A poignant and breathtaking novel from the author of The Things We Keep and The Secrets of Midwives.
All their lives, Alice Stanhope and her daughter, Zoe, have been a family of two, living quietly in Northern California. Zoe has always struggled with crippling social anxiety and her mother has been her constant and fierce protector. With no family to speak of, and the identity of Zoe’s father shrouded in mystery, their team of two works—until it doesn’t. Until Alice gets sick and needs to fight for her life.
Desperate to find stability for Zoe, Alice reaches out to two women who are practically strangers but who are her only hope: Kate, a nurse, and Sonja, a social worker. As the four of them come together, a chain of events is set into motion and all four of them must confront their sharpest fears and secrets—secrets about abandonment, abuse, estrangement, and the deepest longing for family. Imbued with heart and humor in even the most dismal moments, The Mother’s Promise is an unforgettable novel about the unbreakable bonds between mothers and daughters and the new ways in which families are forged.
Sally Hepworth novels are "sure to appeal to fans of Jojo Moyes, Jodi Picoult, and Lisa Genova; book clubs will be lining up." —Library Journal (starred review)
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About the Author
Sally Hepworth has lived around the world, spending extended periods in Singapore, the United Kingdom and Canada. She is the author of The Secrets of Midwives, The Things We Keep, The Mother's Promise, The Family Next Door and The Mother-in-Law. Sally now lives in Melbourne with her husband, three children, and one adorable dog.
Read an Excerpt
The Mother's Promise
By Sally Hepworth
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Sally Hepworth
All rights reserved.
When the doctor gave Alice Stanhope the news, she was thinking about Zoe. Was she all right? Was today a bad day? What was she doing? In fact, Alice was so swept up in thoughts of Zoe that when the doctor cleared his throat she startled.
"Sorry," she said. "I zoned out for a second."
Dr. Brookes glanced at the nurse on Alice's right, who sat with her hand close to, but not quite touching, Alice's. The nurse's role in this hadn't been entirely clear until this moment, when she scooted a little closer on her chair. Clearly she was here to translate the medical speak. "Alice, Dr. Brookes was just saying that, unfortunately, your test results ... they're not what we hoped for. Given the ultrasound, and now these test results, I'm afraid ..."
On the wall clock, Alice noticed the time: 10:14 A.M. Zoe would be in third period. Science. Or would she? Some days, if she wasn't feeling up to it, she skipped a class or two in the middle of the day. Alice always covered for her. In fact, if it weren't for this appointment, she might have suggested Zoe have a day at home today. Instead she'd watched as Zoe packed up her books and bravely headed out the door. In a way, the brave days were the worst. The strained smile, the I'm fine, Mom, was somehow more painful to take than the I ache, Mom, I can't face the day.
Alice looked at the nurse, whose name she'd forgotten, and apologized again. She tried to focus, but Zoe lurked in the shadows of her thoughts — so much that the nurse started to look a little like Zoe. The nurse was older, of course — thirtyish, maybe — but she was pretty, with the same chestnut hair and pink lips Zoe had, the same heart-shaped face. She even had Zoe's pallor, off-white with purplish shadows under her eyes.
"Would you like to go over it again?" the nurse suggested.
Alice nodded and tried to concentrate as the nurse talked about a "mass," a CA 125 score, a something-or-other-ectomy. She knew this nurse — Kate, according to her name badge — and Dr. Brookes didn't think she was taking it seriously enough, but Alice simply couldn't seem to conjure up the required feelings of fear and dread. She'd been through it too many times. The irregular Pap smear, the unusual breast lump, the rash no one could seem to diagnose. She seemed to have a knack for attracting illnesses and ailments that required just enough investigation to be financially and emotionally draining, but — and she knew she ought to be grateful for this — always stopped short of the main event. Now it was happening again. She was prepared to go through the motions — as a single mother, she was committed to looking after her health — but what she really wanted was to get it over with, so she could get to work.
"Alice," Kate was saying, "I'm concerned that you're here alone. Is there someone I can call for you? There was no emergency contact listed on your paperwork. Perhaps you have a family member or a friend...?"
"You don't have anyone?"
"No," she said. "It's just my daughter and me."
The doctor and nurse exchanged a look.
Alice knew what they were thinking. How could she not have anyone? Where are her family and friends? They probably couldn't wait to leave so they could talk about her. Alice couldn't wait to leave too.
"How old is your daughter?" Kate asked finally.
"Zoe just turned fifteen."
"And ... Zoe's father ...?"
"... isn't in the picture."
Alice braced for a reaction. Whenever she imparted this particular piece of information, women tended to wince and then offer a sympathetic noise as if she'd told them she'd broken a toe. But the nurse didn't react at all. It raised her slightly in Alice's opinion.
"What about your parents?" she asked. "Siblings?"
"My parents have both passed away. My brother would be less than useless as an emergency contact."
"Are you sure," she started. "Because —"
"He's an alcoholic. A practicing alcoholic. Not that he needs the practice ..."
Not so much as a smile from either of them. Dr. Brookes sat forward. "Mrs. Stanhope —"
"Ms. Stanhope," Alice corrected. "Or Alice."
"Alice. We need to schedule you for surgery as soon as possible."
"Okay." Alice reached into her tote and pulled out her day planner. She flicked it to today's date. "Is it possible to do a Friday, because I don't work Fridays. Except the first Friday in the month, when I drive Mrs. Buxton to her Scrabble meeting —"
"Mrs. Buxton?" Kate said, suddenly animated. Alice realized the nurse had mistaken her for a potential support person.
"Oh no," Alice explained. "She's eighty-three. I look after her, not the other way around. It's my job. I mean, I'm not a nurse or anything. I keep elderly people company, cook and clean a bit. Drive them around. Atherton Home Helpers, that's my business." Alice was rambling; she needed to get it together. "So ... the operation ... is it a day procedure?"
There was a short silence.
"No, Alice, I'm afraid it's not," Dr. Brookes said. His eyes were incredulous. "A salpingo-oophorectomy is major surgery where we take out the ovaries and fallopian tubes. You'll have to stay in the hospital for at least a few nights. Maybe up to a week, depending on what we find."
Something hardened in the back of Alice's throat. "A ... week?"
"Oh." She stopped, swallowed. Tried again. "Well, uh, when can you do it?"
"As soon as possible. Monday, if I can arrange it."
Alice felt a strange jolt, a lurch, into awareness. Kate's hand finally touched hers, and maybe it was the shock, or maybe their earlier moment of camaraderie, but Alice allowed it.
"Maybe your daughter should be here," Kate said. "If she is going to be your primary support she probably needs to —"
"No," Alice said, pulling her hands back into her lap.
"This will be hard for her," Dr. Brookes said thoughtfully, "and we will be mindful of that. But at fifteen, she might be able to handle more than you —"
"No," Alice repeated. "Zoe doesn't need to be involved in this. She can't handle this. She isn't like a normal teenager."
Dr. Brookes raised his eyebrows, but Alice didn't bother explaining further. Doctors always turned it around on her, making it seem like the whole thing was her fault — or, worse, Zoe's.
"Zoe won't be my support person," Alice said, with finality. "She doesn't need to know about any of this."
Dr. Brookes sighed. "Alice, I don't think you fully understand —"
"Maybe there's someone else, Alice?" Kate interrupted. "A friend? Even an acquaintance? Someone to drive you home from surgery, to be at these kinds of appointments?"
Alice shook her head. Dr. Brookes and Kate conferred with their eyes.
"We can get a social worker to contact you," Kate said, finally. "They'll be able to attend appointments with you, they might be able to organize meals, or even get access to special funding to help with out-of-pocket costs." To Kate's credit, she wasn't reeling off a speech; she appeared genuinely engaged in what she was saying. "The thing is, Alice, you are going to need someone. We need to do more tests, but the current information we have indicates that your condition is very serious. You have a mass in your ovaries, your CA 125 levels are up in the thousands, and you have a buildup of fluid in the abdomen, indicating the cancer may have already spread. Even in the best-case scenario, if everything goes well in the surgery you will most likely have to have chemotherapy. We will do everything we can, but I promise you ... you are going to need someone."
If she'd felt a jolt earlier, this was a cannon, blowing a giant hole right through her. "Cancer." Had they used that word earlier? She didn't remember it.
Apparently appeased by her expression — finally the reaction they'd been waiting for — the doctor began to explain it all again, a third or maybe fourth time. Once again, Alice zoned out. Because ... she couldn't have cancer. She was barely forty, she ate well, exercised occasionally. More importantly, she couldn't have cancer. She had Zoe.
Dr. Brookes finished his spiel and asked her if she had any questions. Alice opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She thought again about what Kate had said. You are going to need someone. Alice wanted to tell her she was wrong. Because if what she was saying was true, Alice wasn't going to need someone. Zoe was.CHAPTER 2
As cancer-care coordinator, Kate Littleton delivered bad news for a living. In five years at the job she'd given hundreds of people what was, arguably, the worst news of their lives, and in five years it hadn't got any easier. Today's appointment was no exception. When the doctor explained to Alice Stanhope that she had cancer, it was almost as though she didn't hear. A severe case of denial, most likely, which was why they asked patients to bring a support person to appointments — so they could hear what the patient could not.
There wasn't anyone, Alice had said. Was that possible? In five years at Stanford Health Care, Kate had never heard this. Most patients were surrounded by people, in chemotherapy, in post-op; usually Kate's problem was getting them all to leave so the patient could rest. The ideal scenario, in Kate's experience, was for patients to have one primary support person. There was something about pairs — the yin and the yang of it. When one fell apart, the other was strong; when one zoned out, the other would listen. Yet Alice Stanhope didn't have a single person she felt she could nominate to walk beside her in what was going to be the hardest journey of her life. Which meant that Kate would have to do her job a little better than usual.
Kate knew there was one thing that a patient needed more than a doctor, more than a nurse, even more than medicine, and that was a mother. Someone to reassure them, to fluff their pillows, to give them that look of certainty that said they were in good hands. Someone to fight for them. At the age of nine, after an emergency appendectomy, Kate had learned this firsthand. Her father, widowed when Kate was just a toddler, had visited her every night, but it was Ann, Kate's nurse with the short brown hair and thick ankles, who'd cuddled her before she fell asleep. It was Ann who shooed the younger nurses out of her room and wheeled in the old TV and VCR along with kids' movies she'd rented at Blockbuster on her way to her shift. It was Ann who'd told her that under no circumstances was she to eat her vegetables. For those two weeks, Kate had had a mother. Now Kate strived to be that mother for her patients.
Kate looked up from her desk. Dr. Brookes — Chris — stood in her doorway. He was so tall his head almost brushed the top of the doorframe. His top button was undone and his skin had a bluish tinge.
"Lunch?" Kate glanced at her watch. "It's not even eleven A.M."
"When you are called into surgery at three A.M., lunchtime is whenever you have a break," he said. "Oh, I managed to get Alice Stanhope's surgery scheduled for Monday."
"Perfect." Kate reached for a pen. "What time?"
"First up. Eight A.M."
Kate wrote the details on her desk calendar.
Alice Stanhope: Bilateral Salpingo-Oophorectomy.
The one thing Kate couldn't get used to was that you couldn't see the cancer. Alice, in particular, looked well. Blondish and slim with short tousled hair, she was the picture of Meg Ryan, back in her heyday. The image of health. It was always a shock to learn that someone like that had cancer.
Chris leaned against the doorframe. "What do you think was up with Alice's daughter? What did she say ... that she isn't like a normal teenager?"
"I wondered that myself," Kate said. "Who knows? Some kind of special needs, maybe?'"
"Geez, I hope not," he said, and they both drifted into silence for a moment. Eventually Chris shook his head. "Well, we'll just have to take extra-good care of her mother, won't we?"
Sometimes Kate loved Chris Brookes.
"All right," he said, "I guess I'll get one of those plastic salads from the cafeteria. Those salads are probably causing the cancer that we treat here, you know. We're probably keeping ourselves in business."
When he had drifted off down the corridor, Kate listened to her voice mail. She had two messages: the first from an anxious middle-aged woman wanting information about her newly diagnosed breast cancer, the second from David, who had seen cheap fares to Cancún and thought it was high time for a second honeymoon. "Or, what do they call them nowadays," he'd added, "a babymoon?"
Kate's eyes drifted back to her desk calendar, specifically to the Post-it on the bottom of tomorrow's date. Twelve weeks. She'd written it eleven weeks and two days earlier when she'd seen the two pink lines appear on the pregnancy test she'd promised her fertility doctor she wouldn't take. Twice before she'd written this note on a Post-it — but those had ended up in the trash at seven and nine weeks respectively. This time, she'd made it to twelve weeks. Almost.
It was the final piece of her puzzle, growing inside her, ready to make them whole. All Kate needed to do was hold on to it.CHAPTER 3
In third-period science, Zoe was trying to follow the rules. Not the class rules, her own. And her own rules were far more extensive.
Never place both feet on the ground while sitting.
Never touch the sides of the chair.
Never be the first or last person to take their seat.
It's okay to look around the classroom, but never out the window.
Don't let anything weird pop into your head.
If forced to answer a question never start your response with "Um" or "I think."
Two seats to her left, Cameron Freeman was folding up scraps of paper and attempting to throw them at the back of Billy Dyer's head (yeah, real cool, Cameron, picking on a kid because he's deaf), but the paper was falling well short of its target. Zoe wanted to tell Cameron to cut it out, but Zoe didn't do things like that. It wasn't that she cared about what Cameron Freeman thought about her — she didn't — it was merely the fact that if she stood up to him people would notice she was alive, and that was something Zoe tried to avoid at all costs.
"Okay, class," Mr. Bahr said. "Everyone find a partner."
Zoe's stomach plunged. There were few things more heinous than having to find a partner in class. The looking around, the making eye contact, the inevitable rejection. All around her people paired up with the ease of magnet and metal. Even now Zoe couldn't help but marvel. How did they do it? Were they really as carefree as they looked? Usually, when the class was asked to partner up, Zoe lunged for Emily, her one and only friend. When Emily wasn't in her class — like third-period science — she simply kept her eyes down and tried to be invisible. Eventually the teacher would pair her up with whoever was left, usually Billy or Jessie Lee Simons, the emo with the turquoise hair and the piercings. But today, as she pondered her defect, her inability to be normal, she found herself staring straight ahead, and that's when she noticed Harry Lynch, bent around in his chair with one elbow draped on the front of her desk.
"What?" she whispered, when he didn't look away.
"You just said my name."
Was he crazy? Why on earth would she say his name? "No I didn't."
"You did. First and last." Harry spoke matter-of-factly rather than with ridicule. "Why else would I be looking at you?"
Zoe felt her cheeks pool with hot, shameful color. It was a good question, which made it all the more humiliating. Someone like Harry would never look at Zoe spontaneously. Harry wasn't good-looking exactly, but he managed to hide it well by being big and looking more or less like all the other guys who played football. Maybe she had said his name out loud? She did do weird things like that sometimes. Once, in gym class, she'd accidentally started singing out loud (she needed to sing internally to get through the horror of exercising and wearing gym shorts in public). Maybe she was actually as crazy as she thought she was?
Harry opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could, Amber Jeffries was practically sitting in his lap. "Partner, Harry?"
She gave him the kind of slow sexy smile that was both adorable and sickeningly desperate. Harry's gaze flickered to Amber's. "Sure."
As he turned back to face the front, Zoe's heart started to beat again. Another bullet dodged. Just about another five hundred billion to go.
* * *
Once, Zoe's mom had asked her to describe what it felt like, being her. For a heartbeat, she'd considered telling her the truth.
Excerpted from The Mother's Promise by Sally Hepworth. Copyright © 2017 Sally Hepworth. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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