Now, half a century later, Jane is still searching for the truth of her father’s death, a mystery made more urgent by the unexpected romance that her willful daughter, Marne, has struck up with one of Ada’s sons. As the love affair intensifies, Jane and Ada meet for their weekly Friday game of Scrabble, a pastime that soon transforms into a cat-and-mouse game of words long left unspoken, and dark secrets best left untold.
A Boston Globe bestseller
Look for special features inside. Join the Circle for author chats and more.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
June 3, 2004
Back in January, I got the phone call from Alex that brought me home from California. The next week, I took my mother grocery shopping up at Lees. She got stuck only once, in the produce section, picking through the pears, unable to decide which ones she should buy. “So many choices these days,” she murmured to me, apologetic and with a touch of sadness, like she could feel the glitch in her but was unable to correct it, so I decided for her. In the checkout line, I had that feeling you get sometimes when someone’s eyes are on you, and I turned and saw Ray three aisles away and, for a moment, I couldn’t place him, then all at once I did. His face looked thin, much thinner than it should have—a look in his eyes like they’d been scraped. Then the girl at the register was asking whether I wanted plastic or paper, and Ray was still looking at me, that look in his eyes replaced by something different that gave me a little jump, electric-like, and I stared back. Just stared.
“There’s Ray,” my mother said. I snapped out of it and gave him a wave like I should have in the first place, he smiled and waved back, and everything was natural, normal, like it should be. And after he’d made it through checkout, he stopped to say hello, and asked when I’d gotten back from California. By then, our groceries were bagged and loaded into the cart, and he walked outside with us, and the winter sunlight hit me hard as we stepped through the automatic door, untenable and bright, everything caught up short in the unexpected.
He was getting a divorce, my brother Alex told me. Of course, over the next couple of months, I’d run into him here and there. Or he’d drop by the house, looking for Alex. But whenever Ray’s around, I can’t seem to find two words to rub together, a tense kind of rustle moves through me—the wrong kind of feeling, I know, for someone so off-limits.
Two strikes up front: He’s my brother’s best friend, and Ada Varick’s son. Ada’s wreaked her share of havoc in our family. She was the irresistibly beautiful reason my grandfather Luce Weld was killed, back in 1957—murdered, so it’s said, for loving her too much. Not that Ada’s hold has been any lighter on the rest of us—look at my mother, still trekking over to the Council on Aging every Friday, still in thrall to her Ada and their games.
It’s hard to imagine sometimes—it’s a thing I’ve never quite gotten my mind around—how my mother, Luce Weld’s only daughter, came to be friends with Ada Varick in the first place. Ada was twenty years older, a different ilk. I asked my mother once how it started, how she came to be invited into that knot of four or five women who met every Friday for Scrabble.
“Vivi Butler called me up one day out of the blue and asked me,” she answered, simply.
“And you went?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
She seemed surprised that I would wonder, even shy.
I never knew my grandfather Luce. I wouldn’t know if I tripped on his shade in the street. But I’ve heard the story:
Luce Weld—rakish no-good—bootlegger turned poultry thief. Ran booze back in the twenties, made money to beat hell, but wore trouble, couldn’t keep that shit off his shoe. He did time for man?slaughter and, when he got out, managed to land a smart, pretty girl, my grandmother Emily. They had only one child, my mother, Jane. But Luce was no stay-at-home. He set his sight on Ada Varick, and it got stuck there. Ada, from what I have heard, was quite a stunner back then.
Luce went missing the fall of ’57. His skiff was found staked to the marsh near the creek below the gravel pit off Drift Road. Talk was someone caught him stealing one too many times and dealt him what for. Ran him out of town or flung him off the flat edge of the world for good. Maybe. However it happened, it was all just talk until the state came down, took land, and started laying in the new highway. Early sixties, they dug fill for the new bridge from the gravel pit upriver on the Drift Road side. As one load of gravel got dumped, a skull rolled out, a bullet hole in it, neat as neat. Anyone putting two and two together wagered that skull was the last scant trace of Luce Weld.
It’s early June, and I am not looking where I’m going as I step out the storm door, or rather, I am looking down at the book in my hand, and I trip over the foot of a ladder, not realizing exactly what I have done until I hear the smash of metal on wood and a shout from above, the book has flown out of my hand, and the ladder is falling away from the house. I look up and see the flash of a boot disappear just in time over the edge of the roof, a bucket of paint set on a rung above knocked off—
A splash of whiteness, vaguely coherent, spills past my face, patterning my shirt; it lands with an echoing clang as the ladder strikes the ground.
“You alright down there?” I hear Ray’s voice call down from the roof. I glance up and his face appears. “Oh hey, Marne”—looking down from his gorgeous benevolent heaven at the idiocy that is me. My brother comes around the side of the house and takes it all in.
“How’d you manage that?” he growls. Yeah, Alex—like breaking Ray’s neck was at the top of my to-do list. Picking up the ladder, he sets it back against the gutter above the door, and Ray climbs down. “I am so sorry,” I mumble, unable to look at him.
“Paint missed your book,” he says lightly. The book’s lying open on the steps below me, pages askew. Ray scoops it up and hands it to me. “It’s no big deal.” His voice with that gentle hook in it I’ve begun to hear lately when he talks to me.
There’s a sizable white pool of paint on the ground. Alex has started kicking dirt onto it, to soak it up. He’s ticked. “Give me a hand, Ray.”
“Here, let me help,” I say.
“You’ve done your part,” Alex sighs. “Get out of here.”
I feel my face flush, and slip back inside. My mother’s just coming up from downcellar. At first she doesn’t seem to see me, she’s got that distracted look, I can tell by how she moves, like her body’s in glass, and for once I am grateful. But then she notices me as I head toward the stairs. Her eyes focus.
“What happened?” she says.
“Nothing.” I set the book down.
“Is everyone alright, Marne? I heard a crash. What happened?”
“That shirt’s ruined.”
“It’s really just fine.”
“Use some warm water. Here, sweetheart, take it off. I’ll do it.”
“No, thanks, Mom. Really. I can do it.”
She follows me into the kitchen anyway, and we get into a bit of a scrap at the sink, about water temperature, should it be hot or cold for latex, soap or vinegar. This is her province, I know, I should let her call the shots, but my composure has slid off the map, and I just want to be left alone. “It really makes no difference, Mom,” I say sharply.
“The stain’ll set.”
“It’s not like it’s Kool-Aid or blood.”
She’s pulling out bottles from the lazy susan. “It’ll set if you don’t get it out.”
“It’s an old shirt.”
“It’s a nice shirt.”
“Lay off, Mom.”
“You should try to save it.”
“I don’t need to save it!”
She stops, looks at me. “Warmer water,” she says, “that’s a bit cold.”
She twists the faucet, I resist the urge to push away her hand and twist it back. Pretty soon everything’s soaked through, the wet shirt sticking to my skin, and she’s telling me I should just take it off, she’ll get that stain out, but I have no interest in being caught at the sink window in my bra. My mother is still standing beside me, she’s got her bottle of vinegar out, uncapped, some salt, a kitchen rag, and that calm and awful patience she will get sometimes when she knows she is right and it is only a matter of time before I come around to see it her way. And it occurs to me Alex was wrong. This is not working out. I should have stayed in California.
I hear a truck pass by, someone leaning down hard on the horn, I glance up in time to see Ray’s brother Huck in his cherry-red F150, his hand out the window, casting his signature flick-off wave to Ray and Alex who are still out front in the yard, kicking dirt over the mess I made. They wave back, laughing. As the truck veers away, I can just make out the two bumper stickers he’s had on there for years. One that reads: for a small town this one sure has a lot of assholes. The other: proud to be american. If there is one person walking the earth I can’t fucking stand, that person is Huck.
Redneck throwback. Verge of cretinoid. He went after my best friend, Elise, when he was thirty-something and we were in high school, robbed her cradle, then dumped her for some slutty girl. Pushing sixty now, Huck can’t seem to understand why the world hasn’t shit gold coins on his head. He’s still got that dazed sort of juvenile swagger, like he just stepped out of a Bruce Springsteen song run amok.
Ray’s older brother, I remind myself wryly. Strike three. You Are Out.
I strip my shirt off, thrust it at my mom, and go upstairs to get the paint off my face and hands.
When I come back down, it’s just noon. Alex and Ray are sitting at the kitchen table, drinking lemonade. My mother has fixed them sandwiches, cut on the diagonal like she’s forgotten they’re not ten years old. Ray gives me a quick smile. I pour a cup of coffee. Alex is skimming the newspaper, the obituaries. That’s all he’ll read—he’s like our father that way. What else is news?
As I sit down with my coffee, my mother asks, “Can I get you something, Marne?” The rote question.
I shake my head. “I’m good.”
“Mom, can’t you just—” I see my brother’s mouth tighten. “Well, okay,” I say. “Sure.”
A beat of silence. Ray gets up, walks out into the hall. I hear the bathroom door close.
I pick up my book, an old library book of my mother’s I found last night in the shelf at the top of the stairs on my way up to bed. Wrapped in taped plastic, the call number 1174c stamped cockeyed onto the white sticker at the base of the spine. Through the sheer of the plastic, the black boards, squared binding, the letters of the title in stylized gilt. It was the title that drew me. The Secret of Light. But then I opened it and saw it was all marked up, scribbled notes in the margins, my mother’s—I could tell by the handwriting, though it’s childish. It surprised me when I found it. So unlike her, not to return a book due, and this one so long overdue, the last date on the manila pocket: 1957. She would have been around twelve. The year her father, Luce, disappeared.
I glance at her. She has pulled out two slices of bread for my toast and put them in the toaster. She turns the knob halfway around. They will come out too light. She comes over to the table with the bag of Wavy Lays and dishes out another round of chips onto my brother’s plate. Alex is, has always been, a quintessential momma’s boy. Forty-two years old, he still lets her cut the seeds out of his tangerines.
Reading Group Guide
Dawn Tripp on GAME OF SECRETS
My novels start in pieces—on the page for months—fragments of character, story, scene. I write longhand, in notebooks or on scraps of paper, the backs of receipts, the leftover white space of a grocery list—which I then transcribe into my laptop. Some of those ﬁrst thoughts are imagined, some are stripped from real life. But out of those pieces of raw material, I begin to map a story. I don’t polish up my early drafts. I leave some passages entirely without punctuation. I leave things untidy, open to change. That openness, I feel, is criti- cal. I ﬁnd that when I can let myself stay open to possibilities in a story that I may not yet have uncovered, when I can let myself be driven by what I do not yet know, the story often turns, deepens, in un- expected, revelatory ways.
Game of Secrets started with four primary fragments—the real-life story of a skull that surfaced out of gravel ﬁll with a bullet hole in the temple, and three images: a fourteen-year-old boy driving fast down an unﬁnished highway; two lovers meeting in an old cranberry barn; and two women playing Scrabble. I did not know their names. I did not know the details speciﬁc to their lives, but I could feel the under- currents of tension between them.
The image of the Scrabble game hit me especially hard. Not just because the unfolding of the mystery in the novel mirrors the play- ing of a Scrabble game: clue after clue is revealed, the story comes together piece by piece like a puzzle, as in Scrabble, disparate letters are arranged into words, which in turn are arranged into a larger co- gent grid. That image hit me hard because I have always loved Scrabble. I grew up playing with my grandmother. She taught me cards as well—pitch, gin, poker, bridge. But it was Scrabble that I loved. I remember the thrill I felt when I was old enough to keep my own letters, to have my own rack. We would play with my father after lunch and, after a game or two, my father would drift off to something else. “You want to play again, Nana?” I’d ask. And my grandmother would nod, light another cigarette, and start ﬂipping over the tiles. We would play game after game. Until it was time for her to ﬁx supper. Then we’d eat, clear the table, wash the dishes, I would dry them for her, then I’d ask to play again.
The idea for Game of Secrets came to me years after she was gone. The story has nothing to do with her life; the women in the story are not modeled after her, but the sense of my time with her— generational, intimate, lost—is strung all through it. As I wrote, I remembered those long childhood hours: the stillness of the house, the light tick-tack as she lay down her tiles, the smell of her cigarette balanced on the ashtray, just resting there untended, dwindling down.
And I remembered, too, things she had taught me over the years as we played. She played Scrabble for the words, as many women in her generation did. I always played for the numbers. How we play that game can reveal so much about how we tick, how we live, who we are. In Scrabble, some play to keep the board open, some play to shut it down. Some play with an eye to the sum of the total scores of all players; some play, simply, to maximize their own score. Most players will look at the board and see the words that ﬁll it. But a really good player, a canny player—and she was one of those—will also see opportunity in the skinny spaces still left open in between.
As I wrote the scenes for Game of Secrets, the game for me became the perfect lens for a story about two women and their families bound together and divided by unspeakable secrets—a brutal past, a murder, a love story. Because what are words if not a bridge—in a game of Scrabble or in a novel? Between one person and another. Thought and reality. Past and present, present and future. Words bridge silence. Words, and the stories they comprise, bridge time.
1. Discuss the role of love in Game of Secrets, particularly the role it plays in the lives of the three women. How does love relate to the other themes in the novel, such as longing, absence, violence, and memory?
2. Consider the differences among the three women in the novel, and how these qualities affect their interactions and the courses of their individual lives. How does the friendship between Ada and Jane impact Marne’s relationship with her mother? In what ways are Jane and Marne similar and in what ways are they different? What do the women learn about themselves through one another? Does this reﬂect dynamics in the female relationships in your own life?
3. What are the secrets that are kept in the novel, and who keeps them? What are the secrets that are told, and how does the telling impact the story? Are there mysteries that still remain at the novel’s end? If so, what are they and why do you think the author left them unresolved?
4. Discuss the role of silence in the novel. How do Jane and Ada, as well as the other characters, use—or refuse—language in order to build their lives and their relationships with others? Are there silences in your family and in your friendships that are necessary to keep? What do those silences represent? Discuss.
5. Luce, and the mystery surrounding his death, plays a pivotal role in the story, yet he is little more than a ghost. How does the absence of this man—rather than his presence—drive the story? How do other forms of loss function in the novel? Do you believe that ab- sence can propel us as much as or more than presence? Discuss.
6. The bridge that joins the small town of Westport to the world outside is a signiﬁcant metaphor in Game of Secrets. To Jane and Ada, the bridge and the new highway also mark a distinct separation be- tween the past and the present. Discuss. In what sense does the past keep these characters together and in what sense does it break them apart?
7. Game of Secrets is a “mosaic” narrative, in that it is told from the perspective of several different characters. It also moves back and forth in time. Why do you think Tripp chose to tell the story this way? What do we learn that we might not know otherwise?
8. One central motif in the novel is the Scrabble game that Ada and Jane play every Friday. Why do you think Tripp chose this particu- lar game? Discuss the ways the structure of the narrative echoes the game that Jane and Ada play.
9. Ada and Jane have very different styles of play. What do these styles reveal about how each woman has chosen to live her life? Is your style of play more closely aligned with Jane’s or with Ada’s? What do you think this says about you, if anything? Tripp has said that Scrabble was an important game in her family while she was growing up. Are there games that have been essential in your life, and in the life of your family?
10. Marne's hatred for Huck is overt and palpable in the novel’s early stages. Discuss what Huck represents to Marne. Are there common- alities between them as well as differences that breed Marne’s loathing? How do her feelings for him change over the course of the novel? Why? How did your understanding of Huck evolve in the course of the novel?
11. Both Jane and Marne have a particular, almost secretive relation- ship with books in Game of Secrets. Jane writes in the margins of her books of poetry, conversing in a way she doesn't seem to do in life, while Marne excises passages from books, a habit that then evolves into her work with origami. What do Marne’s origami birds repre- sent to you? How do the birds inform her character, her life, and her relationships?
12. At the end of the novel, several essential secrets are revealed. Do these revelations change the way you understand Jane and the story? Looking back over the novel, do you now see clues you didn’t pick up on the ﬁrst reading?
13. At one point, toward the end of the game, Jane says to Ada: "Love is only this: A tiny nothing, a slip of the tongue, a glance. A world can be built on a glance." Do you agree? Discuss.