In Julia Glass's fifth book since her acclaimed novel Three Junes won the National Book Award, she gives us the story of an unusual bond between a world-famous writer and his assistant—a richly plotted novel of friendship and love, artistic ambition, the perils of celebrity, and the power of an unexpected legacy.
When the revered children's book author Mort Lear dies accidentally at his Connecticut home, he leaves his property and all its contents to his trusted assistant, Tomasina Daulair, who is moved by his generosity but dismayed by the complicated and defiant directives in his will. Tommy knew Morty for more than four decades, since meeting him in a Manhattan playground when she was twelve and he was working on sketches for the book that would make him a star. By the end of his increasingly reclusive life, she found herself living in his house as confidante and helpmeet, witness not just to his daily routines but to the emotional fallout of his strange boyhood and his volatile relationship with a lover who died of AIDS. Now Tommy must try to honor Morty's last wishes while grappling with their effects on several people, including Dani Daulair, her estranged brother; Meredith Galarza, the lonely, outraged museum curator to whom Lear once promised his artistic estate; and Nicholas Greene, the beguiling British actor cast to play Mort Lear in a movie.
When the actor arrives for the visit he had previously arranged with the man he is to portray, he and Tommy are compelled to look more closely at Morty's past and the consequences of the choices they now face, both separately and together. Morty, as it turns out, made a confession to Greene that undermines much of what Tommy believed she knew about her boss—and about herself. As she contemplates a future without him, her unlikely alliance with Greene—and the loyalty they share toward the man whose legacy they hold in their hands—will lead to surprising upheavals in their wider relationships, their careers, and even their search for love.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
JULIA GLASS is the author of five previous books of fiction, including the best-selling Three Junes, winner of the National Book Award, and I See You Everywhere, winner of the Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Other published works include the Kindle Single Chairs in the Rafters and essays in several anthologies. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Glass is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emerson College. She lives with her family in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:March 23, 1956
Place of Birth:Boston, Massachusetts
Education:B.A., Yale College, 1978; Scholar of the House in Art, Summa Cum Laude, 1978
Read an Excerpt
Today, the actor arrives.
Awake too early, too nervous for breakfast (coffee alone makes her more nervous still), fretful over what to wear (then irritated at caring so much), Tommy patrols the house that is now hers, shockingly and entirely hers—not just her bedroom and all it contains but everything she can see from its two windows: seven acres of gardens and grass and quickening fruit trees, fieldstone walls and stacks of wood, shed and garage and hibernating pool. The sky above: does she own that, too? Owning the sky would be easy. The sky would be a gift. The sky weighs nothing. The sky is unconditional.
She roams and circles through rooms she knows by heart: living room, dining room, kitchen, den, mudroom, pantry, porch. She cannot enter a room these days without beginning a mental inventory: What to keep? What to give away? (Worse, far worse, how much of it will she sell?) She goes to and from the studio, back and forth between this world and that—in that one, he simply must be alive—so many times that her skirt is now damp from brushing against the tight-fisted buds of the peonies flanking the path.
Will she have to change again?
The birds are in prime song, the sun beyond a promise, the day upon them all. Five hours to fill, and Tommy has no idea how.
She still finds it hard to believe that Morty agreed to this. But he did. He spoke to the actor more than willingly—to Tommy’s embarrassed ears, unctuously—only a few days before his fall. His eager remarks punctuated by a forced, nasal laughter, he said that he looked forward to welcoming the actor to his home and studio, showing him “everything—well, almost everything!”
Unlike many women around the civilized world, Tommy does not yearn to meet or spend time with or even catch sight of Nicholas Greene. That she will be alone with him—if he complies with her conditions, and he must (Yes, Morty, you are not the only one with conditions!)—is even more unsettling, but one thing she knows is that she will not allow a wolf pack of movie people to poke around the premises. It was bad enough letting the art director visit last month. “Just a walkabout to soak up the spirits,” he claimed. He arrived with a photographer and two assistants, who managed to trample flat a swath of crocuses emerging from the lawn. Morty behaved like a puppy, tagging along rather than leading them through, setting no limits to their invasion.
She has seen Nicholas Greene’s face on the racks at the CVS checkout (though a year ago, Americans hadn’t a clue who he was), and she did share Morty’s excitement when they watched the Academy Awards and saw the actor hoist his trophy aloft, thank his costars, his director, his agent, and (tearfully) his “courageous, unforgettable mum.” Even then, barely three months ago, Tommy was confident that this proposed “biopic” of Morty would, like countless other movie projects, wither on the vine. (How many books of Morty’s had been optioned yet never come close to the screen?) She has to wonder if Nicholas Greene’s Oscar galvanized the project, to which the actor had already been “attached”—as if he were a garage adjoining a house or a file appended to an e-mail.
There is something shamefully alluring to Americans about a British accent, whether it’s cockney or sterling-silver Oxbridge. Even Tommy is not immune. Given the choice, who wouldn’t rather listen for hours to Alec Guinness or Hugh Grant, over Johnny Depp or even a velvety vintage Warren Beatty? But why in the world, with all the platoons of hungry, gifted, handsome actors out there (Morty was handsome in his youth), would anyone sensible pick an Englishman to play a guy who grew up in Arizona and working-class Brooklyn? Maybe that’s why Morty was so enthralled. Maybe he couldn’t resist the flattery of seeing his life story told through the medium of a boyishly sexy, upper-crusty-sounding younger man who had been nurtured, almost literally, on Shakespeare and Dickens. Morty had a passion for Dickens. (She will certainly show the actor the glass-front cases containing Morty’s book collection; no harm there.)
Once Morty learned that Nicholas Greene had signed on, he asked Tommy to do a little research. As he leaned toward the computer over her shoulder, taking in the googled stills of the actor playing Ariel at the Globe, Sir Gawain in a defunct but cultishly admired TV series, and of course the doomed son in the film that just won him a slew of prizes, Morty’s face shed years in expressing his naked delight. It was a face he might have drawn for five-year-olds, a face to be duplicated millions of times, seen by children who spoke and sang and shared their secrets in two or three dozen languages.
Maybe it’s because Tommy lived with Morty for twenty-five years and knew him better than anyone else possibly could (even Soren) that she cannot actually see why he would be chosen as the subject of a feature film; not a documentary, which made sense—there were two of those already, one for children, one for adults—but the kind of movie you watch in order to be swept away by crisis or intrigue or menace or laughter or the conquering power of love. Maybe she’s too close to Morty’s everyday life—“the monotony of quiet creativity, imagination fueled by routine and isolation,” he mused aloud in the PBS series—to see it as a source of entertainment. At the same time, she is dead sure that Morty would not want certain details of his life offered up as fodder for strangers’ titillation or tears. God forbid they should delve into the mercifully obscured months of his clubbing binge, for instance, the breakdown that led to Soren. Maybe that’s why she can’t stop rushing about, as if she’s taken some kind of mania-inducing drug, fretfully scanning shelves of mementos and knickknacks, walls crowded with framed photos and cartoons and letters, searching for anything that might expose unnecessary personal matters to a curious stranger passing through.
Morty’s lawyer, Franklin, has passed through several times, as well as Morty’s agent, Angelica, who is still in shock over the will. Franklin has always treated Tommy as an equal and seems to like her—or at least he’s done a convincing job of pretending. What upsets her (though logically, why should it?) is that Franklin knew about Morty’s latest will for weeks. He assures her that Morty meant to sit down with her and explain the reasons for the seismic shift in his intentions. He was simply waiting for the right time—because time, he had good reason to assume, was something of which he still had plenty.
Tommy never doubted that Morty would be generous to her, but she had no idea he would leave her the house and the surrounding property outright; even less than no idea that he would name her his literary executor, assigning her a series of detailed responsibilities as variously remote from her experience as foraging for mushrooms or Olympic diving. And some of them will be deeply unpleasant: first and foremost, telling the people at the museum in New York that no, he will not be leaving them the bulk of his artwork and letters and collections and idiosyncratic belongings, as Tommy knows he led them to believe he would do. Now, she must somehow repossess the drawings, manuscripts, and annotated book proofs that have been on loan with the general understanding that the loan was a prelude to a gift . . . a very large gift. Tommy has yet to answer the e-mails and phone messages from the distressed director. Even though Franklin is confident that the museum has no legal grounds for challenging the will, Tommy herself is the one who will have to face up to those messages. She can only hope she won’t have to tell the woman why Morty turned sour on them. She doesn’t like remembering how easily his ego was bruised these past few years.
She wishes that somewhere among all the legal surprises, Morty had also left directions to cease cooperation with the movie people. But up through the very last night of his life, he was beyond delighted; he was as close to rapturous as Tommy ever saw him. Silly of her not to have realized that as he aged, his ego was as readily inflated as it was bruised.
As usual, he spent that afternoon working and napping in the studio, then joined Tommy in the kitchen at six. And, as had become his habit in the few days since his second transatlantic conversation with Nicholas Greene, he wanted to talk not about the story or drawings in which he was immersed (how deeply Tommy already misses seeing new images, listening to Morty read out loud new constellations of words—to her before anyone else) but about what it would mean, what it would feel like, to be the subject of a “real-deal movie.” Morty never cared much for drink, but that night he went to the back fridge, the extra one they had installed in the early years of Soren (the party years), and rooted out a bottle of true champagne, then stood on a stool to reach a pair of dusty flutes. Tenderly, he soaped and rinsed and polished the glasses, insisting that he and Tommy share a “properly classy toast.”
After Tommy returned to sautéing garlic for the linguini with clam sauce that neither of them knew would constitute Morty’s last supper, he sat at the table, refilled his glass, and rambled on in earnest wonder about the prospect of being played (“Like an instrument!” he exclaimed, miming a violinist) by an actor who had won both an Oscar and whatever the British equivalent was. “Tommy,” Morty said—uttering her name with such gravity that she turned away from the stove—“just think: you’ll be on my arm at the premiere . . . or I suppose, considering my infirmities, I’ll be on yours, my dear.” He raised a second toast, to her.
“What infirmities?” she said.
“You know how long these projects take. I’ll be eighty by then.”
Tommy still saw Morty as essentially youthful, but she had become aware that his agility and sense of balance were diminishing, that he should hire younger men to climb tall ladders or scrunch down into a crawl space. He did not agree. (Last fall she caught him on the phone, trying to cancel the handyman she had hired to clean the gutters.) And so, the next morning, while Tommy was off at the UPS Store, copying and shipping a batch of color sketches for Angelica, Morty climbed out an upstairs window onto the steeply pitched roof above the screened porch, intent on removing a limb that had fallen from the granddaddy maple, his favorite of all the fine old trees for which he had bought this property—a tree whose likeness he had rendered in his books again and again. Tommy knows he waited until her car was out of sight.
Far too often now, she must force her mind to detour sharply away from the predictable ambush of her suffocating sorrow (not guilt, because she was away doing her job, and he was being foolish) whenever she imagines Morty lying on the flagstones for God knows how long before she reached the end of the driveway and saw him there, out cold—the bough having tumbled down after, landing across his legs. He was already dead, she would learn, but for the time she sat beside him on the damp frigid stone, wishing she could just hold his head in her lap, and for the time the EMTs tried to bring him to consciousness, she had a wish that generally only a wife or a parent would have: Take me instead.
When had she crossed that line, from being the big sister of his favorite model, the boy whose doppelgänger put him on the literary map, and then his indispensable helper, his fifth limb (maid, cook, driver, party escort, website warden, proxy on difficult phone calls, repository of names), to finding herself so inescapably devoted to the man, the porcupine as well as the genius, the hermit as well as—something surprisingly new, perhaps even to him—the starstruck fan?
Reading Group Guide
The questions and discussion topics provided here are designed to enhance your reading group’s focus on some of the main concepts in A House Among the Trees and to enable readers to explore and share different perspectives. Feel free to wander in your discussion, and use this as a guideline only!
1. The house in Orne that Morty and Tommy share plays an enormous part in their lives and claims the title of this novel. In what ways is the house significant as more than just a setting? Does it remind you of places you know?
2. Tomasina Daulair has given 25 years of her adult life to caring for an older gay man who is also a revered, beloved artist. Do you consider her lonely? What do you think of the choices she's made along the way? Do you see any parallels between Tommy and yourself?
3. Nick Green is a young artist whose career is rapidly accelerating, while Mort Lear was an artist who worked hard to sustain his success and renown over several decades. What kind of a relationship did they form through their correspondence, and how do you think it might have evolved if they'd met in person?
4. Mort Lear’s character is revealed in flashbacks through the course of the novel, through the eyes of three different people. How does your opinion of him change as the story progresses and his past comes into focus? Do the descriptions of the books he wrote and illustrated shed further light on his character??
5. Describe the relationship between Tommy Daulair and Mort Lear. Do you think that Morty was fair to Tommy? What did each of them give and receive?
6. Franklin, Morty's lawyer, tells Tommy that Morty had fully intended to tell her about the radical changes in his will. Do you think that's true, and if he had done so, do you think Tommy would have tried to change his mind?
7. Franklin, Morty's lawyer, tells Tommy that Morty had fully intended to tell her about the radical changes in his will. Do you think that's true, and if he had done so, do you think Tommy would have tried to change his mind?
8. Morty’s boyhood life as Mordecai influenced his relationships with both men and women throughout his life. Yet he chose, by omission, to give a different public version of his childhood trauma than the one he gave to Nick. The actor agonizes over the implications of that disclosure, yet the film director does not see it as crucial to the story he wants to tell about Lear's life. What do you think? Do early relationships become less consequential as time goes on?
9. Nick Green, who adored yet also pitied his mother, has had two other influential relationships with much older women: first, in his childhood, with Emmelina Godine; later, with his costar Deirdre Drake. Does Tomasina, being an older, knowledgeable woman, fit into a similar role or bond with Nick? Or is their relationship completely different?
10. What, if anything, do you think Nick Green learns from his brief yet intense connection with Mort Lear and then from his (also brief yet intense) time spent with Tommy, Dani, and Merry over that weekend in Lear's house? Discuss how each of them might have been changed by what they shared with one another.
11. On the surface, Nick and Tommy couldn't be more different, yet they discover that they have several private things in common. What exactly do they share, and how does this affect each of them?
12. Describe the character of Tommy’s brother Dani. How does your perception of him change as the story goes on?
13. Discuss how Dani feels toward Mort and why he feels that way. Is Dani justified in his resentment?
14. What do you think of Meredith Galarza when you meet her? Do your feelings about her change as you get to know her better over the course of the novel?
15. Consider the role of mothers in the book: Morty’s mother, Tomasina’s mother, and Nick’s mother. (Even Merry's mother is mentioned more than once.) What characteristics do these women share, and how have they influenced their children? Julia Glass writes frequently about mothers; do the ones in this novel bring to mind others in her previous books?
16. What do you think about the sudden connection between Nick and Merry? Do you find it plausible, and do you think it has any special significance to the story?
17. At the end of the novel, Tommy has dealt with Morty’s estate, and despite taking certain liberties with his requests, she seems confident that her actions fulfilled his requirements. What do you think of the choices she made, and how do you think Morty would have felt about them?
18. Have you ever received an unexpected inheritance of some kindor seen the wishes of a departed person affect people who are still living? If you were left in charge of fulfilling someone's final wishes, how did that responsibility influence your feelings toward the deceasedand perhaps your relationships with other living people?
19. How do you imagine Tommy's life beyond the end of the novel?