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A rehearsal dinner brings together two disparate families in this sparkling, witty novel
“This vital novel offers delicious echoes of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, and a touch of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—but its magic is unique. The Garden Party is beautiful and full of life.”—Claire Messud, author of The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs
The Cohens are wildly impractical intellectuals—academics, activists, and artists. The Barlows are Wall Street Journal–reading lawyers steeped in trusts and copyrights, golf and tennis. The two families are reserved with and wary of each other, but tonight, the evening before the wedding that is supposed to unite them in marriage, they will attempt to set aside their differences over dinner in the garden.
As Celia Cohen, the eminent literary critic, sets the table, her husband, Pindar, would much rather be translating ancient recipes for his Babylonian cookbook than hosting this rehearsal dinner. Meanwhile, their son, Adam, the poet (and nervous groom), wonders if there is still time to simply elope. One of Adam’s sisters, Naomi, a passionate but fragile social activist, refuses to leave her room, while Sara, scorpion biologist turned folklore writer, sits up on the roof mourning an imminent breakup. And Pindar’s elderly mother, Leah, witnesses everything, weaving old memories into the present.
The lawyers are early: patriarch Stephen Barlow and his bespangled wife, Philippa, who specializes in estates, along with Philippa’s father, Nathan, hobbled by age and Lyme disease. Then come the Barlow sons William (war crimes), Cameron (intellectual property), and Barnes (the prosecutor), each with desperate wife and precocious offspring. How could their younger siblings—Eliza, the bride, an aspiring veterinarian, and her twin brother, Harry, recently expelled from divinity school—have issued from such a family?
Up and down the dinner table, with its twenty-four (or is it twenty-five?) guests, unions are forming and dissolving while Pindar is trying to figure out whether time is really shaped like baklava, and off in the surrounding forest with its ancient pond different sorts of mischief will lead to a complicated series of fiascoes and miracles before the party is over. Set over the course of a single day and night, Grace Dane Mazur’s brilliantly observed novel weaves an irresistible portrayal of miscommunication, secrets, and the power of love. “Lyrical and charming, this comedy of errors is a delightful summer read.”—People
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Garden Party
Near the forest with its small otherworldly pond, the house waits for guests, doors and windows flung open to the warm winds of the summer afternoon. The excitable flower beds toss light and color to one another and toward the weathered shingles of the house, but the brilliance of the sun causes the rooms inside to appear cavernous and dark. Ecstatic chopping noises come from the kitchen, the staccato pulse of knife on wood, scallions mostly, mint. In the main garden, two tables stand end to end, covered with a single long white linen cloth that flutters as though alive, but it is only a passing breeze.
Old Leah Cohen sat in the garden while her son, Pindar, lit one last pipe before setting the table. He didn’t really have time for a pipe, she thought, but then time had become all jiggery around the edges, like a visual migraine. Today’s wedding rehearsal had been at the Barlows’ church; it had gone on for an eternity and everyone had been exquisitely cordial but now nothing was ready and all the Barlows would arrive at any moment. Although the two families were not antagonistic, there was an undeniable shyness, a wariness perhaps. Pindar’s wife, Celia, came out of the house with a seating plan and a wicker basket.
“What time is it?” their daughter Sara called down from where she was sitting on the roof. “Are you sure it isn’t late?” The house was tall but the slates were not that steep and it was one of Sara’s favorite places to sit. It cleared the mind, she said. She had asked earlier if she could help with the tables, but both her parents had said, “Not yet.” Though they were used to her being on the roof and didn’t worry about her, they could not stop themselves from reminding her every so often to come down.
Pindar checked his list. “And Naomi?”
Celia didn’t answer. Shading her eyes from the sun, she called up to the silhouette of her older daughter. “I need you to talk to your sister. Someone’s got to get her out of her room.”
Sara stayed where she was. “I tried. She said she would think about it, but when I went by a bit later, the door was still locked. She said she was getting dressed.”
“When was that?” Celia asked.
“About an hour ago.”
Consulting his list, Pindar said, “This African of yours is coming?”
“He’s not African,” Sara said. “That’s where he goes to teach in the summer. And he’s not mine. I mean, we’re not together.”
“But he’s coming, right?”
“He’ll be here.”
“A bit more to your side.” Pindar pointed with the stem of his pipe.
Celia tugged the tablecloth smooth. It ruffled again slightly on its own.
“You’re not going to surround me with them?” he said.
“That’s the point,” she replied. “Isn’t it?” She lifted the basket of silverware, tarnished and solid, placing it on the table. “Besides, they’re hardly strangers. We’re about to be related.”
“Not until noon tomorrow.” He looked at his watch. Not enough time for a nap, barely enough time to get the table done. “They won’t stay terribly late, will they?” Raising his face to the sky, he called, “Sara! Where’s your sister?”
Sara smiled down at her father. “I just told you. In her room.”
“What sort of shape is she in?”
“I’m not sure,” Sara said. She knew that although her parents were distraught about her sister, these days—today and tomorrow, at least—were not about Naomi or herself. They belonged to her brother, Adam, and Eliza, his bride. Not only the dinner party and the wedding, but all the currents and eddies of time between and surrounding these events should be theirs. And yet, perhaps because of the odd electric storm in the night, which had done nothing to dissipate the heat or the charge in the atmosphere, perhaps because of her own disastrous phone conversation this morning, time today was darting about, sizzling and unruly, flicking from one person’s story to another’s.
Pindar had that uncanny spatial dislocation of the under-slept, as though he were sitting on his own shoulder, stealing puffs from his own pipe. There had been heat lightning and thunder during the night. Although he loved extreme weather, the continual low grumbling in the west had led his dog, Adannu, to panic. Finally he had taken the dog with him into his study, so that Celia could stay asleep. All night long he comforted the dog and did battle with his own thought-demons, who departed shortly before dawn. He slept for an hour or two, then shuffled into the kitchen, still half-asleep, to make breakfast for himself and Celia and bring it back to bed. As usual, he made Turkish coffee in small green cups, plates of toast and jam, and a brass bowl of dates, walnuts, and dried cherries. Today he found some figs, plump as puddings, about to burst their skin; he split a Crenshaw melon and carved it into crescents of pinkish yellow.
In bed, lifting herself on one elbow, Celia had smiled as he set down the tray. “We could, you know, get up,” she said. “People do that.” Her gray hair billowed. “We could have it down in the kitchen, love. Especially today.”
“Can’t,” Pindar replied. He was not yet out of the vortex of sleep—intense because it had been so brief—and that night wanderer, his soul, might not be able to find its way back if he took his breakfast in an unusual place.
Although Celia did not share his reluctance to go down to the kitchen for breakfast—her soul was always right there, wherever she was, looking out from behind her eyes the minute she opened them—she understood why Pindar liked to bring their breakfast back to bed. Still, she would tease him, saying, “But you were already downstairs grinding the coffee. What if the noise alarmed him and he came home then, your little soul, and didn’t find you?”
Pindar said he hoped the errant spindly creature knew enough not to look for him when he was in the kitchen cooking breakfast.
Of course, he didn’t always feel such morning fright; there were certain summer mornings when the sky called to him to get his body into the garden. Then he would hurry outside while the early light was still yellow and raking and full of daring.
The sound of the wheelbarrow comes from somewhere in the distance, its iron wheel piping like the flutes of the dead.
Pindar now watched Celia counting the plates she had put out. She pointed toward the head of the table to start the count again, as though she was unable to keep track of everyone.
“Twenty-five, my love. You’ve set for twenty-five.”
“But who is the twenty-fifth? By my count we’re only twenty-four, including Naomi.”
“In case I’ve forgotten anyone. A straggler, a stranger, Elijah the Prophet.”
“So we are setting for Naomi?”
“When I bring my umbrella,” Celia began, “it never rains. The laws of protective voodoo positively avert the rain; the same laws of negative preparation would claim that she’s more likely to join us if we don’t set a place for her . . . but I think we have to do it.”
Pindar agreed. That way Naomi would be present even if it was only by the empty place that marked her absence.
“How strange,” he said softly. “A whole family of lawyers.”
“They’re extremely normal. Eliza isn’t a lawyer; and what’s his name, her twin, also isn’t. Here.” Celia handed him the forks. “On the left, on top of the napkins,” she said.
“On the left?” He always wondered how she knew these things.
Celia knew without being told that he had had an attack in the night, but wasn’t sure if it was only the upcoming wedding that was bothering him. She smiled at him and gestured toward the left.
“Do I need a tie?”
“They will all be wearing ties. Except the women. It is, after all, the night before the wedding.” Then she corrected herself. “Probably even the women.”
“Well then,” he said. He was wearing a cobalt-blue dress shirt, a hue so saturated that it was almost not a color but a state of being.
“Actually, dear, knives . . .” Celia tried to say this as though it didn’t matter really, as though she weren’t even watching, as though it were an afterthought as to which side of the plate the knives went on. She looked up at Sara, whose red hair was now backlit by the sun. Sara, still perched on the slates, caught her mother’s glance and shook her head almost imperceptibly, underlining the impossibility of getting her father to set a table in the normal way.
Celia smiled up at her daughter. “You’ll be coming down from there, right?”
“Yes. Of course. In a minute,” Sara said. She didn’t budge.
Sara had acquired the roof habit from her colleagues during a postgraduate year at a biology lab in Oxford. At first she would go with friends but later preferred going solo. Up on those English roofs, shivery and elated, she found she could look down into unsuspecting gardens and discern the crystalline geometry of the clustered houses. It wasn’t just the view; the roof was a sort of skin or membrane, pressing against the sky, and like all membranes it was a meeting place of interesting and odd forces. At times, though, up there alone, she would find herself too high; she would wonder, What on earth? and then she would freeze, feeling sheets of adrenaline on the soles of her feet, like lightning. If you move an inch you will slip. You might, in fact, be slipping now. So she wouldn’t move but sat motionless, waiting for the sensation to fade. In stillness she watched the light on the slates of nearby roofs change from pigeon breast through mauve and violet as the walled gardens filled with shadow. Then she would sit some more, in a gargoyle crouch, until, stiff and depleted, wondering if she should feel silly—for her fear, or for the activity itself—she would raise up like a goat unfolding stalky legs and tiptoe back to the open window, where the glass reflected quadrants of deepest blue surrounding the open darkness within.
“I’ll put Eliza’s mother, Philippa, at this end, the head of the table,” Celia called out. “That’s how it’s done. . . .”
When she didn’t continue, Pindar knew that she still wasn’t sure where to place everyone. “You won’t surround me with them, will you?” he said. Then, smiling as though he had figured out an obscure passage in one of his Babylonian texts, “It’s not too late to pull the tables apart, is it? Cohens here; Barlows there. We could call out such friendly toasts. From our table to theirs. Back and forth.”
“You’re not helping,” she said. Her exasperation told him that separate tables had been her first thought, too. They were both feeling shy. “What’s eating you?” Celia asked, softly now so Sara wouldn’t hear.
Pindar replied, “I’d rather he married an oak tree.” He had no idea where that came from. It wasn’t really what he meant. Eliza Barlow was a beauty, and their son, Adam, was moon-foolish with love for her. She was studying to be some sort of biologist or veterinarian; she did something with large animals. “Time,” he now said, correcting himself. “It will take so much time.” He could have been working on his new Babylonian fragments—scraps, really, inscribed in clay with so many parts broken and missing. They had come the previous day from his colleagues in Chicago, and they still had to be pieced together. But no, it wasn’t work that he needed. He loved Adam. It was just that this wedding seemed extraneous somehow, and he hadn’t been able to enter into the proper festive mood. Sleep was what he yearned for. When everything was over—tonight’s gathering and tomorrow’s wedding—then perhaps this quivery under-slept feeling would disappear. The Barlows would come and they would go—before midnight, he hoped—and by late tomorrow afternoon he and Celia would be liberated from celebration and they could recapture life as it had been. But what if it ruined things? What if the distance Pindar had recently observed between Adam and his parents only kept growing? What if this marriage proved a disaster for Adam?
Pindar sat down on the smooth rock at the edge of the garden, putting his arms around his knees and his head on his arms. He closed his eyes for a moment or two to get rid of the shakiness that had crept over him. He had been haunted in the night by three words that were clearest on his clay fragment: layer (?) . . . branch (?) . . . time. The question of time had been with him for years—it was the most familiar of his thought-demons—but why did it suddenly feel so catastrophic? Perhaps it was the wedding after all. Which felt like a sundering. Adam was so brilliant and clearheaded. They all depended on their constant conversations with him. But this spring Adam had become opaque. Celia told Pindar that this was normal, that the boy was wrapped up in his own coupling, that his new teaching job at Wellesley had taken all his time. But Pindar couldn’t even tell whether Adam was glad to be marrying. It was too late to ask.
They were each a sort of core for the other, Celia and Pindar: If she was their anchor, he was their bell, their clangor. Their son, Adam, though a poet, was sturdy and calm like Celia; Sara, even now in her early thirties, seemed to spring from nowhere: the sort of abstract puzzle one leaves alone until it explains itself. Perhaps she took after Pindar’s mother. And then Naomi, the youngest, always wanting to get away, always needing to be mopped up when she came home, often a bit of a mess. In her, all of her father’s sensitivities were still so raw she couldn’t deal with them.
In his calmer moments Pindar could feel the turning gears of the heavens. He pictured himself holding hands with Celia and their children and their closest friends, and then the chain would slowly revolve. The problem was, though, all of those people were also gripping others, on out to the edges. What was happening out there at the very margins? Did people spin off into the ether like the tails of galaxies, or the childhood skating game of Crack the Whip? And the other problem, of course, was that at the center of all those streams of people there must be one who turned on his own axis, at the cowlick of the universe. Perhaps he was in the position of that cowlick, licked by some great Babylonian cow-goddess, and thus he himself could appear to stay still while everything streamed around him. At times he would catch himself with the gesture he’d had as a small boy, his right fist turning in a small circle below his motionless left fist, as though he were operating an old-fashioned hand drill, moving the gears of the cosmos. Adam, Sara, and Naomi had always mimicked this gesture as children, giggling as though it were forbidden.
Grace Dane Mazur is the author of Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination;Trespass: A Novel; and Silk: Stories. Trained in painting, ceramics, and biology, she was engaged in postdoctoral research on morphogenesis in silkworms when she left biology in order to write. Most recently she has been on the fiction faculty at Harvard Extension School and at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lives in Cambridge and Westport, Massachusetts, with her husband, the mathematician Barry Mazur.