Douglas Kennedy Leaving the World

ISBN 13: 9780099509677

Leaving the World

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9780099509677: Leaving the World

On the night of her 13th birthday, Jane Howard made a vow to her warring parents - she would never marry or have children. Many years and many lives later, she is a professor in Boston, in love with a brilliant, erratic man named Theo. And then Jane falls pregnant. Motherhood turns out to be a welcome surprise - but after a devastating turn of events she has no choice but to flee all she knows. Just when she has renounced life itself, the disappearance of a young girl pulls her back from the edge. Convinced that she knows more about the case than the police do, she is forced to make a decision - stay hidden or bring to light a shattering truth.

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About the Author:

Douglas Kennedy’s novels, which include The Woman in the Fifth, Temptation, State of the Union, A Special Relationship and The Pursuit of Happiness, have all been highly praised bestsellers. His work has been translated into sixteen languages and in 2006 he received the French decoration of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Born in Manhattan in 1955, he now lives in London and has two children.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


WHERE TO START? Where to begin? That’s the big question looming over all narrative structures, and something we analyzed ceaselessly in graduate school. What is the point of departure for a story? Unless you’re writing a big cradle-to-grave saga—“To begin my life at the beginning of my life”—a story usually commences at a moment well into the life of the central character. As such, from the outset you’re traveling forward with this individual through his tale, yet you are simultaneously discovering, bit by bit, the forces and events that shaped him in the past. As David Henry, my doctoral adviser, was fond of reminding his students in his lectures on literary theory: “All novels are about a crisis and how an individual—or a set of individuals—negotiates said crisis. More than that, when we first meet a character in a narrative, we are dealing with him in the present moment. But he has a back story, just like the rest of us. Whether it’s in real life or on the page, you never understand somebody until you understand their back story.”

David Henry. Maybe that’s a good point of departure. Because the accidental set of circumstances that landed David Henry in my life sent it down a path I would never have thought possible. Then again, we can never predict where a particle will go...

David Henry. Back at the start of the 1970s, when he was a young professor at the university, he’d written a study of the American novel, Toward a New World, that was noted immediately for its accessibility and its critical originality. Around the same time, he also published a novel about growing up in a Minnesota backwater that immediately saw him acclaimed as a modern-day Sherwood Anderson, alive to the contradictions of small-town American life.

“Alive” was the word everyone used about David Henry back then. Toward a New World won the 1972 National Book Award for Nonfiction. His novel had been short listed that same year for the NBA in Fiction (a rare double honor) and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. The photos of him around that time show just why he was such a media star, as he had (to use a line from an Esquire profile of him) “classic square-jawed American good looks and a serious sense of cool: Clark Gable Goes to Harvard.”

He was everywhere back then: appearing on talk shows; writing learned, witty essays for the New York Review of Books; debating right-wing hawks in public forums. What’s more, though he dressed with a certain Lou Reed Élan (black T-shirts, black jeans), he never jumped on the radical-chic bandwagon. Yes, he did publicly denounce “the Babbitt-like conformism that so dominates one corner of the American psyche,” but he also wrote articles in defense of America’s cultural complexity. One of them, “Our Necessary Contradictions,” became something of a talking point when published in the Atlantic in 1976, as it was one of the first critical explications of what David called “the two facets of the American psyche that rub up against each other like tectonic plates.” I first discovered this essay while a freshman in college when a friend recommended David Henry’s collection of journalist pieces, Left-Handed Writing. And I was so taken with it that I must have foisted it on half a dozen friends, telling them that it explained, with brilliant clarity, what it meant to be an American who doubted so much about the state of the country today.

So I was in love with David Henry before I was in love with David Henry. When I applied to the doctoral program at Harvard, the essay that accompanied my application talked among other things about how much his approach to American literature and thought had influenced my own nascent academic work, and how the thesis I was hoping to write—“The Infernal Duality: Obedience and Defiance in American Literature”—was so David Henry. Granted, I knew I was taking a risk in letting it be known—even before I had been accepted by Harvard—that I already had a preferred thesis adviser in my sights. But I was so determined to work with him. As I was coming out of Smith summa cum laude with very strong recommendations from my English professors there, I was willing to be assertive.

It worked. I was called down to Cambridge for an interview with the department chairman. At the last minute I was told by his secretary that the interview would be handled by someone else in the department.

And that’s how I found myself face-to-face with David Henry.

The year was 1995. He was now in his early fifties, but still retained the craggy movie-star aura—though I immediately noticed that his eyes were marked by dark crescent moons hinting at a certain sadness within. I knew that he had continued to write essays for publications like Harper’s and the New York Review of Books, though not with such prolific regularity as before. From a piece I read about him in the Boston Globe I also found out that there had been no second novel and that his long-commissioned biography of Melville remained unfinished. But the article did say that, though his profile as a writer and a public intellectual had faded, he was still a hugely respected teacher whose undergraduate classes were always oversubscribed and who was one of the most sought-after doctoral advisers in the university.

I liked him immediately because he saw how hard I was trying to mask my nervousness, and he quickly put me at my ease.

“Now why on earth would you want to go into something as archaic and badly paid as university teaching when you could be out there cashing in on all the material bounty being offered in this, our new Gilded Age?”

“Not everyone wants to be a robber baron,” I said.

David smiled. “‘Robber baron.’ Very Theodore Dreiser.”

“I remember your chapter on Dreiser in The American Novel and a piece you wrote on the seventieth anniversary of the publication of Sister Carrie in the Atlantic.”

“So you said in your application essay. But let me ask you something: do you rate Sister Carrie?”

“More than you do. I do take your point that there is a terrible leadenness to much of Dreiser’s prose. But that’s something he shares with Zola—a need to sledgehammer a point home and a certain psychological primitivism. And yes, I do like the point you make about Dreiser’s prolixity being bound up with the fact that he was one of the first novelists to use a typewriter. But to dismiss Dreiser as—what was the phrase you used?—‘a portentous purveyor of penny dreadfuls’... With respect, you missed the point—and also used a lot of Ps in one sentence.”

As soon as I heard that line come out of my mouth, I thought: What the hell are you saying here? But David wasn’t offended or put off by my directness. On the contrary, he liked it.

“Well, Ms. Howard, it’s good to see that you are anything but a brownnose.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sure I’ve really overstepped the mark.”

“Why think that? I mean, you’re going to be in the doctoral English program at Harvard, which means that you are going to be expected to display a considerable amount of independent thinking. And as I won’t work with anyone who’s a suck-up...”

David didn’t finish the sentence. Instead he just smiled, enjoying the bemused look that had fixed itself on my face.

“Professor, you said: ‘You’re going to be in the doctoral English program at Harvard.’ But my application hasn’t been approved as yet.”

“Take it from me—you’re in.”

“But you do know that I will be applying for financial aid?”

“Yes, I saw that—and I spoke with our department chairman about utilizing a fund we have. It was set up by one of the Rockefellers and is granted to one incoming doctoral candidate every year. Now, I see on your application that your father is a mining executive, based in Chile.”

Was a mining executive,” I said. “He lost his job around five years ago.”

He nodded, as if to say: So that’s why money is so tight.

I could have added how I could never, ever rely on my father for anything. But I always worried about burdening anybody (even my boyfriend) with the more unpleasant facets of my childhood. And I certainly wasn’t going to start gabbing about them during my interview with David Henry. So I simply said: “My father told his last boss to go have sex with himself. And since he refused to accept any job below that of the president of a company—and was also known as something of a hothead in his industry—his employment prospects dried up. He’s been ‘consulting’ since then but makes hardly enough to keep himself going. So...”

And I’d just revealed more than I intended to. David must have sensed this, as he simply smiled and nodded his head and said, “Well, your winning a full postgraduate scholarship to Harvard will surely please him.”

“I doubt it,” I said quietly.

I was wrong about that. I wrote my dad a letter two months before my graduation from Smith, telling him how much I’d like him to be at the ceremony and also informing him about my all-expenses-paid scholarship to Harvard. Usually it took him around a month to write back to me—but this time a letter arrived within ten days. Clipped to it was a hundred-dollar bill. The letter was twenty-one words long:

I am so proud of you!

Sorry I can’t be at your graduation.

Buy yourself something nice with this.



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