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The houseguest : a novel /
Agnes Rossi.
New York : Dutton, 2000.
294 p.
052594365X (alk. paper)
More Details
New York : Dutton, 2000.
052594365X (alk. paper)
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

Shouting. Her father, her uncle. One and then the other. Both. God damn. The hell out. Wrong with you. Out, I said. Out of my bloody house before I. Bastard. The front door opened and closed, opened and closed again. A second door, inside the house, slammed so hard the bed shook. Voices in the street. A car starting, revving. She wanted the noise, the trouble, whatever it was had them shouting and slamming doors and starting cars in the middle of the night, to stop. She wanted to go on sleeping. Stop it, please. God, please. And then, to her surprise and intense relief, quiet. She waited. Was it going to last? She closed her eyes and was burrowing in deep when heavy footsteps started up the stairs. Who? Who's coming?

    Aunt Sadie rushed in and pulled the covers back. "Get up and get dressed. Come on. Be quick about it."

    No question but that Maura would do as she was told. Would attempt to, anyway. She'd undressed carelessly the night before, though, there having been no one to put her to bed but herself. Other sock? Shoes? "I can't see, I can't find my--"

    Sadie turned on the light. "There."

    Maura saw Sadie's face over the lamp for an instant, saw tears, red eyes, blotches, and was embarrassed, sorry for Sadie's shame, frightened. Aunt Sadie crying?

    " Will you come on?"

    Sock found and pulled on. Shoes stepped into, never mind the laces. No time. Hurry. Done. Run down the stairs.

    "Put your coat on. Button it."

    A strange yelping sound from her mother's room. Daddy? Daddy's making that noise? She looked at her mother's door, closed, implacable, at Sadie's face, altered, not itself, then bolted back upstairs.

    "Where the hell are you going? Get back here. Don't make me ..."

    Maura pulled the covers off her bed, revealing, down at the bottom, a beaded green evening bag. She grabbed it, put it under her coat, ran down the stairs.

    The night air was cold and damp, a shock, a stimulant.

    Sadie opened the car door and Maura climbed into the back, settled against the freezing-cold leather for a moment then got on her knees for a look out the rear window. Lights on all over the house, upstairs and down. The front door wide open.

    "Bastard," Joseph said.

    "To the end," Sadie answered. "Right to the bloody end."

    "Not that we're there yet. Not to the end of this mess yet. There's still the question of ... no more time for discussion, you realize, now Agnes is dead."

    Now Agnes is dead . Maura began to wet herself. The warmth was welcome, the letting go. She knew there'd be hell to pay but she couldn't stop once she started. She couldn't stop till she couldn't go anymore. Now Agnes is dead .

    "He says he's going regardless. Alone. He says he's going alone regardless what happens."

    "So you've said."

    "I've said, yes, but haven't gotten a response, have I? Might just as well been talking to myself. You've got to make up your mind, Sadie, and soon. What's it going to be?"

    Sadie turned and looked out the window.

    "You've got room and money enough, God knows."

    "And what about you? You and Peg? You'd hardly notice one more with that mob you've already got. A child should be with other children, surely."

    "I've made my decision, haven't I? I've told you and him and anybody else wants to know where I stand. It only waits for you. Do we find a place for her with the nuns or will you take her in? That's all that's left to be decided. We're all waiting on you."

    Sadie pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of her coat and blew her nose loudly.

    "Very nice. Very eloquent. Hardly qualifies as a response, though."

    "You make me sick, that's my response."

    The car stopped in front of Sadie's house with an ominous thud. "Might not start again, not easily, anyway," Joseph growled. "Will this goddamn night never end?" He reached into the back and pulled Maura out. "Bloody hell. She's pissed herself. All over my backseat, too. I'll never get the smell out."

    Sadie's house was smallish and squat, whitewashed plaster with dark green shutters. It sat farther back from the road than the houses on either side and so seemed reticent, out of step, old-fashioned. There were two wide windows facing the street, one on either side of the front door. Set close to the ground, these windows bestowed a kind of eagerness on the house that was at odds with its overall reserve, making it look like a guest on the fringes of a party who wants to mix but is nervous just the same.

    As Sadie, Joseph, and Maura passed single file through the drawing room, Bell came down the stairs like a gentle ghost, a shawl around her shoulders. "Agnes is dead then?"

    Sadie stiffened. "Yes, Bell. She's gone."

    "A good death, was it?"

    "A noisy one," Joseph said. "I never in my life saw a more reluctant passing. And now Edward's carrying on like a bloody madman. Threw us out, closed himself up with the body and a bottle of whiskey."

    Bell looked at Maura, whose eyes were fixed on Rex, Sadie's dog, as he sniffed the sodden hem of her coat. "Sadie?" Bell said.

    Sadie didn't answer.

    "We're taking her, Sadie?"

    "You know what the alternative is," Joseph said. "Just say the word and I'll make the arrangements."

    "Shut your mouth," Sadie snapped.

    "What's it going to be, Sadie?"

    "I swear to God you've all taken leave of your senses, you and him both. All of you. You want an answer, Joseph? Here's an answer. No Devlin's going to be dumped on the nuns as long as I'm living."

    "That's a yes then? You'll take her? For good and all?"

    "You make me sick."

    "That's a yes. You're a stubborn woman, Sarah. Always have been. I'd have thought you'd jump at the chance, considering."

    "That's enough now," Bell said. "You must be frozen, the lot of you. I'll put the kettle on."

    Joseph didn't wait for the water to boil but headed home to tell his wife the good news. Agnes is dead and the girl is with Sadie and Bell, where she belongs. He'd hoped that if he could get Maura into Sadie's house for the night Sadie wouldn't turn her out again, considering. And I was right, he bragged to Peg. Didn't even take the night. Getting her under the roof was all. Best thing for everybody. Give the two old dolls something to do with their time besides get on each other's nerves.

    "She's had an accident," Sadie said, sitting down at the kitchen table, looking, for a moment, mildly concussed. She seemed to recognize the tea things spread out before her but didn't seem to know what to do with them. "Relieved herself all over the backseat of Joseph's precious car. I didn't mind that a bit. Might have done it myself if I'd thought of it. Her clothes are all wet, anyway. She can't sleep in what she's got on."

    "Oh," Bell said, looking down at Maura. "Oh. Well. It happens, I suppose. Children. Did you bring anything for her to put on?"

    "There wasn't time. You can't imagine the carrying-on over there."

    "Right. We must have something a child can wear. If you weren't after me all the time to clean out the closets and such, we'd have old clothes. You never know when you're going to have a need. Do you see now why I don't like to get rid of anything?"

    "Will you shut up, Bell? Will you let me have a cup of tea in peace?"

* * *

    A couple of hours before the end Agnes had come back to herself and asked for Maura. "My little girl. I want to see my little girl."

    Maura was summoned and came down the stairs slowly. Her mother had been ailing for years, tuberculosis, so Maura was accustomed to sickrooms. But this visit, she knew, was not going to be like the others.

    "Go on," Sadie said. "You don't want to keep your mum waiting, go on."

    Maura approached the bed and all the adults, save Edward, filed out.

    Oil shone on Agnes's eyelids and lips. Her face was flushed, her breath ragged. Her eyes sparkled as eyes will when they aren't getting the oxygen they want. She plucked at her nightgown, at the bedding, tapped the mattress and said, "Here's Maura. Here's my sprite, my fairy girl. Come on and sit by me."

    Maura looked at her father. He nodded.

    Maura sat down. Agnes took her hand and kissed it. "Were you in bed? Did they get you up just now?"

    Maura shook her head. "I wasn't. I was upstairs but not in bed."

    "Not in bed? Doing what, then, madam?"

    Before Maura could answer Agnes started to cough and couldn't stop. Adults--Edward, Sadie--swooped down with handkerchiefs open and tablespoons brimming. Maura got herself out of the way but was noticed before long, and banished. "Upstairs with you, let's go. No sense upsetting her. No sense making this harder on everybody than it has to be. Go on."

Copyright © 2000 Agnes Rossi. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-10-18:
Based loosely on pivotal events in the life of author Rossi's mother, this tale of loss, displacement and new beginnings is set in 1930s Ireland and Paterson, N.J. The novel opens with a tragic scene in Ireland: young Maura learns that her mother has died of tuberculosis, and that her father is leaving her with Irish relatives who don't want her, while he returns to America, where Maura grew up. Edward Devlin, shattered ex-revolutionary, deposits his daughter in the care of two ill-tempered aunts, Sadie and Bell, and settles into Paterson, hoping that an old acquaintance, "Fitz" Fitzgibbon, can help him find work in a woefully depressed economy. Fitz, now a silk tycoon and local celebrity, finds an engineering job for Edward, and invites him to live in the home he shares with his young wife, Sylvia. Edward ends up staying with the Fitzgibbons for nearly a year, moving into his own apartment only after he has an affair with Sylvia. Back in Ireland, Maura is sent to a strict Catholic boarding school where she is allowed to speak only Irish. Rossi interpolates updates on Maura's world into the larger drama of Edward's relations with the Fitzgibbons, as all of their lives head for a drastic change. Despite Rossi's (Split Skirt; The Quick) skillful prose and heartrending plot, this is a surprisingly dispassionate tale, with the cast of characters kept at arm's distance even as their flaws and hopes are rendered with painstaking care. Edward's mostly selfish actions alternate with his hazy regrets and a grief made even more vague with drink; and Maura's chilly ambivalence seems fitting, as she's living in limbo, hoping to be reunited with her father. The main characters' desperate hearts are all the more melancholy for their detachment. The author's decision to tell this story with such uneasy restraint makes for challenging, unsentimental reading. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, October 1999
Booklist, November 1999
Kirkus Reviews, November 1999
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Unpaid Annotation
Six days after burying his beautiful young wife, a grieving Edward Devlin leaves County Tyrone, Ireland, bound for America, where he hopes to cast off the ghosts of the past and find a more hopeful future. But the young freedom fighter finds himself, at thirty-six, weary and disillusioned. Memories of Ireland's bitter civil war haunt him, but can't compare to the aching loss of his wife and daughter, whom he has left behind. Arriving in Depression-era New Jersey, Edward seeks out prosperous mill owner John Fitzgibbon, who finds him a job and invites him home to meet his sensual, neglected wife ...
Unpaid Annotation
The year is 1934 and Edward Devlin, recently widowed and a disillusioned veteran of Ireland's struggle for independence, leaves his small daughter, Maura, behind in Ireland and heads for America with not much more than his memories and a lingering desire for his beautiful dead wife. His one tenuous connection is to a man named Fitzgibbon, owner of a silk-dyeing mill in Paterson, New Jersey. Fitz greets his fellow Irishman with hospitality, inviting Edward into his home and, ultimately, setting up a chain of events that will cause Fitz to lose everything and Edward to gain all he dared not hope for.Moving from a small town in the north of Ireland to Depression-era Paterson to the New Jersey Shore, The Houseguest is an eloquent and morally complex novel that perfectly captures the rhythms of grief, hope, and humor that are indelible parts of the Irish-American experience.

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