Tonight I finished “The Gin Closet” by Leslie Jamison…..after I read it, I read about the author and learned that the author is only 26…..wow! She’s off to a great start!
This is one of those books that is so beautifully and descriptively written. I had to check it out from the library twice to get it read….not that it wasn’t a page turner, but my life has felt a little chaotic and it just took me a while to carve out bits of time to sit down and read. Read on for a review and an excerpt from the book. It’s rare that I find a book that I really loved reading like this one.
Here’s a review:
First-time novelist Jamison portrays three generations of “wounded women” in an exquisite blues of a novel. The youngest, pretty Stella, is living the hip, single New York life, but she takes the train to Connecticut at night to care for Lucy, her grandmother, from whom age is stealing strength and clarity. When Stella learns a family secret, that she has a long-estranged aunt, she finds Tilly in a trailer park in Nevada and becomes entangled in her toxic sorrows. Narrating by turns in each lonely woman’s voice, Jamison creates emotionally complex scenes of harsh revelation in language as scorching as the gin Tilly downs in terrifying quantities. Stella is nearly as bedeviled, having struggled with the weird, dicey power of anorexia. The two make their way to Tilly’s banker son’s fortress of an apartment in a sketchy neighborhood in San Francisco, where all three are forced to recognize the limits of love. With trenchant cameos by other women teetering on the brink, Jamison’s novel of solitary confinement within one’s pain is hauntingly beautiful. --Donna Seaman
And here is an excerpt from the book:
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
On Christmas I found Grandma Lucy lying on linoleum. She’d fallen. The refrigerator hummed behind her naked body like a death rattle. There were bloody tissues balled in her fists, but she was alive and speaking. “I just wanted a little yogurt,” she said. “I got a nosebleed.”
Her arms fluttered in the air, clutching for handholds, human fingers, anything. It was the first time I’d seen her whole body—her baggy ghost-skin and all the blue veins underneath.
I’d ridden a train through the brittle Connecticut winter with a wedge of gingerbread and a ham sandwich full of fatty cuts, her favorite kind. I had a bag of presents. From the floor she asked: “Are those for me?”
She was shivering. I’d never seen her this way, so fluent at this grasping. Her face twitched as though she were trying to hold her features steady while something happened underneath. She took my hand. Her fingers were greasy with lotion. “I need Matilda,” she said. Her voice was calm and sure, as if this request was entirely reasonable. I’d never heard of anyone named Matilda.
I gripped her wrist and slid one hand under the hunch of her back. Her skin was loose between the bony marbles of her spine. “Don’t pull,” she said. “It hurts.”
I called my brother. Tom said, “You need to ask her: ‘Lucy, did you hit your head?’” I cupped my palm over the phone and waited for her reply. He waited for me.
“It was only yogurt,” she said. “Just a little bit I wanted.”
I knelt down next to her. My boots squeaked on the linoleum. “But did you hit your head? Can you tell me that?”
“If I had,” she said. “I’m not sure I would remember.”
I reported back to Tom. He said I should keep her awake for at least two hours. This was the rule he remembered about concussions, in case she had one. He was with our mother, Dora, on the other side of the country, probably sipping seltzer at a Pacific restaurant where everyone was thinking cheerfully unconcussed thoughts about their sushi. It was a first-generation place, he told me, mercifully open on holidays. It was the first day my mother had taken off work in months.
“Tom?” I asked. “Do you know anyone named Matilda?”
“One sec,” he said. “I’m putting Mom on the phone.”
Her voice was loud and sudden: “You need to do what Stella says! You need to let her take care of you!”
“Are you trying to talk to Grandma?” I asked. “Should I give her the phone?”
“Oh,” she said. “Of course.”
Grandma Lucy gripped the cell phone with her quaking fingers. My mother spoke so loudly that her voice sounded like it was coming from the floor under Grandma Lucy’s ear. She rolled onto her side and handed me the phone. Tom said, “Two hours, yeah?” I heard noise in the background, the rustling of glass and gossip. I hung up.
Grandma Lucy didn’t want any gingerbread or tea. She didn’t want presents. She just wanted to go to sleep. It wasn’t dark yet, not even close. The day had been ruined, she insisted. She wanted to wake up and have Christmas tomorrow.
I checked my watch. I took a breath. Two hours: I would do this. We found a holiday special on television. Animated clay reindeer scampered across the glittering snow. I had to keep shaking Grandma Lucy to make sure she was awake. “Hey,” I said. “You’re missing the part with the reindeer. With the snow.”
“This show is terrible,” she said finally. The opinion itself, saying it out loud, seemed to give her a second wind, and she suggested we open presents after all. Her thick curtains made the sunlight feel oozy, as if it were coming through gauze bandages. She lived on the third floor of a block of condos with stucco walls the color of blanched almonds. Most of her neighbors were bankers who commuted into the city.
My grandmother loved Connecticut. It was where she’d fallen in love with my grandfather and where they’d gotten married. He came from old New England stock, but he’d been the one to insist they move west, to get away from his family. Then he took off to roam the world and never came back. He left her with a little girl to raise all by herself. His family promised her as much money as she needed for the rest of her life.
Grandma Lucy had fallen in love with that whole family—their old blood, their traditions—and she’d wanted to give my mother a sense of where she came from, so they spent summers on Cape Cod in a family property that my mother recalled with disdain. “It was nothing but a dirty bribe,” she told me. “Giving us that beach house for a couple lousy months. Money was like a bastard child out there—everyone knew about it, but you never heard it mentioned.” My mother didn’t have any memories of her father, but her anger toward him seemed vast enough to cover years of open wounds. It extended to his people with a ferocity that made up for my grandmother’s forgiveness.
Lucy had always understood, without needing to be told, that she wasn’t welcome at the year-round family haunts. That perhaps it was better if she stayed out west. But after she’d finished raising her daughter in Los Angeles, she’d come back to this sacred desolation, the eastern cold and money of Greenwich. She could buy anything she wanted, but she didn’t want much these days, and her sparse rooms seemed mournful in their neatness.
“She never blamed him for leaving her,” my mother said. “I never got that.”
Lucy was like a well-behaved child with her Christmas gifts, orderly and attentive. I’d gotten her a variety pack of bubble bath and a pair of pot holders that said in stitched letters: I’M HOLDING NEW YORK’S FINEST CASSEROLE. I’d always known Grandma Lucy as a maker of casseroles full of cream soups and canned corn, fridge biscuits torn into chunks. They were ocean-salty and smooth as silk. She cooked our dinners whenever she came out west to help take care of us, whenever my mother’s work got especially intense, but my mother usually hated what she made. “These stews have been processed up the wazoo,” she said. “It will take me years to shit them out.” She actually said this once at dinner. Grandma Lucy frowned and started clearing dishes from the table.
My mother had always criticized her mother’s cooking—how hard she tried and how she still wasn’t much good. She gladly took recipes from the family who had disowned her. Like she didn’t have a speck of pride, my mom said. And they always tasted terrible. There was a blueberry pie whose flakes of crust peeled away like dead skin. Finally, she just gave up and threw those recipes out, my mom said, her voice proud. She said: “I’ve had a lot of pies in my life. Never had a pie like this.”
So these NEW YORK’S FINEST CASSEROLE pot holders were a kind of wink, delayed by years, and a bit of a victory stamp. We weren’t on my mother’s side of the country anymore, and Grandma Lucy could make her casseroles in peace. She squinted at their diamond-quilted squares. “I can’t make New York’s finest anything,” she said. “I live in Connecticut.” She laid the pot holders neatly on her coffee table. “Six kinds of bubble bath,” she said. “How about that?”
When she pulled her wool skirt over the sticks of her legs, her panty hose were thin enough to show the damage of her age—plum-colored bruises across her shins and thighs. “It’s like a cage in here,” she said, meaning her body. “Every part of me aches, or else it itches.” She insisted that the itching was a deeper discomfort than I could know. “It’s not on the skin,” she told me. “It’s happening underneath.”
Then she paused as if trying to recall something. “I got you a present, too,” she said finally. “But I can’t remember what it was.”
I told her we wouldn’t worry about that for now. What if I ran a bath instead? Maybe it would feel good against her skin?
“We’ll use the bubbles!” she said. She was so lonely, so ready to please me. How was I only seeing it now? Her eagerness came loose like unspooled thread. You couldn’t yearn like this unless you’d been lonely for years, practicing. Now her body was weak enough to yearn along with her.
I ran a bath with honey vanilla, her choice, and sat on the toilet seat while she folded herself—thin legs, white belly, arms like baggy insect wings and glimmering with soap—under the steaming surface of the water. I brought a book and kept my eyes tightly locked on it, line to line, so she wouldn’t feel me staring. I glanced up once. She curled her finger to beckon me closer. I leaned in.
“She filled a bath,” she told me. “To bring them back to life.”
“What?” I said. “Who did?”
She closed her eyes and shook her head. Very slowly, she inched herself farther under the water. I could see the red flush of heat marking her skin where she’d gone under. Who had filled a bath? Who’d died? It could be from a movie. I knew she watched a lot of them. What else could you do, alone all day, with every body part giving up separate ghosts—eyes and legs, lobes of the mind?
“Who did what?” I asked again. “What came back to life?”
“She was gentler than your mother, no matter what she did. She gave me a bruise here once, but she was always gentle underneath.” Lucy ran two fingers across her cheek, leaving a film.
I said, “I don&...