ground in our perceptions of what a short story can be. . . . Wonderfully imaginative and original.” —The Boston Globe

“Joan Wickersham makes a triumphant return to fiction. . . . Wickersham paints everyday yet complex portraits of love, filigreed with truths that resonate.” —Elle
“An expert in the he-and-she of it, Wickersham turns the most exquisitely particular truths into universals. The News from Spain is brilliant.” —Patricia Volk, author of Stuffed and To My Dearest Friends

“Wickersham dissects the human heart with precision and restraint that make her work all the more moving. Short stories don’t get much better than this.” —Kirkus Reviews

“So moving it will close your throat.” —Los Angeles Times
 
“[Wickersham] is a master of the written word and storytelling in all its forms.” —BookPage

“The brilliance of The News from Spain is that Joan Wickersham has ambitiously aimed for the scope and depth of a novel, but contained her writing within seven elegant 'love' stories, each titled ‘The News from Spain.’ . . . This is some of the best writing I've encountered in years.” —Michelle Aldredge, Gwarlingo

“Joan Wickersham has achieved something miraculous: seven prismatic stories that refract the lonely, marvelous, terrible complexity of human longing. . . . Radiant with insight.”  —Suzanne Berne, author of A Crime in the Neighborhood

“Wickersham’s keen insight and observation of the human heart are at once intimate and universal.” —The Charleston Post & Courier

“Complex and world-weary, Wickersham’s characters move through life with a quiet intensity. Love comes at unexpected times and places—if you only listen hard enough.” —The Daily Beast

“A kaleidoscopic view of the subject of love. It is amazingly perceptive psychologically, a gorgeous, completely original work. I loved it. As soon as I finished it, I began to read it again.”  —André Gregory, co-author of My Dinner with André

The News from Spain evokes hidden topographies of need, and the emotional tipping points that occasionally break through the surface.” —Vogue.com

“Love—and all its messy, gorgeous, decimating complications—animates this brilliantly conceived collection of stories. With astonishing acuity, Wickersham illuminates not only our passions but also our abiding consolations.”  —Dawn Raffel, author of Further Adventures in the Restless Universe
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The News from Spain and of Wickersham’s near magical ability to capture the mystery and complexity of love.

About the Guide

In seven beguiling stories Joan Wickersham explores the passion and vulnerability, cruelty and tenderness of love in all its forms. The News from Spain presents a fascinating array of characters, settings, and perspectives: a long-married couple struggles with the repercussions of the husband’s infidelity; a woman caring for her dying mother reconsiders their bond—and her own romantic relationships; a young girl discovers that the search for connections and affection can lead to selfish and reckless acts; a paralyzed dancer weighs the cost of her dependence on her adored, unfaithful husband; and a widow and a young mother develop a surprisingly deep sense of trust and understanding during a brief afternoon conversation. In two clever and engaging stories Wickersham travels back in history. In one, she weaves vignettes about Mozart and his librettist into the story of two close friends and their love affairs; in the other, she imagines a love triangle among a journalist, a doctor, and the wife of a president.

About the Author

Joan Wickersham is the author of two previous books, most recently The Suicide Index, a National Book Award finalist. Her fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading.  Her op-ed column appears regularly in The Boston Globe, and she has published essays in the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Discussion Guides

1. The book opens with a succinct yet palpable description of the motel Susanne and John are staying in: “The rooms smelled of disinfectant and of bodies. . . .Outside, the wind was dazzling and salty” (p. 3). How does this establish an emotional backdrop to the narrative that follows? Which physical details in the descriptions of the wedding party (pp. 14–20) and the meeting between Susanne and Barnaby (pp. 22–25) offer insights into the psychological state of the characters?

2. Compare Barbara and Barnaby’s reasons for getting married (p. 21) to Susanne’s reflections on her marriage (pp. 23–24). Do their points of view represent the real choices open to them or are they based on compromise and rationalization? Why are Barnaby and Susanne reluctant to share their thoughts with each other? Are there limits to the trust enjoyed between friends? If so, why?

3. Harriet and Rebecca know that between them “love has always had to be proved. It is there; and it gets proved, over and over” (p. 29). In what ways does Harriet’s illness become a testing ground for both of them? Is it surprising or unusual that “they were having, in the middle of all this dire stuff, a good time together” (p. 34)? Why does their intimacy deteriorate during the periods Harriet when enjoys relatively good health?

4. How do the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship affect Rebecca’s approach to the men in her life and influence the course of her affairs with Peter and with Ben?

5. The third story in the book, told in the second person, presents the point of view of an unnamed young girl; it is also the only story divided into distinct sections. What effect do these techniques have on the reader’s impressions of the protagonist, the events described, and the other characters?

6. The narrative of the third story captures the awkwardness and excitement of becoming a teenager—of finding a place within a school’s social structure, discovering the opposite sex, flourishing under a special teacher’s care, and observing often puzzling adult behavior. In what ways do each of the mini-chapters in this story set the stage for scandalous revelation and the girl’s reaction to it (pp. 75–76)? Why is the summation (“The Rest of the Story” and “The End”) related from an adult point of view?

7. What part do memories and dreams play in the dancer’s attempts to reconcile herself to her physical helplessness? When her husband leaves for the tour, “They kiss—familiar, fond, nothing more, except she thinks there is a careful brightness between them, an implicit understanding that to regret, or even acknowledge any awareness of, their mutual unerotic kindness would be pointless and unwise” (pp. 84–85). Is this the best (or only) way for these characters to deal with their situation, or would they benefit from more openness and honesty?

8. What do the details about Malcolm’s private life add to the central portrait of the dancer’s troubled marriage? Are there similarities between the two relationships? Between the dancer and Malcolm, the choreographer and Tim? What do the scene in the bathtub and the story the dancer tells Malcolm illustrate about the power of illusion and fantasy in our lives?

9. Do the sketches of Charlie and Liza (pp. 116–19) and Alice (pp. 119–24) establish a sense of how their meeting will unfold? Does the interview belie or conform to your expectations? What particular moments or comments transform the dynamics of the encounter and why?

10. What inspires Liza to confess her secret to Alice? What qualities, experiences, or beliefs unite Liza and Alice despite the differences in their ages and situations? Why do people often tell a relative stranger something they have hidden from those closest to them?

11. Discuss the parallels between the lives and loves of Elvira and Rosina and their namesakes in the Mozart and Da Ponte operas. (If you are not familiar with Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, brief summaries are readily available online). How do the playful yet pointed echoes of the classic operas (and the legendary adventures of Don Juan) set a tone and enrich the atmosphere of the contemporary stories? What do they convey about the universal complications, pain, and pleasures of love?

12. Da Ponte writes “But I have learned that memory is inconstant, which is perhaps its greatest danger and yet also its greatest virtue” (p. 160). What light does this cast on Elvira’s attachment to Johnny and its effect on her life and her work? To what extent is the friendship between Elvira and Rosina built on the sharing and preserving of their personal and perhaps faulty versions of the past?

13. A happily married woman unsettled by a sudden rush of love for a colleague sums up her emotional turmoil with both wit and poignancy: “My feelings—let’s hold on to this idea of them as shuffling Victorians, let’s make them servants, an entire uniformed household staff—were fresh, raw, perpetually startled. They weren’t sensible” (p.178). Why is this metaphor so effective? What does it say about the battle between emotions and reason, between heart and head?

14.

The final story begins with a simple pronouncement: “Some of this is fiction, and some isn’t” (p. 176). To what extent does the appeal of the story about the doctor, the journalist, and the president’s wife stem from the combination of fact and fiction? Why does Wickersham leave the “famous woman” unnamed although her identity is quite clear? What draws the woman to the doctor and him to her? In what ways do her public and her private identities overlap, and how do they differ? What effect does this have on the way she conducts herself with the doctor? Why does the discovery of the journalist’s affair with the doctor affect her so deeply (pp.198–200)? Does the narrator present each character in an objective way or does her own situation color her opinions and speculations about them?

15. Linking her two stories, the narrator of the last story says, “I am writing about women, about love and humiliation. Men do it to us, but mostly we do it to ourselves. We love the wrong people; we love at the wrong time. We think we can make it right, reconcile the irreconcilable” (p. 194). Which other stories feature women who struggle to explain, justify, or simply make the best of difficult relationships? Are there male characters who find themselves in similar situations?

16. Infidelity and betrayal play a central role in The News from Spain. Many of the characters are involved in or are considering an affair; friendships and family relationships are also betrayed, either intentionally or as a consequence of carelessness or self-interest. Discuss the various forms of unfaithfulness and deception depicted in these stories and what they reveal about the unpredictable, often uncontrollable passions that underlie acts of transgression.

17. “A love story—your own or anyone else’s—is interior, hidden. It can never be accurately reported, only imagined. It is all dreams and invention. It’s guesswork” (p. 201). How does this insight shape and inform The News from Spain?

18. What is the significance of the subtitle “Seven Variations on a Love Story”? Do you see these stories as parts of a whole or as separate entities? In what ways do the stories amplify one another? Does the arrangement create a unifying thread and forward momentum?


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