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Love, Work, Children

A Novel

Love, Work, Children by Cheryl Mendelson
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Morningside Heights, a Manhattan neighborhood sandwiched between Columbia University and the Hudson River, is home to an eclectic mix of academics, struggling artists, and rooted families. In this distinctive world, Peter Frankel, a successful partner in a prestigious law firm, lives a seemingly contented life with his talented wife and his two Ivy League—educated children.

Yet in middle age Peter finds himself discontent. His wife’s narrowness and her preoccupation with appearances leaves him cold, his job does not fulfill his creative bent, and he fears that his children, Susan and Louis, have grown into skeptical young adults who shun marriage and stability.

So when Peter’s wife is badly hurt in a car accident and lies in a coma, he finds himself guiltily relieved–and newly drawn toward his children as they too struggle with ambivalent feelings about the mother who’s never really shown them much love. As Susan, a cerebral doctoral student, becomes unhappily involved with an aspiring playwright and Louis is caught up in a futile pursuit of an ambitious journalist, Peter’s own quiet life is shaken up, and longings he has stifled for years come rumbling to the surface.

Freed from his wife’s judgments, Peter throws himself into his greatest pleasure, the work he does for a foundation that funds offbeat artistic projects. And as his passion for this work ignites, so does his desire for another woman. But the stubborn morality that has steered Peter’s life is a force to be reckoned with–and one from which he may never entirely escape.

Love, Work, Children is a profoundly insightful novel about two generations and the colorful urban world they inhabit. A superb portrayal of one of New York’s exceptional neighborhoods, this is a story, ultimately, about the self-imposed obstacles to true happiness–and a testament to the joy one can find in overcoming them.

From the Hardcover edition.
Random House Publishing Group; December 2007
384 pages; ISBN 9780307431455
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Love, Work, Children
Author: Cheryl Mendelson

Four Forty-four Riverside Drive, a fine old residential building in Morningside Heights, was filled with aging couples whose grown children remained unmarried. The phenomenon was so general that it had begun to be openly talked of. Not so long ago, the Frankls and the Holmeses, whose daughters had been best friends all their lives, had been congratulating themselves on how successfully they had taught their children not to rush into marriage and how this augured well for their ultimate happiness. But now that the children were all around thirty, their restraint began to look like indifference and their unmarried state like a permanent one.

Until now, their sixtyish parents had led placid lives. Peter Frankl was a lawyer who, with his wife, Lesley, lived in one of the building’s two penthouses, with forty feet of windows framing sunsets over the Hudson. The Holmeses, Herbert and Ingrid, were both psychotherapists. They had a pleasant corner apartment on the fourth floor, from which, in winter when the trees were bare, they could see a few gleaming inches of the river. Neither the Frankls nor the Holmeses had money worries or health problems; all of them had significant careers except Lesley, who, however, painted contentedly in a home studio and now and then sold a canvas.

Peter Frankl’s marriage wasn’t all he would have liked. But he had put the children first, ensuring that they grew up in the calm of civil and secure family life, and deemed his marital problems tolerable. The Holmeses, by contrast, had one of those extraordinarily close, warm marriages that succeed through an unlikely amalgam of egoism and altruism, which, although rare and peculiar, is inevitably regarded as ordinary—perhaps because such unions are as boring and offputting to others as they are satisfying to the married pair itself.

The tenderly reared offspring of these couples had grown up to be everything their fathers and mothers could wish for. The children’s happiness and safety was the sweetest part of their parents’ lives and the rock on which the rest was built. This was true of all of them, but of Peter Frankl especially.

Peter, who had been orphaned when he was twenty, was terrified of loneliness. Loneliness, he knew, was fierce, with claws and fangs, not at all the tame, mild, forlorn thing people pretended it was. His wish for the children to find love was urgent and fearful, therefore, but he saw ominous evidence that, for them, love was not going to come easy.

True, his son, Louis, now in his early thirties, always had girls running after him, but he never seemed to get serious about any of them—not that Peter had ever really liked any that he had seen. Peter shifted from theory to theory about this: maybe there weren’t many nice girls out there nowadays, or maybe nice girls didn’t like Louis. Sometimes he even wondered how much Louis liked girls. His daughter Susan’s problem was even worse. Boys had always ignored her; a real boyfriend had appeared only once or twice in her life, the last time in college. Nonetheless, Peter had felt serious concern about her only when she passed her twenty-sixth birthday with no attachment, and his anxiety increased on each subsequent birthday until, on her twenty-ninth, when Susan had not had a real date for years, it sharpened into something more painful. Peter then became unequivocally unhappy about Susan. Right around then, Louis, too, had been wounded by someone he had been seeing briefly, a serious girl who was studying history. She went out with Louis three or four times, then told him that he was just not her type. Peter was delighted that Louis had pursued someone like her and was not surprised that she did not pursue Louis. Whatever the reasons, both his children now seemed to him lonely and troubled, settling permanently into a scattered, dry existence devoid of the intimate comforts of family life. Peter could no longer say to himself, as he always had before, that he didn’t really mind his own disappointments—not as long as the children were happy. There were now times when, adding their disappointments to his own, he felt that life had mistreated him.

Both Susan and Louis were good-looking, and Louis was tall, incomprehensibly so, given the merely average height of his parents; but in temperament and tastes the two were startlingly different. Louis, in his father’s opinion, was his sister’s inferior in the personal qualities that favored love—empathy, warmth, loyalty, altruism—despite the fact that he had so many girlfriends and Susan had no boyfriends. Susan had all those virtues, but only a few intimates ever saw much of them. With strangers, she often had a grave manner that made her come across as somewhat older than she was, and her conversation got stilted and bookish. Sometimes even her adoring father felt that something was a little off in Susan. As she got older, he more and more often wondered whether she hadn’t turned into a bit of a nebbish.

Susan was working for her PhD in musicology at Columbia, and her conversation was obscure with Renaissance musical arcana. Peter admired and encouraged her plans for a scholarly career and thought her brilliant, sure of professional, if not personal, success. She spent hours practicing her piano, pursuing her studies, and playing endless games of solitaire in the little apartment Peter had bought her on 114th Street a couple of years ago, when, at twenty-six, she insisted that she was too old to live at home.

Louis had had his own place on the East Side until he gave it up to return to school, but he had no scholarly tastes. He never read a book and never spent a minute indoors if he could avoid it. He had dates and played sports and went to parties with friends who were as unthinking as he and generally even richer. He was finishing an MBA at Harvard, where he had made a respectable record with surprisingly little effort, considering that the program was famously geared to grinds; he would undoubtedly line up a high-paying job in finance when he graduated—a plan his mother approved and his father did not. Louis had brains, Peter thought, if he’d only use them. Why would a boy with all his options, all his privileges and connections, go into finance? Peter, who admired scholars, artists, and philosophers, and regretted having settled for the law, which was at least better than finance, found it baffling.

The senior members of the Frankl family never socialized with those of the Holmes family, but the two sets of parents had plenty of opportunities on the elevator and at the mailboxes to comment on their girls’ situations, and each knew the other’s daughter well. The Holmeses’ Mallory had played beside Susan Frankl in the sandbox at the playground on the Riverside Promenade and attended nursery school with her, and afterward they had gone to the same exclusive school, where both were outstanding students, although Mallory, unlike Susan, was neither bookish nor musical, and was what has always been called “popular.” From the time she turned thirteen, Mallory had never been without a boyfriend for more than seven nanoseconds, as she put it—at least not until now. There were always a host of girls and boys with whom she went places and did things casually, whereas Susan’s connections with people were either intimate or distant, nothing in between. For the most part, Mallory was truly close only with Susan or, occasionally, with some friend of Susan’s, and with her own parents, whose love was so rich and wise that she felt little need for anyone else’s. Possibly there had been too many boyfriends, but none of the breakups seemed to have much effect on Mallory’s high spirits and friendly cheerfulness. The Holmeses had only recently begun to worry that something was wrong in this pattern, when Mallory broke up with the young man with whom she had been living for two years. To her parents, this felt awfully like a divorce, and they were upset. But Mallory did not appear to feel it as much as her parents. She was quiet, perhaps a bit low-key, perhaps worked a little too much, and that was about the extent of it. Mallory had picked up an MA in journalism at Columbia a couple of years ago and had recently got a job in the Features section of the New York Gazette. With her salary and a little help from her parents, she was just able to afford the small apartment near Columbia where she had lived while finishing her degree.

Susan and Mallory, now settled blocks apart in the neighborhood where they had grown up, had recently begun to discuss a shared sense that the shape of the future was vague. Mallory, for once, had no one new waiting in the wings and had begun to falter in her confidence about finding the sort of man who would suit her, and Susan had begun saying right out that she thought she would stay single. She questioned the institution of marriage and doubted, in any event, that she was suited for it. Also, she saw that remaining single was commonly the fate of women like herself, despite their privileges and advantages, even among those who believed in and sought marriage, and she had a hard time imagining the man who might fall in love with her. After all, no one had felt that way about her yet. Why should it happen now, when she was almost thirty?

“Of course I wish I had someone,” Susan said to her father shyly, “not necessarily a husband—just someone to be with, but it’s not in the cards, as far as I can tell. I don’t seem to send the right message or something.” Peter Frankl grieved when she said this, and afterward he brooded more intensely than ever about how he might help her.

Susan said much the same to Mallory in an intimate late night talk on her sofa. “That’s not true!” Mallory protested. She was always protective and affectionately loyal with Susan. “You just need to find someone who’s a little quirky, like you, and sooner or later you will. You have to be patient.” This was simple-minded encouragement, but Susan wanted it badly enough that it succeeded in making her look a little happier. Mallory, though, wished to give more substantial aid, and she thought and thought about how she might shorten her friend’s wait. Despite her malaise, Mallory herself, never having waited very long, didn’t expect to this time.

In the meantime, Peter Frankl was so distressed by his sad conversation with Susan that, after worrying for several days, he decided to talk the situation over with his wife, even though Susan’s remarks had been, implicitly, confidential. Susan and Lesley weren’t as close as some mothers and daughters, and she wouldn’t have said such things to her mother. But still, he thought, it was worth a try. Weren’t mothers supposed to help daughters with problems like these? Didn’t they know how it all worked?

“I told you so, Peter,” Lesley responded when Peter described his conversation with Susan, “years and years ago. I washed my hands years ago.” Her husband’s unaccustomed soliciting of her opinion provoked anxiety, which in turn made her feel spiteful toward him.

“Refresh my memory,” he said with a peculiarly mild, tolerant sarcasm in which the secure assumption of being undetected would have been clear to an observer but, apparently, was not to his wife, with whom he often adopted this attitude.

“Don’t be silly.”

“Lesley, you never said anything of the kind.”

“I told you she should’ve gone on Teen Tour in her senior year.”

“You can’t send a girl who’s reading Henry James and playing Scriabin on Teen Tour. She wouldn’t have fit in. She would never have spoken to us again.”

“We should have made her go and made her fit in. The kind of kids who go on Teen Tour get married. They know how to have fun and talk to people and get along with each other. Look at Louis. He doesn’t have these problems.”

“I’m sorry I brought it up. And, Lesley, I’m beginning to think that Louis isn’t doing any better than Susan, no matter how it looks.”

“Don’t be silly. When Louis decides he’s ready to get married, he’ll find someone right away—not that you’d care if he had problems. And with Susan, the damage was done years ago. She’s not a normal girl. You never wanted her to be normal. You wanted this fancy intellectual, and now you’re paying the price. I washed my hands.”

“You’re making it up. But, okay, have it your way. Louis is perfect, and I personally, all by myself, ruined Susan, whatever. Still, you could take a little interest in what could be done to help her now.” Peter’s real opinion, of course, was that Susan, whatever her problems, had become a daughter to be proud of, while Louis’s character was flimsy; Susan’s intellectuality, and Louis’s lack of it, in Peter’s opinion, went far to explain why.

“There’s nothing you can do for her now,” Lesley said. “She wouldn’t let you anyway. She wants to be independent. And you’re all for it—even though buying her that apartment was maybe not such a good idea, which I told you at the time, because she’ll just hole up there and never meet anyone. She should have roommates.”

“All right, Lesley. We’ll let it go. Susan and Louis can take care of themselves.” This was only what he wished were true, not what he believed. But, in the Frankl family, Peter was the designated worrier, and when his appeal for wifely help proved futile, he felt obliged to restore his wife to peace of mind and reassume the burden of concern. Lesley immediately sensed her liberation and relaxed.

“Peter, you’re on your own Saturday night, darling. I’m going to the fund-raiser, that legal aid thing in New Jersey, with the Rostovs.”

“I can’t see why you have any interest in doing that, but I’ll be fine. Maybe I’ll take Susan to dinner.”

“No. She’s going to Mallory’s party. Mallory’s having thirty or forty people in that tiny place.”

“Good. Maybe Susan’ll meet someone.”

“Not with Mallory around—and all those girls who know enough to smile and talk.”

“Your daughter is not the loser you think she is, Lesley.”

“I washed my hands.”


Late on a clear, cold Sunday morning in mid-March, Mallory Holmes’s

party was under discussion in several neighborhood apartments

that smelled of coffee and were strewn with newspapers and clothes. The night before, despite a spring storm so violent that Mallory had worried that people would stay home, her two small rooms, even the half closet that held her desk and chair, had been crowded with people. And from the first moments it had been clear that the party was a success, notwithstanding a brief quarrel that was snarling enough to shock into silence the dozen or so guests who heard it. Everyone except Mallory herself came away with the transformed inner landscape, the altered perspective, that good parties always give.

From the Hardcover edition.
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