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  • My Passionate Mother
  • Written by Judy Feiffer
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780345484468
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My Passionate Mother

A Novel

Written by Judy FeifferAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Judy Feiffer

eBook

List Price: $9.99

eBook

On Sale: June 28, 2005
Pages: 160 | ISBN: 978-0-345-48446-8
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

The most frugal fishermen on the island of Pequod couldn’t resist throwing money at the bewitching young girl who sang and danced in the streets for change, and when Finn and Joe befriended the penniless Claire, little did they realize they would forever be enthralled. Gentle, goodhearted Finn fell deeply in love with her, though she was obsessed by his best friend, Joe, a moody writer who repressed his own desire in order to protect Finn from being hurt.

There seemed no choice but for the three to enter into an arrangement. Finn offered Claire stability and family, while Joe would be her soul mate and lover, and they all would remain loyal. But Joe knew their love triangle was too hot for the island to handle, so he left for Boston to save them all from the furor of love run amok.

In this strange world of love and lust, Finn and Claire’s daughter, Joely, is a soundboard for her mother’s guilt, her romantic obsession. She listens to stories she is too young to understand and yearns for a mother who will simply let her be a child. Yet each month she goes with Claire to the dock to wait for Joe, and her adolescent heart leaps excitedly at the sight of the dark-haired, handsome man who is her mother’s raging passion—and her own, as well.

From acclaimed author Judy Feiffer comes her finest book to date, a beautiful and unconventional love story played out on a tiny seafaring island off the North Atlantic coast. Feiffer depicts the simple, endearing moments of childhood friendship and the subsequent ill-fated but inevitable loss of innocence. My Passionate Mother is a sensual, disturbing portrayal of four people possessed by love.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

It's as if it never happened before.

Me, Joely, watching the ferry glide into the slip, not seeing him but knowing he's on deck, that he looks toward shore, a hint of laughter in his slate-gray eyes, engaging you, drawing you in, telling you he understands without his saying a word.

There goes the whistle, a sharp hard blast followed by two short ones.

Now I see him, taller than the others. I know he is nervous, knowing I wait as Claire once waited, my impatient excited mother who held my hand, released it to lift a camera to her eye, click click clicking until she got it right, the exact smile or expression she would develop, enlarge, and hide in her secret cache.

And when she was off island and I was alone, I would go into her files and search, not for the photographs taken for publication, but for those for her eyes only, pictures of his torso, his shoulders and legs. And in those moments, alone with Claire's secret, I did not question if I was violating her trust, I simply felt free to love him without a daughter's shame.

Sometimes there was a new photograph and sometimes one was missing. I knew she had it with her, that when she returned, she would replace it in its plastic sleeve and think she was safe.

Now he sees me and breaks free of the other passengers. He carries a briefcase and computer. His suitcase, on a gurney, is wheeled to the street. A boyhood friend who works for the steamship authority calls his name and Joe stops for a moment of talk. Then he walks down the jetty and onto the wharf.

And it's the same; it's almost the same.

Shadows lengthening in the afternoon sun, the cries of circling gulls, a splatter of sea foam against the wooden piles, the belted raincoat he wears like a uniform.

Yes, almost the same. Yet, nothing's the same, for it's not Claire who waits but me, breathless as I watch his long graceful stride and wonder if love is genetic, transmitted prenatally, like a craving for alcohol or drugs; and what does it matter, this hunger inside me, for Joe has come home and is standing beside me, his warm low voice saying, "It's a shock to see you looking like that little girl who used to wait beside her mother."

"Let's get your things," I say and ignore the remark.

He pulls a suitcase from the gurney and we get into my car. We pass a weathered bronze statue, a monument to the men lost at sea, and I turn onto Water Street with its French cafe and seafood restaurant, movie house with a garish red poster, and the Pequod Emporium with a bright neon sign.

"Notice the changes?"

"Places don't change. We freshen them up with a coat of paint or they rot in decay, but they're only brick and mortar."

"Then what does change?"

"People."

"You mean you and me?"

"I mean summer folk who come with consumer hopes, expectations of happiness, as if happiness is a promissory note and summer's the season to redeem it, but they're gone by Labor Day, and Pequod's ours and life is normal."

"Normal! What's that?"

Joe laughs. My God, the man is handsome.

"Why, normal's the coming of fall, trees turning a fiery red, a wind blowing up the sea. It's the hum of the quahog boats, the clink of bottles as the milkman makes his rounds, footsteps on a lonely street."

Joe pauses. "Normal's one day following another without dramatic upheaval or event," he says.

"Sounds too good to be real."

"Why, you little skeptic. All right, Joely, you tell me. What's normal?"

"I think normal is when all the passion we've hidden away and buried goes wild inside us and explodes."

I know he listens, that he struggles with what Claire once called his inner code of honor, and I wonder if people do change, or am I fated, a child of fate, helpless against a dark desire that is my mother's legacy.





My mother always had two men: my father, Finn, who was her husband, and Finn's cousin and best friend, Joe, who was my mother's lover. And if Claire didn't love them both, both Finn and Joe Hurley loved her.

No one talked of the danger or consequences of the way we lived. Before her marriage to Finn, the men had agreed on sharing her, and I accepted it as normal.

Once, it was the island scandal, but with time, the rumors stretched out like an old rubber band, and now everyone accepted it. No one seemed to care, or if they did, they spoke of us in whispers.

Everyone but Claire, who only wanted to talk.

"It's important you understand," she used to tell me. "The three of us and how we live was Finn's idea. What he wanted. So you see, Joely, I've got Daddy's complete approval."

Since I was a child, I accepted the fact that I was Claire's captive audience, the vessel through which she relieved herself of guilt, that there wasn't enough love in the world to protect my mother from herself, or the way she loved. She made me feel that only I could save her, so she bore her soul, tore the pain from her heart, and I gave myself up to Claire's confession, and our illusion of intimacy, a daughter sharing her mother's secret life.

And I've often wondered if my loving Joe wasn't sown in me like a little seed, watered by my mother's tears until it burst into bloom. From my earliest years, I felt the force of Claire's passion, bending, twisting, and shaping my life.

And young as I was, I knew what was happening would be the story of our lives. If I loved Joe, he was hers; from the beginning Joe belonged to my mother. And so we lived: Finn, Joe, Claire, and me, and it seemed to work, our tangled web of lust and love, and then, one day, it all went bust.

Pequod is twenty miles long, fifteen miles wide, and shaped like a half-moon. Composed of a half dozen small towns, we have farms for produce, meadows for grazing, an ocean famous for fishing, and silky soft beaches that snake along the southern shore. Rumor has it Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, visited the island, and under the spell of the rolling hills, the high timbered oaks, and the great gray cliffs overlooking the sea, wrote in his journal, "I shall call Ahab's poor battered ship, The Pequod."

Our winters are harsh and often brutal. Towns shut down, the landscape is barren. Heavy snows turn into sheets of ice, torrential rains are followed by a thaw, and suddenly, the air is crystal clear. Bursts of sunlight fall through the treetops onto the streets, and there's an explosion of hyacinth, daffodil, and flowering dogwood. Town house porticos are scrubbed bright and white, farmhouse doors are unbolted, and everyone rushes out to greet a neighbor, free, at last, of a long winter cocoon.

At the northern end of the island, bay and ocean intercept, and a low rocky coastline flattens into a meadow, bare except for a knotty old oak. My mother loved this weathered tree. She called it a friend and wrapped her arms around its trunk. I asked her why she loved it so, and she said, "It's my soul mate. I sit under the branches and look at the sea, watch the waves swell and collapse, become a part of the undertow, and I am one with it, all of it, I am the sea and the sea is me. I lean against my trusted old friend, tell it my secrets, and under its branches, luck is with me and I am safe."

On one side of the tree, the ocean pounds against the cliffs, and on the other side, a path slopes toward the bay with only a stump, a stone, or a low-lying bush in its path. Then it smooths out, flat and perpendicular, and falls into the water.

Children love to come and play. At high tide, they climb on the rocks and watch the crashing waves, and when the tide is low, they take mud baths, catch crabs and sea anemones. They drape themselves with strands of seaweed, dancing with seaweed, a favorite sport.





We live on an island, rising out of the sea, and man, his boat, and the sea are one, intertwined and interdependent, man dependent on the sea to bring food and life to the island, the sea taking it away, or unto itself, swallowing it whole, as it did my mother's father when she was a child.

As far back as is known, the men in Claire's line were fishing men. Chasing a whale, being chased by a whale, tracking it into the treacherous currents of the Atlantic, Pacific, or the shifting shoals of the ice-bound Arctic Sea. Men were away from home for three or more years, placed in irons or punished by the lash for an infraction of the rules. It was a perilous life, but in the nineteenth century, a young man living on an island had limited choices. Whaling was a way to make a decent living and how a young man advanced himself. But the dangers and hazards of the great whale hunt convinced my great-great-grandfather to break with family tradition.

No one is certain how he came to photography or where he learned his craft, but the Pequod Historical Society lists the date as in the early 1860s.

Photography was about twenty-five years old. The North was pitted against the South in a brutal civil war. My great-great-grandfather had seen the harrowing pictures of carnage and destruction made by Mathew Brady and the brave men who lugged their heavy eight-by-ten cameras from battlefield to battlefield, and he was determined to join their ranks. So, leaving a wife and young son behind, he connected with the men who photographed the horrors. At Antietam, a bullet shattered his leg. My great-great-grandfather recuperated in a military hospital and came back to Pequod to live.

A one-legged war casualty, he set up a photography shop on Main Street. When his son was old enough to learn, he brought him into the business. His son taught his son, my grandfather, who photographed the ships, a hurricane that ripped apart the island, made stereoscopic views, cartes de visite, and portraits of visiting celebrities, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Grampa proudly hung the portrait in the window of his shop, and there it stayed until his death.

My grandfather was an old-fashioned romantic who longed to recapture the adventures of his forefathers. He heard a refurbished vessel was sailing to the Arctic to reenact the voyage of a whaling ship, and he signed on as photographer. And that was the fateful irony, that the vessel didn't explode on a faraway shore, but a mile outside of Pequod. A sudden burst of flame, a sheet of fire, millions of sparks, acrid smoke turning the sky soiled and gray, another explosion, and another, and the sea opened up to swallow ship and cargo. The only remains were bodies clinging to wood or pieces of debris.

My grandfather's body was among those recovered. He was brought back to Pequod and buried in the old Seaman's Cemetery, on a hillock overlooking the bay.

Like the heroine of a New England ghost story, my grandmother threw herself upon her husband's grave. She prayed for his ghost to appear so she could reclaim him, but his ghost never materialized, and my grandmother's hopes grew cold and dim, her only solace in a bottle of gin. And there you would find her, in the sod and the dark, sprawled upon his tombstone, a poor pathetic drunk, crying over the loss of the good times, which, according to my mother, were never very good.

My grandmother was destitute, a penniless widow living off a small insurance policy that was soon consumed by whiskey, so it fell to my mother to forage for the money they would need to survive.

Claire was young, quick-witted, and pretty. Using her great good looks, smiling a beckoning smile, she sang and danced on the sidewalks of Pequod for change or, on a lucky day, dollars from sympathetic passersby.

She enjoyed disguising her sex, her red hair tucked under a cap, her lithe body hidden in boy's clothing, and found the androgynous switch from girl to boy and back to girl was a lure in greasing the pockets of her public. She sang, danced, and strutted, and those who gave a dollar on Monday returned on Tuesday and gave her another.

In the beginning, Claire seemed unaware of her mysterious power, but she soon began to realize how attractive she was to men. It was like a secret gift and she delighted in using it, not only to make money, but because it excited her. She was like a gambler tempting fate, becoming habituated to admiration and applause.

Claire also scavenged the town dump--the dumptique, she called it--with its variety of treasures, men's and women's old clothes, children's castoffs, furniture and kitchen equipment, a half-used lipstick or bottle of cologne, discarded spoils she was delighted to find.

At first it was a struggle, the smiling and pretending, but after a while she perfected the art of it, and pretense became a second skin.

So one way or another, Claire and her drunken dependent mother endured the hardship and privation. It was useless to worry about tomorrow. All that mattered was getting the best from today.





My paternal grandfather founded the Post, a weekly newspaper serving the island and read by summer residents and subscribers who wanted the news year-round.

My father, Finn, worked on the paper weekends and vacations. On graduating high school, he became the managing editor.

When his father died, Finn took over as publisher and editor in chief. He worked a seven-day week, often into the night, and said, "I've grown up with the smell of printer's ink. It's a part of my nervous system."

Finn loved the paper and was patient with the old machines. When one grew odd or cranky, the way an old press is prone to do, he tinkered with it, ministered like a country doctor with an ailing prima donna. "You're my high-strung, nervous beauty," he'd purr, "but you're the only one I've got, and I need you strong and healthy."

This was Finn's life, the island folk streaming into the office knowing he would open his wise, sympathetic heart to whoever needed him. It seemed to Finn a part of the job. If the Post was a source of island news, its editor was a community friend, and he couldn't imagine what life would be without a daily call for help or advice.

One of the paper's most faithful readers was the editor of a Boston daily who followed the work of Joe Hurley, who, in simple emotional prose, wrote of the loneliness and isolation of those living in the long wintry solitude. Joe wrote of the drinking, the violence, the passions of ordinary men and women. But of the passion ruling his own heart, of that passion, Joe Hurley was silent.


From the Hardcover edition.
Judy Feiffer|Author Q&A

About Judy Feiffer

Judy Feiffer - My Passionate Mother
JUDY FEIFFER was raised in Italy and California. She worked for a French fashion magazine, then, in New York, became a photographer. She has been a production executive with Warner Bros. and Orion Pictures, and a senior editor at William Morrow. Feiffer is the author of three previous novels: A Hot Property, Lovecrazy, and Flame. She has a daughter, Kate, and lives in New York.


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Judy Feiffer

Q: How did you come up with the character of Claire?

Judy Feiffer: Claire came to me on a bus ride. I was traveling from New York to Martha’s Vineyard and I started writing about a divorced middle-aged woman who decided to go back to the true love of her life, a burnt-out case living on an island. The original story was a musing on true love, romantic once-in-a-lifetime love. There is a part of me that believes in eternal love, and I always wanted to write about it but never knew how. On this bus ride, Claire and her story appeared to me, vividly and strongly. I have a lot in common with Claire, but I named the character after my mother.

Q: What about Joe? Was he based on someone from your life?

J.F.: I grew up on black-and-white movies and always had crushes on movie stars. Joe is based on the actor Joseph Cotten, a uniquely handsome man who seemed both gentle and steely at once.

Q: The relationship between Claire and Joely is of particular interest. Joely falls in love with her mother’s lover, which is pretty taboo stuff. Can you discuss that relationship?

J.F.: That’s such a complicated relationship and, for many women, terribly fraught. My own mother needed constant praise and unconditional love from everyone, and made me her confidante. She talked to me about everything—her dreams, frustrations, her sex life, and what she called her “raptures.” In the novel, Joely reaches out for her mother, but Claire isn’t there. It’s not that she doesn’t want to be there, she doesn’t know how. So Joely reaches for her mother’s lover, Joe. She’s subconsciously hoping to find the mother love she craves. The book explores the complicated relationship between a romantic woman, her romantic daughter, and a man they both love.

Q: Why was the triangle element important?

J.F.: Many women are torn between the warring forces of practical love and romantic love. A woman may not be in love with the man she marries, but he may offer security and a family. And she may continue to yearn for an illusion of romantic love. Joe represents romantic love, fantasy love. He is in love with Claire but he isn’t really there. Claire is split between a man she doesn’t love and a man she’s obsessed with. And she’s made a deal: She marries one man in order to be with the other.

Q: Were you thinking about the love triangle as a literary device?

J.F.: I wasn’t thinking about a literary device.

Q:Was it a Faustian deal that Claire made?

J.F.: I don’t think it was a Faustian deal. I think it was a human deal.

Q: It’s pretty cynical, don’t you think?

J.F.: No, because all the parties involved wanted it and agreed to the arrangement. They simply couldn’t handle it.

Q: What kind of research did you do for the book?

J.F.: I used to spend summers on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a beautiful island and an island of controlled passions. The island of Pequod is based on Martha’s Vineyard with some Nantucket thrown in. I did some research at the Vineyard Historical Society. I discovered that Vineyard men went to California during the Gold Rush and to the Arctic for whaling oil. I don’t go extensively into it in the book. I was primarily looking for historical highlights.

Q: Why did you make Claire a photographer?

J.F.: I was a photographer in my twenties. For the first time in my life I felt a sense of identity. I felt fearless. I looked out at the world and felt safe. So I adapted my own experiences for the book. I wanted Claire to have something of that feeling, a sense of her own creativity, her own identity.
I based the character of Eugene Jones on a brilliant Life magazine photographer named Eugene Smith, who wanted to have creative editorial control over his work. He’s not a main character, but he’s a pivotal character.

Q: When writing My Passionate Mother, what were some of the obstacles that you came up against?

J.F.: I had a very good time writing the book. It flowed. The only obstacles were plot obstacles.

Q:
What is your technique for solving plot problems?

J.F.: I don’t really have a technique. Patience, I suppose, throwing myself into incidental activities—a hot soak in a tub, scrubbing the floor, peeling potatoes, and sometimes as I do these things I stumble on a solution. I call it an epiphany. It happens out of the blue. At that moment I rush to the typewriter, because epiphanies don’t hang around. You have to grab them or they’re gone.

Q: What are some of your favorite love stories?

J.F.: Madame Bovary cast a spell over me when I read it. I saw in Emma a woman destroyed by her illusion of love. I’ve always related to her.

Q: How old were you when you wrote My Passionate Mother?

J.F.: Seventy-four.

Q: What role does writing play in your life as a senior?

J.F.: I didn’t start to write until my late fifties. I was let go from my job. I supported my mother and needed to make money. As I’ve gotten older, writing has become critical to my life. There is something called unstructured time. Unstructured time can be deadly. Writing is a discipline. You do it every day, like you would go to an office. You sit at your typewriter—I use a typewriter, not a computer. You get up and walk around. You sit at your typewriter. You go to the store for a carton of milk. You sit at your typewriter. I try not to make any appointments until the afternoon. I give myself deadlines, but not in the beginning, when I’m figuring out my story. When I start I am like a detective following the clues in my subconscious, and I don’t want to be hindered by a deadline.

Q:
Has your process changed during the past two decades?

J.F.: I think writing awakens you. As you go along, you become familiar with the themes in your life and the people who inhabit them. When I started writing I didn’t know what I wanted and I improvised. Now I don’t start a book until I have a notion of who my characters are and what they want. I learned this from a writer friend, Irving Wallace, who said to me: “Most writers don’t know the end of their book, and by the time they get there they don’t know where they’re going and the book has no ending.” So now when I start, I know the story and the characters. My job is to bring them to life.

Q: Why don’t you use a computer?

J.F.: I don’t want to end up in a mental hospital. I’ve tried to learn how to use a computer, but I ended up a nervous wreck. I’m machine-phobic. I can’t work my VCR; I can barely work my answering machine. A few years back, I bought a computer and hired a high school boy to teach
me how to use it. I was unteachable. Then I found out his mother had typed manuscripts for other computer-illiterate authors, and I thought, This woman can save my life. She did.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Praise

Praise

“Judy Feiffer has put an intriguing new spin on the romantic triangle in this taut and winning novel.”–Hilma Wolitzer

“MY PASSIONATE MOTHER is the most passionate love story I have read in years. It will shock and awe you and you may never feel the same about mothers and daughters again. Read it and gasp.”–David Brown

“A beautiful book set in an island off the New England coast; ‘a microcosm of the world,’ written in strong, spare New England prose. Deftly Feiffer weaves the wildness of its seasons’ changes and the perils of the weather, into a narrative of a girl/woman and two men locked in a love triangle always on the verge of explosion which–strangest of all–evolves into a quadrangle. She delivers to us with unfailing originality an edge of the seat page turner.”–Elaine Dundy


From the Hardcover edition.

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