Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough

An excerpt from Ruth Pennebaker's latest novel


Michael May

Observer columnist Ruth Pennebaker will be reading from her latest novel, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough this Sunday at 3pm at Book People in Austin.

And here’s an excerpt from her novel, a subtle and at times humorous drama about Joanie, a divorcee, who finds herself living with her mother, Ivy, who has lost her savings in the recession, and Joanie’s 15 year old daughter Caroline. 


Every night after dinner, Ivy could hear the doors slamming.  The girl – what was her name?  Oh, yes, Caroline – screamed a lot, too.  There was a lot of tension in the house.  Ivy could feel it.  Tension was very bad for families.  That was why Roxanne looked so angry and tired all the time and the girl was too skinny.

When Ivy had been Roxanne’s age, she had run a calmer household.  All those women’s libbers made fun of housewives, but what did they know?  Ivy had had a very happy marriage, even if she and her husband, John, hadn’t had very much in common.  John liked to come home and watch TV and drink a beer.  He was always tired after work.  All he wanted to do was sit in his easy chair and take naps after dinner.

Sometimes, Ivy asked him about his day at work.  She had read, in those women’s magazines she used to buy at the grocery store, that you should be interested in your husband’s job.  Or, if you weren’t interested, you should pretend to be.  John always said nothing worth mentioning happened at work.  He was an accountant.  Accountants didn’t like to talk.  But that was all right.

Ivy and John – well, let’s be honest, it was mostly Ivy – had brought up two lovely children.  Roxanne had never given them any trouble.  She had been pretty and agreeable.  In fact, she had been much more agreeable as a child and teenager than she was right now.  Given her age, she might be going through the Change.  Ivy needed to remember to ask her about that.

Ivy loved the name Roxanne.  It sounded so exotic – like a character in a novel or a romantic poem.  (She wished her parents had called her Roxanne, instead of naming her for a common houseplant.)  John had insisted on giving Roxanne the middle name Joan, after an aunt who had gotten hit by a Greyhound bus and died when she was just 26.  Joan was a very ordinary name, Ivy had always thought.  But it would do as a middle name, which would eventually be left behind when her daughter married.

When Roxanne had gone off to college, she came home at Thanksgiving and announced she was now calling herself “Joanie.”  Joanie fit her better, she’d explained.  She’d never felt comfortable as a Roxanne.  She’d lifted her chin when she said that, staring at them through her new, long bangs, as if she dared them to object.

John had looked up from his mashed potatoes and gravy and nodded approvingly.  But Ivy had been deeply dismayed.  For a while, just to be agreeable, she had tried to call her daughter Joanie.  But she often forgot about it.  Roxanne was too beautiful a name to be wasted and forgotten and replaced by an homage to a woman who hadn’t had the sense to get out of the way of a bus.

In her magazines, Ivy had always read, too, that you shouldn’t have a favorite child.  That was very damaging to the child you didn’t love as much.  She had tried as hard as she could not to show that her son, David, was her favorite child.  From the moment he was born, though, something about him touched Ivy in a way that Roxanne – or John — never could.  It was wrong to feel that way.  She had prayed about it sometimes, but God hadn’t seen fit to answer her.  Some things you were left to struggle with on your own.

Looking back, she’d had a very good life.  She could understand that now, especially when she looked at her daughter, who was so miserable and skittish.  Ivy had been perfectly content till the evening eight years ago when John fell asleep in front of the TV and never woke up.

He was cold by the time she realized there was something wrong.  She called 911 and sat down next to him, waiting for the paramedics.  She pushed the hair back from his forehead, smoothing it.  He looked very peaceful.  She sat there, trying to recall the last words they had spoken to each other.  What could it have been?  Even now, all these years later, after she had wracked her mind again and again, she still couldn’t remember.

But they had been kind words, she was sure of that.  They hadn’t had much to talk about, had often seemed to forget about each other for long periods of time.  But they had always been kind when they spoke, like strangers who were polite every time they met.


* * * * *


Tap, tap, tap on her bedroom door.

“Just a minute,” Caroline said, speaking sharply.

The doorknob turned, anyway.  And her mother wondered why she kept her door locked all the time?   Because she had no privacy, whatsoever.  That’s why.

Caroline pulled out her phone and bent over it.  When her mother got on her nerves – which happened about 43 times an hour – she always pretended to text.  That way, she didn’t have to look at her mother.  She could pretend to be busy and preoccupied.  Ha.  She usually just wrote messages to herself like, “I hate my goddamned life” or “I wish I could fucking die,” followed by several lines of exclamation marks, depending on how bad her mood was.

Everybody in high school went around texting all the time.  That was because they had lots of friends and extremely exciting lives.  Unlike Caroline, who only had one friend, Sondra, and a life that was so pitiful and boring that she might as well have been in a coma most of the time.  Even if she had lots of friends, she wouldn’t have had anything to text about.

More doorknob racket.  Her mother was going to unhinge the door if she didn’t stop it.  Then she’d have to get a new door and she’d blame Caroline for it.  She’d probably dock her allowance or take away her cell phone.  Bitch.

“Caroline!  Will you please unlock this door?  You know I’ve told you to –“

Caroline yanked the door open, and Joanie almost fell into her room.  The door smashed into the wall and bounced off.

“Roxanne!” Ivy screamed from her room.  “Are you all right?”

“We’re fine, Mother!” Joanie yelled back.  She’d fallen out of her left shoe, stumbling into the room, and she wiggled her foot back into it.  She ran her fingers through her short, curly hair and sighed.  “Can we talk?” she asked Caroline.

Her mother looked tired and old, Caroline noticed.  She had dark circles under her eyes and her mouth drooped at the corners.  Her whole face seemed to be falling in the direction of her awful, round-toed shoes.

And what was Joanie so nervous about, anyway?  She was rubbing her hands together like she wanted to start a fire with them.  Most days, Caroline couldn’t stand to look at her mother.  Just the sight of Joanie – trying too hard, always staring at her, thinking too long before she said anything, hovering like a needy, apologetic vulture – enraged her.

“Sure,” Caroline said.

“Can I sit down?” Joanie asked.  She looked at Caroline’s unmade bed, then at the desk chair that had a good three-foot deep pile of clothes strewn on top of it.  She was making a mental note, Caroline could tell, about the room’s messiness.  But she’d save it till later.

“Be my guest.”

Joanie sank down on the bed, too close to Caroline, who moved up against the wall and threw her head back.  She stared at the ceiling fan, trying to cross her eyes.

“Caroline, stop that!”

Caroline uncrossed her eyes.  The truth was, she hated crossing her eyes.  But she knew her mother hated it even more, so she could never resist doing it.  It was fortunate Joanie watched her all the time like a human guard dog, or her eyes would probably get stuck and then her life would be even worse than it already was, which was terrible.

In the background, above the slap of the ceiling fan, she could hear her mother speaking in her irritating, determinedly hopeful voice.  Something about how she shouldn’t have told Caroline about her father and B.J.’s baby, that he wanted to tell her the news himself, yak, yak, blah, blah, blah, how she knew it was hard on Caroline to hear something like this, yammer, yammer, yammer, baby, divorce, other boring shit.

What was she going to do?  Talk forever?

Caroline closed her now-uncrossed eyes and thought about Henry’s face – how, later in the day, a slight black shadow crept up his cheeks.  She would love to rub her hand across his roughened cheek and pull his head toward her and kiss those lips that were so luscious they were almost bruised and –

“What are you smiling about, honey?” Joanie asked.

Caroline snapped her head back, straight, like she’d just been startled out of a deep sleep.  For once, she stared right into her mother’s eyes – searching, faded, curiously sweet – and didn’t look away immediately.

“You looked so happy,” Joanie said tentatively.

Happy, Caroline thought.  Her mother had no idea how happy.  She could never understand that warm rush that coursed through Caroline’s body when she thought of Henry.  Or the icy slap of the occasionally troubling, depressing realization that Henry was totally unaware of her existence, except as an occasional, desperate source of help with his Spanish homework.

Caroline stared for a few seconds at Joanie’s face, feeling a twinge of pity for her mother.  Joanie’s life was so sad and hopeless and empty.  She was almost fifty.  What did she have to look forward to?  Getting as old and decrepit and creaky as Grandma, belching at the dinner table, smelly, forgetful, gray-haired, wrinkled.  Joanie had some new job that she babbled about, but Caroline usually didn’t bother to listen, and a few boring friends and a car that was leaking black smoke and rattling and some of the saddest-looking, old-lady clothes Caroline had ever seen.

She smiled, suddenly, generously, at Joanie, who smiled back delightedly.

Joanie bent toward her and hugged her.  Caroline tried not to stiffen and even managed to pat Joanie on the back a couple of times.  She sniffed the air, trying to place her mother’s perfume, vowing that she would never wear anything that cloying and floral, no matter how old and desperate she got.

“I love you so much, Caroline,” Joanie said.  She kissed Caroline’s cheek and squeezed her hard.  Joanie knew it was time for her to leave, but she just wanted it all to last a few seconds longer.