After her husband’s unexpected death at the age of thirty-six, Gina Melrose becomes a “live-aboard” on his boat, docked at a marina in coastal South Carolina, near the home she and Ben once shared. In this temporary, borrowed existence on the water, she settles into numb survival. But Gina finds her life taking yet another dramatic turn late one night when a woman named Reese disrupts her quiet world. With Reese comes a daughter: a charming girl named Angel.
After a rough start, Gina realizes that, strange as it may seem, she’s drawn to both Reese and Angel. Their sudden appearance shatters the stillness–and Gina is remade. She is fascinated by Reese, who seems both invincible and vulnerable–and whose past may hold the key to Gina’s future. Gina begins to realize that for the first time since Ben’s death, she’s getting her senses back. As both pain and joy reenter her world, Gina discovers that she is able to accept feeling in order to live fully once more.
But the biggest surprise for Gina is her relationship with Angel. After the painful loss of her sister during childhood, Gina had decided that she would never have children of her own. Struggling through conflicted emotions, Gina’s finds her life unexpectedly transformed by the precocious little girl who may be Ben’s daughter.
This tender, poignant novel movingly explores the bonds of family and the resilience of hope. In the accomplished tradition of the novels of Elizabeth Berg and Anita Shreve, Jean Reynolds Page’s Accidental Happiness is a lyrical, enthralling drama unafraid to examine complex relationships with a clear eye and an honest heart.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
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“Is the sailboat a good place to sleep?” Angel asked, eyes on the blue-hulled yacht in its marina slip. She leaned tight against Reese, hands pulling lightly on the gauzy material of her mother’s skirt. Reese knew she was too young to worry so much. She needed a normal life.
“Sure it is. Remember? Inside the sailboat,” Reese said, her voice suggesting whispered confidences, “there are long seats with cushions. We can stretch out, feel the motion of the water rocking the whole boat, but just a little bit. Like this.” She moved Angel slightly back and forth, a soothing, lullaby cadence. “You’ll sleep like a puppy. I promise.”
Angel nodded. Smiled.
“That’s my girl,” Reese said, pulling slightly away so Angel would pay attention. “I need for you to stay here,” she told her daughter.
They were on the outside of the dock’s security gate. The lights that lit up the marina at night were muted, but, even so, shone brighter than she’d expected. Still, she didn’t see anyone around. If they were quiet, everything would be okay. Angel looked small—too small to be almost eight years old; too small for what Reese was asking of her.
“Where’re you going?” the girl asked.
“I’m wading through the water to get to the dock on the other side.” She tried again to remember the security pad code. She’d seen Ben punch in the numbers, but that had been months ago, and who knew she’d be returning in the middle of the night like this? “Once I get around, I’ll open the door for you. That way, you don’t have to get wet.”
Reese looked out over the inlet, over a calm so complete, the water looked slick, frozen. But it was summer and muggy. South Carolina in August. Still air kept the day’s heat intact. But if she opened all the windows on the boat, she and Angel could sleep comfortably, safely, for the night. They could rest before she got in touch with Ben.
“Are you sure that’s it?” Angel pointed to the sailboat, a large, midnight blue hull sitting in one of the middle slips. “It’s the right color, but it looks smaller than I remember.” Most of the boats were white, making Benjamin’s easier to spot.
“That’s it,” Reese answered. “River Rose. It’s thirty-five or thirty-six feet. But it looks smaller from over here.” She felt the flutter of nerves, tense energy that built up in her stomach. But she loved the unknown seconds before the risk.
“Is he there?” The small voice sounded hopeful.
“No, baby, we talked about this.” Reese tried to sound patient. “I’m sure Ben’s at home.”
“Didn’t you call him?” Angel looked uncertain. She needed a kind of reassurance that Reese couldn’t offer.
“His cell phone’s not working. I’ll call him tomorrow, okay?”
She wondered how much of her plan she could still salvage. Maybe enough to give the two of them a shot at an honest-to-God normal life. At the very least, it would leave Angel with that option. That was the important part. If things got worse, she didn’t want to bring Angel down with her. She’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this, crawling back to Benjamin for help. But after what they’d just run away from in Boone, she had no choice.
“Can’t you call him now?” Angel stared through the chain-metal gate, eyes large, mouth set with a slight tremble.
“Come here, sweetie. It’ll be okay.”
Angel came closer, leaned in against her again. Reese knelt down and held her daughter; felt the slightness of her frame. She was strong and healthy, but sometimes seemed so fragile.
“The water looks dark,” Angel said. “Are you sure you won’t get hurt?”
“I’ll be fine.” Reese bent to kiss the girl’s head, felt earrings dangle lightly against her cheek. “I’m going to be around the gate and on the dock over there before you blink twice. Then we’ll have a place to stay for the night. Okay?”
“Okay.” Angel still seemed to lack confidence in the plan.
Reese stood up, took a deep breath. She wished she had time for a cigarette. Angel made the signal—a balled fist tapped onto a flat palm. The girl had made it up for luck, and Reese knew that the superstition gave her daughter boldness in their adventures. Reese returned the gesture, then turned and walked down the length of shoreline until she reached the edge of the gate.
A dinghy sat beached on the mud bank, and she had the notion of taking it to the dock, letting Angel inside the door as planned, and then returning the boat to the bank. But that would take too long, make her far too visible to the security station. Instead, she stepped from the brittle grass into the soft tidal mud. She kept on her flip-flops to keep from cutting her feet. Shells, some still housing living creatures, no doubt, crunched under her weight. She felt bad crushing them, but let go of the thought and moved deeper into the water, hoping to avoid anything that might want to sting or bite.
As the surface came waist deep, her clothes slowed her progress. A skirt had been a bad choice for this operation. Shorts would have made more sense; but then again, she hadn’t had much time to prepare. Her clustered bangle bracelets had a tinny sound. They unnerved her, and she put her arm in the water to silence them. She moved carefully to keep from making noise, splashing. She reached up to brush a hair from the corner of her mouth and tasted the moist brine of the inlet on her fingers.
The salty glaze settled against the skin of her arms. “This feels good,” she mumbled aloud to no one. She hadn’t swam in saltwater in so long. The feel of it evoked memories of childhood, of hot summers—memories of Benjamin, some of them very good. But she hadn’t regretted her decision to leave. Not then. They’d had good years, she and Angel. But now it was time to make a change.
Angel stood quiet, motionless at the gate, an outline of a girl. Reese pulled herself up. Drenched, she landed, sitting, on the dock, then waved at Angel, put her finger to her lips for Angel to stay si- lent. Even though her daughter was only a shadow, backlit by the marina lights, she saw the child wave back. Reese could imagine Angel smiling, relieved that her mother had kept her word, after all. Just as she’d promised, she’d made it safely to the other side.
Benjamin came up behind me, slid his arms around my waist. Heat from the late sun warmed the skin under my sweatshirt, rejected the chill of October. We stood in the open air. Around us, pumpkins of all sizes pebbled the field with orange, with bins of butternut squash and sweet potatoes off to the side. The farmer who owned the land presided over his yield. He was large and, it seemed to me, bored with produce. People wandered, trying to choose, and he watched, sitting on a stool beside a table that held nothing but a metal box filled with dollar bills.
Benjamin’s presence circled me like a cloak. His fingers moved just underneath the low waist of my jeans, traveled the surface of my belly, insistent, kneading soft muscle, tender skin. It left me shy. An older couple averted their eyes from us, but the farmer watched without apology, his ample monotony in need of diversion.
Benjamin’s boldness made me weak. My mind’s eye could see his hand moving over my body. He didn’t speak, but I wanted him to. I wanted to hear the hoarse register that would tell me we were leaving, going, perhaps, no farther than the car. But he said nothing. Then, as if something had jostled me out of my dream, I became aware. There was no breath on my neck, no comfort from his arms. I woke up to the hot August night and felt the loss new again. I wasn’t sure which was worse: the stray emotions that made their way in from time to time, laying me low all over again; or the rest of the time, when I felt that my brain had been neutered, all capacity to feel removed.
I’d been a widow for three months, though it seemed less because the season had yet to change. With nothing marking the time, it could have been a week or even a day before. I sat up, breathed only in spite of myself. The pumpkins were gone, were never there, in fact. I had fashioned a memory from air and longing.
I was hot—damp and unfamiliar in my bed. But I wasn’t in a bed exactly. It took me a moment to recognize the small quarters, the salt air smell. My boat. Benjamin’s boat. That was where I lived, where I’d run to when I couldn’t stay in our house anymore. I’d sold our house, hoping to find some peace. Even so, I rarely slept. Not since the funeral, anyway. When I did, the wakings were always full of confusion.
“Come on, Georgie.” The dog settled down beside me. The boat rested easy in its slip.
The scenes that occurred when I slept weren’t exactly like dreams. I saw them as visitations, but not of a ghostly sort. Until recently I had barely acknowledged God. I certainly didn’t buy into spirits, sinister or benevolent. But I’d had these images over the years, little wordless narratives involving Elise, my little sister. She died when I was twelve and she was eight. Sometimes in my visions she was at the pool where she drowned, sometimes at unfamiliar places. But always she was eager, her eyes begging me to see her, to watch.
With Elise, as I got older, she remained young and we drifted apart in my mind; my ability to manufacture her in my head seemed to weaken. Although, so often decisions in my life relied on her memory. I wondered what would happen with Benjamin. As an old woman, would I let him go; or would I continue to see him as I slept? A man eventually young enough to be a grandson.
The air off the water stood still, heavy as the tide, a terrible time for the onboard air-conditioning unit to be out. I considered walking the short path to Lane’s house. Instead, I abandoned the V-berth for the main cabin, where it was cooler, turned the small fan full on my face.
Stretched out in what amounted to my living room with hatches open to the air, the night became bearable. I tried to drift off, but by three-thirty in the morning sleep had yet to come again; one of the restless nights when Ben was everywhere and nowhere. Hours and decades became twins of time, especially at night. Who the hell becomes a widow at thirty-three?
I’d tried to work my way back to life. Ben’s mother said that I expected to feel normal too fast, that I needed to allow myself time to grieve; but indulgent grieving only took me deeper into the loss. So when I had a choice, I settled for a state that was more than dead, but less than alive. A zombie existence.
In my scarce efforts at recovery, I’d tried the disparate avenues of studied spirituality and casual sex. Both very new for me. Although they seemed to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, the two shared certain qualities of exhilaration, but neither helped for too long. I suspected the problems existed in me more than in the methods. “What do you think, Georgie?” The dog kept a vigil at my side.
Even in the near-dark cabin, I could see the envelope, white and still sealed, sitting on the desk. Opening the check meant I went one step closer to accepting the money as a kind of apology for Ben’s death. It had come in the mail just the morning before. Maybe that had inspired my nocturnal thoughts of Benjamin, alive again.
The lawyers who helped me after the accident regarded the settlement as a victory, a triumph before we even saw the inside of a courtroom. A similar case with the same lumber company had hit the newspapers in a big way just months before. The story had gone national, and the exposure made them eager to settle with me before the publicity of a trial. I’d gotten the same deal as the earlier case, but with none of the work.
Looking through the shadows at the pale envelope, I felt everything that was missing, and nothing that had been gained. A leg or a lung would have been no more vital than Benjamin. How could a bigger bank account make any difference? I’d left the envelope intact so far, trying to decide what to do. The sale of the house would keep me going for a good while. And Ben had good insurance through his job at the marketing firm. He used to tell me I was lucky he’d decided to be a commercial artist instead of a starving one. He was wrong. Benefits or no, I didn’t feel lucky at all.
So I hadn’t dealt with the envelope yet, didn’t even remember the exact amount I’d been awarded. Maybe I’d never open it. On the other hand, depositing it and the others that were to follow over the course of eighteen months would make me rich, at least by my standards—a sight that Benjamin, of all people, would have enjoyed.
I imagined sleep; hoped seeing it in my mind would make it come. Nothing came but more pictures, genuine memories of Ben, alive and living in our house, absent the unwelcome discussions that surfaced regularly during our last weeks together. Ben, talking again about having children, long after I thought the subject had been put to rest. For the most part, I avoided the thoughts of those talks. When I focused on our time together, it was only the seamless days of partnership, of love.
Reading Group Guide
1. Jean Reynolds Page establishes an intense sense of place in the course of Accidental Happiness. Could the same story have been set in, for example, Minnesota? What might have been different, in that case?
2. Gina and Reese create multigenerational families. What do the older women (Lane, Maxine) provide for the younger ones? What does Angel, the youngest family member, give the adults?
3. The families in Accidental Happiness are matriarchal. How do the men (Derek, Charlie, Andrew) ﬁt in, and how does their presence change the relationships among the women?
4. Death can also be life-giving. Lane, Maxine, Reese and Gina all have experienced catastrophic and recent losses. In what way do those losses help the characters begin new, richer lives?
5. Many of the characters live in temporary housing–Gina lives on River Rose when she’s not at the storage facility; Reese and Angel live with Gina and Lane, and then in Maxine’s cottage. Only Lane and Maxine are grounded in stable homes. How do the others’ living arrangements affect their circumstances?
6. What role does dishonesty play in the relationships that develop between and among the women?
7. Was Reese a good mother?
8. Were there any clues before Gina met Dr. Harris in Blowing Rock that all was not well with Reese’s mind as well as her body?
9. How does the dawning realization that Ben was hiding part of his life affect Gina’s process of grieving?
10. Each character seeks shelter in the course of the book–physical shelter and psychic shelter. Where do they ﬁnd it?
11. Much in this book is achieved with and over food: ice cream cones, birthday cake, a church potluck, burgers. What food encounters turn into pivotal moments in the unfolding story and what larger elements does food represent in the narrative?
12. For most of the book, Gina and Reese develop a relationship that is more familial than friendly. Do they ever begin to trust each other?
13. What does Gina accomplish when she gives Angel the necklace that Ben had bought for her?
14. By the end of the book, each woman has taken hold of her destiny. What might each one be doing six months after the book’s end? With whom?
15. In the interview preceding these questions, Jean Reynolds Page discusses the title of the book, Accidental Happiness, and whether or not she believes happiness is accidental. Do you believe it is a deliberate choice or an accidental state? Did you feel the title was an apt one for this book?