I read Hopewell resident Elizabeth Joy Arnold’s debut novel, “Pieces of My Sister’s Life,” published this month by Bantam, in the perfect setting — on vacation. The cover illustration — an empty worn white Adirondack chair, adorned with a stack of books and two pairs of brightly-colored flip flops, nestled beside the sand dunes — conveys that the novel is the perfect beach read. The cover and the book’s release date, August 7, say it all: this is a novel to get lost in while the sun’s beating down on you and you can inhale the salty sea air, or at least the chlorine of a swimming pool. I read most of the book while lying on my back on a floating dock in the middle of a fresh water lake in New Hampshire, the tiny lap-lap of the water licking the worn wooden sides of the dock and the far-off coo of loons in my ear.
Water, you see, is a key element to this novel, whose story toggles back and forth between August, 1993, and late spring and summer, 2007. Kerry and Eve Barnard are twins growing up on Block Island, sailing with their father, listening to their neighbor Justin’s magical fairy tales, and all the while longing for their absent mother. During the summer they turn 17 their world of biological symbiosis — full of secrets and thoughts and dreams simmering and boiling over as if from one soul shared by the two of them — is torn apart by their father’s sudden death and the growing realization that they have both fallen in love with Justin, a budding writer of children’s novels. As they struggle with the dance of separation from each other and from their childhood, Kerry and Eve’s distinct personalities and differences begin to emerge, only to reveal that no matter how hard they try to pull away from each other they are of course inseparable.
For awhile it works, as Kerry pursues a career in Boston, but 13 years later, one phone call from the man she always loved, the man who married her sister and not her, wrenches her back to that sandy, salty place called home. “She’s dying, Kerry,” Justin says. As we all know, though, you can’t go home again. And sure enough, as Kerry returns to care for her sister, who is dying of ovarian cancer, she battles one emotional demon after another, in an almost Herculean effort to forgive, to forget, to move forward and resist the slippery slope called the past. Again and again, the curious and endlessly fascinating yin-yang of her childhood as a twin comes back with a bite and a vengeance that at times seems just plain unfair. If this novel teaches us anything it is a persistent reminder that life is not fair.
The novel, says Arnold, is really about forgiveness and redemption. “In the end Kerry triumphs and finds her own strength, despite the bad things that have happened to her. You learn more about yourself from the things that you go through. Part of what I wanted to explore was the different ways that people with different personalities deal with the different events in their lives.” Arnold, for example, is a diabetic, and says she sees people with the disease deal with it in very different ways. “Some people are angry with the world. Others learn to deal with it.”
Arnold writes of her mother in the book’s acknowledgments: “To my mother who will never understand this acknowledgment, will never even understand that this book is mine, but who taught me most of what I know about love.” In a phone interview from her home in Hopewell, Arnold says her mother has Pick’s disease, a form of dementia, adding that she has observed many different responses from other people with a parent with dementia. “Some are angry at their parent and at life, some want to do whatever they can to support their parents, and others are depressed.”
Kerry and Eve’s mother is absent in the novel, having left them at a very young age, and Arnold’s mother is, at least figuratively, absent now. Are there other similarities between the novel and Arnold’s real life? Arnold is not a twin but she does have a younger sister, Rebecca, who in many ways inspired the character of Eve, Kerry’s twin. The Arnolds grew up in Chappaqua, in Westchester County, “the not so rich part,” she says. Her father was a physicist with Philips Laboratories and her mother was an independent accountant.
‘I know what it is like to be a sister, the rivalries and love. We were so close growing up, we were best friends. Then when she was around 16, Rebecca became kind of a rebel, ran away from home for two or three weeks, and then didn’t talk to my dad for six months, which profoundly affected me. I was in college at the time but when I would come home, the atmosphere was tense. At that time I couldn’t relate to her, as she became an adult and leaned on my parents more.”
She now sees Rebecca, who earned a degree in somatic psychology and is now a masseuse and a Buddhist, as “the most wonderful person. She’s always been kind of a free spirit.” Arnold says her relationship with her sister got her thinking about the different way each saw her responsibilities, and in the novel, as the twins are thrown curve ball after curve ball, we see how each event, some bordering on the catastrophic, has remarkably different effects on practical and introspective Kerry and impulsive and sexually-charged Eve.
Arnold, it would appear, is more like Kerry, and was the good girl in the family, following in her father’s scientific footsteps. She earned a bachelors degree in chemistry from Vassar in 1989, then a masters in chemistry in 1991 from Princeton, where she met her husband, Jerry, now a chemical engineer who does contract work with government. She started at Mobil in Pennington in 1993, living in a renovated barn she and her husband rented from Congressman Rush Holt — “they had the grand house with the swimming pool.” Two years later she joined American Cyanamid, and since 2000 she has been doing contract work in pharmaceuticals for TaraTec in Bridgewater.
Although she says she likes science, deep down she always wanted to write. “I wrote my first book when I was five, about a dalmation. I actually wrote my first chapter book at nine, `Monday and Friday,’ with a friend. It was about mice. We alternated chapters.”
Arnold says that all the way through high school her English teachers would praise her writing. Her parents’ response, however, was “that’s not a way to make a living.” She took one English course at Vassar, and when the professor told her she should seriously think about becoming an English major, “I went back to my room and cried. I wanted to be able to support myself. [But writing] was exactly what I wanted to do.” She says she reads voraciously, “everything from Chekhov to vampire novels.” As for her science degrees and career as a chemist, she says, “I completely don’t regret it. It gave me the financial freedom to work part-time.”
With the flexible hours of her contract work Arnold was able to write “Pieces of My Sister’s Life,” working on the manuscript piecemeal. She says the first draft took a year, then she made revisions, often discussing plotlines with her husband, over five or six more years. “At the same time I was working on other novels. I have seven novels all finished. I would get up at four in the morning and write in the dark, then go to work. I write longhand and then put it into my computer.”
After researching the kinds of books that various agents were interested in Arnold sent the manuscript to 20 agents, all in New York. Soon after, she heard back from one, Kim Lionetti. “She was gushing,” Arnold says. “She said, ‘I’m gonna shop this book until it sells.’” Lionetti had only a few suggestions for tweaks to the manuscript and in just a few months found an editor at Bantam, Caitlin Alexander. “It’s just as important to get an editor who loves the book,” says Arnold.
Bantam offered her a two-book deal, with a $25,000 advance per book. Was she disappointed the book came out of the gate as a mass market paperback instead of a hardcover? It turns out the answer is no. “They were originally going to do it in hardcover with a modest print run,” says Arnold, “but then the publisher gave it to the president of Bantam, who decided to make it the lead title in their summer catalog. In order to get more sales and get the book out there, he said he wanted to make it mass market. People are more likely to drop $7 for a book.” The novel’s first print run is 280,000 copies.
On the first day the book “dropped,” Arnold starting getting E-mails from readers on her website, www.elizabethjoyarnold.com. “One woman said she started crying at page five and didn’t stop until an hour after she finished the book. Another said it was cathartic and helped her access emotions she had never felt. I think in a way that’s the reason I write, to really affect people.”
Arnold is already at work on her next book, set in California, about a family who is dealing with the suicide of the husband, told from the point of view of the mother and her nine-year-old daughter. The husband, a Marine, has returned from Iraq and suffers from depression, ultimately committing suicide. Arnold says the book is about “the family struggling and triumphing through the aftermath of his death, and looking into why it happened. They discover only after he dies that he was injured in Iraq and had suffered a profound brain injury.” Loss is a universal experience, and Arnold’s life is no exception. “I feel like I lost my mom gradually. My husband recently lost his mother to cancer.”
The antidote to loss is, some would say, someone new to love. And Arnold and her husband are expecting just that, as they are in the process of adopting from Vietnam. As she literally waits for the phone to ring — “it could happen any day”— Arnold is content to get up at six each morning and “write every single day. There are some days I can write from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. or 6 a.m. to noon. Once you realize you spend more time staring out the window, though, it’s time to stop.”
Reading and Booksigning, Tuesday, September 4, 7 p.m., Borders Books, 601 Nassau Park. Elizabeth Joy Arnold presents her new novel, “Pieces of My Sister’s Life.” A Hopewell resident, Arnold was raised in Chappaqua, New York, and has degrees from Vassar College and Princeton University. For more information visit www.elizabethjoyarnold.com. 609-514-0040.