Take What You Need: A Novel

Take What You Need: A Novel

by Idra Novey
Take What You Need: A Novel

Take What You Need: A Novel

by Idra Novey


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Notes From Your Bookseller

A remarkable story of home and family, coming of age and making art. Idra Novey is a joy to read, even when she's writing about change and loss; this is, ultimately, a hopeful novel about finding our way in the world. Perfect for fans of Mercury by Amy Jo Burns.

A New York Times Notable Book of 2023

A Best Book of the Year: The New Yorker, L.A. Times, Boston Globe, NPR, The Guardian Author Pick, and Today

Finalist for 2024 Joyce Carol Oates Prize

Longlisted for the 2024 Dublin Literary Award

“A heart-rending book, but also a beautiful celebration of ‘the glorious pleasure of erecting something new,’ be it a work of art or a human connection.”—The Wall Street Journal

From “one of the finest and bravest novelists at work today,” (Vulture) award-winning writer Idra Novey has conjured a novel of “astonishing and singular” honesty (Rumaan Alam) with two determined, unforgettable female voices.

Set in the Allegheny Mountains of Appalachia, Take What You Need traces the parallel lives of Jean and her beloved but estranged stepdaughter, Leah, who’s sought a clean break from her rural childhood. In Leah’s urban life with her young family, she’s revealed little about Jean, how much she misses her stepmother’s hard-won insights and joyful lack of inhibition. But with Jean’s death, Leah must return to sort through what’s been left behind.

What Leah discovers is staggering: Jean has filled her ramshackle house with giant sculptures she’s welded from scraps of the area’s industrial history. There’s also a young man now living in the house who played an unknown role in Jean’s last years and in her art.

With great verve and humor, Idra Novey zeros in on the joys and difficulty of family, the ease with which we let distance mute conflict, and the power we can draw from creative pursuits.

Take What You Need explores the continuing mystery of the people we love most with passionate and resonance, this novel illuminating can be built from what others have discarded—art, unexpected friendship, a new contentment of self. This is Idra Novey at her very best.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593652879
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/27/2024
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 7,952
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Idra Novey is the award-winning author of the novels Ways to Disappear and Those Who Knew. Her work has been translated into a dozen languages and she’s written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. She teaches fiction at Princeton University and in the MFA Program at New York University.

Read an Excerpt

This morning, I read that repeating the name of the deceased can quiet the mind when grieving for a complicated person. My stepmother Jean was a complicated person. I've been reading all kinds of advice since hearing of her death. I didn't know that she'd begun to weld metal towers in her living room, towers so tall she needed a ladder to complete them. Apparently, that's how she died, slipping from one of her ladder's highest rungs.

Jean never left the town where she was born, and where I was also born, and where she became the closest version of a mother I've known. It's a town in the southern Allegheny Mountains, which have been sinking for millions of years and resemble rolling hills now more than mountains. I know uttering Jean's name won't quiet my mind any more than saying the word mountain will stop these hills from sinking farther.

My use of the word stepmother, while soothing, is wishful thinking, too. Jean left my father when I was ten and hasn't technically been my stepmother for decades. I've gone through phases of calling her up, seeking her contrarian take on things. Just as often, it's felt saner to stop all contact, and the past four years we've had none.

Despite this prolonged recent silence, she left her towers to me. I received the news from a man named Elliott, who claims he's been living with Jean for some time. He was reluctant to elaborate on the phone, beyond explaining that he was at the hardware store when Jean fell from the ladder. He drove her to the hospital, he said, as soon as he found her unconscious on the floor.

I'm driving toward Jean's house now, trying to give this man the benefit of the doubt, to imagine him grieving for her as well. Early this morning, I rented a car near my building in Long Island City.

It takes hours to cross the tilled middle of Pennsylvania and I'm not alone in this compact rental car. I have a young son in the back seat and a husband sitting next to me who isn't from this country and has never driven into the Allegheny Mountains before. I'd planned on bringing my family here at some point, once the country was less polarized, or after Jean wrote first, or after I caved and sent a few words to her. I work all day with words, revising them in multiple languages before they move on to websites, and yet these past four years I haven't been able to move even a single sentence in Jean's direction.

Beside me in the car, my husband, Gerardo, is sighing. The road before us has narrowed to two lanes, and for several miles, we've been trapped behind a blue pickup truck with several long plastic tubes rattling around in the back.

According to GPS, it'll now be an additional twelve minutes until we reach Jean's driveway, and conjuring her name has yet to resolve the disquiet in my mind. Each time I say Jean's name to myself, I hear her louder still, the rising pleasure in her voice when she read me fairy tales, stopping to insist that she wasn't like the stepmother in "Snow White," that she had no craving for my liver or my lungs.

All I want is to nibble at your heart, Leah, she'd tell me. You don't mind if I eat your heart sometimes, right? Just one of your ventricles?

I'd play along, tell Jean to eat my whole heart if she was hungry enough. We had such fun slipping bits of ourselves into the savage parts. I've yet to read any of those Grimm tales to my son. I've stuck to newer books for him, to stories that stir up nothing from my childhood and present no risk of Jean creeping into my voice. It's felt like a neat and necessary excision, leaving out Jean and the confusing appetites of those old tales. I'm fumbling enough already, ambling motherless into motherhood.

Except now there is no Jean. She's fallen to this odd fairy tale death while living with a man I know nothing about. I hope what Elliott said on the phone about her slipping from the ladder is true, and that Jean died in the rapture of making these towers. Maybe my grief will be easier to bear over these last few hills if I keep this fairy tale going in my mind. I know even fairy tales that bend toward mercy have their brutal twists, and there's no returning to these hills without allowing Jean to gnaw at my heart again, to chew on my ventricles like strips of venison.

In the back seat, my son, Silvestre, is restless and flailing his legs. I offer him the last of the apple slices I prepared for our long trip into these sinking mountains. I assure him this old truck with its rattling plastic tubes won't remain ahead of us forever.


I'd had it with the new mailman. He kept peering in at me through the screen door like I was up to something indecent, sculpting cocks like Louise Bourgeois. I didn't have the forging equipment to weld anything cock-shaped. I was no Louise either. I was just trying to master the nature of a box. Everything I made was flat and six-sided, and I didn't need the new mailman snickering at any of it. I also couldn't keep the front door shut, not once the metal got molten enough to start releasing its fumes and the argon gas from the TIG torch was doing its inert magic to the air.

I tried to take the high road at first. I said please and called the new mailman by the name on his uniform. I said Kenny, could you please just leave the mail on the front steps, even if it's pouring? I told him I didn't care if my bills got soggy. Kenny said sure and then went on doing exactly what I'd asked him not to, creeping up to the screen door to spy on me.

When he got here yesterday, I was sawing the heads off a new batch of spoons. I used the spoon heads for the capsules I started brazing onto my boxes, to add a few lumps of surprise to the sides. I knew who at the flea market tended to have silver spoons. The silver ones were far softer to saw through than stainless steel. The real fun, though, was choosing what to place inside the spoon heads before I welded the capsules shut. I sealed all sorts of things inside-bits of photos, the buds of pine cones, whatever I damn well pleased.

Oh, I'd waited so long for these freeing days-too long to put up with Kenny's mocking face. When he snickered again at the screen door, I had to march out with my bow saw and let him know I'd slice off his goddamn nose if he came onto my porch again. With half this town packing heat when they went out for groceries, a threat with a saw seemed reasonable enough.

This morning, at the creak of somebody coming up the front steps, I grabbed my bow saw again from the workbench. I was ready to let that bastard think I meant it.

Except it wasn't Kenny. It was the woman who'd moved in next door a few months ago with two grown kids. I'd yet to speak to any of them. I'd been keeping an eye on the idle son, though, as one does when a young man moves in next door who does not appear to have a job or anything to do with himself besides sit out on the front steps, swiping at his phone screen and spitting in the grass. The daughter had more spark to her, marching off each morning to school in her purple high tops, never a minute past eight fifteen. She had darker skin, and I guessed probably a different father than her older brother.

Their mother didn't step outside much. Her arrival on my porch was the first time I'd seen her up close, her dim blue eyes and limp blondish hair. She had a depleted expression that was quite a contrast to the leaping pink dogs on her T-shirt. She tapped just once on the wooden doorframe and then waited, as she could see me gripping my saw behind the workbench as clearly as I could see her, clutching the handles of two empty plastic iced tea jugs in each of her hands.

Um, good morning . . . excuse me, she called through the door. I was wondering-

Hold on a second, I told her. I'll be right there.

It was like she was peering down my throat, how intently she was ogling my shelves and machinery. I could sense her unease growing as she took in all my Manglements, what I'd come to call my box shapes in my mind. To keep the floor clear, I'd crammed most of the smaller ones onto the wooden shelves where my mother had displayed the painted plates she'd gotten from her mother. I still had their plates-I'd just relocated them to a corner down in the cellar.

Something you need? I called to my neighbor as I stepped around the workbench. I took my time, not wanting to trip on the scraps of cowhide I kept over the floorboards to avoid any more errant sparks from my welder starting a fire. Last summer, some sparks burned a hole clear through the floor to the cellar, igniting the cushion of an old chair.

On the other side of the screen door, clutching her empty tea jugs, the woman kept gaping at my front room, nodding like she'd forgotten what she'd come up the steps to ask me. Yes, she said, yes, I was . . . ah . . . wondering if we could use your spigot. The city shut off our water.

Those bastards, I said. I'm sorry.

I placed my hand on the knob, waiting for her to back up so I could push the door open and speak to her without the grimy screen between us. She didn't step back, though, which was fine with me. I left the screen door closed-why her water bill had gone unpaid wasn't any of my business, same as my life wasn't any business of hers.

You're more than welcome to use the spigot anytime, I told her from my side of the door.

It would just be these four gallons, she said from her side, raising both hands, causing her empty plastic iced tea jugs to smack against each other.

Take whatever you need, I told her, and you don't have to come and ask. Just go ahead and fill 'em. It's fine.

The woman nodded at this, already beginning her careful retreat toward the porch steps. She didn't offer her name and I didn't ask for it-or offer her my name either. It seemed best to just let the conversation end there. I didn't want her to think she had to give me a taste of her family's problems in order to use my water.

Of course, I was being cautious for my own sake, too. Among the handful of us owners still left on Paton Street, I considered myself among the least paranoid, though I wasn't naive. She was a woman with a grown son ticking away on the front steps. We had too many young men ticking like that all over town, more than at any point in my life-their stillness felt almost cultlike, all of them hunched over, praying to nothing, and the rest of us driving by, eyeing them with sadness and dread.

With just about everyone now in the East End, it had become a nonstop eyeing-and-spying situation. No matter how often a gun went off, I couldn't get used to it. The few other owners hanging on to their homes didn't want to talk any more than I did about why we were the ones who hadn't traded up and cleared out when it was still possible, before our houses became worthless. The Section 8 families and renters were wary of us, too, not knowing which of us might be bitter and cause problems. They spied just as much on one another, arriving with their worn-out mattresses and their belongings in garbage bags. Hardly any of them lasted a year.

After the woman left, I got agitated, sorry for her and her kids, but leery, too, of what she might come over and ask for next. To clear my mind, I sat down for a moment at my laptop before getting back to the rest of the spoon heads.

In my Hotmail, I found a message waiting from Leah. Not a personal message-I only heard from her when she sent around one of her impassioned donation requests. I clicked yes every time, sometimes sending ten bucks, sometimes more. Except for a rare phone call when she was worked up about her father, I'd become a nonentity to her, former stepmother being a non-position, with no reliable shape whatsoever. This time, Leah was after donations for kids arriving alone at the border, kids hungry and terrified enough to do such a thing. I typed in twenty, the tendons in my hands cramping as I sent my usual two-sentence reply to let her know I'd donated and that I hoped she and her husband were doing well. She rarely wrote back with more than a few lines. I'd only learned she had a husband when she sent a mass email with a picture from their honeymoon, the two of them standing together at the equator. I'd gotten the news from her group email like I was no more to her now than an acquaintance, as if all the years she'd sat on my lap had never happened, as if all the mornings she'd slipped into my side of the bed meant nothing now.

After clicking send, I had to spritz my face at the kitchen sink. Through the open window behind the faucet, I heard the glug and spurt of the spigot starting up outside. I assumed it was the mother crouching on the other side of the wall. The branches of my hydrangeas had grown out of control and I hoped they weren't poking that poor woman in the ass.

Fuckin' bushes, I heard a man swear, his voice so close through the open window it startled me.

When he erupted again, mouthing off about the spray from the spigot, I clinked two glasses in the sink. To make certain he got the message that he couldn't come over, grumbling like that every day at my spigot, I clanged a knife against one of the glasses.

The grumbling on the other side of my window stopped immediately. Only one of us had water. And it was me.

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