This unputdownable novel is THE perfect mix of family drama and suspense. (Think The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt + Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.) Laura Preston’s life isn’t quite what she expected: her career as a painter is stalled, her mother’s health is failing, and she’s fallen out with her sister, Bea. And when a stranger claiming to be her brother (who disappeared 40 years earlier) appears, Laura’s forced to face her family’s darkest secrets…
Washington, DC, 2019: Laura Preston is a reclusive artist at odds with her older sister Beatrice as their elegant, formidable mother slowly slides into dementia. When a stranger contacts Laura claiming to be her brother who disappeared forty years earlier when the family lived in Bangkok, Laura ignores Bea’s warnings of a scam and flies to Thailand to see if it can be true. But meeting him in person leads to more questions than answers.
Bangkok, 1972: Genevieve and Robert Preston live in a beautiful house behind a high wall, raising their three children with the help of a cadre of servants. In these exotic surroundings, Genevieve strives to create a semblance of the life they would have had at home in the US—ballet and riding classes for the children, impeccable dinner parties, a meticulously kept home. But in truth, Robert works for American intelligence, Genevieve finds herself drawn into a passionate affair with her husband’s boss, and their serene household is vulnerable to unseen dangers in a rapidly changing world and a country they don’t really understand.
Alternating between past and present as all of the secrets are revealed, What Could Be Saved is an unforgettable novel about a family broken by loss and betrayal, and “a richly imagined page-turner that delivers twists alongside thought-provoking commentary” (Kirkus Reviews).
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“CAUGHT IN the act,” said Sullivan, appearing at the top of the studio stairs. He stood there for a moment, slightly out of breath from the four-story climb.
“Not quite,” said Laura. She was in the little kitchen area, working the color from her hands using a rag dipped in mineral spirits; her cleaned brushes lay in an exhausted regiment across the counter.
Sullivan’s nose wrinkled. “All this technology and you can’t open a window?” he said. “I’m going to find you dead in here one of these days.”
“Where’s your business sense?” she said dryly as he crossed to the glass panel set into the wall. “My untimely demise would definitely drive prices up.” Although how untimely would it be, really? Fifty-four was young enough for people to murmur so young but not mean it, old enough for youthful sins to have caught up.
He tapped at the controls. A muted growl came from the back wall as motorized shades began to descend over the windows there. They stopped and reversed. The side lights blinked on and then off again, then the overhead lights on and off. Finally, a click overhead and a whir, and two of the high slanted skylights began to move. Sullivan stood with his head back, watching them lift away from the ceiling. A damp spring air blew in.
“It is a good smell, though,” he said, taking his hand down from the control panel. “Means you’ve been working.” He crossed the room to stand in front of the easel. “Another ghost, I see.” His voice maddeningly neutral.
Sullivan had been excited about the Ghost Pictures at the beginning. He’d given them a prime-time autumn opening in the New York space, had written lyrical catalog copy: scraped canvases intrigue the viewer with muted, suggestive images, like the residue of a dream. That had been four years ago.
“Why are you here?” It came out more abruptly than she’d intended.
“Because you don’t answer your phone,” he said. “Or email. Or texts.” He bent close to scrutinize a section of the painting. “Someone called the gallery trying to reach you.”
“I think my phone is downstairs.” Finding a clean place on the solvent-wet rag, working it into the webbed crotch between two fingers, she nodded to the landline squatting on the counter. “You could have called me on that.”
He shrugged. “It gave me an excuse to check on you.”
That was what it had come to. Sullivan was six years younger than she was; at one point, he’d wanted to sleep with her and she’d considered it—he was funny and smart and good-looking, and she’d been feeling raggedy after Adam and wanting a boost—but had decided against it on principles of don’t shit where you eat. Since then, apparently, Laura had edged over an invisible hill: now Sullivan was checking on her as though she were his elderly aunt.
“Also I promised Kelsey,” he added. “She’s the one who took the telephone calls.”
“Oho,” Laura said. Kelsey, the Washington gallery’s new front-desk girl. Mid-twenties, very pretty, her manner toward Laura infused with that millennial you-go-girl faux heartiness reserved for the elderly or otherwise pathetic. It’s been a world wind in here, Kelsey had told Laura when they met. Laura, indulging an evil impulse, had gotten the girl to repeat herself and Kelsey had obliged, speaking more slowly. There again was the space between the syllables, the unmistakable thud of the extra D: Kelsey was saying world wind—or possibly whirled wind. She was at least twenty years younger than Sullivan, but no one would blink if the two of them began an affair. Perhaps they already had.
“Apparently you’ve ignored three emails,” said Sullivan. He had his phone out now, was tapping and swiping through screens. “The caller was very upset.” Laura imagined Kelsey’s whimper: He yelled at me, he was awful. “Here.” He held out the phone. “Something about your brother. You don’t have a brother, right?”
Laura stared at him, then put down the rag and reached to take the phone, ignoring his wince at her still-painty hand. She read the brief message through once, twice; then holding it up before her, eyes on the screen, she walked over to the landline, took up the receiver, and dialed.
“Listen to this email,” she said when Beatrice answered. She cradled the receiver between ear and neck and read aloud.
I believe I have found your brother Philip. Are you Laura Preston born on 25 March 1965 to Robert and Genevieve Preston? If so, please reply. If you are not the correct Laura Preston, I am sorry for deranging you.
Thank you. Claude Bossert
When she finished, Bea was silent.
“It has my birthday in it,” said Laura in an arguing voice. Across the room, Sullivan was looking at her, eyebrows raised. She turned her back on him. “Did Mum ever give out that information?”
“Who knows,” said Bea, her words surfing down through the phone on a sigh. “Probably.” Her voice held the weary reflexive accommodation of the elder sibling, always an aggrieved shadow of They left me alone to look after you when I was ten years old in it. As if the servants hadn’t been there too. “Just delete it.”
“But why would it come now,” said Laura.
The squeak of the terrace door latch, the rattle as it shut: she turned to see that Sullivan had gone outside and was standing at the railing looking down over Woodley Park.
“Did you mention him in the Post profile?” said Bea.
“No,” Laura said.
“Maybe someone did a deep dive on Google,” said Bea. “Everything lives forever on the internet.” Voice taut: “You’re not thinking of responding to it.”
“It didn’t ask for money,” said Laura.
“The next one will,” said Bea.
“Well, they could ask, but that doesn’t mean I would give. One reply email, asking for details—what could that hurt?” Laura heard the bargaining tone in her own voice with irritation. How did an older sister keep the power to shrink you back to childhood? One minute on the phone with Beatrice reduced Laura to the tagalong little sister she had once been, whining Play with me.
“I thought we were done with all this,” said Bea. “It was the only silver lining about Mum.”
“I’m not an idiot.” That truculent baby sister again, lower lip stuck out. Laura strove to make her voice neutral. “The first demand for money, and I’d be out.”
“Why engage at all?” said Bea. “What would be the point?”
She was so much like their mother, swift and breathtakingly confident in her assessments, dismissing whatever she deemed unworthy of her attention, capably taking charge of the rest. Like their mother had been, Laura corrected herself.
A long pause. Morning was leavening the sky outside the windows of her aerie, the knotted spires of the Gothic cathedral pushing up from the skyline. She’d been smart or lucky or both, to add this level to the narrow brick town house back when this was a modest middle-class neighborhood. No way she’d be able to get a permit to do it now.
“Are you going to see Mum today?” asked Bea, her voice turned brisk, as if moving to the next item on a checklist. “I can’t get over there. There’s a thing at the boys’ school.” A thing. A tennis tournament, or diving championship, or academic awards ceremony: it could be any of those. Beatrice’s twins were multiply, almost preternaturally gifted. You’d never know it from Beatrice, though: trophies stayed out of sight in the boys’ bedrooms, and she didn’t boast about their accomplishments. It seemed like humility, but Laura knew it was actually the most rarefied form of pride. Of course Bea’s children were extraordinary; proof wasn’t necessary.
“I was planning to have lunch over there—” said Laura. What day was it? She looked at Sullivan’s phone, which by now had flicked to the lock screen: Tuesday. “Tomorrow.” Thank goodness; she hadn’t missed Tuesday dinner. Edward hated when she missed.
“If you do, make sure to check on the garden. Noi says the gardener’s been slacking off.”
“I will,” said Laura. Wondering, what would she look for? Weeds? “But Bea, if it is him,” she said. “What if it is.”
“It isn’t,” said her sister. “It never is.”
“You hungry?” said Sullivan, coming back inside and finding Laura cleaning his phone off with the mineral-spirit rag. “Come on. I’ll treat you to breakfast.”
“I was going to take a walk,” said Laura. “I haven’t been out of this house in three days.”
She held his phone out; he took it between two fingers, waving it gingerly in the air to speed the evaporation of solvent.
“Do you want to talk about that whole thing?” He inclined his head toward the landline.
“Nope,” Laura said.
He followed her down the stairs, through the kitchen to the back door she held open for him, stood below her on the long exterior flight of concrete steps while she locked up.
“I’ll send the guys for the painting in—” he said.
“Two weeks,” she said. It would be varnished by then and dry, ready for transport. At the moment of completion it had been vital, almost like a living part of her; now it was a husk, inanimate, taking up space in her studio. Wampum, to trade for groceries.
Sullivan’s car waited in the parking space beside the weedy oblong that was far too small to be called a backyard. He hesitated beside it, keys in hand.
“The new painting,” he said. “It’s not really new, is it.”
His eyes were manganese blue well-diluted, maybe a little viridian mixed in, a rim of indigo. During the last twenty years she had looked into these eyes as often as any others, even Edward’s, even her sister’s or mother’s. A sad statement: her gallery owner might be her closest friend.
“I’m not done with the series,” she said. “Or it’s not done with me.”
“It’s just—” he said, and stopped himself.
“What?” she said.
“It’s starting to feel like a gimmick.” In a jokey tone to soften that, he added, “Not to mention a waste of a lot of perfectly good paint.”
“Kawara’s Today series went on for decades.”
“Time was part of that concept,” he said. He did not add, And you are not Kawara. He pressed the fob in his hand and the car double-chirped; he opened the driver’s door. “Come on. Let’s talk over breakfast. This new place in Tenley does great avocado toast. Also French toast. All the toasts.”
“They sell, right?” she said, not moving. “So why do you care?”
He sighed, looked away from her, down the alley. Then back. “I’m going to have to put someone else into the slot I was holding for you in New York.”
“Fine,” she said, turning away.
“Laura,” he called as she took long strides up the one-way alley, past the garbage and recycling bins paired tidily behind each house. As she came out of the alley onto Cathedral Avenue, she heard his car start up behind her and drive away.
This part of Washington was beautifully walkable; Laura hadn’t owned a car in years. The neighborhood had evolved since she’d moved there, the teachers and midlevel professionals dying or downsizing, the rich young moving in. The old sidewalks that had been humped and broken over the roots of midcentury maples were jackhammered up and the trees themselves replaced; now concrete flowed in smooth pram-friendly ribbons beside compact and fruitless ginkgoes. Laura reached Connecticut Avenue and turned left, toward what had once been a strip of secondhand shops and bars and a battered Safeway. It was now a decorous array of pastel-painted boutiques, a vegan bakery, a gourmet supermarket. Tucked in the middle was a tiny ultra-hip coffee shop, where Laura joined the line that snaked patiently away from the counter.
She carried her shade-grown, fair-trade decaf latte past a rank of gleaming smartbikes toward the zoo. On a weekday morning with school still in session, crowds would be thin and she’d be able to walk for nearly two miles, taking the long outside loop all the way to the end, swinging around the Kids’ Farm and coming back through Amazonia. She paused for a don’t walk light beside the corner kiosk that was, as always, neatly color-blocked with notices for local events, items for sale, music lessons. She admired the dedication of the invisible someone who managed this small piece of the world, taking down the past-date advertisements and stapling new ones into place.
A mild misting rain had started by the time she reached the zoo. She discarded the coffee cup into a bin and set off, hands balled in her pockets. The long walk after finishing a painting was usually something she enjoyed: it drove the fumes from her sinuses and stretched out her tight muscles. It also allowed her to savor a curious and temporary aftereffect that made her vision sharper and colors almost surreal, her brain still painting after her body had stopped. But today she found herself brooding, annoyed. By Beatrice’s dismissiveness, by Sullivan’s bland intrusion, his gimmick. With that word he had turned Laura to face what she’d been resolutely trying to ignore.
Down the years, she had known other artists who were suffering from block; she had sympathized, of course, but not really understood. Her mental knock on wood, an internal There but for the grace of God had been reflexive and insincere. How smug she’d been, how certain that her own engine of inspiration would never fail.
Yet it had. Or at least, it had downshifted. Laura still turned out paintings regularly—too regularly. Too comfortably. Making art had once felt exhilarating and terrifying, like combustion or freefall, like peeling herself open. It had felt dangerous and important. Had youth been the necessary ingredient there, or naiveté?
She passed a zoo worker, huddled into his windbreaker. He shot Laura a concerned look and she saw herself through his eyes: a middle-aged woman in jeans and T-shirt and scrubby ponytail, rambling alone past the Small Mammal House in the rain, without an umbrella or even a jacket. She had to laugh: this was what counted as iconoclasm now.
Gimmick. She rolled the word around like a bitter pill. With trepidation, and not a little panic. But also, she realized, gratitude. No one else would have said it. Sullivan’s investment in her work wasn’t solely financial. He’d been the one to discover her, back when he was a gallery assistant, had stuck by her through the long, slow rise; he was willing to say the hard thing to her now. It was part of the reason why Laura had also stuck with him all these years, spurning the lures dangled by fancier venues. She knew better than most: truth was hard to come by.
When she let herself into Edward’s house that evening, the air smelled heavenly. She followed the scent back to the kitchen and found Edward there, at the stove.
“We’re at T minus seven minutes,” he said with a smile, replacing a lid on a saucepan. When she went to the cutlery drawer, he said, “Table’s already set. Just relax.”
He poured a glass of wine, nudged it across the counter toward her. The first sip spread across her palate and rolled a rich vapor up into her nasal passages. She watched him plate: a fish fillet laid onto a pallet of ivory grains, a clutch of brussels sprouts nestled beside, a sauce drizzled over the lot.
In the dining room, there were fresh flowers on the table; silverware winked under the chandelier.
“It’s a new recipe,” said Edward as they sat down. “The sauce has a secret ingredient.”
A fancy table for no occasion. A new recipe with a secret ingredient. The conclusion was inescapable: something was bothering Edward. The nature of his work was often confidential, and sometimes when wrestling with a dilemma he could not discuss he’d become terse and preoccupied, a tortoise with his head pulled into his shell. A very productive tortoise: a lot of house projects got accomplished during these periods.
No amount of coaxing would draw Tortoise Edward out before he was ready, so without resentment Laura carried on a largely one-sided dinner conversation, commenting on the fish (quite good), trying and failing to guess the secret ingredient (white pepper).
“Oh,” she remembered when they were nearly done eating. “Sully brought over the weirdest email this morning.” She told Edward about it, and also what Bea had said.
“How did Sullivan get the email if it was sent to you?” asked Edward, forking up a bite of fish.
“It was sent to my gallery email,” she said. “It’s set up so that if my inbox reaches one hundred unread items, he gets an alert. He’s like an overflow valve.” To Edward’s amused headshake, she added, “Bea was in fine form. Totally dismissive.”
“She’s right, though, isn’t she?” he said. “After all this time. It’s not really possible.”
“It’s not impossible,” she said. “He was never found.”
The words opened up a well inside her. That was what it was like—like having a well inside you with no bottom. Things dropped in and fell forever.
Edward was looking at her closely.
“Was there something in particular about this email?” he asked.
“Just a feeling.” Although as she said it, she realized that the feeling she’d had that morning had faded significantly; what she felt now was mainly defiance against her sister. “Also this Claude person is persistent—he telephoned the gallery when I didn’t respond to the emails.”
“He will stop, though, if you don’t respond,” said Edward. “Right? Sullivan will handle it.” There was a tinge there of condescension, as though Sullivan were her trusty Saint Bernard. But then, a minute before, Laura had likened him to an engine part.
“I guess I’m curious,” she said. “I mean, what would the angle be?”
“Money,” Edward said baldly.
“I’m sure you’re right.”
His eyebrows asked for him: But?
“But—my mother wouldn’t ignore it.” There it was; that was the kernel of the matter. She scraped her knife through the sauce on her plate and watched the line fill in, hearing her mother’s admonition across the decades: Don’t play with your food. “I know I should delete the email and forget about it. But she wouldn’t.” She looked up at Edward. “What do you think?”
He didn’t respond immediately, frowning down at his plate as though scrutinizing the remnants of his dinner. Laura knew his legal mind was ratcheting and processing, choosing language that would convey his meaning as precisely as possible. Others might cheerlead Go for it or Listen to your heart, with a gushing, easy volubility that had all the depth of a social media Like, but for Edward, delivering an opinion was a commitment.
“I think that you’re under no obligation to chase this particular wild goose,” he said. “Even if your mother would choose to chase it.” A gentle smile as he took up his water glass. “And even if your sister wouldn’t.”
A lawyerly way to say Make up your own mind. Laura laid her silverware across her empty plate, wondering whether Edward’s work problem had been knotty enough to have inspired dessert.
Edward put his water glass down, cleared his throat. “Martin asked me today if my girlfriend would be attending the partner dinner on Saturday.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Laura said.
“My girlfriend,” repeated Edward. “That word. At my age. It sounds so… flighty.”
Flighty he was not. Edward lived by Flaubert’s philosophy, Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. Edward’s original violence required an alarm at 5:40 a.m. each weekday, ablutions and breakfast and on the road by a quarter to seven, carrying the same steel travel coffee cup that had been brought home and washed out and left on the drainboard the night before. Why waste precious thought choosing a cup every morning? After reliable purveyors of shirts, socks, and underwear had been found, why seek others? Serial killer closet, Sullivan had commented after Laura described the row of identical button-downs and slacks to him, back when she and Edward were new.
“Martin could just use my name,” Laura said. “He’s known me for six years.” She added, “You know he does this kind of thing to goad you.”
“Maybe so,” he said with a hint of surprise. Although his career butted him up daily against politicians and other criminals, he never assumed the worst of people. “Still.” He was fussing at his plate, brows knitted, scraping some pearls of quinoa together with the tip of his knife.
“What is it?” she said. Although suddenly she knew.
How could she have been so stupid? It wasn’t a work problem that was preoccupying Edward. The flowers, the nicely set table, his nervousness. She knew. She knew, even though she’d had only one marriage proposal in her life before, and that was decades ago and totally different, Adam going down on one knee with a tiny box in his trembling hand, his voice fracturing with emotion.
“We’re happy together,” Edward said. His knife pushing, pushing the grains into a damp little hill. He shot a glance up at her. “I mean, I’m happy.”
“We’re happy,” she said.
“And it has been six years.” He laid the knife down and put his hand out to capture hers. “At our age, it’s not a big jump. It’s not like skydiving.” A smile fluttered at the corners of his mouth. “More like stepping down from a curb.”
She looked down at her fingers trapped in his. Paint rimed one of her fingernails, Sap Green that had stubbornly prevailed against the mineral spirits, the long shower, the scrubbing with a nailbrush. Rough, dry, big-knuckled, these were not the hands of a bride.
“Why can’t we just continue as we are?” she said.
It was terrible to watch the hope drain from Edward’s face, see it replaced by disappointment and hurt. What was wrong with her, blurting it out like that? Perhaps the long, solitary hours in the studio these many years had eroded her social skills. Or simply too much wine with dinner.
“We’re happy as we are,” she said, squeezing his hand. “As you said. We’re happy.”
He gripped back briefly, then pulled his fingers from hers and took the napkin from his lap, put it onto the table.
“Maybe Shelby was right,” he said with a tight, rueful smile. “I should have had a ring.” Shelby. So he’d talked to his daughter about this. “I told her you didn’t wear jewelry on your hands because of the paint.” He stood up, lifting his plate and reaching for hers, carrying both into the kitchen.
Laura could imagine Shelby, who was as forthright as Edward was reserved, telling him Dad, don’t be a dope, it doesn’t matter about the paint, women are magpies, we like shiny things. Shelby’s mother, Edward’s wife, Elaine, was dead for years yet still part of the world in her vibrant, good-hearted daughter, as well as other ways: the stained-glass panel across the top of Edward’s kitchen window that glowed a jewel pattern onto the floor in the light of morning, the layout of the garden beds. Elaine had made Edward a good home. Which he had cherished, and which now he was offering to Laura. She and Edward spent most nights together in this house. Wasn’t he simply suggesting the natural next step?
She followed him into the kitchen, where he was scraping the plates into the step-bin.
“I don’t need a ring,” she said to his back. “I don’t need the piece of paper either.” After all, the ring and the paper had meant nothing to Adam. She’d learned recently that he’d married again, to a woman barely thirty. Laura hadn’t known whether to laugh or cry when she had the realization that on that long-ago day when Adam was down on one knee stammering his eternal devotion to Laura, his future second wife was two years away from being born.
“Do you realize that you never call me just to check in?” said Edward. He let the bin lid drop, set the plates in the sink. “Just to ask how I am doing?”
“Do you want me to do that?” She’d liked that they weren’t like other couples, relentlessly checking with each other all the time. She’d also liked, she realized, the Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday template of their dates, the element of spontaneity it granted to the rest of the week. Seeing him always felt like a choice happily made.
“When you disappear into your work, it sometimes feels like I disappear for you too.” He turned on the tap, pulled the spray nozzle out of the end of the faucet, and directed it over the dishes. “It isn’t just paper,” he said. Raising his voice a little above the sound of the water. “And it’s not what the paper means. It’s what the absence of the paper means.”
“It means nothing,” she said. She put her arms around him, laid her head against his back. “It means that we’re happy without it.” She felt his shoulder blade moving under her face as he reached forward to turn off the tap.
“I want us to be married,” he said, his voice thrumming against her cheek. He turned in her arms and looked down at her. “I know it’s old-fashioned. I’m old-fashioned.”
“Not that old-fashioned,” she said, smiling up at him. “Not like take-your-name old-fashioned.” Her voice teasing. She hadn’t even taken Adam’s surname, and back then she hadn’t yet sold a painting.
“I wouldn’t ask that,” Edward said.
His voice held a wistfulness that surprised her; the flood of rage she felt hearing it surprised her more. His emphasis on ask felt like an assault. He wanted to swallow her identity up into his? She took a step back, out of his arms.
“I want us to live in the same house,” he continued earnestly, oblivious to her reaction. “You could keep your house, of course, for the studio, and stay there whenever you wanted.”
“Thank you,” she said, unable to stop the sarcasm that shot out of her like a slim angry knife.
He blinked, perceiving her animosity. “I didn’t mean it that way,” he said. He turned, opened the dishwasher, began slotting the rinsed items into it. “I don’t want to change much. I just want us to be official.” Dropping the cutlery into the basket in separate tiny jolts. “I don’t want my obituary to include the words longtime companion.”
Obituary. “Is this about Geoff?” One of Edward’s friends had unexpectedly dropped dead the month before; he’d been a couple of years younger than Edward.
“Not entirely. But his death has made me think about what I want.” He corrected himself, “What I need.”
“This feels less like a proposal than an ultimatum,” she said.
“I did this all wrong,” he said, vexed. “Shelby is going to kill me.”
“Edward’s asked me to marry him,” Laura told her mother the next day, at the house in the quiet neighborhood in Northwest Washington now known as Forest Hills. It hadn’t been called that when she grew up there. It hadn’t been called anything. When the Metro had come in the 1980s, spreading across the area like a crack in a windshield, existing neighborhoods like Cleveland Park and Friendship Heights and Foggy Bottom became Metro stops, and then steadily, like a catalyzed reaction, the rest of the city coagulated into boundaried shapes with names. Real-estate agents had accelerated the process, seizing upon posh-sounding monikers like Crestwood and Berkley and validating their use, and sometime while Laura was in college, or sometime after that, the trapezoid between Connecticut Avenue and Rock Creek became Forest Hills.
Laura and Genevieve were sitting out on the screened porch, overlooking the side garden. The azalea was at peak, making its blaze against the far wall, and bees toiled among the near flowerbeds. Laura watched a tall coneflower swaying just outside the screen, a bumblebee hugging the yellow-gumdrop center and scrambling pollen against its belly. The property was a marvel in spring. As a child, Laura had been unimpressed by her first American winter—cold and snow had seemed part and parcel of the unwelcoming strangeness of the return—but spring had been a magnificent surprise, the dead land resurrecting in a way she had never seen. It was a reliable annual miracle. Everywhere she looked now, things were budding and blooming. From here, she couldn’t see any lassitude on the part of the gardener. Goddamn Beatrice anyway.
“How wonderful,” said Genevieve. “Have you set a date?” Was it cruel, having this conversation? Her mother wouldn’t remember it tomorrow. “There’s a narrow window, of course, if you want to have it outside.”
“We’re not outside-wedding people,” said Laura. Of course, they might not be wedding people at all. They’d agreed last night to shelve the subject, put a pin in it as Edward had said; they’d both pretended that everything was all right. But it wasn’t all right.
“Good for you,” said Genevieve. “All the bugs, and everyone’s heels sinking into the grass.” Her face became thoughtful. “The InterContinental has a generator. They do book up fast in the rainy season, though.”
“We don’t have to worry about a generator. Or the rainy season.” To the uncertainty that flitted across her mother’s face, she said, “We’re in Washington.” And the old Siam InterContinental had been demolished decades ago, she didn’t add.
“Well, that’s convenient,” said Genevieve.
She doesn’t lay down new memory, the neurologist had explained to the daughters at the time of diagnosis four years before. He’d added with an apologetic air that he couldn’t be more specific about what type of dementia it was. It didn’t behave exactly like Alzheimer’s, which kept long-term memory intact well into the process, nor like Pick’s disease, which came with characteristic MRI findings, nor Lewy body dementia with accompanying Parkinsonian traits. Laura hadn’t known that there were so many eponymous ways to be senile.
The damage wasn’t limited to Genevieve’s frontal lobes (the doctor pointed to the pinched tops of the walnut-looking brain on the MRI, then moved his hand in a loose claw around his forehead); it was more scattershot. The result was a stunning erasure, great swaths of memory taken and occasionally, unpredictably restored, like an electrical short buzzing on and off. Which meant that Genevieve’s social behavior was fundamentally preserved, and casual conversation with her could often seem quite normal. Probably that had helped to delay the diagnosis, said the neurologist.
He’d brought Beatrice and Laura into his office to discuss his findings. She was where? he’d said, frowning down at the referral letter from the primary doctor. After hearing the details, he’d maintained an air of slight reproach, clearly feeling that the daughters had been wickedly irresponsible to let their elderly mother travel so far from home. As if anyone could have stopped her. It doesn’t matter what it’s called, Bea had said. Is there any treatment? The doctor’s expression had answered before he opened his mouth to reply.
“I don’t know if I want to get married,” Laura said now.
“Why not?” asked Genevieve. Simply curious. No undercurrent of At your age, it’s astonishing that anyone is asking. This unlayered, gentle inquiry was so unlike Genevieve in her prime that Laura felt pierced anew by loss. She was reminded of what Edward had said: it’s what the absence means.
“I don’t know,” Laura said. “He’s sweet to me, and we’re very companionable. It’s hard to think of my life without him.” For that seemed to be the alternative. She and Edward had retreated from the cliff edge, had turned their backs on it, but now they knew it was there. “Still. I panic when I think about it.” There it was again, that threatened feeling of being swallowed, of being ingested and made null. She hadn’t felt that when Adam proposed—but when she looked back, she could see how juiceless and rote that decision had been, how she and Adam had been simply doing the expected, following some heteronormative pathway laid down over centuries, like a pheromone track for an unthinking column of ants, love and marriage and baby carriage.
“Is there a spark?” said Genevieve. “You know what I mean.” She raised her eyebrows, those two delicate paintbrush strokes above her still-brilliant blue eyes. “Are you compatible physically?”
“That part of things is quite good, actually,” said Laura, feeling prudish and uncomfortable. Never in her long life had Genevieve alluded to sex in Laura’s presence.
“Well then,” said Genevieve, leaning back again, flapping a hand. “That’s not everything, but it is important.” She lifted her iced tea glass and pursed her mouth at the straw, but an exhaled breath made it slide around the curve of the rim and she didn’t quite capture it.
Laura leaned forward, caught the straw and held it steady between two fingers. Genevieve laughed, as if Laura had done something inexplicable and amusing.
“Have some iced tea,” prompted Laura.
Genevieve sipped obediently. “I think that’s gone off,” she said, releasing the straw with a moue.
Laura took the glass from her and put it onto the table. There was nothing wrong with the tea; her own tasted fine. Their taste buds can change, the doctor had said. They’ll like things very sweet or very salty; they might dislike things that they’ve always enjoyed. So what’s left of the self, wondered Laura, after personality traits and memory and personal preferences have all been taken away? When does one stop being the same person?
Genevieve hadn’t yet transformed in some ways Laura and Bea had been warned to expect: no combativeness or paranoia or incontinence. At this stage, she most resembled a forgetful Girl Scout: polite, cheerful, and resilient, folding new facts into an invented narrative and then forgetting the whole thing, letting it go like someone dropping a package into a stream. Not for the first time, Laura wondered if loving this softer Genevieve as much as she did constituted a betrayal of the mother who’d raised her.
“Bea and I are in disagreement about something,” Laura said. Another freedom of conversation with Genevieve 2.0: non sequitur was totally acceptable. “I’m nearly at the point of eeny-meeny-miney-moe.”
“Catch a tiger by the toe,” said Genevieve.
“Exactly,” said Laura. “I know what Bea would do. And I know what you would do.” The old Genevieve, she meant; who knew about the new one? “I’m trying to figure out what I should do.”
Genevieve took the iced tea glass from the little table beside her.
“Well, what’s the downside?” she said with the glass halfway raised, and when Laura didn’t answer right away she lowered it and explained, enunciating carefully as though to a foreigner. “Consider the worst possible outcome, and the degree of risk you’re willing to bear that it will come to pass. Doing that will often make a difficult decision quite easy.” She raised the glass again, nimbly caught and held the straw between two fingers, took a long pull of tea.
The lucidity was startling and sudden. Was it just a bit of the past, hiccuping up whole into Genevieve’s consciousness like a tangled knot of kelp rising to the surface of the ocean? Or had the shorting circuits made a true connection—was Laura actually conversing with the old Genevieve?
“That’s a good way to think about it,” Laura said, cautious, as if trying not to frighten off a bird that was hopping toward her hand. “There isn’t really a downside.”
“There you are, then,” said Genevieve in that same crisp voice. She took another sip of the tea and grimaced. “That’s gone off, we’ll need to tell someone.” She looked around, as though for a waitress. The old Genevieve, glimpsed so briefly, was gone again. In a hotel lounge, perhaps. There had been so many hotel and airport lounges in her history, so many club sandwiches and iced teas.
But she’d been with Laura for a moment, she had. And the electric joy, now ebbing, that had surged through Laura told her that she’d been wrong before, totally wrong. She didn’t love the new Genevieve more; how could she have thought that? And she knew what the old Genevieve would want, of course she did. Blinking away tears, she took her phone from her pocket.
“What are you doing, dear?” asked Genevieve. She had never had a habit of saying dear. It was probably what the speech therapist called a prop word, being deployed in this case to obscure the fact that she wasn’t sure of Laura’s name.
“Nothing,” said Laura. She tapped in a short message, waited for the whoosh of the email going out, and then put her phone down and stood, taking up her mother’s glass. “I’ll get some lemonade instead, shall I?”
Coming back through the center hall carrying the lemonade, she paused outside her mother’s sitting room. An uninterrupted monologue came from upstairs: Noi on the telephone, giving someone lengthy instructions. Laura set the glass onto the marble table in the hall and went into the sitting room, walked around the desk to pull open the bottom drawer. It still held the sturdy manila envelopes Genevieve used instead of file folders. Laura had that habit too now, standing the envelopes on their ends, putting them in strict alphabetical order. Edward had been delighted by Laura’s desk drawers. She flipped through the envelopes. Maybe it wouldn’t be there. But it was, standing among the others, inscribed with the single word: Philip. Laura hesitated, then took it out and closed the drawer. She slipped the envelope into her messenger bag, which was slouching in the entry hall, then retrieved the lemonade and took it to her mother.
The reply to Laura’s email came the next evening. It said nothing about money.
Thank you for responding. He was living here in Bangkok with my father, who died last month. I’m writing for him, as I believe that he has not used email before. I am hoping you can help with the next step. I am settling up the house.
Has not used email before? That seemed frankly insane. Even Genevieve had used email until her diagnosis. Hoping you can help sounded vaguely scammy-solicitous. Laura was regretting the impulsive decision to answer the email. She looked at the digital clock at the top of her laptop screen. Six-fifteen p.m. here meant five-fifteen a.m. in Bangkok. Apparently Claude was an early riser.
Do you have Skype? she typed into a reply email. Can we video call?
If this was a fraudster in an internet cafe in Côte d’Ivoire or Bangladesh or Ukraine, video would be out of the question. Laura would get an excuse saying the computer’s camera was broken, or the connection too slow.
My Skype name is Claude4142 came the answer.
A couple of minutes later the bouncy ringtones sounded, and then the video blinked to life on Laura’s screen, showing a glowing white sweep of forehead and a pixelating eyebrow. The head retreated and the image coalesced into a sixtyish gamine with a chin-length haircut and red lipstick.
“Allô,” she said, frowning at what must be the location of Laura’s face on her screen, her eyes looking down instead of directly into the camera. “Miss Preston? Laura?” Her accent sounded French.
“Yes,” said Laura, resisting the urge to shout. “Um, Claude?”
“Yes,” said the woman. With a pitch of her head back and forth, as if shrugging off an accolade, she added, “Claudette.”
In the old days, such an exchange would have taken weeks, onionskin envelopes borne by airplanes crossing above the clouds, perhaps an enormously expensive telephone call, the dialogue overlapping and echoing. Not anymore. In this miracle age everyone was connected all the time, as though by a Möbius strip of electrons flowing unbroken around the earth, and it had taken only a few moments to bring the two of them face-to-face, the video a bit fitful but the sound perfectly clear.
Claudette was waving to someone off-screen. “Moment,” she said to Laura, and moved out of view as a shape loomed into the frame to replace her. A slender man, wearing what looked like muslin pajamas, like the garb of a hospital patient or an inmate. Was his head shaved? He walked slowly, irregularly forward—was he limping?—coming closer and closer until Laura was looking at his midsection. “Elle est là,” said Claudette’s off-screen voice, and the man backed away again. The picture froze for a second, a line of static fizzling across the screen, and then abruptly his face was very close.
“Lolo?” he said. The image went transiently Cubist, patching itself with blocky pixels, then juddered into perfect clarity. His mouth was puckered with concentration; his brown eyes looked into hers. She could see her own face reflected, tiny pale ovals twinned in the black of his pupils. “Is that you?”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for What Could Be Saved includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Liese O’Halloran Schwarz. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Fifty-two-year-old reclusive artist Laura Preston is at a crossroads personally and professionally—her painting career has stalled, her boyfriend has asked her to marry him— when she is contacted by a stranger who claims to be her brother. Decades earlier, eight-year-old Philip disappeared while the Preston family lived in Bangkok. Older sister Beatrice dismisses it as a scam, but Laura ignores her warnings and flies to Thailand to find out if it could be true. But meeting the man who claims to be Philip in person leads to more questions than answers.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Sisters Beatrice and Laura react very differently to the news that their long-lost brother may have been found. Why do you think that is? What are the roots of the strain between the sisters? Do you relate more to Beatrice or to Laura?
2. In the beginning of the book, Laura has been experiencing an artistic block, unable to move on from a series of paintings called the “Ghost Pictures.” Who or what do you think the ghosts might represent?
3. Genevieve undergoes a striking transformation over the course of the book. As a young wife and mother in Bangkok, what were her primary motivations and concerns? In the second half of her life, how did those change? Do you think she became a fundamentally different person, or did she merely channel her energy into different causes? Did you find it strange that she devoted so much time to rescuing other people’s children while paying so little attention to her own?
4. Water is a recurring theme in the book—the khlongs, the swimming pool in the Prestons’ garden, the river that runs past Noi’s house. Do you think water represents the same thing each time it appears?
5. In chapter eight, Bardin tells Robert a story about an elderly woman who mysteriously dies in the middle of the night. Why do you think Bardin tells him this puzzling story? And why does it come back into Robert’s mind just as he’s facing his own mortality?
6. The Preston family’s house servant Noi notes on page 370 that “although [she] was not much older than the Preston daughters, she had always felt the gap keenly.” What made Noi grow up faster than Beatrice and Laura did? What role did Noi play in the lives of the Preston family? Did her role change over time?
7. Genevieve tells Beatrice on page 382, “You don’t have to do the same things I do,” and Beatrice says, “I know.” How do you think Beatrice’s choices, as she grows up, are different from her mother’s? How are they similar?
8. “We’re all still children. . . . That never stops” is said by a character in the book (p. 235). Do you agree with that statement?
9. On page 399, Bea says to Laura, “you were what could be saved of our family.” Bea could be speaking literally—their conversation is about measures Bea took to save her sister from a potential kidnapper. What else could Beatrice have meant by that statement?
10. At the annual luncheon to welcome “New Ladies” to the expatriate community, Genevieve is astonished that one of the newcomers is a man. What does this suggest about the ways American society is changing while she is in Bangkok? What else does she notice about the “New Ladies” that disturbs her?
11. When the Preston family returned to the U.S., they brought one of their servants, Noi. In the book we read about Noi’s dreams, her love for her sister, her skills as a seamstress, her desire for a daughter. In bringing her back to America, did the Prestons help Noi fulfill an “American Dream”? Why or why not?
12. Philip is given a nickname by his martial-arts classmates: Nitnoy. At first he rejects it, but later on he embraces it. Why do you think he does that?
13. Compare Robert’s final moments of consciousness (p. 363) to Genevieve’s experience of dementia. Do they share certain qualities? How does Genevieve’s dementia allow her a freedom she never had in her former life? What has her illness taken away from her, and what has it given to her?
14. On page 327, Laura makes a point of replaying in her mind the scene of the car being lifted out of the pool, “so she could describe it perfectly for Philip when he came home. . . . She memorized it so carefully . . . but then as the years went on she slowly forgot it all.” What does this suggest about the reliability of Laura’s memories of her own childhood? Do you think it’s possible for any of us to be able to recall our childhoods with accuracy? What is your earliest childhood memory? Can the stories we tell ourselves replace our actual memories?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Emerald Buddha is mentioned by Genevieve at one point as “the most important Buddha in Thailand.” Research more about the Emerald Buddha’s origins. Why is it so significant?
2. The Prestons left America in 1968, just as a giant cultural shift was about to take place. When they returned in 1972, the country was very different. One obvious change was in clothing (for both men and women). Find images of everyday American fashion in 1968 and 1972 and compare them. Some of those styles have since come back—do you own any of them?
3. Many Thai people have “play names” (chue len)—short nicknames that are used almost exclusively in place of their formal names. Examples in the book are Moo (pig), Nok (bird), Noi (small). The play names are derived from some quality perceived in the child, or express something the parents hope will be a part of the child’s life. What would your own play name be? If you have children or siblings or a spouse, what play names might have been applied to each of them?
A Conversation with Liese O’Halloran Schwarz
Q: Loss and deceit are recurring themes in this novel. Do you believe redemption is also a theme?
A: Yes, absolutely. In fact, the title expresses my general belief that there is something good that can be salvaged from any situation. My fundamental attitude to life might be characterized as informed optimism, meaning: although I am aware that truly horrible things happen all the time in the world, I believe in an essential underlying good. In 2020, when I am writing this, a pandemic is raging, with more than a million dead and no end in sight, and this particular aspect of What Could Be Saved seems especially pertinent. The story challenges the reader to look directly at terrible events and still see the beauty. There is beauty everywhere; I believe this strongly.
Q: This novel originates from a short story you wrote in your twenties. What was the original story about, and how did it evolve into What Could Be Saved?
A: The short story, titled “The Driver,” was one of my earliest forays into fiction—it was seventeen pages long and centered on a tiny episode recalled from my childhood in Bangkok: the firing of one of our drivers. Although so much about the characters and plot was fictional, it was precious to me. I always felt as though the short story could be much more, and over the years I tried to find what it needed to be. I expanded it to twenty pages, then forty, then into a novella, and although the nostalgia value stayed strong for me in every version, I could see that none of them was more than a sentimental exercise. I put it aside for a good while, and when I turned back to it in 2018, quite suddenly a critical plot element popped into my head (the disappearance of Philip) that might allow the story of the Prestons in Bangkok to transcend nostalgia and become real fiction, rewarding to a reader. I started fresh, discarding most of what I had added to the original short piece, and after about a year I had a full draft of a book to work from.
Q: Why did you chose to write Genevieve’s character as having dementia? How was that meant to change the reader’s perception of her?
A: Perhaps some authors choose everything quite consciously when they write. For me, it isn’t that way—my conscious choices are made largely during revision. The drafting process is for me a very fluid experience of discovery in which the characters act almost on their own while I try to record it. I don’t get everything right in the first draft (understatement alert!)—so revision is where the majority of the work comes in. Thus, writing for me is two parts: first the joyous, free, almost magical experience of drafting, and then the grueling, painstaking process of revision, which offers its own joys as things come together. That’s a very long way of saying that Genevieve’s dementia arose as part of the free-drafting process, and it remained during revision because it fit. That a controlled, haunted person should lose not only her control but also all memory of the things that haunted her—I found it ironic and sad and also quite lovely. Genevieve was driven, and deeply guilty. I wanted her to be happy. The only way she could come to happiness was to forget—and the only way she could forget was if she was forced to do so. Her dementia allowed her to choose her life, something she had not been able to do before then, and it also allowed her to enter into the past and enjoy things she had not enjoyed when she had experienced them the first time. Not only that, but making Genevieve descend from her “command post” in the family’s life pushed the spotlight, and the action, to the children (the next generation), as typically happens in families as the parents age. TL;DR: when I began to write the “present-day” (2019) chapters, Genevieve cheerfully presented herself to me as a person with dementia in the first scene in which she appeared, and she stayed that way in revision because it worked with all of the rest of her story, and with the book as a whole.
Q: How did you decide on a nonlinear narrative? What are ways in which it uniquely influences the reader’s experience? The development of the story?
A: Unlike the free process of drafting, story structure for me is always a deliberate choice. I chose the alternating-timeline structure mainly to spotlight something I find very compelling: how we constantly build from the past. Our today is haunted by our yesterday—even by events that have been forgotten by all parties involved. I did consider making the book completely chronological for simplicity, but I dearly wanted to give the reader a privileged view, one which the characters in the book don’t have, by juxtaposing the now (when earlier events have grown cloudy in memory) with the before (when the events were clear). I also did briefly toy with the idea of opening the book in Bangkok, and alternating the timelines from that point, but decided against that. I wanted 2019 to be the “home” timeline, so that Laura could carry the story into the future.
Q: Why did you choose to make sibling relationships the focal point of this novel?
A: I didn’t intend that, actually—it evolved as I revised. I have a brother and a sister, and as I grow older the specialness of the sibling relationship becomes more clear to me—who else in the world knows your family story, and you, so well? When I was young, our differences were paramount, and the age gaps between us seemed huge. Now we’re all basically the same age, and I look at us and can see how similar we are—and, yes, still how different. It seems to me that each of us experienced our own personal version of the same family. I find that fascinating. When I began to work with my editor, Peter Borland, something that he said made it clear that he saw this as a sibling book, and just like that, I saw it that way too—and that understanding guided my subsequent revisions.
Q: What are similarities between medicine and poetry—two things you simultaneously pursued?
A: I wrote poetry from childhood until I was in medical school, when I switched to fiction. To my mind, writing poetry requires an extreme attention to detail. Every bit of punctuation, the sound (the music) of the words, even the negative space on the page—it all matters. The practice of medicine also requires enormous attention to detail—but with much more serious consequences for carelessness. There is also a lot of nuance to both. The diagnostic process in medicine is much like the deconstruction of a poem—a lot of decoding subtle clues, inferring what is unsaid, and appreciating subtext.
Q: Bea says to Laura, “you were what could be saved.” Who was the character most in need of being saved in your opinion?
A: Oh, that’s a difficult question. Each of them! All of them! We all deserve to be saved. But if I had to choose one from the story—perhaps Bea. She carried the burden of this whole family from childhood, without real gratitude from anyone. As I see it, by the time it is 2019 in the book, Beatrice has done her duty and done it very well, and she deserves to put the burden down and enjoy her life.
Q: Do you have any plans for future projects? Will you stick with literary fiction or would you consider nonfiction or even a return to poetry?
A: I do have projects in the works! I am not done with fiction—not by a long shot. Although I love poetry, and read nonfiction pretty voraciously, I want to continue creating fiction. I like to make up stories. I have loved reading so much in my life—I am so grateful to the many writers who have held me spellbound during my life, and it is gorgeous to attempt to return the favor to other readers. Constructing a novel, telling a story properly, is incredibly difficult (and I love it). See the above comment about perfectionism—imagine applying that to 100K words. It’s madness! And amazing! I want to write novels in perhaps the same way a mountaineer wants, or needs, to climb. Every book is like climbing a mountain to me: it’s difficult for long stretches and more than once the entire venture seems utter folly, but it is joyous, exhilarating work, and the summit is sweet beyond compare, and I will be quite happy if that is all I ever do.