Paperback: 256 pages
June 14, 2016; $14.95 US; 9780544263680
All relationships have their ups and downs. For Althea and Oliver Willow, the ups and downs are a bit . . . extreme.
Welcome to the bipolar marriage.
Althea is a thirty-seven year old upper crust Manhattan-ite on the brink of another breakdown—her fifth in nine years. Diagnosed with manic depression, she has spent her marriage oscillating between what she calls “the Tombs” and “the Visions”. Her husband Oliver has been there for her through all of it. It is Oliver who packs her bag for the hospital, who visits during visiting hours after each suicide attempt, and who takes care of their nine-year-old daughter Clem. It is Oliver who holds their family together.
Discharged from the hospital, Althea decides that this summer will be different—she will be the loving, sexy wife Oliver wants, and the reliable, affectionate mother that Clem deserves. This summer, she will be “normal”. When the family moves to their East Hampton mansion for the summer, for the first time in Clem and Althea’s lives as mother and daughter there is no “summer girl” there to pick up the slack when Althea cannot face the reality that comes with being a mother.
But once they arrive, nothing goes according to Althea’s plan. Oliver becomes even more distant, and his relationship with their interior decorator is a bit too close. Clem also seems not to need her as a mother, and Althea finds that getting to know her own daughter is far more exhausting than she had though it would be. Into this scene enters the much younger, attractive, David Foster Wallace-reading house painter, who reaches something in Althea that has been long buried.
Fearless, darkly funny, and compulsively readable, If You Left, is a searing exploration of the limits of family and the unavoidable truth that sometimes in order to move forward we have to destroy the things we’ve worked so very hard to build.
“If You Left examines two of the most complex, compelling topics of our time — marriage and mental illness. With devastating yet loving candor, Norton shows how one mapped onto the other can cause any heart to break, any mind to break open.” — Lea Carpenter, author of Eleven Days
“Ashley Prentice Norton‘s If You Left uses a summer in East Hampton as the backdrop for a brutally honest tale of her protagonist’s struggle with mental illness, motherhood, a failing marriage, and her need to fulfill herself as both a woman and an artist.” — Charles Dubow, author of Indescretion
“A woman suffering from bipolar disorder reaches a crossroads in her marriage and her life in this irresistible, tightly plotted novel…Norton (The Chocolate Money) writes Althea with a sure hand, unsentimental in her portrayal of a woman who is ruled by her illness and her codependent relationship with Oliver, yet desperately yearns for more. The lean narrative is unflinching, which only makes Althea’s story, and her eventual self-enlightenment, even more poignant.” — Publishers Weekly
Excerpted from If You Left
by Ashley Prentice Norton
But when she tried to hang herself, the shower rod couldn’t sustain her weight and it slid down the wall, taking her with it. Jesus. Her sole injury was a laceration from smacking her head on the tub. The only upside of this whole fiasco was that she had found something to do from 8:42 a.m. to 9:06 a.m.Filling time was always a bitch during the Tombs.
Suzanne, Clem’s latest nanny, found her trying to clean up the blood on the bathroom floor with a handful of Cottonelle. Suzanne phoned Oliver right away, but the head injury was not bad enough for her to call 911. For the moment, Althea might be sick, but she was safe. Attempting suicide was like having sex: there was always a lull before having another go.
When Oliver arrived, he calmly strode into the bathroom, blazer off, with the composure of someone who could see past a crisis and knew exactly how to fix it.
Oliver gently guided his wife up from the floor and pulled her to his chest; her hair, matted with dried blood, left imprints over his Thomas Pink shirt.
Althea. Oliver never asked Why? or How could you? She could barely talk when she was in the Tombs anyway. Just little whispers that were almost impossible for someone to hear and that she was never quite sure made it out of her head. Oliver took off her Ski Sun Valley! hoodie and the Brooks pajama bottoms and threw them in the hamper. She panicked. The shower. Just the thought of it scared her. It made her feel claustrophobic and she didn’t even have the energy to put down a bathmat. The two-step process of shampoo/conditioner was overwhelming. Oliver left the room and returned wearing bathing trunks with pink turtles on them.
Oliver slowly led Althea into the shower. He turned the water on, checked to make sure it was comfortably warm, and began gently soaping her back, arms, and breasts with her favorite soap that smelled like lavender. He did her legs, rear, between her legs, stomach. He washed her hair twice, rinsed, and then added conditioner, actually waiting a minute so it would have time to soak in.
When she was at last clean, he shaved her legs, remembering to get her knees, her toes, and around her anklebones. After wrapping her in a white fluffy towel and drying himself, Ollie went back into the bedroom. She knew he was going to pick out some clothes for her to wear to the hospital and then pack for her, like he always did. She took a few breaths before heading in behind him. Even with Oliver’s help, the whole process seemed overwhelming.
They always used the same bag for the hospital. It was a purple canvas T. Anthony duffle with her initials on it, AJW. Purple was her favorite color. Oliver always had a purple hue in every Spectacle line just for her. She watched as Oliver packed the purple bag. She had managed somehow (had Suzanne helped her?) to get the clothes on but not to brush her teeth or her hair or put on deodorant. The elastic waist of the skirt dug into her skin, and the T-shirt was just a little too tight. She was dying to go into the hamper and pull out the Ski Sun Valley! hoodie, but she couldn’t take everything off again.
All the clothes Oliver packed were baggy and soft. Someone might have thought she had a special wardrobe just for her inpatient stays, but Althea dressed this way in her normal life too. She liked flowy skirts in fabrics like velvet or cashmere or crushed silk; she hoped they made people think she was ethereal, sensual, spiritual. Of course, she was none of these. She was dark, intense, and creatively brilliant. Like her photographs. She did work between breakdowns. Had had a few shows, gotten a few reviews, sold a few things. Successful by art-world standards. She didn’t make a lot of money doing it, but she told herself that wasn’t the point. Being a photographer made her feel like a grownup. More important, it served as evidence that she wasn’t always ill.
Oliver didn’t really approve; he thought she should be doing something more soothing. He worried her work might be a trigger. After all, her themes tended toward sexuality. Fertility. Fantasy viewed through poststructuralist, feminist, or whatever other academic theory had inspired her that period. Most people couldn’t see past the naked bodies and thought her work was just pornographic, obscene. But Althea didn’t care.
Oliver went into the bathroom and Althea watched him as he packed the toiletries. A purple toothbrush and travel-size Crest. Travel-size Finesse shampoo and conditioner. Brush. Deodorant. Soap and lemon body scrub. They were all new. Kept under the sink. He said that it was good to have backups for those kinds of things because you never knew, but she did know. It was for trips like these.
Ollie stopped packing her clothes and she thought of what he hadn’t put in, the contraband he knew not to take. No headphones. (She could hang herself, they said. Really? How would that work? The belt hadn’t.) No computers. (She wasn’t sure why. To keep you from Googling obscure ways to hurt yourself?) No meds. (They had them there. They were like a hotel with stocked minibars.) But Oliver knew all the rules by now. They were straightforward and immutable, like getting through the TSA. But New York–Presbyterian wasn’t hunting down terrorists, protecting the homeland from stealth attacks. They knew she was the enemy, and the target was herself.
So Oliver packed two down pillows. A cashmere throw. Quilted slippers. When he finished, he zipped the duffle and checked for the luggage tag, like the bag might actually get lost on some airport carousel, like she really was flying somewhere, maybe going to Canyon Ranch for ten days. He organized the change on his dresser by denomination while watching CNBC, then took the dry cleaner’s plastic off his shirts, which both soothed and unsettled her. She had tried to hang herself a few hours ago, but Oliver was unruffled. She was sure he would go back to work after she was situated, then go for a run when he got home, maybe meet friends for drinks later. Life went on.
Finally, it was time. As she followed Oliver out of the bedroom, she saw her olive army rucksack that held her Canon, wallet, keys, iPhone, and iPad sitting on the chair by her bed. The bag she took everywhere, even to some of the cocktail parties Oliver dragged her to. She hadn’t carried it for months. Of course not. Its hibernation had foreshadowed the appearance of the fucking purple duffle.
They walked into the living room. Suzanne was standing by the door wearing jeans and a teal wool sweater that had pilled. Althea could tell that the girl was struggling. Oliver had warned her when she took the job that this might happen, and Suzanne had nodded, No problem, but now it seemed she was thinking it kinda was.
Ollie went over and put his hand on Suzanne’s shoulder, squeezed it, then smiled at her. Ollie said something, but Althea was too agitated to hear what it was. She was desperate now to get to the elevator, didn’t want to have to touch Suzanne, didn’t want to talk to her about Clem, to try to seem concerned about how her daughter would get through the next ten (or more) days without her. But Ollie read Althea’s I need to go now look, opened the door to the foyer, and gently walked her out. She put her head on his shoulder as they rode down to the first floor, and for the first time in what must have been an eternity, Althea felt something close to relief.
Excerpted from IF YOU LEFT © 2016 by Ashley Prentice Norton. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Ashley Prentice Norton is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel The Chocolate Money, and a graduate of Exeter, Georgetown, and the creative writing program at New York University. She lives in New York with her husband and three children.
Praise for the work of Ashley Prentice Norton:
“Gripping, vivid, and moving.” — Isabel Gillies
“A truly gifted new voice in fiction.” — Jill Kargman
“Darkly funny, compulsively readable.” — People
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