Love and Death in a Perfect World
Perfect bound, 367 pages , 5.06" x 7.81"
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About the Book
Rosemary Ellis has a vision for her perfect life—a loving husband, a cherished child, and a career built on the principles of right livelihood.
So why won’t the world comply?
Amid the struggles of making even a good marriage work, the embattled belief that we control our own destinies, and the striving to find connection in a disconnected world, the Ellis family must survive.
With stark honesty, piercing insight, and wry humor, Love and Death in a Perfect World follows the arc of a woman’s life from tender adolescence to her hard-edged forties, exploring deep questions about human nature and modern life: How do we raise healthy children in fractured middle-class America? How do we navigate a world that refuses to behave as promised, especially when the stakes are so high? And where do we find the strength to rebuild when expectations are shattered and the wrong people win?
In Love and Death in a Perfect World, first-time novelist Barbara Gerber delivers a richly textured yet unsentimental portrait of a family that keeps on keeping on, and of a woman who expects to “live in the light” but instead must fight to find her own light in the darkness of everyday life.
From the prologue:
Rosemary fretted in the tomato sauce aisle. Each can and jar presented a host of decisions to be made, but if she spent too much time shopping, Dylan would fall asleep in the car and his afternoon nap would be ruined. Then she’d be bitchy when Liam came home, and the happy shiny family time she hoped to create with this meal would be destroyed.
“Ma-ma, Ma-ma,” Dylan sang, seated in the grocery cart.
“Dy-lan, Dy-lan,” she sang back.
Making the sauce fresh from organic Romas would be the healthiest, but then she’d have to blanch and purée the tomatoes and cook them for hours, which would only work if Dylan took a long nap.
“Are you enjoying your carrot?”
The roasted tomatoes made the tastiest sauce, but they weren’t organic, and the pesticides could give Dylan all kinds of cancer.
“Mama eat cawot?”
“Yummy carrot,” she said, pretending to nibble on it.
The organic Italian tomatoes also made a good sauce, but they were packed in chemical-leaching lined cans that could give Dylan man boobs.
“Cawot!” Dylan dropped the carrot.
“Bye-bye, carrot,” Rosemary said cheerily, kicking it under a shelf.
“Cawot,” Dylan whimpered.
The glass jar was perfectly inert, but it was the heaviest, so it required the most fuel to get to market. A pot of sauce shouldn’t have such a hefty carbon footprint.
“Cracker time!” she sang, reaching into the cart and opening a box of graham crackers.
“Cwacka,” Dylan said, tucking in to his new snack.
The Everyday Savings tomatoes were packed in cans without that dreadful lining, but unlined cans could leach lead into the food. What if Dylan developed learning disabilities because of it?
And they were most certainly picked by exploited migrant workers.
“Kiss kiss,” Rosemary said, bending toward Dylan so he could smear her cheek with spit and cracker crumbs.
But they were by far the cheapest. How much should a pot of spaghetti cost, anyway?
Dylan started to stand up in the seat.
“No, Dylan, we’re sitting now,” she said, pushing his legs back through the chrome openings.
She and Liam had just paid for a new timing belt and brakes for the landscaping truck, so she’d have to charge these groceries. How much interest would they ultimately pay on this pot of spaghetti?
“Up!” Dylan shouted, turning to stand again.
“No.” She held him in place.
Should she be practical, like her mother, and buy the Everyday Savings brand? Or should she resolutely uphold her principles, like her friend Lara, and buy the organic?
She’d already chosen the organic pasta, but not the whole-wheat because that slop tasted like spackle. But shouldn’t she be raising Dylan to prefer whole-grain foods?
Dylan scrambled to his feet, teetering.
“Dylan!” she barked, scooping him up and settling him on her hip.
Liam would expect meatballs too, which would cost another five dollars for organic ground beef, or seven if she bought the locally raised.
Dylan smacked his heels into her butt and upper thighs. When she held his right leg still, he kicked harder with his left.
But should she even buy beef? The protein was good for Dylan, but raising cattle took so much water and resources, and all those farting cows released more methane into the atmosphere every day.
“Bouncey!” Dylan demanded, pushing upward in her arms.
Rosemary bounced him on her hip as she studied the sodium content on the labels. Too much salt could strain a child’s kidneys.
“Big bouncey!” Dylan squealed, meaning he wanted her to toss him and catch him.
“No big bouncey in the store.” She glanced at her watch. Nearly 1 p.m., dangerously close to naptime.
“Big bouncey!” he shouted.
“No, Dylan. We’re shopping.”
“Sketti!” he yelped, pointing at the pasta shelves.
“Yes, we’re having spaghetti tonight.”
And when was the last time Liam cooked? Even on the weekends, it was always up to her to put on the dinnertime show.
Liam had come to expect it, but he had no idea how much effort it took, how delicate the timing was with a toddler.
“I go down,” Dylan announced, curling his torso toward the floor.
“No, no down,” Rosemary said, catching him at the waist.
But she knew they couldn’t afford this kind of food anyway.
“Down, Mama, down,” Dylan moaned, slithering down her leg.
And why should she always spend her precious free time cooking?
Dylan’s feet hit the floor, but Rosemary quickly clutched his overall straps.
“No, Mama!” he wailed. She put him back in the cart, grabbed a jar of Prego, and raced toward the checkout. Sobbing, he shrieked, “No, Mama! No, Mama!” as she filled her cloth bags, swiped her credit card, extracted him from the grocery cart, and wrestled him into the car seat.
From Chapter 1
Rosemary Sabin lay sleepless in bed on the night of her thirteenth birthday. There was so much to think about, so much to worry over. This mental debrief, more overwrought and breathless than usual, was after her party at the Luckie Park pool, after the pizza and cake, after her brother had been nice to her for a change, after her mother had fooled everyone into thinking she was normal, and after her dad had managed to hide his disappointment that her favorite gift was a pair of beaded flip flops and not the fish tank he’d surprised her with.
From Chapter 2
Soon she learned how to be a girlfriend too, which really wasn’t that difficult if you knew how to watch and listen. She learned to be agreeable, to go with the flow. Being mellow was of utmost importance—never be a buzzkill, and when you have a complaint or an original thought, release it slowly, like a leak from an air mattress.
From Chapter 6
At the top of the spires, Liam was whooping with satisfaction, a nimble mountain goat free under the desert sky. His life stretched out as far as he could see: a new business, a beautiful woman, a place like this. How wonderful to have escaped the East, the old moldering East. “Back east” or “out west,” people said. And he was out. Never would he get sucked back into that old, decaying world. A few more hours and they’d be back on the road, back to the life he couldn’t wait to build. Suddenly he felt like it was Christmas Day and he wasn’t allowed to play with his toys until after breakfast.
The in-laws. Knock out this meal tonight, maybe brunch on Sunday, and they were back on the road. Mark and Martina were like clients, he decided, clients he needed to win over. They were clients who, say, had ten acres of land out Old Santa Fe Trail. People who wanted a stone driveway entrance, a butterfly garden, and a fountain. Big clients he needed in the worst way. “Sweet thing!” he called down to Rosemary, who was staring at something. “We should get going!”
He scrambled down, leaping to a graceful, bent-knee landing. Then he straightened up quickly, arched his back, and thrust his arms out like a gymnast, pivoting around to accept applause from all corners of the stadium.
“A perfect ten!” Rosemary announced. Liam laughed and reached for her, running his hands down her torso, feeling her pleasing shape and firmness. Here was the woman he’d chosen. She was pretty, good-hearted, strong, and she made him laugh. She was also good in bed.
“OK, darlin’ ” he said. “Let’s clean up and go meet the folks!”
From Chapter 7
Rosemary scanned the crowd and found Deet and Isabelle talking with two men in impossibly expensive suits. This would be her brother’s world now, a world she could hardly imagine. Just like that, he would be wealthy, secure, connected to powerful people. Of course, she didn’t want this life—it would entail boatloads of bullshit—but she sure wouldn’t mind the money. The inn they were staying at cost $350 a night, and the whole tab was being picked up by Isabelle’s family. What other goodies would come Deet’s way? And Isabelle already owned a gorgeous house that she’d inherited from her grandmother. She and Deet would just move into it without even a mortgage, while Rosemary and Liam struggled to save a down payment for some small, boxy, fake-adobe house in Santa Fe.
From Chapter 9
Morning at Joshua Tree was always glorious. It didn’t matter the time of year or the company or the occasion, as long as there was coffee and the rock and the wingbeats of ravens under a still desert sky. This was Rosemary’s favorite landscape. She looked around at the jagged outcroppings and sloping inclines, the spare but thriving vegetation, and considered how so many people thought the desert was a dead, barren place. But to her, the rock formations were like bones—the bones that remained after some lush, green landscape had been boiled down for stock. But the rock still had marrow, still had nourishment; it was not lifeless. Those greener places were beautiful—the humid coastlines, rolling prairies, and old mountains covered with trees—and certainly more comfortable, but they didn’t let you think. Only the open deserts, and especially the Mojave, gave her enough space to remove her head, shake out its contents, and set it to rights again.
But the individual days were nothing compared to the question that caused her the real grief: Who should she be? Should she be the thrifty mom, selling outgrown baby stuff to the consignment store and researching energy-saving light bulbs? Should she be the hot mom, working out to exercise videos, cutting carbs, and wearing form-fitting spandex to the farmers’ market? Or how about the moody and mysterious artist mom, the highly-involved-with-the-extended-family mom, the fixing-and-painting-the-Sheetrock-myself mom, the scrapbooking mom, the volunteering mom, the perfect-house mom, the activist mom, the look-how-many-pets-we-have mom, the going-back-to-school mom, the starting-a-business mom, the shopping mom, the home-schooling mom, the book-club mom? So far she just seemed to be the cleaning-cooking-doting mom who needed to justify her existence every day with busyness and devotion to Dylan. At least she wasn’t the drunk mom, or the abuser mom, or the affair-having mom. She was better than some, but who was she really?
From Chapter 10
Renee had found Nate dead just six days earlier, floating in their backyard pool. The coroner said he’d had a stroke and drowned.
“I have such anger,” she said, forming an impotent fist. “Why should he go that way? He was a great man.”
A great man. Oh yeah, Liam thought. Let’s have some of that magic vodka and think about that.
At the bar—yes, a wet bar, in the corner of the den—he mixed himself a vodka and tonic and studied the icemaker. “Always Fresh” it said on the front. Liam read the print on the side of the machine and realized the thing didn’t just make ice; it also steadily melted the old ice so that the ice was always fresh. For Christ’s sake, was there anything more decadent than an icemaker that could also apply heat and melt its own ice? We wouldn’t want the lord and lady to suffer the hardship of stale ice, now would we? That would be unthinkable. Holy fuck, whoever even heard of stale ice? Nate was such a dick.
A tall dude in a suit appeared, thrusting his hand toward Liam.
Who the fuck was this?
“Yes,” Liam replied, mechanically shaking the smooth, slender hand.
Right. So who the fuck was this?
“I’m Renee’s son, her oldest.”
Oh, one of the steps. “Of course,” Liam said. “How are you?”
“Well, I’ve been better. I’m sorry for your loss, or should I say, our loss.”
“Oh, yes,” Liam said.
“You know, I just have to tell you how important your dad was to me.“ He stopped to weather a sudden outbreak of tears. “My own dad was pretty much absent,” he continued after a few deep breaths. “Once my parents split, he moved to London. I guess he sent child support, but we only saw him once or twice a year. But your dad—” again, the tear wiping—“I was twelve when he married my mom, and he was a whole lot more of a father to me—to all of us—than our own dad ever was. He was always there. Once I got mixed up with the wrong crowd and got into a lot of trouble—a lot of trouble!—and he really turned me around.” Holden paused again to collect himself. “He would not let me go down that path, he wouldnot let me fail. I mean, he walked Candace down the aisle, he bailed out Michael when his business hit hard times, he came to our games and piano recitals when we were kids—I mean, he was there. I don’t know where I’d be today if it hadn’t been for him.”
Liam stared at the man, at his reddish ears and his sincere, squirrel-like face, and wanted to clock him. How satisfying it would be to knock the fucker’s teeth down his throat.
From Chapter 14
Five friends, in their forties and fifties, gathered around a table drinking beer and snacking on salsa and chips. From what she could gather, they had run into each other after a show downtown at the Lensic, and agreed to meet up at Fire Ring since they all lived nearby. They were the last table of the night, so it was easy to hear their conversation, which had first been about the show and then about their kids’ schools and college plans. But sometime during their third round of beers, after one of the women talked about how awful it was to care for her stepfather as he died a long, slow death from leukemia, the tall, blonde woman said, “Well, I’ve been taking steps to make sure that never happens to me.”
“How’s that?” someone asked.
“Every time I have a medical issue that is even a little bit painful, I ask for pain meds. You know how I had tendinitis once really bad, and I’ve had back problems, and I had all that work done on my teeth? So I get the script and I fill it, but I put the pills in the freezer. I never use them; I just save them. If I ever decide it’s time to go, I can go.”
“Whoa!” said one of the men. “Are you serious?”
“I’ve been tempted to do exactly that,” said another, “but I figure I’d probably just barf it all up and end up in a psych ward, which would be worse than dying from cancer or whatever.”
“That’s why you need suppositories,” said the third woman, who was wearing flowered cowboy boots. “I do the same thing Kim does, but I tell the doctor that I have a very sensitive stomach, and I get suppositories. You can’t barf them up.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Darlene, are you for real?” one of the men shouted.
“Of course!” the woman exclaimed. “I’m a nurse. I got this.”
“Well, shit,” said the man with the grizzled beard. “I figure that’s what trains are for. Thank God for the Rail Runner. Now I can just lay down on the tracks whenever I’ve had enough. Sounds simpler than drugs.”
“Sounds messy,” someone said.
“But it’s outdoors,” the bearded one said in defense. “They can just hose me off and let the ravens take care of the rest.”
“You’re all whacked,” said the skinny guy in the vest, and the others erupted in protest.
“You want to sit there with your living will and wither away forever?” asked the nurse. “Hoping your loved ones obey your DNR, or wait for some hospital doc to mercifully take too long to respond until you finally croak?”
“I don’t know,” the skinny guy said. “This is all just so morbid.”
“Wait till you spend months with someone who’s terminally ill,” the first woman said. “You sit there with hospice pumping in the morphine, waiting for the right time to call the rest of the family, worrying you’ll call them too early and everyone will sit around wondering what to do with themselves—too guilty to say they wish it would just end—or you’ll wait too long and everyone will arrive after dear old Dad has departed and they’ll feel like they wasted the plane fare. Then there’s the hospital bed in the living room, the IV, the machines. Shit, I’m with Kim and Darlene. As a matter of fact, I nabbed as much of my stepdad’s opioids as I could after he passed. I’ve got them stashed away.”
They sat in silence for a few moments until the tall man finally said, “Ice floes.”
“Huh?” someone asked.
“Ice floes,” he repeated. “I figure the Eskimos have it down. Grandpa can’t chew his meat anymore? Grandma can’t hardly walk? Send them out to sea on an ice floe. It’s quiet, it’s simple, and it costs nothing.” He drew his hand away from his body in a straight, sweeping motion. “Gone.”
They all chuckled. Then the nurse said, “You’d have to move to Alaska.”
“No problem,” the man said. “It’s gonna be my new business: For a coupla thousand bucks, I’ll fly you up to the Yukon, say a prayer for you, and shove you off.”
Kim said, “The health insurance companies would love it.”
“Hell, they’d invest in it!” shouted the skinny guy, and they all started to stand up and make their goodbyes.
Suddenly Liam had a vision of himself as a coach, trying to send Dylan out onto the field but unable to think of anything to say. It’s halftime and the team is down, and somehow he has to motivate his boy to get back out there, but he’s at an utter loss.
But the world was full of dads in locker rooms coaching their sons. Millions of locker rooms with millions of dads giving their sons millions of sermons, tips, and warnings on how to get through the game. Be careful of the blacks, son; never trust the Jews, boy. Watch out for the fascists, the Pakis, the skinheads, the gangsters, the socialists, the Baptists, the townies, the gays, the Brits, the bureaucrats, the Republicans, the junkies, the mothers-in-law, the neighbors, the Democrats, the auditors, the Muslims, the hippies, the surgeons, the jocks, the critics, the Marines, the priests, the drunkards, the artists. Watch out, watch out, watch out. And knock ’em dead too.
At times like this he needed someone to tell him the things he always told Rosemary: “Everything will be fine.”
Rosemary felt the old surge of confusion and jealousy she’d felt as a kid when Deet and her dad did things together, without her. How could Mark love them both when they were so different from each other? Wasn’t that like saying cherry and orange were both your favorite flavors?
From Chapter 15
Crickets throbbed. Rosemary took a few more deep breaths, opened the car door, shifted her body to the side, and swung her feet to the ground. Her heart raced as she began to hyperventilate, breathing with short, shrieky yelps. Suddenly terrified, she clutched the car door, wishing like a child that Liam were there.
Liam had really started worrying about Dylan after the Lowest Note Freak-Out Incident, when he had come to them with a fun fact and was furious that it did not impact them as much as he’d expected.
“You guys,” he began as they sat at their computers after dinner. “Do you know that the lowest note in the universe is the sound of a dying galaxy? And that they even know what note it is? It’s a B-flat, fifty-seven octaves below Middle C. Can you believe that? It’s too low for a human to hear, and they say it’s been playing for two and a half billion years.”
“Wow,” she replied. “No, I didn’t know that.”
“Huh,” Liam grunted, reading the day’s headlines.
“There’s a super-massive black hole at the center of a cluster of galaxies that generates acoustic waves. It’s two hundred and fifty million light years away.”
“That’s amazing,” Rosemary said, turning to face him.
“I can’t believe there’s something like that that we can’t hear, like they say there are colors we can’t see because they’re off the visible light spectrum. It’s terrible, don’t you think? How can there be all this stuff we can’t see and hear? How can we go along living our stupid lives when there’s all this stuff we can’t see and hear?” He was beginning to get agitated, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
“Our lives are stupid because our ears can’t detect these sounds?” she asked.
“We see stuff and hear stuff and we think that’s all there is, but that’s obviously not true.”
As Dylan’s voice grew louder, Liam said, “But we never see everything. We can’t know everything.”
“But why not?” Dylan pleaded. “Don’t you feel stupid only knowing a fraction of what there is to know, hearing only a tiny bit of the sounds being made?”
“No,” Liam replied. “If we heard and saw and knew everything, there would be nothing left to learn. It might actually be boring.”
“Boring?” Dylan shrieked. “Boring to know everything?”
“We would have no ambitions,” Liam said, defending himself. “We wouldn’t strive for anything.”
But just when Rosemary thought Dylan would blow, his head tipped sharply to the left and he looked up toward the ceiling. “Actually,” he said, “maybe we really are hearing it without realizing it, and if it stopped, we would suddenly feel empty, like something was missing.”
“Yes, maybe that’s so,” Liam said, visibly relieved.
“OK,” Dylan said, and abruptly walked away.
As they sat stiffly over coffee in their unnaturally quiet house, Liam ventured, “You know what your main man Greg Brown would say about this, don’t you?”
“No, what would Greg say?”
“ ‘Life is a thump-ripe melon, so sweet and such a mess.’ ”
About the Author
Barbara Gerber has had a love affair with words since she learned to read. In her work as a writer, teacher, editor, coach, and presenter, the power of “the story” has been paramount in her life. In addition to placing her own journalistic work in local and national publications, Gerber enjoys working with students, friends, and clients as they craft their own writing, helping to elucidate their messages and bring forth the stories that need to be told.
It was during a 2007 vacation with her husband and two children at Joshua Tree National Park that this book began to take shape. At times since that idyllic week of hiking and camping, it seemed as the story developed that Rosemary and her family were living in Gerber’s own home. A sequel to Love and Death in a Perfect World is already in the works.
Originally from Seaford, New York, Gerber earned a degree in English literature from San Francisco State University and has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, since 1987. After working in management and marketing in the natural foods industry, she shifted into freelance writing and then became a teacher in 2004. This is her first novel.
Praise for Love and Death in a Perfect World
I kept wanting to turn the pages to see what happens to Rosemary and her family. This book is an honest account of what marriage, mothering, and finding one's way entail in an imperfect world filled with expectations of a perfect life, environmental concerns, economic ups and downs, and personal love and loss. We never know what is happening in families from the outside, the love, fights, and day-to-day struggles and joys. Very much an inside look.
—Peg Johnson, Library Director, Santa Fe Community College
Barbara Gerber’s first novel intrigued and comforted me at a time I needed comforting, at a time my life was devolving in the way her main character Rosemary’s does. The story proceeds as real life does: patterns emerge as we live it. Her story is in the way we make sense of our lived lives, the patterns we tease out, the stories we tell ourselves to make coherence and meaning, the way we decide what we’ve learned and where to go next. In the couple of months since reading the book, the vignettes of Rosemary’s life keep coming back to me, with new things that happen providing even more uncanny overlap with her experiences. Pondering Barbara Gerber’s rendering of Rosemary’s reactions to and processing of these experiences has enriched the range and depth of my own responses to them, and I’m grateful for this energetic and thoughtful novel.
This book was a real page turner for me because I could relate to the events and characters....I was intrigued about what happened next, loved the settings in Santa Fe and Joshua Tree, and felt they added to the charm. The characters were well developed and felt like people I have known. It is unusual for a book to span such a long period in a person's life, through so many changes, while still maintaining a good pace. The story line developed well and kept my interest piqued. I hope there is a sequel so I can see what happens as Rosemary and her family age and continue to face the challenges of living and loving.
This enjoyable book takes you on a journey into the inner and outer worlds of the main character, Rosemary, from her teens and through her years as a young wife and mother. The author concentrates on Rosemary's connection to Joshua Tree as a special, almost magical place that feeds her soul and her growth was a strong element throughout the book. The story and the characters all rang true for me and I could easily relate to Rosemary.
Love and Death in a Perfect World follows the life of one woman as she struggles to accept herself, and the people around her. The universality of the story, along with the quality and style of writing, makes for a highly enjoyable read that left me eager to return and follow our main character Rosemary through the next step in her life. I would highly recommend this book, and I look forward to any future publications by the author.
Barbara Gerber has succinctly captured the complexities of modern life in her novel, Love and Death in a Perfect World, and in the voice of her main protagonist, Rosemary Ellis. As Rosemary grows from childhood into young adulthood within the bugaboos and complexities of strained family dynamics, we travel with her on a coming-of-age journey. The setting of the contemporary American Southwest adds schisms of cultural tension and place-based demands that challenge Rosemary’s basic values. For Gerber’s protagonist, the peaks and valleys in life unfold within the inner workings of original and chosen family. Her concerns are our concerns as she reaches for a life of belonging and meaning, juxtaposed to patterns of obsession that trail her from childhood. As she navigates her conflicts, the thresholds between urban and wild, and the environmental degradation that rears alongside her many personal and political choices, she travels a road that is painfully familiar to us. Rosemary stands as a captivating representative of those who attempt to live a conscious life, and of those who expect and demand more of life than a status quo existence. Bravo to Gerber, who has created a varied and often painterly backdrop for her characters’ evolution, from self-involved young adulthood to parenting and family-centric maturity. As Rosemary and those she loves face the angst, losses, obsessions and contradictions of modern life, we are glad to move with them into the heartbeat and the full heart that lies at the center of every conscious path.
—Cate Cabot, author of Uncharted: A Journey Along the Edge of Time and Survival
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