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From Jennifer Weiner, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Who Do You Love and In Her Shoes comes a smart, thoughtful, and timely exploration of two sisters’ lives from the 1950s to the present as they struggle to find their places—and be true to themselves—in a rapidly evolving world. Mrs. Everything is an ambitious, richly textured journey through history—and herstory—as these two sisters navigate a changing America over the course of their lives.
Exclusive Excerpt from Mrs. Everything!
By the time she was eleven, Bethie Kaufman knew that it was her destiny to be a star. She had shiny brown hair that her mother curled with rags at night. Her eyes were a pretty shade of blue-green, and her eyebrows were naturally arched, but it was her smile that everyone wanted to see. “Give us a smile!” the hairnetted ladies at Knudsen’s Danish Bakery would say when Bethie came in with her mother to buy an almond tea ring, and they’d give Bethie a sprinkle cookie when she obliged.
“Here comes a pretty little miss,” Stan Danovich, who owned Stan’s Meats on 11 Mile Road, would say, and he’d fold up a slice of turkey or bologna for Bethie to eat. Mr. Tartaglia at the five-and-dime would put extra peppermints in her bag, and Iris, who came to clean three times a week, called her Miss America and brought clip-on earrings for Bethie to wear until it was time for her to go home.
Bethie is a kind and conscientious student with many friends, Miss Keyes wrote on her fourth-grade report card, in her beautiful, flowing blue script. Bethie is a gifted musician who sings in tune, Mrs. Lambert, her music teacher, said. By fifth grade, two boys had kissed her in the cloakroom, and a third had carried her books home for a week, where she’d gotten the solo in the winter concert and had sung a whole verse of “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” by herself.
Bethie loved being a girl. She loved skirts that flared out when she twirled; she loved the look of her clean white socks against her black and white saddle shoes. She loved the charm bracelet she’d gotten for her birthday. She only had two charms so far, a tiny Eiffel tower and a little Scottie dog, but she hoped to get more for Chanukah.
Bethie was pretty, Bethie was popular, and so it was only natural that when, at Hebrew school, the sign-up sheet for auditions for the spring Purimspiel was posted, Bethie put her name down for the role of Queen Esther, the biggest girl’s part in the production.
The Hebrew school students performed the play each year. Bethie knew the story by heart: Once upon a time in the kingdom of Shushan, a not-very-smart king put his disobedient wife aside and found himself in need of a replacement. He held a beauty pageant to find the prettiest girl in all the land, so that he could marry her. (“Isn’t that kind of superficial?” Jo had asked, and Sarah had said, “It was how they did things back then.”) The winner was a girl named Esther, and her big secret was that she was Jewish, only the king didn’t know. After Esther became the queen she overheard Haman, the king’s wicked advisor, telling the king that he should kill all the Jews. Only then did Esther reveal herself, and because the king loved her, he let the Jews live, and killed Haman instead.
There were lots of parts for boys in the show—the silly king, whose name, Ahasuerus, sounded like a sneeze, and Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, who urged Esther to enter the pageant and then, after she was married, to tell the king the truth, and Haman, the bad guy, who was always played by a boy with a black-eyeliner mustache. Every time Haman’s name was spoken, the audience was supposed to hiss or boo, or stamp their feet, or shake their groggers, which were homemade noisemakers, paper plates filled with dried lentil beans, folded over and stapled shut.
All of the girls wanted to be Queen Esther, but for two years in a row, the role had gone to Cheryl Goldfarb, who was in sixth grade and whose father was a lawyer. Cheryl lived in an enormous house in Sherwood Forest, where some of the wealthiest Jewish families in Detroit lived. Bethie had never been to Cheryl’s house, but her friend Barbara Simoneaux had, and Barbara said that Cheryl had a queen-sized bed with a pink coverlet and a stuffed pink bear that was almost as big as she was. Cheryl took dance lessons twice a week at Miss Vicki’s Academy of Dance on Woodward Avenue (Bethie had begged her mother to let her take tap or ballet, and Sarah had sighed and smoothed Bethie’s hair and said maybe next year). Cheryl had a white rabbit-fur coat that came with a matching muff, and every time she passed it in the coatroom Bethie would give it a quick stroke, thinking it was so much softer than her own scratchy gray wool. Cheryl had done a good job at the audition, but Bethie had been better. Not only had she memorized every single line of the entire play, but she’d actually cried in the scene where she fell to her knees and begged to King Ahasuerus to spare the lives of her people. “For we may call God by a different name, but all of us are his children,” Bethie said, as tears ran from her eyes and Charlie Farber stared down at her, looking alarmed.
When the cast list was posted, Cheryl’s face turned the color of a brick. “I should be Esther!” Bethie heard her wailing through the door of Mrs. Jacobs’s classroom. “I’m older than she is!”
“You’ll make a wonderful Queen Vashti,” Mrs. Jacobs said. Vashti was the king’s first wife, the one the king put aside after she refused to dance and display herself to the court. Vashti was the only other girl’s part in the Purimspiel. The girl who played her got to wear a long, shiny black wig, like Elizabeth Taylor’s in Cleopatra, and even more eyeliner than Haman. Cheryl should have been happy with that, but instead she just yelled louder.
“Queen Vashti only has one line. One word! It isn’t fair!” It sounded like she was crying. Should’ve done that for the audition, Bethie thought, imagining how she would look onstage, with her hair all in curls and a gold foil crown on her head.
The students rehearsed the Purim play for weeks. The morning of the show, Bethie was too nervous to eat even a single bite of Wheatena. “You’ll be terrific,” her mother told her, brushing rouge on her cheeks, then wetting the curved mascara wand, rubbing it into the black cake of mascara and stroking it onto Bethie’s lashes. In the white silk dress with sparkling silver sequins that was kept in the synagogue’s costume closet and smelled like mothballs, Bethie thought that she looked beautiful, and very grown-up.
Bethie saw her father tuck a bouquet of carnations into the trunk of the car before he drove them to the synagogue. “Break a leg,” her mother whispered, and Jo said, “You’ve got it made in the shade.” Cheryl, in Queen Vashti’s red dress, glared at Bethie backstage, but Bethie didn’t care. She practiced smiling, imagining taking her bows, and how the crowd would applaud after her song, as Mrs. Jacobs introduced the show.
“Once upon a time, in the far-off land of Shushan, there lived a king and his queen,” the narrator, Donald Gitter, said. Charlie Farber, who was wearing what looked like his father’s brown bathrobe, with a tinfoil crown, stepped onto the stage.
“His queen’s name was Vashti, and she would not obey the king’s command to entertain his royal guests,” said Donald. That was the cue for Charlie’s first line.
“Dance!” said the king. “Or away you must go.”
The narrator said, “And to everyone’s shock, Queen Vashti said . . .” Charlie turned to Cheryl, who was supposed to walk onstage and say her single line— “No.” Instead, Cheryl snakehipped her way onto the stage, gave Charlie a big, fake-sweet smile, and said, “Anything you want, O my king.”
And then, as the members of the court and the audience of parents and siblings watched in shocked silence, Cheryl began to dance. With her arms arched over her head, Cheryl jumped.
She spun. She twirled down the stage and leaped back up it. She did a few high kicks, a few pliés, several shuffle-ball-changes, and concluded her performance by leaping straight up in the air and landing in a clumsy split on the floor, right in front of King Ahasuerus, who stared down at her in shock.
“Um,” Charlie said. His next line was supposed to be, “Away with you, then, if you will not obey.” Except Vashti had obeyed and was looking up at him expectantly, her cheeks flushed and her chest going up and down underneath her red dress.
“See?” she said. “I danced! So now you don’t even need another wife!”
Bethie heard laughter ripple through the audience, and a terrible thought flashed through her mind. Cheryl was stealing the show. Bethie had heard that expression a million times, but she’d never realized what it felt like, how it was as if something real was being taken away from her, stolen right our from under her nose. I can’t let this happen, Bethie thought. And so, head held high and her crown in place, she strode out onto the stage, grabbed Cheryl by the shoulders, and pulled her to her feet.
“Kings don’t like show-offs.” She smiled at Charlie. Charlie, who was obviously waiting to be told what to do, shot a desperate look toward the wings. “Just banish her!” Bethie whispered, and her voice must have been loud enough for the people in the front rows to hear, because they started to laugh.
“Um,” said Charlie.
Red-faced, Cheryl put her hands on her hips and said, “I’m his wife and he still loves me!” Turning to Charlie, she said, “I danced for you, didn’t I? So you don’t need her.”
“Um,” Charlie said again.
“I’m the prettiest girl in all of Shushan!” Bethie reminded him. It was bragging, which she knew was bad manners, but the real Esther had won the beauty contest, and Bethie couldn’t figure out how else to get show-off Cheryl off the stage.
Finally, Charlie decided to take action. Lifting his staff, he said, in his deepest voice, “Queen Vashti, I banish you from Shushan.”
“How come?” Cheryl asked. When Charlie didn’t answer, she said, “You told me to dance for the court, and I did. So now everything’s fine!”
I guess it’s up to me, Bethie thought. “The king just banished you!” she said, giving Cheryl a shove. “It doesn’t matter why! He’s the king, and you have to do what the king says!”
“You can’t marry Esther!” Cheryl wailed, grabbing at Charlie’s bathrobe sleeve. “Because she’s lying to you!” She sucked in a breath, and Bethie knew what she was going to say before she said it. “Esther is Jewish!” she blared.
“Big deal. So are you,” Bethie shot back.
In the front row, Bethie saw one of the fathers laughing so hard that his sides were shaking. A few of the mothers were pressing handkerchiefs to their eyes, and her big sister’s face was red with glee.
From the corner of the stage, Mrs. Jacobs was making frantic shooing motions at Cheryl. “Fine!” Cheryl said, tossing her hair. “But you’ll be sorry!” She lifted her chin and marched off the stage. The audience began to clap, and even though it wasn’t in the script, Bethie turned, gathering her skirt in her hands, and gave them an elegant bow.
When the play was over, Bethie and her parents and her sister walked through the parking lot. Jo was still chuckling and recounting her favorite unscripted moments. “I wonder if Queen Vashti really did say, ‘You’ll be sorry’?” Bethie was holding her carnations. She felt like she was floating, not walking. She had never been so happy in her life. They had almost reached their car when Bethie saw Cheryl’s father, Mr. Goldfarb, standing in front of it with his arms crossed over his chest.
“Ken,” Sarah said, putting her hand on her husband’s forearm, as Mr. Goldfarb stepped forward. He wasn’t a big man, but he looked all puffed up inside his suit, with his bald head almost glowing with rage.
“I’ll bet you feel like a big shot,” he said in a loud, angry voice as he waved his thick finger at Bethie. “Humiliating Cheryl like that.”
Bethie cringed backward. Ken moved so that he was standing in front of her.
“I think your daughter humiliated herself,” he said. His own voice was very calm.
“Cheryl’s taken tap and classical dance lessons for five years,” said Mr. Goldfarb. “She should’ve had the bigger part.”
“I think the crowd got to appreciate her dancing,” Bethie’s father said mildly.
“That’s not the point and you know it!” Spit sprayed from Mr. Goldfarb’s mouth as he shouted.
“Maybe she should have been Queen Esther. I didn’t see the auditions, so I can’t say for sure. But what I can tell you . . .” Bethie held her breath as her father pulled her forward, settling his hands protectively on her shoulders, “is that my little girl was fantastic.”
Mr. Goldfarb muttered some more about favoritism and dance lessons before giving Bethie one final poisonous glare and stomping away.
“Don’t let him bother you,” her father told her. “You were very good and very funny. Now, who wants to go to Saunders for an ice-cream sundae?”
It turned out that everyone did.
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