Jennifer Close The Smart One

ISBN 13: 9780099563297

The Smart One

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9780099563297: The Smart One

With her best-selling debut, Girls in White Dresses (An “irresistible, pitch-perfect first novel” —Marie Claire), Jennifer Close captured friendship in those what-on-earth-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life years of early adulthood. Now, with her sparkling new novel of parenthood and sibling rivalry, Close turns her gimlet eye to the only thing messier than friendship: family.

Weezy Coffey’s parents had always told her she was the smart one, while her sister was the pretty one. “Maureen will marry well,” their mother said, but instead it was Weezy who married well, to a kind man and good father. Weezy often wonders if she did this on purpose—thwarting expectations just to prove her parents wrong.

But now that Weezy’s own children are adults, they haven’t exactly been meeting her expectations either. Her oldest child, Martha, is thirty and living in her childhood bedroom after a spectacular career flameout. Martha now works at J.Crew, folding pants with whales embroidered on them and complaining bitterly about it. Weezy’s middle child, Claire, has broken up with her fiancé, canceled her wedding, and locked herself in her New York apartment—leaving Weezy to deal with the caterer and florist. And her youngest, Max, is dating a college classmate named Cleo, a girl so beautiful and confident she wears her swimsuit to family dinner, leaving other members of the Coffey household blushing and stammering into their plates.

As the Coffey children’s various missteps drive them back to their childhood home, Weezy suddenly finds her empty nest crowded and her children in full-scale regression. Martha is moping like a teenager, Claire is stumbling home drunk in the wee hours, and Max and Cleo are skulking around the basement, guarding a secret of their own. With radiant style and a generous spirit, The Smart One is a story about the ways in which we never really grow up, and the place where we return when things go drastically awry: home.

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About the Author:

JENNIFER CLOSE is the best-selling author of Girls in White Dresses. Born and raised on the North Shore of Chicago, she is a graduate of Boston College and received her MFA in Fiction Writing from the New School in 2005. She worked in New York in magazines for many years and then in Washington, D.C., as a bookseller.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

To be a manager at J.Crew, you had to be organized. That was what Martha always told people. She had, after all, risen to the position of manager faster than any other person at this particular branch. (Well, she was pretty sure of that. Someone had told her that once, and it seemed true.)
 
 
“You have to be willing to fold clothes all day if that’s what needs to be done,” she always said. “People don’t want to scrounge around through a messy pile of pants to find the right size.”
 
Martha was being a little modest when she told people this. You did have to be organized, that was true. But you also had to have the right work ethic, and Martha knew she had it. Some of these people treated this job like it was nothing, like the store was lucky to have them. Well, Martha was a registered nurse who had graduated at the top of her class, and she still worked harder than everyone else. She wasn’t too good to take the extra time to help a pear--shaped girl find the right kind of pants. If her job was to steer that pear of a girl away from skinny cords and point her in the direction of some wide--leg chinos, then that was what she was going to do.
 
The store was just a ten--minute drive from her parents’ house, which was why Martha decided to apply there in the first place. She’d never worked in retail before, but she figured it couldn’t be that hard, and
so she dropped off applications at Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, and Anthropologie. She was turned down almost everywhere.
 
“But I went to college,” Martha would say, when the managers asked her about previous retail jobs.
 
Then they would shake their heads no and apologize. “I’m sorry,” they’d say. “We really need someone that has prior experience.”
 
It was a godsend, really, that the manager at J.Crew was someone that Martha had gone to high school with. They weren’t exactly friends, but Margaret Crawford had sat next to Martha for years in school, and they’d had a sort of friendly alliance, since alphabetically they were always stuck together.
 
Margaret, it turned out, was pregnant. She told Martha that she was going to be cutting back on her hours and between that and all the college kids leaving to go back to school, they really needed help.
 
“You’re pregnant?” Martha asked. She tried not to sound shocked, but she was. Margaret looked just a little tubby all around, but not pregnant. Martha noticed a tiny diamond ring on her left hand.
 
“Yep,” Margaret said. She smiled and rubbed her bloated tummy. “Thirteen weeks. Can’t you tell?”
 
“Oh, yeah,” Martha said. “Now that you mention it, I can.”
 
“So why do you want to work here anyway?” Margaret said as she read Martha’s résumé. “I thought you were nursing. Career change?”
 
“No, not really. I was just in a job that wasn’t a good fit and I thought I’d take a break from it for a while. From nursing, I mean. You know.” Martha prayed that Margaret wouldn’t ask her what she’d been doing in the past year since she stopped nursing.
 
Margaret wasn’t a very pretty girl. She was average height and a little hefty, with unremarkable brown hair and a splotchy complexion. She was the sort of person who was just average at everything. She’d been in all mid--level classes in high school, had played volleyball for one year on the B team, and had some friends, but not many.
 
But she was nice, Martha thought. A little dim, but not completely unaware. Martha wondered for a second why they never became better friends. They could have banded together in high school, enjoyed each other’s company. It could have been a little less lonely.
 
Martha was mulling this over, thinking that maybe now was the time when she and Margaret would connect and they would become great friends, the kind of friend that Martha had never really had before. Maybe Martha would be this baby’s godmother, and they would laugh about it in years to come, about how they sat next to each other for so many years in school, but never really became friends until that one day when Martha just randomly walked into J.Crew.
 
“So where are you living these days?” Margaret asked.
 
“At home, for now.”
 
“You’re living with your parents?” Margaret asked. “Oh, no. That’s awful.”
 
And just like that, Martha remembered Margaret. She remembered the first day of sophomore year, when Margaret told her that bangs were not in style anymore and that Martha should think about growing hers out. Not meanly, really. Just with a sort of honesty that comes with being clueless.
 
Martha looked at Margaret’s chubby tummy and shrugged. She would not be the godmother of this baby. And she would get over it just fine.
 
That was almost six years ago, and Margaret had long since stopped working at the store. Sometimes she came in with her daughter, Addie, who always had a runny nose and the same blotchy complexion as her mother.
 
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Margaret always asked Martha. Martha would just smile in response. She didn’t believe in lying to make people feel good. The child wasn’t the least bit attractive, and she didn’t think it was right to say so. Besides which, what kind of person stated that their child was beautiful and then asked for confirmation?
 
Margaret’s husband looked like Eddie Munster, with bushy eyebrows and pointy teeth. It was no wonder that their child turned out like she did. Martha could tell that Margaret believed her husband to be very handsome. Sometimes he’d accompany her when she came to visit the store, and Margaret would hold his hand with a tight smile on her face, like she thought Martha was jealous of them. Martha would look at this unattractive family, and Margaret’s stupid smile, and feel nothing but sorry for the whole group of them, most of all for that eyesore, Addie.
 
Martha had seen people come and go from J.Crew. She trained the college kids in the summers and welcomed the good ones back over holiday vacations. She was a tough manager, that was for sure, but she was fair. And what more could you ask for?
 
Folding clothes in the store gave Martha a certain sense of accomplishment that was hard to explain to other people. She wasn’t OCD or anything, but she loved the way it felt to stack the clothes on top of each other, all of them the same, crisp and ready for the customers. It was her favorite part of the job.
 
She especially liked folding the clothes in the morning or at the end of the day when the store was closed, as she did now. It was nice to be surrounded by quiet, to know that at least for a little while, the neat stack of shirts that you made would stay just that way, and no customer would go grabbing in the middle of the pile, looking for his size and knocking the whole thing to the side.
 
Martha folded a stack of navy pants, pulling the crotch of each pair tightly, so that it was taut, and then folding the legs just right to get a perfect crease. She put the sizes in order, big ones on the bottom and the small ones on the top, like the big guys were holding up the little ones. 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, she said silently to herself, making sure that each size was represented.
 
Martha took a size 12 out of the pile of pants and put them back behind the register. She’d try them on later. She was a little surprised at how tight her size 10 pants were lately. She’d ignored it for a few weeks, but that morning she wasn’t able to button her favorite pair of khakis, and so she decided it was time for new ones.
 
It was a little hard to admit that she might have gone up a size. Again. She’d been a size 10 for so long now. Before she went on the medicine, she was a very respectable size 8, and once, a long time ago in high school, she was a size 6. She’d never been as thin as Claire, but she’d never been big. Even in college, when her diet of pasta and pretzels had bulked her up, she still wasn’t fat. And then she’d learned to deal with being a 10, a little fleshier than she was meant to be, but nothing horrendous. But now there was this. She was a size 12 and it felt like she was sliding toward obesity.
 
Lately when Martha got undressed at night, she noticed that the waistband of her pants left a circle of angry pink teeth marks around her stomach. She was starting to feel like a sausage stuffed into a too--small skin.
 
Martha closed down the registers and began gathering the receipts to bundle them. She couldn’t wait for this day to be over. One of their best employees, Candace, had quit unexpectedly. “I hate it here,” she’d said to Martha. “You’re like a Nazi.”
 
It was completely inappropriate to invoke the Nazis to describe anyone, and Martha told Candace just that. She asked Candace if she even knew the horror that the Nazis had caused. “Because if you did,” she said, “you might think twice about calling me a Nazi and disrespecting all of the people that were murdered by them.”
 
Candace made a strange sort of strangled sound, and threw up her hands. “You’re a freak!” she said. And she gathered her things and walked out. Martha tried not to let it show that Candace had embarrassed her, but she knew that her face was red. The other employee working that day, skinny little Trevor, gave Martha a small smile and she knew that he was pitying her.
 
“Good riddance,” Martha had said to him. Then she went back to the employee bathroom and put a wet paper towel on her cheeks until they cooled down.
 
Martha was stacking the register drawers to take them to the back when a teenage girl came to the door and, finding it locked, banged on the glass with her palm. Martha smiled and shrugged, then pointed to her watch to indicate that the store was closed. The girl outside gave her the finger and walked away.
 
Martha didn’t deserve that. People felt like they could treat her however they wanted, just because she worked in the store. Customers were sometimes rude beyond belief, acting like she was their servant
as they sent her to fetch them striped shirts and printed skirts. Martha
muttered to herself as she finished up her closing duties. Maybe she would just leave J.Crew altogether. She was, after all, a registered nurse. Well, she wasn’t exactly registered anymore, since she hadn’t worked in so long, but she could be if she wanted to.
 
Martha had known that she wanted to be a nurse from the time she broke her wrist when she was twelve. It was the nurses who comforted her, with their matter--of--fact answers and soothing voices. She loved the uniforms they wore, how they all had matching scrubs, like they were part of some club. They looked so important, filling out charts and taking temperatures, and she knew that was what she wanted to be. Plus, she’d always had a mind for medicine, had always done the best in her science classes.
 
Nursing was not a major to be taken lightly. It wasn’t like the other majors at her liberal arts college—-English or sociology or philosophy. Nursing was different. There were high expectations for the nursing students. You had to keep your GPA up, or you were out of the program. You did clinical work in addition to your classes. People’s lives depended on you, so you had to know your stuff. That was how Martha thought about it anyway.
 
The other girls in the program were different from Martha. They were sillier, flightier, than she was. But they all spent so much time together, studying for tests and carpooling to their clinicals, that
Martha developed a fondness for them and even began to enjoy their company.
 
They used to drag her out with them sometimes, to bars or to a party to stand in a random kitchen in some off-campus apartment and drink out of red plastic cups. “Come on, Martha!” they used to say. “Blow off some steam.” They used to call her Serious Martha, like that was her full name. They used to think it was their duty to try to get her to have some fun.
 
Martha would let them pick out her clothes for going out, even sip some rum and Cokes with them while they were getting ready. They’d do her makeup and ignore her pleas not to put on too much. “Mar--tha,”
they’d say, and roll their eyes. It was the same way Claire used to say her name when they were younger, when she would get so exasperated by Martha’s very being, saying her name like it hurt to get it out, dragging out each syllable—“Mar-tha.”
 
She’d go to these parties and stand there for a while. She had a feeling that she was supposed to be enjoying them. At the beginning of the night, the girls would stand next to her and include her in the conversations. But as the night went on, each of them would wander away, distracted by some boy. They were all desperate for boys. The one male nurse in their year had seven piercings on his face, including a big plug in his ear. He was nice, but no one they would be interested in. They used to call him Leo the Male Nurse, right to his
face.
 
Even if Martha found her way into a conversation at these parties, she never really had fun. There were some pleasant moments, but those were short--lived, and all that was left was a group of horny college kids waiting to get drunk enough that they could start making out with each other. It was like one big mono pool. She would wait until all the other girls were occupied, then she’d find one of them and tell her that she was leaving. She tried to find someone who was really immersed in a conversation with a boy, so that there would be no protests, so that no one would try to convince her to stay.
 
On the street, Martha would breathe with relief. She always walked home, even if it was the middle of winter. She didn’t mind. She liked the way the air rushed into her nose and froze her nostrils. It made her look forward to getting back to her single room and making hot chocolate in the microwave. She liked the feeling of thawing out in her cozy room, finding an old eighties movie to watch while snuggled under her covers, knowing that tomorrow she’d wake up fresh and ready to do her work, while the rest of the girls would be groggy and
hungover.
 
Those were great mornings, when her nursing friends groaned with their heads in their hands. “Why did we do this?” they’d say. Martha would tsk at them, not meanly, just in a good-natured way. She’d smile sympathetically and indulge their requests for Gatorade and water. Martha was happy during those study sessions, pleased that she was learning more than the other girls, because her body wasn’t wrecked from the night before. She always felt like she was a few steps ahead, so she was gracious enough to be nice to these girls, to agree to take a break so they could eat greasy food, shoveling french fries into their mouths as they said, “Why didn’t we leave when you did, Martha? Why did you let us stay?”
 
They didn’t really mean it, Martha knew. Maybe at that moment they regretted their decision, but the thing that Martha always knew was that these girls wanted to go to parties and meet boys just as ...

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