I’m a native Clevelander. I went east to school, as we do. And I married the loveliest man from Charleston, South Carolina, and convinced him to move back to Cleveland and start a family with me, as Clevelanders do. Nothing is more usual than Clevelanders of a certain ilk leaving, seeing the world, and then dragging a spouse back to settle down. My husband, Jim, calls himself in jest an import—used to vary the breeding stock.
And variety is needed here. I’ve known most of my Cleveland friends since we were infants, since crawling around together on faded Oriental carpets and cartwheeling in the grass at country club picnics. My parents knew their parents, and my parents’ parents knew their grandparents, and so it goes back to the very beginnings when Cleveland was considered the West, and nice families had to stick together. So imports are needed, as few things are less exciting than kissing someone you’ve known since kindergarten.
I tell you all this so that when I tell you that Eleanor Hart moved back to Cleveland without an import, you have a sense of the problem this presented.
I’ve known Eleanor since those days when we played while our mothers gossiped over coffee. I call her mother Aunt Hart, though technically we are no relation. Her father died when she was a girl.
It’s rumored that my great-grandmother once went on a date with Eleanor’s great-grandfather. They say he took her to a speakeasy for some prohibition gin, and great-grandmother never spoke to him again. This only goes to show that Harts are adventurous and my family a bit prudish, yet discreet—a family trait.
Anyway, Eleanor was older than I by a year or two. I always forgot her age, and this coupled with her ridiculous beauty made her seem impossibly glamorous to me. Yet even as a child, she was always friendly to me. She was like an admired older cousin, and I’d known her forever.
My mother told me Eleanor was coming back. Mother talks to Aunt Hart all the time, though Aunt Hart moved down to Florida with a man a few years back. The Harts are a very fine family, but as long as we’ve known them they’ve been strapped for cash. My mother says they’re lucky the women in their family are so charming, and I suppose that’s true.
So I was only a little surprised to see Eleanor at Severance Hall, seated in a family friend’s box for the orchestra’s opening night of the season. Next to her was William Selden.
Of course I’d known Selden since childhood. He’s a little younger than I; the most angelic boy you’ve ever seen, with a head of wild blond cherubic curls that had darkened only a bit as he’d aged and were now matched by a gruff five o’clock shadow and thick tortoiseshell glasses surrounding his hazel eyes. Those glasses were a stroke of genius. They seemed to say he was a man above caring what he looked like, and it is always most attractive when a man is beautiful enough not to care what he looks like. Now he was a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, where his classes were packed almost exclusively with girls who had crushes on him. I’d heard rumors of liaisons with students but tended to doubt such stories. Good-looking men always have such whisperings in their wake, don’t they? Good-looking women too, now that I think about it. His specialty was the Romantic poets—a bit surprising, yes, that he’d be interested in those musty old rebels. You’d expect cutting-edge contemporary free verse. But I’ve since learned that maybe I haven’t always had the clearest view of Selden. Anyway, Romantics it was, and he’d been fishing around town for a tenure-track position for a number of years. He probably would have found one long ago had he not insisted on staying in Cleveland.
He and Ellie sat in the box across from ours. To my left, Julia Trenor and Diana Dorset hugged over the waist-high wall separating their families’ boxes. The Van Alstyne family’s box to my right was filled with people I didn’t recognize. The Van Alstynes had likely sold their tickets to opening night. Farther to the right old Jefferson Gryce’s nurse pushed his wheelchair into his family’s box. In all the boxes around me people rearranged themselves in the heavy velvet chairs so that they could sit closer to one another and hear the latest gossip along with their Mahler. Friday and Saturday nights you might find anyone up there. But Thursday nights the boxes belonged to the same family names that had been sitting there when the concert hall opened in 1931. The Saturday-night opening of the music season was the sole exception.
People were intent on greeting each other. I stood in the front of the box and leaned out, casting a small wave across the way to Ellie. I noted the floor seats were filled, but seats stood empty in the balconies. They hadn’t managed a sell-out, but the economy being what it was, I suppose that wasn’t unusual. I still felt the general buzz of opening night, heightened by Eleanor being in town, and I enjoyed my prime seat.
Ellie was used to being the most beautiful woman in the room wherever she went, but she carried it lightly. Her thick hair was the color of tobacco, subtly streaked with honey, and hung down her back like a royal mantle. The fretwork in Severance Hall is modeled, so it’s said, on the lace of John Severance’s wife’s wedding veil and the Deco gilt-work glowed on Eleanor’s hair like a mantilla. Looking at that hair, I could only think that the upkeep—in cut and color—must be expensive, though that is not the effect it had on men. Men, I felt sure, only wanted to get their hands into it, mess it, feel it, and see what it looked like on the pillow next to them first thing in the morning.
She wore a sleeveless black leather dress of chicly conservative cut that hugged her curves. I don’t need to tell you that no one wears a leather dress to the orchestra in Cleveland. She’d tied a wide white ribbon at the waist, and on the knot of the bow she’d pinned a medal awarded to a Hart in World War I by the French. She looked youthful and chic with an alluring edge of danger. I admired her, as I do anyone who dresses well.
The women all forgave her for outshining them—poor Eleanor had returned from Manhattan. Alone. Divorced. And, so rumors said, fresh from thirty days at Sierra Tucson for unspecified indulgences. Though if anyone dared ask my mother if Eleanor had been in rehab, mother insisted Ellie had collapsed from the stress of her divorce. Mother’s a bit old-fashioned about addiction and things.
I mean, how many sober ex-classmates and old friends do I have? A bunch. And they’ll gladly talk to you about it if you ask, even volunteer the fact if an overeager hostess is pushing booze on them. “No, thanks, I’m in recovery,” they’ll say. If it’s a young hostess, she’ll want to know where they went for detox. “Oh, I had a friend go there, too.” But if it’s someone in my mom’s generation, the hostess will turn white as a sheet, smile, nod, and get the hell out of there.
The men in the concert hall all simply enjoyed looking at Ellie.
One man in particular could not keep his eyes off her. He was so obvious that I wasn’t the only one who noticed. He sat in the box that the orchestra kept for wooing potential patrons, the box next to Ellie’s, and I had a clear view of him staring. The director of development sat next to him keeping up a patter in his ear. He looked to be about my age with a sharply cut suit, the whitest teeth I’d ever seen, and a head full of dark hair—attractive hair, quite glossy, with a heavy sheen of gel in it.
I didn’t think about the man again until halfway through the first piece when a cell phone rang during a particularly quiet moment of the performance. Every head in the boxes turned toward it, and I saw it belonged to the same man. The development director turned scarlet. The man reached coolly—I was impressed by his cool—into his jacket and silenced his phone.
“God,” mumbled my husband, leaning his shoulder into mine and whispering in my ear. “Typical.”
“You know him?” I whispered.
“That’s Randall Leforte, the lawyer.”
“I should know him?”
“The ambulance chaser. He’s sued the Cleveland Clinic for millions. He’s as rich as Steve Jobs or those Google guys or something now.”
I remembered seeing him on the cover of Cleveland magazine as our town’s most eligible bachelor; he was photographed leaning up against his Maserati. Charitable and philanthropic boards all over town were vying to get a piece of his money.
At intermission Eleanor slipped into our box, as I knew she would, hugged me, and hugged my husband, Jim.
“Thank God, you’re here. I thought you might be.” She beamed at us. She’d always liked Jim. Most everyone did. My husband’s background of boarding school, Duke, and investment bank on Wall Street made him enough like a good Cleveland son. Yet his southern accent and manners made him an antebellum exotic. There is nothing certain Clevelanders like more than a whiff of a tattered but glorious past hanging about a person. Luckily that particular southern trait rolled off Jim as languidly as his drawl.
William and Jim led us out of the box to the patrons’ dining room, talking about the Indians in the playoffs.
“So William Selden …,” I breathed behind their backs, fishing.
“You’ve known Selden as long as I have. He’s just a friend.”
“Just a friend?” I asked. “An awfully good-looking friend …”
“An awfully good-looking old friend,” Ellie said with a smile.
We walked into the dark paneled room behind the boxes where silver samovars of coffee and a bar awaited. I took two gingersnap cookies, their recipe unchanged since 1931, off a Sèvres tray. Ginger is good for nausea and in my condition I’d found a new sweet tooth I hadn’t had before. Eleanor eyed me as she drank black coffee.
“Eating for two,” I said.
“My mom told me. Congrats.” Her tone was flat with disinterest.
“Well, don’t jump up and down or anything,” I said, joking but feeling stung. Ellie, I knew, was not keen on children. But I thought at least she could muster some enthusiasm for me.
She smiled. “Oh, I’m happy for you. You know how I feel.” It was as if she’d said, “That dress looks great on you; I’d never be caught dead in the thing.”
It didn’t satisfy.
“You and Jim will make wonderful parents,” she said listlessly as she scanned the room.
I’d forgotten this part of Ellie in the years since I’d last seen her. She was self-concerned, always had been, in a way that could be annoyingly juvenile. Oddly enough it was also one of the things that made me feel comfortable around her. Ellie made no pretense about who she was or what she thought. Given the Cleveland world I navigated, anyone who was straightforward, even if it was straightforwardly self-centered, was refreshing. You always knew where you stood with her, which is much more than I can say for a good number of people on my contact list. “Tell me about the conductor,” she said.
I swallowed a large bite. “You know I’m a musical illiterate. But everyone says he’s wonderful. Lovely accent—Austrian or something. I heard him interviewed on the radio once—”
“No, no, you know what I mean,” she said in a lowered voice.
I must admit that I laughed in her face. Leave it to Eleanor to be searching out men at the orchestra. Most men in the boxes were married, upwards of sixty, or both. I wondered that she didn’t ask about Randall Leforte, given his obvious interest in her. In any case, she’d zeroed in on the man who’d been in front of her for the last hour, the conductor.
“Married,” I said. “Happily, I think. There’s a child and such.”
Eleanor shrugged and resumed scanning the room. “You know what I kept thinking as I sat there?” she asked. “I kept thinking that all these people, their job is to do something they love. Can you even imagine it? The dedication, the discipline, the practice—you couldn’t do it if you didn’t have passion. And that’s what they get to do with their lives. Something they have real passion for. The passionate life. I wish I had that.”
“Don’t we all,” I said.
“Or to have a skill like that. To be one of the best in the world at something.”
“You’re the best in the world at being fabulous,” I said. I meant it truly, and lightly, but it came out as condescending.
“When’s the last time you felt passion?” she asked a bit aggressively.
I’d touched a nerve. Her questioning the passion in my life was the old bias that escaped Clevelanders have against the Midwest. The assumption was that you couldn’t have passion in Cleveland. It raised my ire a bit, yes. And while I thought this a little provincial, I guess I knew what she was getting at as it related to me. My prospects at the big-five accounting firm where I’d worked before my marriage had never been my life’s passion. Recently, I’d started to feel my marriage and a coming child might help me in this area. Not in a Betty Crocker, Phyllis Schlafly type of way, but in the way that I now had someone I could help along in life, a marriage to invest in. This baby, I hoped, might add to that sense. People say nothing else is important once your child is born, and part of me was banking on this. In any case, I wanted to put Ellie at ease. She’d just returned, and it was the first time I’d seen her since her divorce. I pointed to my waist, just ever so slightly showing, and though I knew it was not what she meant I said, “Well, there was at least one night of passion.”
Eleanor relaxed and laughed. “It seems like no time has passed since last I saw you.”
“That’s how Cleveland is,” I said, smiling, glad the situation was defused.
“It’s good to be back. These last six months have been pretty hard.” She sipped her coffee.
It was then that Jim seemed to materialize at my arm with Randall Leforte in tow and introduced him to Ellie. Something in Jim’s posture made him seem pleased that he could introduce them. Whether he was proud of knowing Ellie or glad to be seen with one of the sharpest litigators in town, I didn’t know.
Leforte smiled wide and moved in close as he took Ellie’s hand. It was fascinating to watch—and I’d been watching since we were children—the pull she had over men. I thought he might bend over her hand and kiss it. He smelled like patchouli, a hippie-ish, slightly dirty smell that didn’t mesh at all with his polished exterior. He clasped her hand and released it, his eyes wandering up and down her body, as if he’d like to do so much more than shake her hand.
Ellie was, of course, aware of the effect she had on Leforte. But it didn’t seem to please her. It seemed to bore her. She was looking for Selden, who was across the room talking to a group of men, each of them old enough to be his father. I felt sure they were discussing the financial state of the orchestra, the need for younger patrons.
“Mahler’s my favorite,” Leforte said, moving in close to Ellie. “Though I prefer Titan.”
Ellie rocked back and forth on her feet, looking like she was ready to spring for an exit, and I couldn’t figure out why. Leforte was attractive and certainly some chitchat with him wouldn’t hurt.
“You mean his First Symphony?” she asked.
“Yes, I guess I do,” he said in a hearty tone as he shifted closer to her, almost turning his back to me, trying to ease me out of the conversation and gain some privacy until Betsy Dorset interrupted us all.
Betsy Dorset wore trim black pants, a black long-sleeved T-shirt, and a neon green fleece vest—the type bought at sporting goods stores. Pinned to the fleece was the immense Dorset diamond brooch from the turn of the century, valued—so I’d heard—at half a million dollars. With her kind smile, cropped silver hair, and sensible shoes, she was the very model of a new-millennium Cleveland dowager. Her son, Dan, and I were the same age and had been at school together.
She hugged Jim and me and then made a great fuss over Eleanor, whom she’d known as a baby. Clevelanders of a certain age love few things more than one of their own returning home, and Ellie had the satisfying air of the prodigal about her.
Just as Randall was quietly trying to slip away unnoticed, Betsy demanded an introduction, and Jim obliged.
“Oh, but I know you from your billboard,” Betsy said, shaking his hand.
“Billboard?” Eleanor blurted before she could censor herself.
“Mr. Leforte has a billboard just as you come into downtown on the Innerbelt,” Betsy said to Eleanor. “I must admit it doesn’t do you justice,” she said to Randall. She said it in a flirty, confidential tone, but I knew she’d meant it not at all nicely. She sat on the board of the Cleveland Clinic; I’m sure she’d been forced to deal with Leforte, his clients, and their demands for legal settlements. She knew exactly who he was. “It has your eight-hundred number on it,” she added brightly. “Doesn’t it, Mr. Leforte?”
The chimes rang, calling us back to our seats for the second half of the music. Leforte made a quick exit.
“That man,” Betsy said in a hushed voice as she hugged me goodbye. “Getting rich off hospitals and others’ misfortunes. It’s the height of poor taste.” And she wafted off in a cloud of Joy perfume.
“I’ll come see you next week,” Eleanor said as Selden took her arm to lead her back to the box.
“Come on Wednesday,” I said. “Stay for dinner if you like.” Jim clasped my hand and steered me back to the box with my family’s name painted in swirling gold script over the door. The box my family has occupied since the hall opened in 1931.
Eleanor Hart had made a brilliant marriage in New York, but it ended in a scandalous divorce and thirty days in Sierra Tucson rehab. Now she finds that, despite feminist lip service, she will still need a husband to be socially complete. Navigating the treacherous social terrain where old money meets new, she finds that her beauty is a powerful tool in this world, but it has its limitations, even liabilities. Through one misstep after another, Ellie mishandles her second act. Her options narrow, and now she faces a desperate choice.
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Reading Group Guide
Cleveland, like many rust belt cities at the dawn of the twentieth century, was an industrial juggernaut fueled by coal, steel, and shipping on the Great Lakes. The wealth from this commerce set up a society of leading civic families. Generations later, these original family names are still Cleveland’s elite, bonded together through an unspoken code of behavior and a web of interwoven relationships. When failed iconoclast Ellie Hart returns to her hometown after divorce and scandal, she challenges this cosseted group’s priorities, morals, and expectations. In this modern retelling of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, feminism, friendship, and the unwritten laws of society are braided together and showcased in this beautifully descriptive, inquisitive novel about a woman trying to change her fate.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In parts of this novel, there is first-person narration from an unnamed woman: a wife, friend, and mother-to-be. In other parts there is a third-pers see more