Helen of Pasadena: A Novel

Helen of Pasadena: A Novel

by Lian Dolan

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The Los Angeles Times–bestselling “deliciously witty romp” about a wife and mother who loses it all only to find herself—and a whole lot more (Caroline Leavitt).
Helen Fairchild is living a privileged life in a Pasadena paradise. She’s married to a supposed pillar of the community. Her son is destined for the most prestigious high school. She volunteers on the most fashionable committees. Then along comes a Rose Parade float that kills her two-timing husband. In a flash, Helen is broke, booted out of her perfect home, and scrambling to salvage her enviable existence.
When archaeologist Patrick O’Neill offers her a job as his research assistant, it’s the lifeline Helen needs to reinvent herself. Suddenly, there are ancient mysteries to solve! Charity events to plan! A whole new world to explore! And if Helen doesn’t keep getting so distracted by her attractive boss, she might just be able to pull off this new life . . .
With its keen social observations, laugh-out-loud scenes and whip-smart dialogue, Helen of Pasadena spent more than a year on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. It is a wise story from an author “known for her humorous take on day-to-day issues facing women everywhere” (Oprah.com).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780984410248
Publisher: Prospect Park Books
Publication date: 11/01/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 306
Sales rank: 58,240
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Lian Dolan is the author of the Los Angeles Times bestselling novel Helen of Pasadena, and the co-author of The Satellite Sisters' Uncommon Senses. As part of the Satellite Sisters, Lian and her four sisters found national acclaim first on NPR, then on ABC Radio and XM Satellite Radio. She writes the popular blog Chaos Chronicles.

Read an Excerpt


Now I knew: I'd get a full church at my funeral. What a relief. It was the kind of thing I lost sleep over at night, being a planner and all. How many times had I sat at funerals, counting the hundreds (or, more depressingly, dozens) of mourners in the pews and thought, Who would show for me? Do people like me more or less than Jane's mother? Do I know a hundred people who would care? Two hundred? Who should cater? Now I had my answer: full church. Because if this many people could show up for my husband, my late husband, then I'd get almost this many, right?

One thing I'd never planned on was my husband dropping a bombshell on me and then dropping dead.

That would have been good to know.

At least Merritt would have been pleased at the standing-room-only situation in the church. Merritt was a big deal in his world, and to prove that, there were the partners from the firm and the fraternity brothers, town officials, boards of schools and organizations, a Pasadena who's who. Merritt's people, many of whom he had known his whole, short life.

But there were lots of my people, too: the thin, young mothers from Millington School turned out in their best black suits, Prada purses and Tory Burch flats despite the economic downturn; the formerly thin team moms from a decade on the sidelines of every sport from basketball to soccer; the lovely sustaining members of the Symphony Guild, whispering together in the back rows about losing such a big donor in such a tough time; the handsome dads from water polo contemplating if they'll be next. Half of them longing for a drink, the other half wondering who did the flowers. Their presence meant the world to me.

I was shocked by Merritt's death, maybe even in shock. But I was not devastated. I was relieved.

Very, very relieved.

"It's a tragedy when a husband is taken from his wife, when a father is taken from his son, when a son is taken from his mother, when a citizen is taken from his community, as Merritt Fairchild was taken from his lovely wife, Helen, his brave son, Aiden, his adoring mother, Mitsy, and his beloved hometown of Pasadena," sang out Monsignor Flaherty, working his Irish brogue and his gift of oration from the altar of St. Perpetua's, the most socially progressive and socially acceptable Catholic church in town.

Merritt had donated the altar. That's the kind of big, public gesture he liked to make. It was a simple, hand-carved mahogany altar influenced by the Mission at San Luis Obispo. Merritt had asked me to do the research and make the recommendation to the Church Restoration Committee. It was all a little contrived for me, but I'd risen to the occasion, loving history and architecture as I do. I still preferred to slip an anonymous $25 in the envelope at collection. Merritt never understood that. "Why give a little every week when we could just write one big check at the annual auction?" he'd say.

The Monsignor was a cult figure, inspiring the kind of following that most Catholic priests could only dream of these days. Maybe it's because he understood the power of myth, because he was certainly spinning one now.

"Merritt Fairchild will be missed," continued the Monsignor. "His sense of generosity, his sense of humor, his sense of dignity. This is a man who will be missed."

Thank you, Monsignor, on behalf of my son, who will miss him, even though he never knew him that well. Or maybe precisely because he did not know him well. I squeezed Aiden's hand. How did he get so big? Not 20th percentile anymore, so I guess all that worrying paid off. Thirteen years old and now he has no father. After two days of alternating between sobbing and silence, Aiden looked surprisingly strong, sitting there in the itchy Nordstrom suit that I barely remember buying, even though it was only two days ago. My God, what a two days it had been! I thought you were supposed to get five stages of grief; I got about 36 hours.

Hold it together and get through this performance.

"He was a man who honored his commitments deeply." Until he didn't. I used to be in love with my husband — really, really in love. When I first moved to Pasadena to become Mrs. Merritt Fairchild, I thought I was the luckiest girl in town. Marriage to Merritt meant stability and social status, something I never had growing up. Central Oregon wasn't too big on cotillions and country clubs. Who needed to socialize in formalized groups when there was plenty of pot and bootleg Grateful Dead tapes to share? My parents meant no harm, but, really, a life selling macramé and scented oils out of a VW camper van was not for me. I read everything I could get my hands on, from Walker Percy to The Preppy Handbook, made good grades and got out of Jerry Garciaville as soon as I could.

Enter Merritt Fairchild, a straight-arrow Berkeley law student in a blue blazer and khakis. I was an archaeology grad student working at the food co-op when Merritt strolled down my aisle, solid, graceful and slightly sweaty after a game of Ultimate Frisbee. Merritt feigned interest in the eternal question: quinoa vs. bulgur. After he asked me out, I actually looked over my shoulder to see if there was a sorority girl behind me. I loved it when he introduced me to his law school buddies as his "yurt-raised hippie chick" or his "genius Greek-speaking goddess." Like he appreciated my past but believed in a future free of weekend craft fairs. When he asked me to marry him six months later, despite his mother's objections to my unorthodox upbringing and my parents' objection to his conventional upbringing, Merritt was my hero.

I sailed through the early years, thinking how very clever I was to have found Merritt and given him a healthy, strapping baby boy. Merritt was a solid citizen in the solid, suburban town of Pasadena, home of the Rose Parade, the Norton Simon Museum, Caltech, Greene and Greene homes and old money. Old, old money. The kind of credentials that could only be sexy if you grew up in a town like Sisters, Oregon, which had more bead stores than banks and featured "art" galleries full of tree trunks shaped into beavers by chain saws.

Merritt was busy building up a law firm and then making the switch into capital investments; I was busy building friendships and navigating the social waters with complete naiveté. I happily traded in my grad-student status for membership in the young mothers' club of Pasadena. I think it was the car. Not admirable, but I loved that Volvo. It was new and shiny and not at all like the rusty relics I'd seen at the Oregon textile symposiums of my youth. That car was the most beautiful shade of blue. Hello, keyless remote entry. Goodbye, archetypes of the feminine in classical mythology.

I'll just take a few years off, I thought once I was pregnant. I'm only 26, I'll finish that thesis someday. But for now I had money to raise for the new children's museum. Merritt used to laugh, amazed that I was asked to be on the board at Kidseum with my natural-fiber past and subscription to Biblical Archaeology magazine. He'd tease me in front of his clients, but all in good fun, I'd thought. But in the last few years, the teasing had stopped being funny. It had started to feel real.

Still, that was no reason to feel relief at his death.

"Merritt Fairchild was the kind of man who inspired others to be their best, raise their game, achieve more. He brought out the best in those around him."

Or their insecurities. Should I have I paid more attention to social obligations? Or my grooming? Or any of the other minutiae that mattered to Merritt? I'll never know now.

"It is fitting that a man who gave so much to his community should die in service to the organization that he loved so much." Monsignor let it go at that, but I thought I heard snickers. A manicured hand squeezed my shoulder warmly, then my friend Candy McKenna, scented by Michael Kors and coiffed by Stephen of Stephen Stephens Salon, whispered in my ear, "Jackie Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy." My Candy-recommended mantra for the next few days. Be the stoic widow, Candy directed. I conceded to her in matters like this.

Candy had a profound sense of the appropriate, being a former Rose Queen, the pinnacle of teenage social success in Pasadena. Out of thousands, literally thousands, of fresh-faced candidates, Candy was chosen to reign. Rising to the top of the Rose Court through excessive grooming, academic achievement and community service is usually a prelude to a charmed life in TV news or charitable works. Candy had been a spectacular Rose Queen, squeezing every ounce of extra camera time and connections out of her moment in the sun.

Then came the fall.

She called it "an unfortunate case of misjudgment," her Vanessa Williams incident in the late '80s. Candy had taken her 1987 reign as Rose Queen right to the Ivy League, only to discover that no one at Brown cared that she'd worn a diamond crown and waved to millions on New Year's morning. Being Pasadena's Rose Queen meant nothing to the jaded East Coast undergrads of Providence, Rhode Island, especially to her roommate, a women's studies major with a minor in comparative feminist lit. By her sophomore year, long after her official reign ended, Candy was desperate to reclaim her status. So she posed for Playboy's Women of the Ivy Leagues issue. Back then, a naked photo was shocking, not like today, where every beauty queen has some X-rated video posted on the Internet. Once the Tournament of Roses caught wind of her, umm, exposure, she was shunned. Not officially tossed out of the Tournament family, but not welcomed back for reunions either. Candy reeled, transferred back to UCLA to plead her case and wound up the black sheep of the Rose Queens.

Now, twice divorced with two kids, the same killer body she had in high school and a midcentury modern house on Linda Vista, she made her living as a digital media maven, running the hugely popular gossip and entertainment site candysdish.com. She covered events and news stories from all over Los Angeles, including Hollywood. But she paid the rent with her local stories. Candy spilled about everything that mattered to Pasadenans, from proper black tie events to preschool blackballing. She was respected, fawned over and feared. Almost an insider, but not quite.

Candy, true to her Rose Court training, had rushed to my side when she heard the news about Merritt. God, everyone in town had heard the news before the Rose Parade was even over. How could you not read the headlines? Rose Parade Volunteer Killed by Float. And underneath, the details unfolded: Police Investigate Collision of Scooter and Giant Panda Float Sponsored by the Chinese Tourism Board.

In the 112-year history of the parade, no Tournament of Roses volunteer, or White Suiter, as they are known to locals because of the white suits and red ties they wear on New Year's Day, had ever been killed during the actual parade. The White Suiters were CEOs and lawyers and bankers with deep social connections and a sense of civic duty, hand-chosen to oversee the parade, the football game and the myriad events associated with the Tournament of Roses. They knew how to handle rain, cold, flower shortages, war protesters, crowds of millions — but a Death by Float? New territory for these pillars of society.

"Making Lasting Memories" was this year's Rose Parade theme, and Merritt certainly did, as he plowed his official Honda scooter into the oncoming panda. He was texting at the time, but only I knew that.

And only I knew to whom.

* * *

My feet were starting to swell. They were jammed into the Faragamo boots with heels that Tina Chau-Swenson said would elongate my calves. Tina, Candy and I met in a mothers' group when our kids were infants; now we were the best of friends. Once we figured out that all the third-generation Pasadena mothers with their six-week-old infants already on the waitlist at St. Simon's Preschool were not going to talk to us because, well, because Candy was disgraced, Tina was back in her skinny jeans and I was not from there, we bonded.

If Candy represented Pasadena's past, Tina Chau-Swenson embodied its future. New everything: money, style, citizenship. Tina was first generation, the daughter of wealthy Hong Kong merchants who saw the writing on the wall and high-tailed it to California with their newborn daughter and pillowcases full of cash before the Chinese came to get their island back from the British. Tina did what she was told: She was the first Chinese-American valedictorian at the exclusive Martindale School for Girls; she earned entrance to Yale and Yale Law School; she received an offer to practice will and trust litigation at Ye Olde Prestigious Law Firm in Los Angeles. She was right on track for a life- and fortune-affirming wedding to an old family friend with ties to Hong Kong when she met Anders Swenson at the law firm's summer associates' picnic. Tall, blond and Minnesotan, he was the next frontier for Tina's assimilation. It was love at first sight.

Mr. and Mrs. Chau were less than pleased, but they only talked about Anders behind his back in Cantonese. At least he made partner. That appeased the Chaus a bit.

Tina and Anders had three lovely daughters, Lilly, Rosie and Heather, to prove just how right they were for each other. "And multiracial is so trendy now," Tina cooed the other day. "It's hip to have halfsies!" That was Tina in a nutshell: all style, some substance, no bull.

Tina Chau-Swenson was in charge of my funeral outfit, and she'd made me promise not to wear Naturalizers, my preferred footwear. "So unflattering, don't do it," Tina had warned. "People will notice. You know those Cloverfield moms."

Yes, the Cloverfield moms. Rival school, rival committees. I'd never be a woman who cared about shoes, no matter how many years I spent in Pasadena, but Tina was right. Those Cloverfield mothers would notice every buckle. Why give them material for the next mothers' coffee? So I'd zipped my short calves into the boots, wrapped my soft midsection in several layers of binding underwear and wedged my encased body into the Escada suit Tina bought at a downtown discount boutique. (You are a 10 if you believe you are a 10!) Then I fastened the triple strand of pearls my mother-in-law had given me on my wedding day and accepted the big Chanel sunglasses as loaners from Candy. On my very best day I looked like Kate Winslet on her very worst.

Now, two hours after the service, here in the green and chintz foyer of the venerable Pasadena Town Club, I just wanted to stop shaking hands and nodding my head, accepting condolences and "thoughts and prayers." No more thoughts and prayers, I wanted to scream. Just get me out of these boots!

It was the suddenness of Merritt's death that got most of them. I could sense what everyone was thinking: One day you could be president-in-waiting to run the Tournament of Roses, and the next, panda fodder. That was too much for people who had been living in the same town since birth.

Aiden had already asked to step out of the receiving line to go "hang with my friends." Dozens of Millington classmates had come with their parents and were treating the funeral reception like a school dance, laughing, flirting, exchanging cell phone numbers. Adolescent narcissism can be a gift at a time like this. Go, I said, I'll handle this. And I could.

My own family — my out-of-place parents and my handsome little brother, Des — stood in the corner, munching on chicken salad tea sandwiches (do they know there's meat in there?) and making small talk with one another. Classic Castor family behavior when they come to visit. My parents, now in their late 60s, had repositioned themselves as fiber artists and gallery owners in the growing vacation-home market of central Oregon, which had completely transformed from my youth. High-end restaurants, bookstores and antiques shops had replaced the empty store-fronts. The area was now rich with Nike, Microsoft and California millionaires looking to decorate their large log homes with the giant pieces of tufted wool art that my father churned out. But my parents had not abandoned all their hippie ways. Hence the formal Birkenstocks and the clear violation of the club's shirt-and-tie requirement for men; it was their way of sticking it to The Man. Even on the happiest of occasions, a trip to Pasadena was like a foreign exchange program for them.

My mother, Nell, had been lovely over the last 24 hours. All those soul-searching workshops in the '70s made her particularly good at tragedy in later life. And the twelve-step program for marijuana addiction had given her clear eyes and a sense of purpose. She took a quiet and pragmatic approach to adversity: soup, tea, Joni Mitchell.


Excerpted from "Helen of Pasadena"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Lian Dolan.
Excerpted by permission of Prospect Park Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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