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The Book That Matters Most

Ava saw it as soon as she turned the corner. She stopped, squinting as if that would change what she was looking at. It was a week before Christmas on Weybosset Street in downtown Providence. The Christmas lights already shone, even at five o’clock, because the day was so dark and gray. The air had that festive holiday feeling that came from people bustling about with oversized shopping bags, cold air, tired decorations, a guy selling Christmas trees on the corner.

But Ava felt anything but festive.

She stood staring at the Providence Performing Arts Center marquee. She knew it was backlit in white with black letters announcing The Lion King, because she’d come here just last night, the tickets given to her by a colleague from the French department trying to cheer her up. But she couldn’t actually see the marquee. No. The marquee was covered in red and green cable knit yarn, almost like it was wearing a sweater. Except Ava knew that it wasn’t wearing a sweater. The PPAC marquee had been yarn bombed.

Beneath it, her best friend and neighbor, Cate, stood looking miserable in a matching hat and scarf and gloves the color of Christmas trees. Her gloved hands flailed about nervously.

“I didn’t know,” she was saying into the cold air, her breath coming out in puffs. “I’m sorry!”

Ava had come to hate those words. I’m sorry. How many times had she heard them in the past year? A thousand? Ten thousand? What had her kids thought was the biggest number when they were young? A gazillion. That was right. A gazillion. Had she heard I’m sorry a gazillion times?

Cate was moving toward her now. But Ava stayed put, as if she were stuck in place. Unlike Cate, she had forgotten gloves and a hat, and she was cold. Really cold. She was always forgetting things these days. She’d go to the bank without her debit card. Walk out to her car without her keys. Find herself at the grocery store without any idea what she’d come for.

“I’m sorry,” Cate said again, standing right in front of Ava and clutching Ava’s cold bare hands in her warm gloved ones. “If I’d known,” she began, but didn’t finish because she didn’t have to. It was clear what she meant. If she’d known the PPAC marquee had been yarn bombed, she would have had them meet somewhere else. But she hadn’t known and here they were.

“It’s all right,” Ava said, even though it was anything but all right.



Ava was looking up at the marquee again. The stitches were so perfect, the colors so vivid against the gray afternoon, those cables twisting defiantly upward.

“Why don’t they arrest her?” Cate said, turning to look.

A small crowd was forming, everyone staring at the marquee. Everyone amused, impressed. Impressed by what? The woman’s audacity? Ava had seen that firsthand and was anything but impressed. By her talent? Even Ava had to admit that it must be hard, seemingly impossible, to knit such huge objects. And to knit them so well. But was that really impressive? Curing cancer was impressive. Scoring a ten in the Olympics was impressive. Making a soufflé that didn’t fall. Saving people from a sinking ship. Even getting 800s on your SATs was impressive. But this? This was ridiculous.

Cate had Ava by the elbow, and was leading her back in the direction from which she’d come.

“I had no idea,” Cate kept saying.

“It’s okay,” Ava said, even though nothing had really been okay since the day Jim left her. Left her for that yarn bomber, Ava added silently as she glanced back over her shoulder where the flashes of dozens of cameras looked like something hopeful—fireflies or shooting stars.

Cate smiled and said, “I’ve heard this place down here has good martinis. Pomegranate, maybe?”

“Uh huh,” Ava said.

“I’m going to try one,” Cate said, opening the door of a bar.

Inside it was dim and noisy and crowded. “Cozy,” Cate said cheerfully.

Ava followed her friend, watching her sturdy back and broad shoulders. Even in winter, Cate woke early every day and went to the Y to swim. She was a bike rider, a touch football player, someone always ready to pick up a racket or throw a ball. Since Jim had moved out, Cate had convinced Ava to join her at the pool or a yoga class. But Ava had never been good at things like that. When she and Jim went to the beach, they lolled together on striped chaise lounges instead of riding the waves. Or walked slowly along the shore at low tide searching for shells and sea glass, which still filled various bowls and vases around the house.

Remembering these things—the coconut smell of sunscreen and the feel of her hand in Jim’s large warm one—sent a sharp stab of pain through her as Ava squeezed in at the crowded bar.

Cate was trying to get the bartender’s attention. “So crowded,” she murmured, and Ava agreed, looking around at the tattooed and pierced people.

How had she and Jim got from there to here? Ava thought. She pictured him bending to pick up a sand dollar, intact but fragile. He’d held it out to her in the palm of his hand. “See the star in the center?” he told her. “That’s the star that led the Wise Men to the manger. And the holes represent the nails on the Cross.” Gently, he turned it over. “On this side, there’s a poinsettia.” She’d stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the lips. “My own personal encyclopedia,” she’d said. And he was. Or had been, she corrected herself. A lover of arcane information and strange facts that she never tired of hearing. That sand dollar crumbled when she picked it up at home later that day, Ava remembered, as if it were an omen of what was to come just a few months later when, one night, unable to sleep, Ava wandered downstairs and found a text message blinking on her husband’s cell phone: Miss u babe.

She’d stared at it, struggling to make sense of what she saw. The use of u instead of you, the word babe, all of it confusing and mysterious, until she went upstairs to the man she’d thought she could trust, whose trust she had never even doubted, and shook him awake, and waved his cellphone in his sleepy face, and screamed for an explanation. And then came the awful explanation—“I love her. I’m in love with her.” Even that terrible night she had heard herself saying, “We can get through this. We can fix this.” But Jim, all bedhead and sleepy eyes, shook his head slowly and said, “I think I want to be with her,” as if he had just discovered something too.

Cate was nudging her gently now, the bartender looming impatiently in front of Ava.

She ordered a Grey Goose martini, up, with a twist.

“I’ll try the pomegranate one,” Cate told the bartender. “Frozen,” she added.

That was the special holiday cocktail. Ava saw it handwritten in red chalk on a board above the bar: FROZEN POMEGRANATE MARTINI!!!!!

It arrived, all slushy and pink, garnished with cranberries on a bamboo skewer. Cate lifted her drink and clinked her glass against Ava’s.

“Here’s to tonight,” Cate said.

“Yes!” Ava said, clinking her glass to Cate’s.

Ever since Cate had announced to Ava that Paula Merino was moving to Cleveland and a spot had opened in the book group Cate ran at the library, Ava had been looking forward to this night. Due to space at the library and a desire to keep the group at just ten members so that everyone had a chance to choose a book selection and have a voice in the discussion, getting a spot was difficult. For over twenty years Ava had listened to Cate describe the book group and how special it was. They went to one another’s weddings and brought casseroles when someone lost a loved one and threw baby showers. From time to time, if someone moved away or dropped out—which was rare—Cate asked Ava if she’d like to join. But Ava had never felt the need. Until Jim left.

In fact, Ava had been the one to ask Cate—beg, practically—that if anyone dropped out, could she please, please take that spot. She’d tried not to sound desperate, though of course she was. Desperate for company, desperate for conversation, for a way to pass the empty hours that had appeared suddenly when Jim moved out. She was surprised by how much she longed for company. No, she thought as she sipped her drink. Not just for company, but for something more, a deeper connection to people. How easily she’d come to rely on Jim for that. And how woefully she longed for it with others now.

Years ago, before her little sister Lily and her mother died within a year, books had been Ava’s refuge. “There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book,” her mother used to quote when she’d discover Ava lost in Narnia or on the prairie or at the March household. She would say it with pride. It was the one thing Ava had that Lily didn’t. Lily had the lovely blonde blue-eyed looks of their mother, the kind of sweet temperament and charm that made people stop in the street to admire her. But Ava, with her unruly brown hair and blue spectacles, her tendency toward pouting and sarcasm and a generally sour personality, only pleased her mother by being a voracious reader.

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book. Who said that? Ava wondered. Her mother had been gone long enough now for Ava to have forgotten its source.

“We’ve changed over the years,” Cate was saying. “It used to be all young mothers, desperate to talk about something other than potty training and temper tantrums. We’d meet in the afternoon, during naptime. Then we went through a phase of meeting at each other’s houses in the evening, and cooking food that was in the books. It’s evolved nicely, I think. I still try to make the snacks fit with the books we read. And sometimes I dress from the time period of the novel, just for fun. It’s really a good mix of people of different ages now.” Cate smiled at Ava and added, “You’re going to love everyone. You’ll see.”

Ava wasn’t worried about that. She worried the group wasn’t going to love her. She was not a group person. Had never been. She was thrown out of Girl Scouts when she was ten because she couldn’t make a curler bag out of a Clorox bottle and therefore earn the sewing merit badge. Lily, a year younger, filled her green sash with merit badge after merit badge, for sewing and cooking and botany. She’d even received a special one for selling more cookies than anyone else in New England. When Ava refused to go to the award ceremony, the Girl Scout leader, Mrs. V, had told her she was a bad sport and that Girl Scouts were good sports, easy to work with, and cheerful. Like Lily. “You possess none of these traits, Ava,” Mrs. V had said. If Mrs. V could see her now, she would feel vindicated. I told you so, Ava!

A string of lights twinkled across the mirror, alternating pineapples and palm trees blinking back at her. Above the bar a small television played silently, and a familiar face came on the screen. Ava recognized everything: the PPAC marquee covered in red and green cable knit yarn; Hayley Morrow, the News Team 10 anchor, shivering in a too thin pink coat, wearing the wrong color lipstick for her pale skin; and beside her, in full color, a woman with her hair in a messy tumble down her shoulders, wrapped in a fake leopard coat and over-the-knee boots, her kohl-lined eyes smirking at the camera through her oversized thick black librarian glasses. Her name flashed across the screen, but Ava didn’t need to read it. She knew exactly who she was looking at. DELIA LINDSTROM, YARN BOMBER. Husband stealer, Ava added silently.

“Oh, sweetie,” Cate said. “Don’t look. In fact, let’s just leave. Okay? What do you say?” She motioned to the bartender, writing with an invisible pen in the air.

But Ava couldn’t stop looking. Because there, right behind Delia Lindstrom, Yarn Bomber, stood her husband—her soon-to-be ex-husband—Jim, grinning like the idiot he was. Proud of his yarn bombing, home-wrecking girlfriend. He even had his hand on her shoulder. Possessively, Ava thought with a sickening feeling. And that hand was in a leather glove that she had given him last Christmas, when Ava was blissfully ignorant, and happy.

“Check? Please?” Cate was saying desperately.

Or if not exactly happy, happier, Ava amended. Was it possible to be really happy after so many years together?

“Bartender!” Cate shouted.

Ava finished her martini in one swig. Then she rested her forehead on the brass railing of the bar, and cried.

Excerpted from THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST by Ann Hood. Copyright ©2016 by Ann Hood. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Book That Matters Most
by by Ann Hood

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393354091
  • ISBN-13: 9780393354096