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Assigned as college roommates in 1947, Frances Wilson and Libba Charles forged an unlikely friendship of opposites that ended only with Frances’s lingering death decades later. Now, Frances’s three grown daughters, who have never been close, struggle with loss and grief as they battle their personal demons. Alice is the control freak who fears she’ll have nothing to show for her life as "only a mother"; Allegra is a belligerent recovering alcoholic separated from her husband and children; Edie, the youngest, is chronically disorganized, inept, and commitment phobic.
The summer after Frances’s death, her three daughters are unwillingly reunited with Libba, a mercurial, contradictory, fascinating novelist, the seeming polar opposite to Frances. Alice, Allegra and Edie have long felt excluded from the two women’s relationship. They resent Libba for siphoning away their mother’s love and attention, for blatantly using their lives in her fiction, and suspect moreover that she assisted Frances’s dying. Adding insult to injury, Libba has inherited Creek Cabin, their beloved summer cottage in the mountains, and has moved there to work.
And also to die. Unbeknownst to Alice, Allegra, and Edie, Libba has pancreatic cancer and, having watched Frances’s protracted agony, refuses to seek treatment. When Libba summons the sisters to Creek Cabin to divide Frances’s possessions, they come grudgingly, but come they do. Libba’s terminal illness is eventually revealed, and the sisters remain at Creek Cabin because of their mother’s deathbed command to "Look after Libba."
Set against alternating flashback scenes that illuminate Libba and Frances’s history, Alice, Allegra, and Edie confront not only their own issues, but the surprising breaches, betrayals, and secrets behind an unshakeable intimacy they have simultaneously admired, envied, and resented. Until, finally, Libba charges the sisters to do for her what she did for Frances, their mother and her friend.
Now You Know is not one story, but five. The novel examines dynamics between sisters, between mothers and daughters, and the compromises and commitments women face in marriage, children, and careers. Most of all, though, it portrays not only the powerful alchemy of women’s friendship -- the devotion and details that comprise it -- but the obligations and sacrifices that love compels us to make.
What was the genesis for Now You Know? Where did it come from?
I love ensemble fiction (and movies, and television shows) in which a number of characters, rather than just one, face challenges. My third novel, The Last of Something, fell very much in that category. And I’ve long wanted to write a story of sisters. But interesting characters are just that—interesting characters with “issues,”—not a story. There has to be a dilemma. So for the dilemma, I returned to what I feel I do best: friendship between women. The friendship between Frances and Libba creates two types of tension: the sisters’ resentment of Libba, and her relationship with their mother, and the tensions between the sisters themselves, because they aren’t friends. They aren’t even particularly close to, or like one another, and moreover are having trouble with their own women friends. At that point, I began imagining plot devices (cruel, blunt term, but we’re clinically dissecting here…) to complicate what was basically a narrative of “feelings.” These would include the Creek Cabin inheritance issue, the deathbed directive, the ectopic pregnancy, the question of assisted suicide, and Libba’s hidden illness. Believe it or not, the entire novel was written before I decided on (spoiler alert!) Allegra’s parentage as a component. And I think this is fairly evident in the brevity and aftermath of its revelation, as I didn’t want one character—or indeed, one revelation--to be more important than another.
What of Now You Know is autobiographical?
I’m up to my old tricks. As usual, Now You Know is a total mishmash of the imagined and the real. Vade Mecum is a stand-in for the Presbyterian retreat Montreat outside the town of Black Mountain, North Carolina. Given a chance, I will always set my novels in the mountains where I grew up. Creek Cabin is, to almost the last details of Lucite-framed pictures on the stair walls, the attic fan, and its history as a girls’ summer camp cottage, a replica of a Montreat cottage my mother rented for a number of summers. Though I’m the eldest of three sisters, we’re very close, unlike Alice, Allegra and Edie. As far as I know, none of us are alcoholics (yet), but we’ve all been down Sliding Rock numerous times. I’m a writer, obviously, so every reference to Libba’s writing life, from the loneliness, to the contents of her bulletin board, to the maxims she lives by, to the scenes at the writer’s conference, come directly from my own experiences. Autobiography is very present in the thematic backdrop of having children vs., or in addition to, a career. Like Alice, I’ve been a stay-at-home mom with fulfillment issues, yet I’ve also watched women friends who chose other routes grow jealous or smug. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and I wanted to depict the ambivalence, regrets, exhilarations, and hardships, if you will, of both options. And yes, I’m a huge Jeopardy freak, know the lyrics to nearly every musical of the 60’s, and went to boarding school, though I wasn’t expelled.
That Libba Charles, to put it mildly, really is “a piece of work.” Can you talk about her?
I adore Libba. Her outrageousness, her bluntness, her determination, her loyalty, even her name. Libba as a character appeared in my first novel, never published, and currently gathering dust in the attic. Libba is a representative of, and a tribute to, all the fascinating adult women who peopled my childhood, who visited our home in the boonies of N.C. on weekends. (One is my godmother Suzanne, to whom the book is dedicated, and who indeed selected my silver pattern.) Don’t most children have a someone or several someones who they recall as unique, beyond the everyday banality of parents? Many, many of the tales Libba tells, and the scenes portrayed, are true stories about these women, from the orange-stealing scene at the spa, to jumping naked in a swimming pool on a dare, even Libba’s remark about the undercooked hamburger looking “like a hemorrhoid.” They talked to me, and treated me, at nine or ten, like an adult. On the other hand, much of what comes out of Libba’s mouth, her comments and observations, could come out of mine, though polite society—and my First Child penchant for doing the right thing--forbids it in reality. One of these women, now in her late seventies, recognized herself and wrote me, “Do all of your muses die sadly?” The question nearly did me in.
The details in your writing are what I remember most when I finish a book. They’re so dead-on. How do you manage that?
My best asset--and greatest liability--is that I observe everything. It means I can tell you exactly what people were wearing at a function, but it also means that I’m so interested in what other people have in their grocery carts that I forget to buy the bananas. I’m also one of those people who doesn’t mind sharing recipes, and whenever I teach a writing class, I always bring my “files” for show and tell. I write down everything and every memory: new wallpaper smells like Band-aids. Someone who sits in the biscuit joint and makes cup-and-saucers with a piece of knotted string (remember that?). Someone who eats green peppers like apples. Everything goes in a file, and if you can think of a noun, I probably have a file for it: nature, food, school, names, kids (extensive file!), Christmas, funny, illness, settings, characters, beach, religion, scenes, school, wedding, house, and the ever-expanding Miscellaneous file (examples: a confederate flag cummerbund. And, someone with a tattoo of Jiminy Cricket on her shin. For what? I ask myself. For… let your conscience be your guide?) When I write, I go through these files and look for details I’d otherwise have forgotten. Hence the broken frozen bacon bits, the numbered steps to ironing a shirt, the baby powder in the bunk beds, the list at the top of the stairs to keep track of how many times you climbed the steps in one day, memorizing “The Children’s Hour” in 6th grade. Stop me.
Anything else you’d like to share about Now You Know?
Readers, unless they’re students and have been assigned to do so, rarely consider the craft aspects of a novel they’re reading. But for the writer, craft issues are inextricable from the story. Now You Know is very different from my other three novels. Most importantly, it’s my first novel that doesn’t feature a first-person narrator. It’s told instead from a “close third” of Alice, Allegra, and Edie. You’re in their heads. You’re never in Libba’s head. That is, we don’t see her actively thinking about her writing, or that she’s going to refuse treatment for cancer. You only come to know Libba from her actions. It’s the same with Frances. This was an intentional choice.
What else? Scenes with the sisters and Libba include all sorts of descriptions, setting the entire scene. A reader watches. But with the flashback scenes between Libba and Frances (except for the post-birth scene at the end), the reader is simply put down in the middle of a conversation, a scene that is already taking place. This was intentional on my part as well. By doing so, I hoped the reader would feel themselves made part of, a participant in, the special intimacy of this relationship. An expositional scene didn’t need to be set for the reader, because she’s already there.
I had a couple of real craft challenges. Did you notice that the present-day sections are written in present tense, but the flashback sections are written in past tense? That’s always tricky in writing. Now You Know is also my first novel to span 50 years. (The Last of Something took place over a single weekend, for heaven’s sake.) Keeping track of what was going on and with whom and when was a nightmare, especially since the flashbacks are very specifically dated, such as August 10, 1959. If this was the summer of 1959, then Libba was married, no, still teaching at the boarding school, and Alice would have been 2 years old and Frances would have been 3 months pregnant and they’d have still been in New York, but Alice can’t be old enough to be walking because I have her in a stroller in this scene, but is Dennis’s wife dead yet because he wouldn’t have been at Vade Mecum… on and on. And don’t start with the pop culture—or plain culture, for that matter--references! At one point my sister emailed me that I’d mentioned plastic and it hadn’t been invented yet, sending me scurrying to Google. It’s one of the reasons I don’t write historical fiction: too much work authenticating every detail. Whew.
‘Looking out’ for friend requires care and understanding. Judith Bryant, Winston-Salem Journal
In the fall of 1947, serendipity colored the day college freshmen Frances Simpson and Libba Charles were randomly thrown together as roommates. They were pendulum opposites: Libba was a strikingly beautiful, dark-haired and daring Yankee who couldn’t keep track of her father’s and mother’s respective new spouses, while Frances was fair and Southern and sensible, the only child of devoted and conservative older parents.
“I’d look out for that girl if I were you,” Mrs. Simpson had told her daughter that first week of school. “It’s not exactly what she meant,” that only daughter would later tell her three daughters, Alice, Allegra and Edie, “but as it happened that’s exactly what we did. We looked out for each other.”
The summer after Frances’s death nearly 50 years later, her three daughters grudgingly agree to meet Libba at the beloved family cabin in the North Carolina mountains. They’ve suffered another loss after learning that Frances chose to leave Creek Cabin to Libba, and there are no happy campers as they gather to divide their mother’s belongings. The three sisters have never been particularly close, but they are united in their resentment and jealousy of Libba.
Alice, bossy and anal, time-manages her husband and children, makes each meal perfect, and passes out color-coded sticky notes at the cabin for the sisters to tag their chosen family treasures.
Allegra, separated from her own husband and children after an “intervention,” is a would-be writer, but hostile and failing as a recovering alcoholic.
Edie, the youngest and least damaged, is dangerously daring and struggles for direction and self-confidence.
With no children of her own and two or three failed marriages, Libba has been a successful and captivating author of several novels, into which she managed to weave all the anecdotes Frances shared about her daughters through the years.
As the sisters grew older, they regarded this as less charming and more embarrassing, a betrayal by their mother and an intrusion by Libba. And although Frances’s last request of her daughters is that they “take care of Libba,” adding to their bitterness is their shared suspicion that their mother’s last request of Libba was that she assist in hastening her death.
Now You Know is a compelling story that explores the relationships among these five women by examining their individual strengths and failings, the yin and yang that are part of living.
Author Susan Kelly expertly uses flashbacks to show the development of the remarkable friendship between Frances and Libba, one that the daughters never understand until their gathering at Creek Cabin and the discovery that Libba is now dying of cancer. In her last months, the three stay on at Creek Cabin and indeed “take care of Libba.”
In the process, they discover old secrets and seeming betrayals, but also grow in compassion and understanding.
Kelly graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and received her MFA from Warren Wilson College. We’re grateful that she gave up office jobs and returned to her life-long love of writing, as this is her fourth novel. She is a master of detailed description and smooth, believable dialogue.
In addition to Kelly’s rich and rhythmic style, it is refreshing in a story about women to realize that her male characters are supportive and generous of spirit, not callous or two-timing. Maybe best of all, the predominant setting of Now You Know take us to a beautiful fictitious composite of Black Mountain, Montreat and the edges of Asheville, complete with the grinding climb up the mountain from Old Fort.
If you’re away from home, this read is a terrific and nostalgic way to go to Carolina in your mind.
Sisters, mothers, daughters, friends
Greensboro author explores the power and pain of women’s relationships
Alice Sink, Greensboro News and Record.
The title of Greensboro author Susan Kelly’s newest novel, “Now You Know,” hints that readers will ultimately be privy to all the book’s keep-you-wondering secrets. Most will come to light after the author’s artful foreshadowing, descriptive scenes and poignant dialogue. A couple of haunting secrets offer few details, specifics, or explanations. But that’s OK. Some things in fiction—as in life—remain vague or fuzzy, so, as Coleridge says, we must willingly suspend our disbeliefs.
Mysteries abound as three grown sisters, Alice, Allegra and Edie, try to come to terms with their deceased mother’s devoted friendship with her old college roommate, Libba Charles. In the sisters’ quest for understanding the intense and intimate relationship that they had both admired and resented, they must look inward and confront their inadequacies, struggles and fears.
Through the novel’s smooth shifts in time and place, readers are taken back and forth in the lives of all the characters.
Libba and the sisters’ mother, Frances, first meet as college roommates decades ago. Readers experience Southern dormitory days of Montaldo’s satin lingerie bags for stockings, wrinkled Bermudas, alligator belts, ironed linen dresser scarves and hall proctors calling “Lights out.”
The two roommates bond immediately and dub themselves “Double O’s” because each is the only child of only children.
Years later, after their mother’s death, Alice, Allegra and Edie must confront their emotions concerning many events: their father’s search for a new life, home and female companion; Libba inheriting Frances’s beloved Creek Cabin mountain home; a poignant day where sorrowful daughters divide their deceased mother’s belongings.
The sisters also return to the dilapidated summer cabin of their childhood-only now it’s Libba’s property, not theirs. All three women agree: “If Libba Charles wants to meet them there and give them whatever she has that belonged to Frances, fine. It’s about time. For most of her life, Frances belonged to Libba.”
These two sentences set the tone for the novel.
On her website, Susan Kelly refers to the fictitious mountain town of Vade Mecum, location of Creek Cabin, and says, “I very much had Black Mountain and Montreat in mind.”
Kelly allows readers to see vividly a Blue Ridge Mountains resort nestled near a town that, in the 1930’s, drew “a thriving bunch of nonconformists who eked out a living with their potter’s wheels or looms or paintbrushes.”
The dilapidated cabin will remind some readers of a similar, familiar home-away-from-home with its “kiddie kazoo band outside, the ragtag parade of day camp children filing by the cottage toward Lake Sarah, blowing tunelessly but enthusiastically on tissue-covered combs.”
The summer resort holds mixed memories for Alice, Allegra and Edie: hissing logs in the fireplace, rockers, quilts, board games and marshmallows, but also the place where tough-minded literary celebrity Libba Charles writes about details of the sisters’ private lives.
The female characters in “Now You Know” are strongly developed, all with their individual, ruling passions, idiosyncrasies and foibles.
Kelly’s strengths lie in her pulsating scene-setting and her believable dialogue. Her forte, though, is writing about female friendships based on mutual respect.
One simple, but humorous, section illustrates the warm and intimate relationship of two friends.
“Laughing, Frances leaned her head over the back of the swing. The stretched cords of her throat striped the graceful length of her neck. ‘Don’t ever let me be a blue hair, Libba. Promise me.’”
How many times most of us have said something just as silly and preposterous to a dear friend!
But there are also serious moments, especially Frances’s ectopic pregnancy. Kelly is one of those few fiction authors who can get by describing blood, scars, transfusions, fallopian tubes and ovaries because her details evoke compassion rather than gut-wrenching horror.
So, what does happen during the memorable reunions and farewells of all the women? Read the novel. Then you’ll know.
Katie Baer, Our State magazine.
Susan Kelly breathes life into the common fictional convention of a family gathered at a deathbed to review the past—with all its slights, jealousies, and misunderstandings. In her fourth novel, the Greensboro author reveals layers of the lives of five women, each story building skillfully on the others.
At the heart of it all is Frances Wilson, who is dying. Frances has chosen a conventional life as wife and mother, while her longtime best friend, Libba Charles, has followed her muse--no trappings of family to slow her down—and is a successful novelist. Their friendship deepens over the years as each feeds the other’s unmet needs.
As they grow up, Frances’s daughters are often jealous of their mother’s connection with her friend. And they are stunned to learn that Frances has left the family’s mountain cottage to Libba. As the story develops, the summer cottage (the setting is modeled after Black Mountain and Montreat) becomes the focal point for tough talk, revelations, and redemption.
Short chapters alternate among the voices of Frances, Libba, and the three daughters as they all struggle with their demons and regrets. Kelly moves back in time with skillful use of flashbacks, but also keeps the story moving forward at a brisk pace to its surprising conclusion.
The book’s title resonates as the sisters learn what they know now, as opposed to what they thought they knew about their mother, her friend, and their own lives.
Looking Back at Favorite Books from 2008. Faye Dasen, The Pilot. Southern Pines
Susan Kelly is a superb writer.
This story of Frances and Libba, who maintain their college friendship until the end, is poignant and compelling.
After graduation, Frances married and had children. Libba lived vicariously through Frances, soaking up every iota of information about her life—and using it over the years in her novels. Frances’s daughters resent the relationship between the two women, not to mention the fact that their childhood and teenage exploits were often the basis of scenes in Libba’s books.
After their mother dies, the girls find that Frances has left their mountain cabin to Libba, who asks them to come and get anything they’d like to have. This offers them a chance to get reacquainted with one another as well as to learn things from Libba that they did not know.
This book was another that I wanted to read in one sitting.
My only complaint is that Susan Kelly takes too long between books. I’m not sure when the next one is coming out.