Laura Kalpakian wrote my all-time favorite line in Steps and Exes:
“Bullshit,” said Eve,
but not too loud.
The book is set at Useless Point on Isadora Island, a fictional artistic enclave in the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest. The heroine, Celia Henry, became a young widow before she realized her late husband was not Henry West ~ she had married Henry Westervelt, the scion of a lumber baron family. Her life is unconventional and filled with a tribe of step children and ex-spouses and lovers. She runs a bed and breakfast on property that belonged to Henry’s great aunt Sophia. (See Educating Waverly by Laura Kalpakian.)
I first met Laura on her tour to promote this book in 1999 at Village Books in Bellingham, Washington. I was alone and terrifed and decidedly unsure about my future in Washington’s Address Confidentiality Program (ACP). I was house sitting in the Fairhaven neighborhood of Bellingham for my optometrist from Chicago. She had left on my night table a copy of Keeping the Faith by Marie M. Fortune, Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, and a review of Steps and Exes. She insisted I attend Laura’s book signing.
Celia and Henry were sailing naked around Useless Point when he disappeared while she napped. Henry’s father, “Old Man Westervelt,” became the bane of Celia’s existence. He loved power and bending people to his will. Celia was more sturdy oak than bending willow. Laura’s writing style frequently takes on a jazz-like riff:
Old Man Westervelt had as much Will as God ever had ~ and more money. It was terrible for years, Old Testament terrible, to be pursued by Old Man Westervelt. Like being stalked by Yahweh. Eve and I have that much in common, pissing off the powers that be, and our lives suspended from a single error in judgment. . .
The old man, he never gave up trying to make my life a misery, pursuing me, full of spite and vinegar, making everything as hard as he could.
Kalpakian claimed at the book signing that she got the inspiration for the book while folding laundry. But, I found an essay she wrote entitled “My Life as a Boy” on the Internet which suggests the inspiration might have also come from her own experiences as a single mother. Her mother wisely advised:
You are a heroine. Forget the world’s rules. Play the game the way you want. You can and will triumph over this. Your spirit and bravodo will bring you victory.
The essay recounts her experiences as a teaching assistant while living in a “scruffy, dusty beach town. . .so close to the Pacific that I could hear the waves at night.” Her first novel was accepted by the first publisher to look at it. Her second novel, however, was declined.
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own convinced her to “quit looking to be a heroine. . .looking for a hero.” She struggled with the roles assigned by society to men and women and how they allowed men to feel “entitled to power and choices” while women were relegated to trimming “their needs to suit others’ expectations, others’ requirements.” Thus, women are free to whine and blame others.
Her introspection brought her to a rant about Norman Mailer’s invention of the question of virility and ink which I suspect was the foundation for Steps and Exes:
Bullshit, Norman. You inherited Hemingway’s boxer shorts. I inherited grace under pressure, courage, integrity, dash, and spirit which I do not practice on the occasional (thank you) battlefield or bullring, but daily. It takes spirit and courage to be a tomboy in a man’s world, to be a woman and yet do what you want, without whining when you fail, to be a mother and a writer, to be both breadwinner and cook.
There’s no fuzzy fantasy in Laura Kalpakian’s books. The clash between the fantasy of romance novels and real life is deftly spun via Celia’s resentment at being the muse for the island’s best selling romance writer. Laura writes about real women’s challenges and choices with wit and wisdom: “what woman hasn’t been charmed, at least once, by a snake?” I’ve read Steps and Exes twice and enjoyed it even more the second time around.