Authors: Karen Joy Fowler
More Extraordinary Praise for
Karen Joy Fowler re-creates a lost world so thrillingly, with such intelligence, trickery, and art, that when you at last put the book down and look up from the page it all seems to linger, shimmering, around you, like the residue of a marvelous dream.”
—Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
“Fowler’s prose is full of shimmering melancholy, and a ruminative irony that brings her characters and their world alive in the most unexpected ways—reading
is like staring at early portrait photographs until the eyes begin to shine and your head is filled with voices that urge you to recall that these vanished lives, and your own, are stranger than you allow. A dazzling book.”
—Jonathan Lethem, bestselling author of
“A playful literary mystery.”
—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Fowler has a voice like no other, lyrical, shrewd, and addictive, with a quiet deadpan humor that underlies almost every sentence.”
“Fowler’s lyrical prose and deft use of historical fact are a joy to read. She also exhibits a sly sense of humorž.ž.ž.žA strange and enchanting novel.”
Karen Joy Fowler,
a PEN/Faulkner and Dublin IMPAC nominee, is the author of the
New York Times
The Jane Austen Book Club,
New York Times
The Sweetheart Season,
Black Glass: Short Fictions.
She lives in Davis, California.
More Praise for
The Jane Austen Book Club
“This exquisite novel is bigger and more ambitious than it appears. It’s that rare book that reminds us what reading is all about.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Karen Joy Fowler deserves every success this savvy, episodic but chamois-smooth novel can bring. Reminiscent in places of Carol Shields at her best,
The Jane Austen Book Club
amounts to a witty meditation on how the books we choose, choose us too.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“It’s natural to approach a novel titled
The Jane Austen Book Club
with caution, but Karen Joy Fowler’s funny, erudite novel proved to be a surprise and a delight, a tribute to Austen that manages to capture her spirit.”
—The Boston Globe
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York, 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2
Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182–190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
Published by Plume, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.
Previously published in a Putnam edition.
First Plume Printing, June 2002
Copyright © Karen Joy Fowler, 2001
All rights reserved
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
The Library of Congress has catalogued the Putnam edition as follows:
Fowler, Karen Joy.
Sister noon : a novel/Karen Joy Fowler.
“A Marian Wood book”
1. San Francisco (Calif.)—Fiction. 2. Women—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3556.0844 S57 2001 00-046025
Original hardcover design by Amanda Dewey
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE AT QUANTITY DISCOUNTS WHEN USED TO PROMOTE PRODUCTS OR SERVICES. FOR INFORMATION PLEASE WRITE TO PREMIUM MARKETING DIVISION, PENGUIN PUTNAM INC., 375 HUDSON STREET, NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10014
For Marian and Wendy,
East Coast angels
I had, as always, a lot of help. Thank you, Debbie and Darcy Smith, Clinton Lawrence, Alan Elms, Sara Streich, Carter Scholz, Angus MacDonald, Pat Murphy, Michael Blumlein, Laura Miller, Michael Berry, Richard Russo, Sean Stewart, Nancy Ogle, Jonathan Elkus, and Jeff Walker.
Most particular thanks to Kelly Link. I couldn’t have finished without you, Kelly.
Thanks to Helen Holdridge for the Holdridge Collection at the San Francisco Public Library.
And to the MacDowell Colony for time and space.
Marian Wood and Wendy Weil.
Words were invented so that lies could be told.
MARY ELLEN PLEASANT
n 1894, Mrs. Putnam took Lizzie Hayes to the Midwinter Exhibition in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where they both used a telephone for the very first time. They stood behind curtains at opposite ends of a great hall, with only their shoes showing from the outside. “Isn’t this a wonder?” Mrs. Putnam asked. Her voice was high and tight, as if it had been stretched to reach. “And someday you’ll be able to call the afterlife, just as easy. Now that we’ve taken this first step.”
There was a droning in Lizzie’s ear as if, indeed, a multitude of distant voices were also speaking to her. But that was merely the thought Mrs. Putnam had put in her mind. Lizzie might just as easily have heard the ocean or the ceaseless insectile buzz that underlies the material world.
It made little practical difference. The dead are terrible gossips. They don’t remember, or they don’t care to say, or, if they do talk, then they all talk at once. They can’t be questioned. They won’t change a word, no matter how preposterous. The truth might look like a story. A lie might outlast a fact. You must remember that, for everything that follows, we have only the word of someone long dead.
In 1852, while on his way from Valparaiso to San Francisco aboard the steamship
a clerk named Thomas Bell met a woman named Madame Christophe. Mr. Bell was an underling at Bolton, Barron, and Company, a firm specializing in cotton, mining, and double deals. Madame Christophe was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, very tall, with clouds of dark hair and rosy, satiny skin. Her most remarkable feature was her eyes, for they didn’t match. One was blue and one was brown, and yet the difference was subtle and likely to be noticed only on a close and careful inspection and only when she was looking right at you. She did this often.
One night they stood together at the rail. The stars were as thick and yellow as grapes. There was a silver road of moonlight on the black surface of the ocean. Thomas Bell was asking questions. Where had she come from? Madame Christophe told him she was a widow from New Orleans. Where was she going? Who was she? Whom did she know in San Francisco?
She turned her eyes on him, which made him catch his breath. “Why do you look at me like that?” he asked.
“Why do you ask so many questions?” Her voice was
full of slow vowels, soft stops. “Words were invented so that lies could be told. If you want to know someone, don’t listen to what they say. Look at them. Look at me,” she said. “Look closely.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “What does that tell you?”
Mr. Bell couldn’t look closely. His vision was clouded by his ardor. But he saw her shiver. He rushed to his cabin for a wrap to lend her, a green and black tartan shawl.
They debarked in San Francisco. In the crush of people, she got into a carriage, and he lost sight of her.
She should have been easy to find. There were so few women in San Francisco. Fewer still were beautiful. He sent inquiries to all the hotels. None had a Madame Christophe registered. He asked everyone he knew, he spoke of her everywhere, but could say only that she was a widow from New Orleans, that her eyes didn’t match, and that she had his shawl. He was forced to depart for Mexico, where he would conduct negotiations concerning the New Almadén mine, without seeing her again.