My new novel, What’s Left, opens with her being taken out of her classroom and being told of the death of her father. Well, there’s still a thread of hope, since his body had not been recovered from the avalanche. But the finality weighs in.
What’s an 11-year-old to make of this? She’s been raised in two traditions, each one differing from the mainstream around her.
It’s not the only death in the novel. There’s the tragic collision that kills her grandparents and creates the opening for her father to marry into the family – they no doubt would have thwarted that development. And there are the other ancestors gone by the time Cassia appears on the scene, as well as two uncles who die when she’s too young to understand. But the questions remain.
Some of my favorite answers arise in the 14th chapter. But please remember: no fair peeking ahead.
The subject of death is difficult enough for adults. For children it’s all the more baffling, once they push past the notion of sleeping but not waking.
What’s the earliest funeral you remember? What were you told? What would you say to others?
In my new novel, What’s Left, her great-grandmother Maria could quite possibly take off as big juicy book all her own. Well, I sketch what I can of this most colorful character even when the core of this novel is about Cassia and her grief.
In the arms of Ilias the Cypriot, Maria’s left a seedy past in Havana and found forgiveness and redemption in converting to Orthodox Christianity in Chicago. And then, in the next stage, she’s actively contributing to the lives of her grandchildren down in Indiana, including Cassia’s mother, Diana.
She’s indirectly responsible for inspiring her grandson Barney’s great culinary signature creation, the Streetcar sandwich. I’m not even sure if she’s still around to lend it her approval as it comes out of their ovens.
I’m still surprised I allowed Maria and Ilias to fade out of the picture as they do. Maybe their deaths would have simply been too much to add at that stretch of the story. But they are memorable, aren’t they?
Oh, if only there were figures like them in my family! Oh, now that I’m thinking of it, I can come up with a few. Care to look at the comments in the family cookbook?
Not that we got together that often.
Looking at wider circles, though, the list soon grows.
Who are the most outrageous – and yet loveable – people you know? (Well, I’ll settle on outrageous or loveable. Or even past tense, have known.) What makes them so?
In my new novel, What’s Left, her father (Baba) has an influential role in transforming the family restaurant even though he’s new to the business. But he’s not alone.
Here are some passages I cut from the final version:
Baba is an active participant in that year of intense planning, before heading off for his focused Dharma training, those three years in the Tibetan monastery followed by his permanent return here.
My search reveals to me how much Baba contributed to the final result. As a visual artist addressing challenges beyond the kitchen itself, he’s amplified the wisdom Dimitri displayed in bringing him on board – and all of his touches fill me with pride.
Reflecting on Baba’s contributions to the project, what impresses me most is his sensitivity to the underlying unity. What emerges simply feels right and natural.
In a traditional business school case study, the spotlight would likely fall on Baba’s future brother-in-law, Dimitri.
Her uncle Dimitri, the oldest of three brothers, has Adonis good looks and style to match. He earns a prestigious Masters of Business Administration degree and possesses sharp financial skills. He also advocates radical values in politics and social justice, has taken up Buddhism, and uses astrology to evaluate potential colleagues – as he does in luring Cassia’s future father actively into the family.
In my new novel, What’s Left, she assumes all of this is the way life should be, right up to the tragedies that send her spiraling.
In my original draft and early revisions of What’s Left, I tried to keep her aunt Nita relatively equal among Cassia’s aunts and uncles. This was difficult, since Nita had been an important influence on Cassia’s father, from college all the way up to his disappearance in an avalanche, was Cassia was 11.
There was no avoiding the fact that as Cassia wanted to know more about her father, she’d have to turn to her aunt Nita for answers.
In the ninth revision, though, I decided it was time for Nita to out-and-out become Cassia’s guardian angel, a role she’d fulfilled repeatedly for Cassia’s father. I think it was a brilliant flash, allowing much of the action in the new novel to take place during Cassia’s preteen and teenage years.
One of the themes running through my new novel, What’s Left, is an acknowledgement of what I’ve sometimes called “guerrilla economics.”
In one passage in an earlier draft of the story, I argued:
On the other hand, he just might learn along the way that the Amish keep to their ways not because they’re entirely sold on horsepower and kerosene lamps but because of the hedge their style puts around them, enabling them to keep their families and communities intact against the onslaught that’s devouring everything else.
Well, the Amish do provide the Swiss cheese essential to the family’s signature Streetcar sandwich, but there’s more. They’re a model of community, something Cassia’s family is also trying to do beside the college campus.
You can’t have it all – it’s an essential lesson when it comes to money issues if you want any freedom. Besides, where would you store it all? Who would even dust or polish it?
Again, this subject runs beyond the scope of my new novel, but there is a question of just how much is enough. For Cassia and her parents, they’re comfortable living modestly while successfully working in their world. And, no, they don’t live out by the country club or buy a new car every year, even when Cassia might see that as the way “normal” people might live.
What sacrifice would you be willing to make to pursue your dreams? (Give up your cell phone? Your laptop?) And what would you find’s essential to keep?
Cassia’s aunt Yin reinforces a San Francisco connection established with Cassia’s uncle Dimitri and his companion, Graham. In time, it’s one Cassia herself comes to experience, so far from her native Indiana, as I relate as early as the third chapter of my new novel, What’s Left.
A single visit to the Golden Gate city put it high on my scale. I’d return in a flash, given the opportunity. These days, living a hour from Boston, I’m near another great center with many valued connections to the world. And, yes, I still miss Baltimore.
What’s your favorite city? What would you urge people to do when they get there?
In her family, her great-grandparents would have known scenes like this.