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Authors: Alexandra Styron

All the Finest Girls

BOOK: All the Finest Girls
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Copyright © 2001 by Alexandra Styron
Reading group guide copyright © 2002 by Alexandra Styron and Little, Brown and Company (Inc.)

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Originally published in hardcover by Little, Brown and Company, June 2001

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Alexandra Styron’s essay “Mothers,” which appears in the reading group guide at the back of this book, was originally published in
Real Simple
in May 2001 under the title “My Other Mother: If More than One Woman Loves and Cares for a Child, How Is That a Problem?”

Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at
www.HachetteBookGroup.com

The Little, Brown and Company name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

ISBN: 978-0-316-06897-0

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Acknowledgments

All the Finest Girls

Mothers

Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion

Alexandra Styron’s suggestions for reading and viewing

Extraordinary acclaim for Alexandra Styron’s

All the Finest Girls

“In this beautifully controlled first novel, Alexandra Styron re-creates a painful journey through secrets and deceptions of the past to a liberating self-discovery. Her portrait of Louise, the woman who comes from the Caribbean to care for the angry little girl, Addy Abrahams, is told with heartbreaking clarity.”

— Maureen Howard

“Vivid images abound. … Styron skillfully alternates scenes from Addy’s distraught childhood with equally searing scenes in St. Clair, where she feels as alienated, off balance, and ‘inessential’ as ever. …
All the Finest Girls
is filled with a rage ‘nearly erotic in its intensity,’ but when the vitriol gives way to distilled feeling, the result is extremely moving and powerful.”

— Heller McAlpin,
Washington Post Book World

“Styron’s first novel is a journey back from a dark childhood of mental dementia to liberation at maturity’s crossroads, where a collision of parental shortcomings and personal emotional accountability resolves to emancipate the spirit.”

— Elsa Gaztambide,
Booklist

“Alexandra Styron has a style uniquely her own and a flair for getting inside her characters that makes this work of fiction read as smoothly as an autobiography. …
All the Finest Girls
is a virtuoso performance, a remarkably perceptive and finely tuned story that addresses the tough questions of love, loss, and redemption with deadly accuracy tempered by gentle humor.”

— Mary Garrett,
BookPage

“The writing here is frequently accomplished, and the insights wise.”

— Mark Lindquist,
New York Times Book Review

“All the Finest Girls
is well plotted and raises some complicated and painful issues. It’s a tense, intriguing story, one Styron explores with great sensitivity and insight.”

— Carmela Ciuraru,
Chicago Tribune

“A gentle, pensive debut that pulls the reader along as breezily as a trade wind. … Its unspooling tale is positively vivid.”

— Gillian Flynn,
Entertainment Weekly

“All the Finest Girls
is exquisitely written. … This novel enters deeply into the mystery of how we invent ourselves, often despite our families. It subtly forces itself through the various codas of privilege and out the other side so that we see the fullness of the young woman without the suffocation of cultural accoutrements. It is at the same time lyrical and harsh and the heroine becomes someone we really know, like a friend who makes us sleepless with worry.”

— Jim Harrison

“A spare and haunting story.”

— Jennifer Tung,
Talk

“At first, Alexandra Styron’s novel
All the Finest Girls
seems like a picture woven of antique brocade, carefully constructed sentences, well-chosen adjectives, but then the individual strands of thread spin out into individual stories, well-defined colors, each with a different voice, so that it becomes a piece of finely woven, almost delicate, tapestry. … Styron’s finest achievement is her ability to glide seamlessly between the dialect of St. Clair and the cultured language of Connecticut, in well-pitched almost contrapuntal tones, as she pieces together the fragments of each of these women’s lives.”

— Amy Ephron,
Los Angeles Times

“The final scene of
All the Finest Girls
is the most moving and textured in the novel as Addy begins to see her parents and her own bad behavior in a new light.”

— Deirdre Donahue,
USA Today

“A resonant, wise novel, told simply and nonrhetorically. … A terrific debut by a stunning writer.”


Library Journal

For my mother, my father, and Daphne

Fiolé-e, femme, fiolé,

   Women gone away.

Fiolé-e, femme, fiolé,

   Gone, gone, gone.

Fiolé-e, femme, fiolé,

   Way off in Cayenne.

Fiolé-e, femme, fiolé,

   Tout femme ay Englan.

Fiolé-e, femme, fiolé,

All the finest girls.

— Caribbean children’s game song

 

The painter should not paint what he sees, but what will be seen.


Paul Valéry

1

I

VE NEVER BEEN
much of a traveler, particularly not to places under the sun’s fiercest gaze. So it was with a will borne of some strange and ungovernable desire that on a midwinter day I flew from New York to the Caribbean island of St. Clair.

Ssss. Lady. Whereyouwannago?

Stepping out from the terminal at the Thomas P. Rose Airport, I was instantly enclosed by a clutch of taxi drivers jostling one another for my fare. The little concrete building stood open-faced to the road, and everywhere vacationers in bright cotton and baseball caps hustled about, shouting to each other
Over here, Bill, this guy says he can take us
above the
clackety clack
of idling shuttle buses. I tried to press forward but collided with a rolling suitcase that slammed against my knee, missed only a beat, and continued smartly on. Out in the sun, the noonday heat rose and shimmered like grease in a pan.

“Someone will be picking yah up,” Lou’s sister had said when we spoke the day before, ringing off before I could get more detail. I looked around at the circus of people and felt a flutter of nausea. My face, caught in the reflection of a car window, was tense as a drum. After what must have been ten abject minutes bobbing around in the chaos of island reception, I retreated to a shaded bench and began searching my bag for a pair of sandals.

A sad, familiar noise, the rattle of pills against plastic, came from somewhere beneath my clothes. Oval and blue as robins’ eggs, the pills were meant to soften a spur of anxiety that sometimes went for the base of my skull. I’d taken one and slept, badly, the night before, and again on the airplane, only to wake numb and blue under the blast of the air-conditioning system. In the tropical air, my medication hangover plus the two layers of wool I wore were making me feel smothered. I cursed aloud, and a woman seated next to me inched down the bench.

It was then — barefoot, my bag half unpacked — that I heard my name. A tall, chestnut-colored man with a precise flat-top hair-cut had planted himself before me, blocking out the sun. I stood up quickly and felt myself wobble as the blood rushed from my head.

“You Adelaide?” he said, looking not at but past me and jingling the keys in his pants pocket.

The smooth planes of the man’s face were interrupted by two tight, walnutlike bunches of muscle in his jaw. I pushed my belongings back into the bag and extended my hand, but the airport PA system just then crackled to life, drowning out my response.
Ladies and gentlemen, flight forty-three to St. Thomas with continuing service to San Juan will now begin preboarding at gate two. Passengers with small children
Ignoring me, the man took my bag and walked away. I followed, shoeless, as we weaved through a chorus of gaily dressed young women holding up signs for Sandals and Club Med. Picking my way along the hot graveled road, I nearly lost sight of him. At last, on a narrow grass divider, I caught up as he stopped for traffic. His face wore the expression of a man willing himself to be alone.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name,” I said as we moved off again.

“Derek,” he answered.

Derek; an adult face to go with the name I’d once worried like a rosary. As a little girl, I’d imagined meeting Lou’s boys a hundred times, had fashioned them with thoughts and personalities as if clothing imaginary dolls. None of my fantasies had resembled this sudden, brittle truth.

The seats of Derek’s car were small and close, forcing me to tuck in my elbows so he could shift as we got under way. Sweat streamed down my back. Timidly, I flapped the hem of my sweater for relief, not daring to remove anything in the tight space of the car. Perhaps meaning to be helpful, or not, Derek flipped a switch and an infernal blast of air spewed from the vents. I sat back and tried to act relaxed.

The car lurched ahead and soon we were careering along a wrecked main thoroughfare that hugged the southern coast of St. Clair. It ran like a ribbon through tattered seaside villages, opening up to sandy inlets with pink hotels, and giving way here and there to a long view of a busy Caribbean harbor town. On Derek’s side of the car, the lee side, sugarcane fields ran ragged to the green hills of the north. The line between quaint and calamitous wavered with each bump and turn in the rutted road.

Feigning interest in the scenery, I managed at last to get a good look at Derek. His skin was several shades lighter than his mother’s, but the features were eerily familiar. The fine, curved etches around his mouth reminded me powerfully of Lou and, for a second or two, took my breath away. I thought of her dipping her wrist in my bathwater and pausing in silent contemplation. I tried not to stare.

“When’s the service?” I asked, finally, after we’d traveled a long mile in silence. The question cast a harsh glow on the ordeal ahead, a picture of which hung for a moment like a scrim between us. Derek clenched and unclenched his jaw.

“Two days’ time.”

“That’s good,” I said. “I mean, it’s all a lot to handle, I’m sure.” Just ahead a goat was coming down off an embankment and into the road. Derek swerved to avoid it, never taking his foot off the accelerator.

“It’s just terrible what happened,” I added, pitching my voice to a near shout as Derek threw the little car into low gear. He braked and, without any indication of having heard me, made a sharp turn onto an unpaved side street. On either side of the road, drab houses of cinder block and tin lined up in slack rows, one or two decorated with dirty curtains and window boxes. Halfway down the block, at a peeling yellow door, we came to an abrupt halt. Derek left me and went inside. I got out of the car to pull off my sweater and, in the sanctum of that momentary eclipse, wondered just what the hell I thought I was doing there.

It was just past dawn when my mother had called with the news. My bedroom was still dark, save for a wan spoke of winter light barely grazing my dirty window. She spoke quickly, wedging her words in before I could look at the clock.

“Good morning, darling, it’s Mom.
Sorry
to wake you, I just thought you’d want to know Louise died.”

My mother had a tennis partner named Louise, a tiny woman whose face-lifts had had the strange effect of making her look beaten up. For a moment I thought of her and could not imagine why Mom would call me with this information. We’re not close, my mother and I. Not in that way. I’m not the person she would look to for comfort.

“June, you remember June, she called first thing. Isn’t that dear? She’s still with the Rubinsteins.”

It was then that an image of Louise, as familiar as my own thumb, first appeared. Not my mother’s friend, but Lou, my Lou. Dressed in her Sunday clothes, she was walking straight as a rod down my grandmother Edith’s looping driveway, toward church.

BOOK: All the Finest Girls
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