Excerpt: 'Promises to Keep,' by Jane Green

Jane Green's novel reveals how cancer both devastates and unites a family.

ByABC News via via logo
June 9, 2010, 10:02 PM

July 21, 2010 -- "Promises to Keep" centers around the friendship of three women who struggle to maintain their love lives despite the responsibilities and growing challenges they face.

The novel introduces the reader to Callie Perry, a photographer and mother, who falls ill to breast cancer. With her diagnosis, the novel explores how love and support are enduring and help people deal with severe illnesses and grief.

Read an excerpt of the book below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.

Chapter Seven

Lila smiles as she hears Callie's familiar voice on her answering machine.

"You witch!" Callie barks, but Lila can hear her smile. "You never told me my sister came out to see you. I can't believe she sees you more than I do. Where are you, anyway, and why don't I ever hear from you? And don't use that old excuse of being in love because I'm your oldest, bestest friend, and I'm not buying it. And I know you've forgotten my upcoming birthday, and when can the four of us have dinn—" Beeeeeeeeeeeep.

Lila calls back and leaves her own message. "Phone tag. You're it." And she puts down the phone and starts to get dinner ready.

It is a little late, Lila realizes, to become a domestic goddess at the ripe old age of forty-two, and yet, as her mother always says, better late than never. She had grown up presuming she would be doing this—cooking for a husband, children—decades ago, but the right man had never come along.

Elderly relatives had accused her of putting her career before a man, but they hadn't realized it hadn't been her choice: she had focused on her career only because she didn't have a man. In her twenties she had been desperate to be married, had viewed every date through the lenses of husband potential, had, for many years, secret scrapbooks filled with vision-board pictures of her dream wedding.

Her dress would be Vera Wang, floaty chiffon with a huge skirt. Her hair would be swept up and back, with a delicate pearl and Swarovski crystal tiara, the flowers would be hand-tied white hydrangeas and peonies.

She would be transformed from a five-foot-one, frizzy-haired, big-bottomed Jewish girl into Audrey Hepburn. She was never sure exactly how this would happen, but she was certain it would.

And her husband, in turn, would be like Harrison Ford. Only Jewish. Or a Jon Stewart type, she thought. A neurotic, funny, cute New Yorker with a wicked sense of humor, who looked great in a polo shirt and chino shorts.

The problem was, she discovered, much to her chagrin, that Jewish Harrison Fords and Jon Stewart look-alikes didn't have much of a penchant for short, round, frizzy-haired girls who looked like Lila. She may have been brilliantly clever, with a sharp wit and a heart the size of the Amazon basin, but the men she was drawn to were only ever interested in her as a friend.Time after time she developed searing secret crushes on men who became her best friend, and she hoped they would wake up one morning and realize that she, Lila Grossman, their confidante and chief adviser, was in fact the love of their life.

And time and again she would seize up in pain as she attended yet another of their weddings. Always to the same girl. Petite, skinny, with naturally curly hair expertly blown out on a regular basis to a long, sleek sheath of silk; a girl who looked great in Seven jeans, a personalized Goyard bag slung casually over her shoulder.

Lila spent years trying to be that girl. She has been on every diet known to man, but nothing has reduced the size of her bottom and, frankly, she loves food too damn much to worry about fitting into a size four pair of jeans. Or even a size ten. There is a cupboard in her bathroom spilling over with hair products and appliances that promised to give her silky smooth hair, but nothing has been able to tame her frizz.

She even bought a Goyard bag, except it was from a street vendor in Chinatown and if you look closely you will see it says Coyerd. She didn't think anyone would notice, but when she passed the identikit princesses, she saw their eyes flick disdainfully over the bag, and she knew they knew. She sometimes thought she should care more, instead of finding it funny, but she only found it funny because it was easier to laugh than to admit how painful it was that she lost countless men to women she didn't understand.

She almost married once. She was thirty, and dating Steve, whom she didn't particularly like. He was arrogant and charmless, but he was clever, a lawyer and Jewish.

He treated Lila like his servant from the first time she made him dinner, something she had been trained to do as she was growing up by watching her mother prepare for her father's homecoming every night.

"Always set the table even if dinner isn't ready," her mother would tell her, laying out place mats and napkins. "That way they'll always feel looked after."

Her mother had her father's drink ready as soon as he walked in the door—a small tray with a vodka martini and a bowl of nuts. No one was allowed to talk to her father until he had "decompressed" in his study, emerging to sit down at the dining-room table and be served dinner by Lila's mother, while Lila and her brother and sister were ushered upstairs to "leave your father in peace."

Like her mother, Lila is a nurturer. She shows her love for people by cooking for them. Not, as her mother did, with chopped liver roast chicken dripping with schmaltz, brisket simmered for hours until it was so tender it was falling apart, but with recipes culled from The Barefoot Contessa, Martha Stewart, Mario Batali.

Steve was the perfect recipient of her nurturing. He loved her cooking and she, in turn, loved to feed. Th e fact that they didn't have much conversation mattered less than knowing he was exactly the type of man her father would want her to marry.Steve encouraged her to cook Friday Night Dinners and invite her entire family. She played hostess instead of her mother, serving up her father's favorite food, feeling a glow of contentment as her father slurped up her chicken soup, sighed dreamily and complimented her on the kneidlach: "As light as a feather."

"He's a mensch," he'd say about Steve, who would give her father the honor of saying the prayers over the bread and the wine. "And he's a lawyer. You could do worse.""Nu?" her elderly relatives would ask at the first-night seder at her parents' house. "When's the wedding?"

When Steve asked, on bended knee in the New York Botanical Garden, proffering a box containing a large, sparkling, emerald-cut diamond that had belonged to his grandmother, she didn't know what to say other than yes.

She chose to ignore the feeling she had never quite been able to shake off since she'd started dating him: Is this all there is?

Not that Steve was a bad person; he just wasn't ever what she had envisaged for herself. She was this marketing guru who loved her career, who had spent her twenties waiting for her knight in shining armor to come and sweep her off her feet.

And instead this sweet, schlubby mensch had shuffled along, and was already treating her as if they had been married thirty years. There was no excitement, no passion, no thrill. Just the routine of stepping into the role of her mother: housewife, cook and at-some-point-in-the-very-near-future-if-Steve-had-anything-todo- with-it mother.

But it should have been enough. Isn't this what everyone wanted? A decent guy who treated her reasonably well, who had a great job. And he wanted to marry her! Not like all those tall, handsome men she had spent years falling in love with who had broken her heart, over and over again. Here was someone who actually loved her. He wasn't going to break her heart. They would have a life just like her parents; he was already talking about moving out to New Rochelle once they were married. And he definitely wasn't going to cause her any more pain.

She didn't love him.

It took months for her to realize this. She tried being the good girl, doing everything she was supposed to do to make everyone else happy. She waited patiently in line at the Vera Wang bridal gown sample sale, with her mother and future mother-in-law chattering excitedly about the bargains to be had inside, then she ran in, joining the stampede, furiously trying on dresses her mother and Carol threw at her, and wondered why Vera Wang hadn't considered five-foot-one size twelves when putting together her samples.

She went to the Roosevelt Hotel and met with the banqueting manager, the catering manager, and sat blankly sampling the wedding menus, all the while feeling as if she were having an out-of body experience.Just get through this, she told herself. This is pre-wedding jitters. Everyone has them. She'd look at Steve, sprawled on the sofa after dinner, watching television, which had become their nightly routine, and will herself to feel something. And when she didn't, she put it down to stress. Or nerves.

Callie took her out one night to plan the bachelorette party. They had a quiet dinner at Atlantic Grill, and Callie, watching carefully as Lila mechanically worked her way through the sushi on the table in front of them, suddenly asked the question Lila had been trying to avoid.

"I know you're getting married in four weeks," Callie leaned forward and lowered her voice, "and I know this sounds like a ridiculous question, but do you love him?"

"Of course," Lila responded, for the words came easily. Steve called her several times a day. To ask what they were having for dinner, to put in a date for dinner with friends of his, to tell her about some movie he thought they ought to see, and at the end of every conversation he said, "Love you," to which she replied, equally flatly, "Love you too."

"That's not what I mean. I mean, are you absolutely crazily in love with him?"

Lila laughed awkwardly. "You mean, do I feel about him the way you feel about Reece?"

"Exactly!" Callie's whole face lit up at the mention of Reece's name. She had only recently started dating him, but she was giddy with excitement.

"Callie, not everyone has the same relationship. Steve is a great guy. He's incredibly good to me, and he has a great job, and he'll make a wonderful husband and father."

"Jesus, Lila. Who's that speaking? Is that your father? Because it sure as hell isn't you."

And Lila realized that indeed it was her father. Tat he was the very reason she was sitting at this table, with the final alterations being done to her wedding gown (they were letting it out, rather than taking it in—Lila had to be the only bride in history who, rather than losing tons of weight before her wedding day, was putting it on because she was eating and eating, to try to push down the feelings she didn't want to admit were there).

"Oh Callie." Lila's mask started to slip. "Help me?"

"Of course. Whatever you're doing, you need to stop it now."

"But how?" Lila's voice dropped to a whisper. "How do I let so many people down? How do I tell Steve? It will ruin his life. And my father! And all the people who are coming. I don't know if I can do it."

"Would you rather walk down the aisle knowing you're making the wrong decision? Have to go through a painful divorce?"

"I'm standing under a chuppah," Lila said, attempting humor.

"Whatever. You know what I mean."

"What if we make it work?" Lila grimaced. "Because not everyone has what you have with Reece. If I thought a Reece was waiting for me in the wings it would be easy, but that doesn't exist for me. I've only ever known pain from falling in love, and there's no pain with Steve. I'm making a pragmatic choice, choosing with my head rather than with my heart."

"Oh Lila." Callie's eyes welled up. "You are a beautiful, strong, brilliant woman who deserves to fall in love, and to be loved in return. What makes you think that you have to settle? What makes you think that you have to marry Steve just because he asked?"

"What if no one else does?" Lila's voice was laced with panic as she voiced a fear she had never admitted to anyone.

"So what? So you'll buy a fabulous apartment, sleep with lots of toy boys, and have sixteen cats. So the fuck what?"

And Lila started to laugh. "You're right. So the fuck what?"

"Thank you. You do not have to be your mother in order to have a fulfilling life, and you do not have to please your father in order to be okay. This isn't the sixties anymore, and you absolutely do not have to marry someone just because he asked, or just to make your father happy."

Lila, crying and laughing at the same time, overcome with relief, happiness and sadness, reached over and clutched Callie's hand. "Will you help me?"

"I will. And I'll even help you return that God-awful vase from your great-aunt Sadie. What were you even thinking, putting that on your wedding list?"

"I didn't." Lila started blubbering with laughter. "Steve insisted on putting it on the list. His mother has the same vase."

"Jesus. Does it look as ugly in her house?"

"Yes! God, I hate her house. Oh God, I can't believe I'm going to admit this, but I can't stand them! Any of them. I can't stand his family. And I can't stand his friends. Oh God, Callie. What the hell have I been doing?"

Callie leaned back in her chair and threw her hands to the ceiling. "Praise the Lord!" she shouted, giggling as diners around them turned to stare.

As Lila progressed through her thirties, she often wondered if she'd made the right decision, but she knew she was indeed better off alone than married to a man she didn't love.(For the record, Steve got married six months later to a girl he had known forever, the daughter of his parents' best friends. She gave up her job immediately and they moved to Englewood, New Jersey, where she is president of the local Hadassah chapter and mother to their three adorable children. Lila still feels lucky to have escaped.)

Two years ago Lila's company moved to Norwalk, Connecticut, and although she tried the reverse commute for a while she found herself sitting on the train and fantasizing about a little house, a garden of her own, sitting on a porch and sunning herself with a glass of wine and a cat curled up on her lap.

She was tired of New York, she realized. She had heard it said that once you were tired of New York, you were tired of life, but she knew that wasn't true. She just wanted a different kind of life, a move away from the rat race, from the dating scene that had gotten so much harder as she'd grown older.

JDate or match.com, it didn't much matter, it was always awful. Nobody ever looked like his picture, and actual romances were few and far between. It was time for a fresh start, somewhere she could be happy, just Lila and her cat.

She found a little Victorian cottage in Rowayton, almost on the water, in need of serious renovation, and while it took a good year to feel settled, to find her feet, to find her friends—a hard task when surrounded by married couples and children—she also found a peace that had been missing from her life in the city.

And then, last year, she met Ed. She heard him first, on his mobile phone in the Starbucks at the bottom of Greenwich Avenue, and it irritated her beyond belief, because she was firmly of the opinion that you need to take your phone calls outside so as not to disturb other people.She tried to ignore it, but he was having an argument with his wife—although as the conversation escalated it became clear she was an ex—and she was accusing him of not returning her son's clothes, and he was attempting to tell her he had bought the child's clothes himself and always made a point of returning hers.

It could have been interesting, if it hadn't become quite so loud.

"Excuse me?" She turned around, frowning, now hugely irritated.

"As interesting as it is to hear about the three Ralph Lauren polo shirts you swear aren't at your house, and the Merrell sandals, I'd much rather read my New York Times in peace. Would you mind taking the conversation outside?"

To be honest, Lila was gearing up for a fight. She quite wanted him to be rude back because she needed to let off some steam and found a good fight was sometimes all it took to put her in a really good mood.

The man's face fell. "I'm so sorry," he said, looking distraught and immediately standing up and heading outside. "I'm just . . .mortified. I'm so sorry to have disturbed you." "It's okay." Now it was her turn to be embarrassed. "Don't worry about it. Just keep it down."She buried herself in her paper, and looked up ten minutes later to find the same man standing in front of her, clearing his throat.

"Again, I apologize," he said, the apology sounding far more sincere given that it was delivered in a crisp English accent. "May I buy you a coffee, something to eat, perhaps?"

"Sure." Lila grinned, folding her paper and putting it down. "Apology accepted, and I'd love a grande skim latte and a slice of low-fat cherry berry cake. So where'd you get that accent? Brooklyn?"

And now, at forty-two, Lila knows what it means to fall in love. She understands that it isn't fantasizing about men who are unavailable or unattainable, who will only ever look at her as a friend. It isn't about playing games—not returning his call, pretending to be busy when you are not—in a bid to try to keep him interested, or perhaps get him interested in the first place.

It is about peace. And joy. And happiness. It is about the way her heart starts to smile when she hears Ed's car pull up in the driveway. It is about feeling safe: sure that there are no games, that he will call when he says he will; knowing that when he gazes at her as they sit on the porch, he does not see her as she sees herself: a five-foot-one, dumpy, frizzy-haired Jewish girl with a long nose and double chin. He sees her as Audrey Hepburn.

And when she looks at him, this six-foot-three, sandy-haired, slightly shy, impeccably mannered, self-deprecating English journalist, she feels her heart quite literally burst open with love.It may have taken forty-two years, but it was worth the wait.

1 1/2 pounds haddock fillet, skinned1 1/2 pounds cod fillet, skinned1 1/2 medium-size onions3 eggs3 teaspoons saltPinch white pepper3 teaspoons sugar (I actually ended up adding much more—amguessing it was around 5–6, but you want it to taste slightly sweetand salty)1 tablespoon oil1/2 to 3/4 cup bread crumbs or matzo meal

Wash the haddock and cod and leave them to drain.

Peel and chop the onions into 1-inch chunks. Put into a food processor with the eggs, salt, pepper, sugar and oil. Process until the mixture is a smooth paste.

Pour into a large bowl, add the bread crumbs, stir and leave to swell.

Cut the fish into 1-inch chunks and put them into the food processor, half at a time. Process for 5 seconds until the fish is finely chopped.Add to the onion puree and blend by hand.

The mixture should be firm enough to shape into balls about the size of large meatballs. If it is not firm enough, add a little more of the bread crumbs; if it is too firm, add a little water.

Add enough oil (about 1 inch deep) to a frying pan and heat. Carefully lower the fish balls into the oil and fry, turning often over a moderate heat until they are an even brown. Remove when cooked and drain on a paper towel.

They can be served hot or left to cool.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Promises to Keep by Jane Green. Copyright © 2010 by Jane Green

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