Excerpt from December by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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  • First Published:
    Jun 2008, 256 pages
    Jul 2009, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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Print Excerpt

He decides to start with the clutter, since he can’t get to the boxes until the clutter is cleared away. He pulls garbage bags filled with clothes for Goodwill off an old loveseat and brings them outside, then he pushes the loveseat itself out into the driveway. He brings outside old paintings leaned up against the wall; these are mildewed, and wisps of a spiderweb stretch across the corner of a frame. He drags out the hammock, the croquet set, several pairs of rusted cross-country skis, bent poles, an old sled. Behind the box the birdhouse came in, he finds a familiar box that he’d forgotten. It contains a zip cord to be stretched between two trees and a swing to ride between them. He’d bought it for Isabelle last year for Christmas, but somehow it hadn’t made it under the tree.

He opens the box and unpacks the wire and the swing. The set comes with hooks to drill into the trees and, according to the directions, setup looks easy enough. Wilson steps outside the garage and surveys the edge of the woods behind their house for suitable trees to stretch the cord between. There are two that look solid enough, the space between them clear of other trees and long enough for a decent ride. He takes the power drill from where it sits on the shelf, a tape measure, and the box with the zip cord out to the trees. He measures exactly seven feet up from the ground and makes a mark on each tree with one of the hooks; seven feet is high enough that Isabelle will be able to dangle without needing to lift up her legs and low enough that if she were to fall she’d be okay. He goes to drill the hook holes, but the power drill is dead. He takes it back to the garage to charge it, but this zip cord is something he wants to set up now, not later, so he goes back to the trees with a large screw and screwdriver and starts to drill the holes by hand. The wood is hard, and his fingers are numb, but slowly, stubbornly, he twists the screw around, around, around.

“Wilson!” he hears Ruth’s voice calling from the driveway. He looks toward her and blinks, unsure of how long he’s even been standing at this tree. Isabelle is standing at her mother’s side. “What are you doing?” Ruth says, gesturing at all the junk he’s left out in the driveway.

Wilson sets his tools down and walks toward his wife and daughter. “I was cleaning out the garage,” he says.

Ruth looks past him toward the tree he’s been working on. “Looks to me like you’ve made a mess of the driveway and are busy communing with a tree.”

“I found a zip cord. You know, one of those things you ride between the trees? I thought I’d set it up for Isabelle.”

“I see.”

“And the power drill is dead.”

“Right. Well, we’re going to the grocery store. We shouldn’t be more than an hour, but I’ve left the split pea simmering, so could you go in and give it a stir once or twice?”

She opens the door to their station wagon and gets in. Isabelle gets in on the other side, and they drive away. Exhaust lingers in the cold air even after Wilson can no longer hear the car’s engine. He breathes on his hands to warm them, and turns back to the tree.

“I spoke with Dr. Kleiner after your appointment yesterday,” Ruth says. She glances over at her daughter in the passenger seat. Isabelle stares out the side window—or rather at it, Ruth thinks; she can’t see through it for the fog gathered on the glass. “He says he’s not sure he’s the right doctor for you, and he thinks we should find someone else.” She turns the defrost on high, keeping her eyes on the road ahead. It’s a narrow, tree-lined road with blind curves. Ruth drives fast. “He says it takes two to make progress. You can’t draw water from stone.” Ruth sighs and lowers the defrost. They come around a bend in the road and up suddenly on the tail of another car. Ruth brakes and frowns. “Fucking asshole,” she mutters.

Excerpted from December by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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