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

She’s quiet for a minute. “Look, Isabelle,” she says. “If you don’t want to speak to me, and you don’t want to speak to your father, fine, but please, please try to cooperate with the doctors. Dr. Kleiner was what, the fourth? They just want to help you. I want to help you. Your father wants to help you. We all want to help you. We love you. Don’t you want to get better? Don’t you want to get to the bottom of all this shit?” She looks at her daughter hopefully. Isabelle sits like stone.

The two ride in silence for the rest of the drive. Ruth grips the steering wheel hard. She is angry at these doctors. All of them, it seems, have given up on Isabelle after little more than a month, each sending her on to another doctor who after a month will send her on to someone else. Ruth tries to explain to them that Isabelle is shy, that it takes her time to get comfortable, that if they only gave her a little bit longer she might warm up to them, might give them her trust. Dr. Kleiner had used the phrase “lost cause.” The recollection makes Ruth fume. That was the only diagnosis he could come up with, since no one can seem to find anything “wrong”: it’s not Asperger’s, it’s not autism, it’s not anything that can be tested for and named. As far as Ruth and Wilson know, there’s been nothing specific to catalyze it, no trauma or abuse. Lost cause. She pulls the car into the grocery store parking lot and parks with a lurch. Her daughter is no lost cause. Ruth will not give up. She looks at Isabelle. “We’re going to beat this thing,” she says. “Now let’s go shopping.”

Wilson has gotten about a half inch into the wood when he finally accepts the futility of trying to bore these holes by hand. He goes into the garage to test the power drill, but it’s mustered enough juice for only a feeble whining spin. He squints at the label; it takes two to three hours to fully charge. And it is not for dental use, thank you. He sets it back in the charger and surveys the garage and the things he’s dragged outside. He’s lost enthusiasm for this project; he knows from times past that cleaning out a space just makes room for more clutter in the end. And what does it matter about the truck? One more winter won’t kill it, and if it does, well, the thing’s pretty much had it anyway. What he should do, Wilson thinks, is get himself a sports car or a motorcycle. He’s a middle-aged businessman, after all, and don’t middle-aged businessmen do these kinds of things? Though he doesn’t know quite what he’d do with a sports car or a motorcycle. He wouldn’t dare tinker with either of them as he does his truck, and it’s the tinkering he likes best.

A gust of wind blows dry leaves and sharp air into the garage. Wilson shivers. Already it’s starting to get dark. Wilson looks at his watch: three thirty. Ruth and Isabelle should be back soon from the grocery store. Wilson remembers the soup.

Ruth hands Isabelle the grocery list. This is always how it goes: Ruth pushes the cart up one aisle then the next while Isabelle runs through the store finding all the items on the list and brings them back to the cart, where she arranges them with scientific precision; their cart is always neatly packed. Isabelle has retrieved almost every item on the list and the cart is nearly full when Ruth reminds her to get ingredients for cake. “I didn’t write them on the list because I didn’t want your father to see. But we need to make a cake to bring to the restaurant as soon as we get home. Or you need to. We always said when you were eleven you could do the whole thing yourself, didn’t we?” She thinks, hopes, she catches the trace of a smile on her daughter’s face. Isabelle’s specialty, learned from Ruth, is devil’s food cake with vanilla icing, raspberry jam between the two layers. Isabelle knows where to find what she’ll need; she leaves Ruth in the produce aisle to get them.

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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