MUST READ WELL started nine or ten years ago with a stray thought I scribbled on a scrap of lined paper and tacked to a bulletin board in the room where I do my writing. I have six bulletin boards in here, all of them always in leaf with dozens of fluttery little notes of this kind.
Some of them are memos of ideas for a novel or personal essay I might write one day. (Or, much more likely, will never write.) Here’s one I recorded on lined paper so long ago that the sun has faded the lines on the paper to near invisibility:
Two women who have worked together in public for decades call it quits.
The weariness and repulsion one feels looking at the other after years yoked together.
Tacked on top of that one, on an index card, is a slightly more recent afterthought:
Sisters! One still lives in (ancient) mother’s apartment.
Possible new tour.
Another story idea I’ve had tacked up for many years:
A man from Montana who is terrified of flying is unexpectedly elected to Congress.
Something like this actually happened to a guy I met decades ago. I’m fuzzy on the details now, but I think he’d been asked to run by whichever party was sure to lose the district. He was beside himself when he learned he’d been elected.
I don’t expect I’ll ever write a novel based on either of these ideas, but you never know.
Other notes are just images—metaphors, similes—that at some point floated into my mind:
Love like a very, very big, untrained puppy—bigger and bigger but no less insistent—it drags you, knocks you down . . .
March. Crocuses turning their throats up to the snow.
There are also ideas for titles—titles that will almost certainly never be used, but that were too appealing not to jot down:
Rain, Heavy at Times
A Word About Adoption
I’ve also cut out and tacked up a few suggestive snippets from the New York Times. (I still read the paper on paper.) Here’s one, slightly revised to protect the privacy of the person who posted it, from the obituary page:
Dearest Mom, It has been four dreadful and painful years. I wish you had lived longer, especially since we lost dad so young. We only recently settled your estate. You would both have been furious and unforgiving for the way it was handled. There is no love lost ever for our family. I miss you both every day.
Interspersed among all the other notes on my walls are a few quotations from books I happened to be reading, bits and pieces of writing that jumped out at me for one reason or another and that I didn’t want to forget. From Anthony Trollope’s The Warden:
It is less difficult for the sufferer to be generous than the oppressor.
From T.S. Eliot’s East Coker:
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
Here is the note that became Must Read Well:
Woman [writer] who can no longer read hires someone to read her own journals to her
That’s it. There isn’t even a period at the end, although there might once have been. The note was near a sunny window, and by the time I found it, five or six years later, the lines of the lined paper had vanished entirely. Even the ink was so faded I could hardly make it out. In short, I’d forgotten all about it until, pacing in my office one morning in search of writing ideas, I happened to spot it.
Immediately, I experienced again what I’d felt when the thought first came to me: the terrible helplessness of such a predicament, of having to choose whether to let someone else read aloud to you your own most intimate thoughts and doings, or forfeit the possibility of revisiting your past as you lived and recorded it. In heavy black ink this time, I carefully copied the note onto an index card, put it right in front of my desk, and started thinking. Who was this woman? How old was she? Why couldn’t she read anymore? Who on earth would she ask to read for her? And what—oh, most of all, what was in those journals?
Ellen Pall's Must Read Well immerses the reader in an escalating game of cat-and-mouse between two women: a millennial scholar driven to deceit to reach her goals and a frail octogenarian no less capable of deception. Narrated by Liz Miller, a penniless Ph.D. candidate desperate to finish her dissertation, the novel begins when Liz's boyfriend abruptly ditches her, rendering Liz homeless and reduced to couch-surfing at best friend Petra's tiny Manhattan studio apartment. Trying to find an affordable living space, she stumbles across a Craigslist posting that will change her life: a room with a view in a pre-war Greenwich Village apartment. The rent is a pittance, but in exchange, the tenant must be willing to read aloud daily to the apartment's sight-impaired landlady.
Liz quickly figures out that the sight-impaired landlady is none other than Anne Taussig Weil, author of the 1965 international blockbuster The Vengeance of Catherine Clark and the very woman whose refusal to cooperate for the past four years has held up Liz's dissertation on the feminist works of mid-century women novelists. Access to Weil is the key to completing her doctorate at Columbia and finally getting her academic career back on track.
Liz sets scruples aside and presents herself as a quiet young woman still finding her way in life. Once settled in, Liz learns from Weil that her need for a reader stems from a desire to revisit a key episode in her life. That episode, recorded in the scrawled journals Weil kept since she was a young girl, turns out to be the story of her passionate, disastrous, secret love affair with a celebrated pianist—the affair, in fact, which gave rise to the plot of Vengeance.
The novel, which builds from there to a double-twist climax, is fast-paced women's fiction, perfect for book club members everywhere.
Women's Fiction [Bancroft Press, On Sale: September 13, 2022, e-Book, ISBN: 9781610885423 / ]
Ellen Pall is the author of a dozen novels, including Back East, Among the Ginzburgs and the mysteries Corpse de Ballet and Slightly Abridged. As a freelance journalist, she has written most often for the New York Times Magazine and the Times Arts and Leisure section. Early in her writing life, she published a series of Regency Romances under the penname Fiona Hill. (Not to be confused with the former U.S. National Security Council official Fiona Hill. Very different person.) Ellen grew up on Long Island and went to college at U.C. Santa Barbara. She lives in New York City with her husband, the international human rights advocate Richard Dicker.
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