Throughout his life, Andrew meets women who are immediately familiar to him, though he has never seen them before. He met the first when he was a little boy in 1955, the second in 1962, the third in 1966, the fourth in 1970, the fifth in 1978, the sixth in 1987, and the seventh in 1993.
In 1998 Andrew and his wife Luisa both turn fifty and celebrate their eleventh wedding anniversary. Their children Owen and Lily both turn sixteen and enter their junior year of high school. Andrew and Luisa are writers and musicians and live with Owen and Lily in a beautiful house ten miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Two years ago, a movie based on Andrew’s play Their Summer Holiday, was a resounding success and prompted a big American publisher to bring out new paperback editions of Andrew’s four collections of short stories. Adding to this good fortune, theatre companies in England and Canada began staging four of Andrew’s previously unproduced plays, and now Luisa is about to publish her first book, a story collection entitled Rainy River and other stories.
At the height of this propitious ferment, Andrew and Luisa’s literary and theatrical agents Penelope Goldstein and Judith Perlman announce their impending retirement. Penelope is seventy-four, Judith seventy-five, and they recently celebrated, as Judith put it, “Our fiftieth year of working together and living together and encouraging each other to keep up the good fight.”
So in April, Andrew and Luisa leave Owen and Lily in the care of friends and fly to Montreal to meet with the three young agents to whom Judith and Penelope are selling their agency, and to meet with two older agents recommended by Judith and Penelope in case Andrew and Luisa are not inclined to go with the younger agents.
Andrew and Luisa arrive in Montreal in the late afternoon, check into their hotel, and have supper with Jason Moreau who directed Andrew’s two most successful plays and is currently directing the first production of Andrew’s newest play, The Carpenter’s Song, which will open six weeks from now, after which Jason will celebrate his eightieth birthday and retire from directing unless, he says with a twinkle in his eyes, “You write another play too good to resist.”
The next morning, Andrew and Luisa take a cab to the Goldstein Perlman Agency, soon to be renamed QBP after the three new principals, Rory Quarterman, Jean Bateau, and Sylvie Pierre, who gather in their elegant conference room to introduce themselves to Andrew and Luisa.
Andrew likes Sylvie, a long-limbed gal with short red hair, and Luisa likes Jean, a petite brunette, but Rory, who handles theatrical works and movie tie-ins, is appalling to both Andrew and Luisa. His smiles are forced, he rolls his eyes at things Sylvie and Jean say, and twice during the half-hour meeting leaves the room to take calls, much to the chagrin of Sylvie and Jean.
Lunching with Judith and Penelope after the QBP presentation, Andrew and Luisa express their misgivings about Rory.
“Welcome to 1998,” says Judith, greatly relieved to be getting out of the business. “Before this era of Young Adult novels, dystopian fantasies, vampires, wizards, and fifty million cookie-cutter murder mysteries, Rory would have sold real estate or cars. He doesn’t read, you know, and I’m sorry to tell you this, but if you weren’t already successful, QBP would have nothing to do with you. You’re both too old, you don’t crank out murder mysteries, and you seem intent on writing things for intelligent adults.” She laughs. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Which is why we thought you might prefer Margot Mounteney and Kelly Vogel,” says Penelope, who is looking forward to puttering in her garden, walking the dogs, and spending winters in Hawaii. “Margot is your age and Kelly’s a little older, she’s brilliant, he’s mad for plays, and they both care about the quality of the writing they represent, which makes them throwbacks to that bygone era when we first came into the business.”
“And they’re barely surviving,” says Judith, with a warning in her voice. “You would change their lives if you signed with them, which is not a reason to do it. But you would.”
The next morning, after breakfasting with Jason and two young directors eager to make Andrew’s acquaintance, Luisa and Andrew take a cab to the offices of Mounteney & Vogel in an old three-story office building in a quiet part of the city.
While Andrew and Luisa wait in the small reception room, they chat with the agency secretary Darla, a charming woman in her early seventies with a British accent, long gray hair in a bun, and pince-nez suspensefully balanced on the tip of her nose.
“I love all your plays,” says Darla, gazing at Andrew and Luisa sitting close together on the small sofa across the room, “and I especially love Their Summer Holiday. I enjoyed the movie, too, but the dialogue in the play just crackles and I’m a huge fan of crackling dialogue. Crave it.” Her eyes widen. “I must say you are a very handsome couple and the light is excellent right now. Would you mind terribly if I took your picture?”
“We don’t mind, do we?” says Andrew, checking with Luisa.
“Not at all,” says Luisa, who is ready to go with Mounteney & Vogel based on their secretary.
Darla gets out a small Leica, takes several pictures and says, “Oh these will be lovely. The light is just perfect. Lovely, lovely.”
“I feel anointed,” says Luisa, beaming at Darla.
“Will you send us your favorite?” says Andrew, hoping he likes Margot and Kelly as much as he likes Darla.
“I will,” says Darla, putting her camera away. “And I will brag and tell you that my photos of authors have appeared alongside many book reviews and have graced several book jackets.”
Now a man and a woman come down the hallway from their offices and stop on the threshold of the reception room—a lanky fellow with short gray hair and a slender woman with shoulder-length black hair, the man wearing wire-framed glasses and a gray tweed suit with a red bowtie, the woman wearing a scoop-necked black dress, her reading glasses attached to a necklace of colored beads hanging around her neck.
“Welcome, welcome,” says the man, bounding across the room to shake Andrew and Luisa’s hands, his accent the vestigial Scottish of Newfoundland. “I’m Kelly Vogel and this is Margot Mounteney.”
Margot crosses the room to greet them, her beauty more apparent as she draws near, and Andrew feels he has known her and loved her forever.
They gather in Margot’s office, Margot at her desk, Kelly a few feet to her left, Andrew and Luisa in small chairs facing them, the desk largely free of clutter, though every other space in the office is piled high with manuscripts and correspondence.
“I have a computer,” says Margot, her accent mildly British, “though I still mostly write by hand and my mother types everything up.” Her brown eyes sparkle. “Darla is my mother.”
“The heart and soul of the agency,” says Kelly, nodding to affirm this. “She’s currently training her replacement, a great young gal named Vanessa, but we’re not looking forward to Darla retiring.”
“Penelope gave me the galleys of your Rainy River and other stories,” says Margot, smiling at Luisa. “I was enthralled from start to finish.”
“Margot and I both handle books,” says Kelly, laughing nervously, “but plays are my passion. We aren’t a big agency, obviously, and we job out movie stuff to another agency with offices here and in Los Angeles, but we’re very good with foreign rights and we have great relations with editors in Canada and New York who still care about good writing.”
“I’m sure you would do well with QBP,” says Margot, unconvincingly. “They’re very up to date with their methods and sensibilities, whereas we are among the remnants of the old way.” She shrugs pleasantly. “And that’s our high-powered sales pitch.”
“I would just add,” says Kelly, putting his hands together in casual prayer, “that with us you will always be happy.”
“A bold assertion,” says Andrew, liking Kelly very much.
“I don’t mean you will always be happy,” says Kelly, laughing. “I mean you will always be happy with our efforts on your behalf, even should we fail.”
Andrew and Luisa invite Margot and Kelly to lunch, and when Margot hesitates to accept, Luisa intuits the hesitation is about money and adds, “Our treat. We’re feeling flush. Please take us somewhere you love.”
They walk a few blocks in the gentle spring sunlight to an old high-ceilinged restaurant called Leo’s and are greeted by an energetic man with wavy white hair and a thick Italian accent who claps Kelly on the shoulder and kisses Margot on both cheeks.
“You stay away too long,” he says, smiling fondly at Margot. “We wonder where you were. It will just be a moment for Juan to make your table ready. Is so good to see you again. And you bring friends. A celebration perhaps. Right this way, please. The lamb is so fresh I think they play in the meadow this morning.”
He seats them at a large table in the far corner of the mostly empty room, hands them menus and says, “We have a red wine we just get from Bordeaux to make the tears come to your eyes. Pellegrino for your table?”
Margot nods and their host hurries away.
“Was that Leo?” asks Andrew, looking from Kelly to Margot.
“That was Joe,” says Margot, putting on her reading glasses to peruse the menu. “Leo was Joe’s older brother who died when Joe was a little boy in Italy.”
Now a middle-aged woman with reddish brown hair and a lively bounce in her step comes to the table and fills everyone’s glass with bubbly water.
“We missed you,” she says to Kelly and Margot before turning to Andrew and Luisa and gasping, “Oh my God, you’re Andrew Ross.”
“I know you,” says Andrew, smiling curiously at her. “But I can’t quite…”
“Gina DuPrau,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears. “I was in the first Montreal production of your play Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise. A million years ago.”
“You were not just in the production,” says Andrew, holding out his hand to her. “You were Ariel and you were brilliant, and you changed my life forever in the best of ways.”
“I’m so glad to see you,” she says, taking his hand. “And while we’re holding hands I’ll tell you I love Their Summer Holiday. The play and the movie.”
“This is my wife Luisa,” says Andrew, transferring Gina’s hand to Luisa’s. “And you know our agents Margot and Kelly.”
“What did you say?” says Margot, startled.
“Our agents,” says Luisa, raising her glass of bubbly water. “We knew the minute we met you.”
“Oh dear,” says Margot, covering her mouth. “I might cry.”
“Me, too,” says Kelly, fighting his tears as he raises his glass.
Now they clink glasses and drink and Andrew says to Gina, “We would love a bottle of the red wine from Bordeaux that Joe spoke so highly of.”
The good wine poured, lunches served, Margot says to Luisa, “Your bio in your story collection says you were a chef before becoming a writer. And though I’m sure you already know this, I will plant the seed that a novel or a novella and stories set amidst the culinary arts would be an easy sell in the wake of Rainy River.”
“Or a play set in a café,” says Kelly, who is pleasantly tipsy and no longer nervous. “The Time of Your Life with espresso. God we need good plays.”
“With a part for our waitress,” says Andrew, who had a crush on Gina when she was starring as Esme twenty-five years ago, but he was too shy to ask her out. “How did she not become famous? Did you see her in the play, Kelly? I’ve never seen another actor so completely own an audience as she did.”
“I went seven times,” says Kelly, loving the wine. “And she would have become a big star had she not married that horrid man and had two kids with him and then he left her with nothing. And she’s been starring here at Leo’s ever since.”
“We never know what’s going to happen, do we?” says Margot, looking at Luisa. “We didn’t think we had a chance against QBP, and now here we are celebrating with you.”
Gina comes by and asks, “How we all doing?”
Everyone raves about their food, another bottle of the same good red is ordered, Gina goes to fetch the wine, and Andrew says, “Speaking of never knowing what’s going to happen, with your permission I would like to tell a rather long story.”
“Permission granted,” says Margot, nodding regally.
Gina returns and shows the bottle to Andrew.
He nods his approval and says, “Have you got a few minutes, Gina? I would love for you to hear the story I’m about to tell.”
She opens the wine, pours a bit in each of their glasses, sets the bottle in the middle of the table, glances around the now full room and says, “I’m good for a few.”
“Excellent,” says Andrew, having a sip of his wine. “So… my two stories that became Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise were two of the very first stories I ever wrote. They were first published in The Weekly Blitz, a Vancouver free weekly, and then a wonderful guy named Mark Kane turned those two stories into a play and got the play produced at the Kleindorf, a small theatre in Vancouver. We got good reviews, the play ran for seven weeks, and I made seven hundred dollars, so I was not about to give up my carpentry gig. Then a few weeks after the play closed at the Kleindorf, Mark called and said someone named Jason Moreau wanted to stage the play in Montreal if we were open to honing the dialogue with him. We said we were open to honing and Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise was a big hit, mainly because of Gina’s extraordinary performance.”
Kelly and Margot and Luisa and Andrew applaud Gina, and she bows comically low and bumps her head on the table, to which she reacts by hopping around on one foot as if she stubbed her toe.
“But then,” says Andrew, when their laughter subsides, “because of the play’s success, Penelope and Judith, who were Jason’s close friends, agreed to represent me and soon thereafter sold my collection of short stories The Draft Dodger and other fables which launched my writing career. And I have no doubt it was your performance, Gina, your revelatory interpretation of Esme that made the play a hit and fueled my launch. And I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
“You’re very welcome, Andrew,” she says, placing a hand on her heart. “And though I appreciate your praise more than you will ever know, I will modify a line from that long dead British guy and say, ‘The play’s the thing wherein you captured the hearts of your audience, and I was but the lucky mouthpiece for your words.’”
First thing the next morning Luisa goes to the offices of Mounteney & Vogel to sign the contract making her their client, after which she spends the rest of the morning at her publisher’s working on the page proofs of Rainy River and other stories, meeting with Sales, and posing for promotional photos before going to lunch with her editor and the editor-in-chief to celebrate the stellar pre-publication reviews for her book.
While Luisa is thus occupied, Andrew meets with Penelope and Judith and signs various documents pursuant to transferring his contracts to Mounteney & Vogel, after which he goes to see Margot and Kelly to sign the contract making him their client.
However, Kelly is away from the office schmoozing with a theatre director and Margot is on the phone with a hysterical client, so Darla visits with Andrew until Margot is free.
“Do you have a new play in the works?” she asks, sharing a pot of strong black tea with Andrew, her desk their table. “Or a novel?”
“I’ve never written a novel,” he says, doubting he ever will. “And in the two years since the movie of Their Summer Holiday came out I haven’t started anything new, though I did manage to finish the play and the collection of stories I was working on before the movie came out. But nothing new has come to me since.”
“I suppose an enormous success like that can be a shock to the system,” she says, sipping her tea. “Are we the agents now for that play and collection of stories?”
“Yes and no. The book has already been sold, but the contract is now with you. The Carpenter’s Song and other stories. And the play is opening here in Montreal in about seven weeks.”
“Oh The Carpenter’s Song,” she says, beaming at him. “I live three doors down from Jason Moreau and we often walk our dogs together in the morning. He’s absolutely thrilled with your play. Says it’s your best yet. I didn’t realize it was based on a short story. You’ve done that before, haven’t you?”
“A few times, yes,” says Andrew, glad to know Darla and Jason are friends.
“And when you were writing the story, did you sense it would make a good play? Or do you think all your stories would make good plays?”
“I would say everything I write comes to me as scenes I watch and transcribe.”
The phone on her desk rings quietly and she answers, “Mounteney & Vogel. Who’s calling, please?”
Andrew removes to the other side of the reception area so as not to intrude, and a framed photograph on the wall captures his attention—Margot standing between two handsome young men, the younger Margot in the picture closely resembling a woman Andrew was madly in love with when he was in his early twenties.
“That was yet another of our writers calling in distress,” says Darla, beckoning Andrew to return to her. “That’s what Margot’s doing right now, trying to talk one of our writers out of burning the manuscript she worked on for three years before she ran out of ideas and now she can’t figure out how to wrap things up.”
“The literary agent as psychotherapist,” says Andrew, considering this. “I’ll keep that in mind for my next nervous breakdown.”
“I suppose all writers live in fear of running out of ideas,” says Darla, nodding sympathetically. “Do you?”
“No, because I don’t write from ideas. I know many writers do, but the few times I’ve tried to write a story or a play from an idea, nothing would come to me. Not a word.”
“So does that mean when you were writing your book of stories about carpenters you didn’t first have the idea to make such a collection?”
“No,” he says, recalling the thrill of those stories pouring forth. “In fact, I wrote the first four stories without really knowing they were separate stories because I didn’t read those pages until I was nearly done with what turned out to be the fifth story and it dawned on me I might be writing separate stories with recurring characters. So then I read the pages and discovered they were, indeed, five stories, each about a carpenter, and each of those carpenters knew the others. But even then I didn’t think I would write more stories about carpenters because, as I told you, if I write from a preconceived notion, nothing comes.”
“So let me ask you this,” says Darla, lowering her voice. “Can you tell from the writing if the writer has decided ahead of time what to write, or if the writer writes as you do without forethought?”
“Always,” says Andrew, nodding.
“Can you describe the difference?” she asks expectantly.
“Give me moment,” he says, musing for a time. “In one I hear the words being manufactured by a mental machine, and in the other I hear a spontaneous song. Like a child singing as he plays, free of anyone else’s rules about what a song should be.”
“I remember Margot singing those kinds of songs when she was a little girl,” says Darla, writing on her notepad free of anyone else’s rules about what a song should be. “How happy she was.”
Andrew treats Margot and Darla to lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant, and over green tea and fortune cookies Darla tells the story of how she came to Canada fifty years ago, pregnant with Margot.
“I was a lonely young woman living at home with my parents in Devon, writing a novel in feeble imitation of Jane Austen, a novel full of the romance I longed for, when along came Paul Westerby, a dashing Canadian vagabond travelling about with knapsack and easel, painting not-very-good landscapes of the English countryside. He romanced me and slept with me for a few glorious wine-drenched months, and when I told him I was pregnant and we should marry, he fled back to Canada and I pursued him.”
“Did you travel by boat?” asks Andrew, especially enjoying Margot’s enjoyment of her mother’s tale.
“No, I flew to Montreal,” says Darla, pouring more tea into each of their cups. “It was 1947 and air travel was very expensive and still quite an adventure, but my mother gave me the money because she was just as eager as I to run the rogue down.” She laughs. “My father, on the other hand, was a severe melancholic and reacted to my pregnancy by staying home from work and moping in the garden. He was a reluctant accountant and preferred a dark corner of the pub to the desk in his office.”
“And where, Mother, did you finally run the rogue down?” asks Margot, gently steering her mother back to the main story.
“In the snooty suburbs of Toronto,” says Darla, disappointed all over again despite the intervening fifty years. “My dashing vagabond turned out to be the pampered son of a wealthy cigarette magnate, his mother a humorless socialite. Paul refused to see me, and his mother took his side, so I appealed to Paul’s father and he said he would arrange for an abortion, except by then I was four months along and wanted to keep my precious child, so he gave me ten thousand dollars, which was a fortune in those days, and I moved to Montreal and we’ve lived here ever since.”
“Did you ever meet your father?” asks Andrew, finding Margot more and more attractive the longer he’s with her.
“A few times,” says Margot, exchanging glances with her mother. “He came to visit when I was seven and took us out for ice cream. Then he came again the summer after I graduated from high school and gave me a check for five hundred dollars, which I immediately spent on clothes.”
“He was running the family business by then,” says Darla, making a sour face. “Rich as Croesus and smelled like an ash tray.”
“And the last time we saw him,” says Margot, pausing for effect, “was just a few years ago when he came to the agency and asked us to find a publisher for his autobiography.”
“Did you?” asks Andrew, amazed by the audacity of the old rogue.
“No,” says Margot, looking at her mother. “But we read the manuscript with great interest.”
“Did he do justice to that momentous summer in Devon?” asks Andrew, feeling sure the rogue must have. “Your love affair and…”
“Not a word about me,” says Darla, shaking her head. “And not a word about Margot.”
“Yet he wanted us to find a publisher for his badly written book of lies,” says Margot, closing her eyes. “An arrogant humorless man with a perpetual sneer on his face.”
“But when I was twenty-one,” says Darla, remembering back to that summer in Devon, “and he came tramping across the field of ox-eye daisies overhung by a blue blue sky full of snowy white clouds, a strapping young man with an easel on his back, smiling like a sunbeam, I could only think to love him.”
They return to the offices of Mounteney & Vogel and Andrew has his first meeting alone with Margot.
“Will you be coming back to Montreal?” asks Margot, sitting down at her desk. “For the opening of your play?”
“Yes,” he says, sitting in a chair on the client side of her desk. “I’ll be back in four weeks.” He raises two fists. “For the final push. Last minute dialogue tweaking and anything else Jason wants me to do. And then we’ll stay for dress rehearsal and the first few performances.”
“Oh so Luisa’s coming with you,” says Margot, sounding relieved. “Wonderful.”
“She’ll be here for dress and opening night and the party after,” he says, nodding. “And I’ll be here for two weeks before she comes. We wanted to bring the kids for the whole shebang, but they refused. Said they didn’t want to miss the last few weeks of school. Can you imagine? When I was sixteen I would have given anything to skip school and hang out in a big theatre watching professional actors bring a play to life. But they love their teachers and their friends and wouldn’t think of missing the last days of school before summer.”
“Will you be staying with Jason?” she asks, reluctant to meet his gaze.
“That’s the plan. Just three houses away from your mom.”
“And me,” she says, looking at him. “I live with her.”
“Oh,” he says, the frisson between them profound. “I… I wouldn’t have guessed that. I had you living with some lucky guy, a professor of… I don’t know… Archaeology.”
“Oh really,” she says, laughing. “A lucky Archaeology professor. Not an unlucky professor of Literature?”
“I really like you, Margot,” he says, laughing with her. “And I have to tell you… the moment I saw you I had the feeling I’ve known you and loved you forever. And when I told Luisa that, do you know what she said?”
“What?” asks Margot, holding her breath.
“She said she felt exactly the same way, that we are a trio of soul mates.”
“Then I won’t be afraid of you anymore,” says Margot, coming around her desk as Andrew rises to meet her—their embrace both a confirmation of their love and proof they need not be lovers to be as one.