It Might Have Been What He Said: A Novel

It Might Have Been What He Said: A Novel

by Eden Collinsworth

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Isabel was able to remember the precise moment she tried killing her husband. Strangely enough, she couldn't recollect why. A page-turning tale of tangled love, which makes for perfect summer reading. Thus begins the powerful story of Isabel, who, at the age of 28, has been granted early success as the head of a publishing house. . . a woman of taste and discernment, endowed with enviable wit and a razor-sharp mind. Yet, as the novel opens, we know that Isabel is in great trouble and has possibly lost her mind. Elegantly yet sparely written, hers is a tale of seduction, vertiginous love, and colossal betrayal. When Isabel meets James-a handsome, aristocratic, highly talented writer known in equal parts for his entitlement, drinking, and gift for charming women-she falls head over heels for him, despite all her friends' dire warnings. Breaking his past pattern, however, James also falls for Isabel, and they decide to marry. However improbable a couple, they confound their family and friends, becoming an ideal match, as much in love with each other as they are devoted to their son. The question is: What happens to drive Isabel to her act of insanity?

Skyhorse Publishing, as well as our Arcade, Yucca, and Good Books imprints, are proud to publish a broad range of books for readers interested in fiction—novels, novellas, political and medical thrillers, comedy, satire, historical fiction, romance, erotic and love stories, mystery, classic literature, folklore and mythology, literary classics including Shakespeare, Dumas, Wilde, Cather, and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller or a national bestseller, we are committed to books on subjects that are sometimes overlooked and to authors whose work might not otherwise find a home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628722024
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 10/20/2011
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 999
File size: 679 KB

Read an Excerpt


Isabel could remember the precise moment she tried killing her husband. Strangely enough, she couldn't recall why.

"How do you think of yourself?" asked the psychiatrist.

Without hesitating Isabel answered, "In three parts."

"And they are ...?"

"Mind; heart; sex," said Isabel.

"Is that the order of their importance?"

"Not necessarily ..."

"So there isn't one that's more important than the other two?"

Isabel was becoming irritated by the psychiatrist and his line of questioning.

"No," she replied. "But I sometimes consider my heart and sex to be instigators. When that happens, I depend on my intelligence to keep everything in perspective."

"It seems to me that you've suggested your mind is the most important part of you," proposed the psychiatrist.

"I wasn't 'suggesting' anything." Isabel's impatience was edging its way toward contempt. "What I said was clear. Intelligence saves me by stepping in, sometimes at the last moment, with the 'yes, but ...'"

"Evidently not this time," said the doctor.

Isabel's haughtiness was the thin ice covering bottomless self-doubt.

She appeared in control ... she was anything but. She didn't want to talk about the desperate state she was in; circumstances left her no choice. Isabel distrusted psychiatrists. She stared unflinchingly at this one and — despite his years of professional training — made him feel uncomfortable. The doctor hoped it appeared otherwise. He continued the interview. "Why? Why murder when there were other choices?"

"I don't remember," was her answer.

It was the simple and complicated truth.

Isabel's failure to recall what prompted her to attempt murder was ironic — it was supremely ironic because, in addition to a rational disposition, Isabel had a photographic memory. Like a camera, her eye captured images of what she had seen; like a photo album, her mind enabled her to recollect her past in exact detail.

"Where was your ability to reason, then, Isabel, when you lost yourself in such an irrational act?" asked the psychiatrist.

"I don't know," said Isabel.

"All right ... let's concentrate on now. Where's your memory now, when it's crucial to recall the circumstances?"

"I don't know," she repeated.

Isabel was just as confounded by her dire situation as the psychiatrist. Neither understood they were chasing false leads. Isabel's motive for murder wouldn't be pieced together in images. It would be found at the end of a trail of words.

The psychiatrist wasn't entirely wrong. Isabel did in fact place trust in the one part of herself that was her analytic intelligence. She had always imagined it living in a separate place, away from overreaching sentiments and appetites.

"Describe how it works," said the doctor.


"Your memory. Explain, step by step, how you retain everything you read or see. Let's use the example of a document. If I ask you about a certain clause in a document, what happens?"

"The images appear in sequence," explained Isabel, "from general to specific. First comes the designated page; and then the paragraph; then the specific clause."

Isabel's mental route was circuitous but effective: as long as she processed memory by what she had seen, she could remember anything. What Isabel omitted telling the psychiatrist was far more revealing: she dreamed with the same visual clarity.

The night before her wedding, Isabel had a dream that lasted the brief time it took to convey a simple scene: her future husband, in the back seat of a limousine, driven away as she was left standing on the curb of an unknown street. It was a short dream, taking only a few conscious seconds, but its details refracted like distinctly colored shards of glass. What was odd was its vantage point, as though whatever happened was being witnessed from above. She woke with such foreboding, she was sure the dream would become real. Eventually it did.

Fifteen years later, just as it was in the dream, her husband left her standing on the curb of a street as he was driven away. Isabel was unable to see through the limousine's tinted windows and wondered whether he was looking straight at her, or if he had fixed his eyes ahead. The car pulled away, exactly as it had in the dream. The street on which she was left, unrecognizable at the time of the premonition, was the street in front of their New York apartment where — two floors above — their son was watching from the window.

It was starkly final. Her husband had left her. Isabel denied it, but their twelve-year-old son knew. He saw it from the window in his room. Isabel witnessed exactly what her son had, but her entire being rejected the fact of it. Weeks passed. There was no alternative but to accept reality. By then, Isabel no longer consisted of three equal parts. Immeasurable despair had reduced her to only one — a disabled heart.

Not satisfied with consuming her by grief from within, her unmoored heart became dead matter pressing down on her chest from the outside. Whatever was left of Isabel was struggling to escape from beneath its crushing weight.

Forced to choose between what she felt and what she knew, Isabel decided her ability to reason was her sole source of rescue. In the only way she understood to find her bearings, Isabel reconstructed their relationship in sequence, from background to foreground: She met James. She loved James. She married James. They had a child together. They made a life together. What had happened next? What went so abruptly wrong that she would try to kill him? Not infidelity. They were then, as they had always been, the most intimate lovers. She loved him unquestionably at the time she tried killing him. It wasn't her formidable mind that drove her to it — she was known for her intelligent calm. No one part of her seemed responsible.

Isabel was sure that if she could accurately remember what happened in that murderous moment, it would explain what preceded and followed. Much like the page in which the contractual clause had been embedded, her mind's eye required a visual landscape that would trigger the process of remembering. But something was wrong. Her brain — utterly dependable until now — offered Isabel nothing. There was no delineated shape of what had happened ... only a blur. There was no vivid color to her memory ... only white rage. Isabel had seen what she had seen at the time it happened — she was sure of that. Pictures had been snapped, but for some unknown reason her brain refused to develop them.

After great effort, Isabel brought forth one clear image. It was James's expression of stunned confusion the moment he felt her first blow. She started with his expression of disbelief and worked backward to remember the rest.


Isabel Simpson had always known who she was ... and that who she was had been due, in large part, to her upbringing.

As children, Isabel and her brother, Ian, rarely saw their parents, separately or together. Semi-strangers supervised their entire childhood.

These facts had laid the foundation for a gothic plot waiting to be parodied. But there were two narrative devices in particular Isabel, the editor, would have flagged as literary clichés worthy enough to be considered camp. One was her childhood home: a lugubrious mansion overlooking Lake Michigan. It had been built at the turn of the century with a fortune made in meatpacking, and bought by Isabel's father with his own fortune from the steel industry. The other was Vera: a forbiddingly Teutonic nanny assigned to Isabel and her brother.

Uniformed from head to toe in stiff whites, Vera was violently impatient with life's small frustrations. She loathed children, whom she identified as untidy and disruptive. That the Simpsons were able to ignore Vera's disturbing personality traits in hiring her underscored their profound remove from parenthood.

The limited discourse Vera had with her charges hinged on one coarse command, "Es ist verboten." Acting instinctively on her peasant wits, Vera knew the boy could be easily handled: he was trusting of adults. But the silent girl who stared at her without blinking was an entirely different matter. Vera recognized Isabel as trouble.

Given the opportunity, Dr. Lewis would no doubt pontificate that most children have a defining experience — one that shapes and predetermines a perception of their world. Isabel's moment occurred while she was waiting to have her mouth washed out by Vera. Why her mouth was washed out with soap would never be clear to Isabel — that day or any other. But she would always be able to remember the quick yank of her arm and flash of steps as she was dragged down to the basement. The faint smell of linseed oil that had recently polished a wooden step stool needed to reach the laundry sink. The soft texture of a bath towel worn like an enormous bib to protect her hand-embroidered smock dress from the messiness of what was to come.

If ever there was a test of Isabel's resolve, it happened standing on that stool in the semi-dark, waiting for Vera to return from the gardener's pantry with a bar of pumice soap. Sentenced to punishment for an unexplained infraction, Isabel gazed down to the bottom of the sink and realized she was at the mercy of adults who, despite their respectable appearances, were arbitrarily dangerous.

Ian, two years older than Isabel, was a nervous child who slept under his bed rather than in it. Nighttime was a drain trap for his daytime anxieties, and the floor seemed more solid ground than the mattress. One less bed to make was reason enough for the maid to keep the boy's abnormal sleeping habits to herself.

It happened that Ian was having problems of his own the day Isabel had her mouth washed out. The cook had casually mentioned that he and his sister were joining their parents for dinner. Panicked by the unexpected news, Ian looked everywhere in the large house for Isabel before expanding his search to the gardens.

"Isabel ... where are you?" he called out, doing his best to hold back tears.

Isabel was perched on a black iron bench, sipping lemonade to rid the residual soap taste from her mouth. Distance prevented her from hearing all his words, but the pitched timbre of Ian's voice announced his upset.

"I'm here, Ian," Isabel called back before sighting him. Having just come around the tall hedges, he was now running down the garden's long vista toward her.

Arriving out of breath, scratched by a shortcut through the rosebushes, determined not to let his younger sister see him cry, Ian stood in front of Isabel and balefully repeated one question —

"Where will I put my hand?"

It sounded like a personalized version of the riddle of the Sphinx, but Ian's question was rooted in a real issue that caused him untold grief. Of all the people in Ian's life, only Isabel understood his dilemma. He had been born left-handed. ...

Worse yet, Ian was forced to become right-handed. The decision to convert had to do with Vera's misguided perspective, which, unfortunately for Ian, hadn't progressed beyond medieval superstition that the left hand was an instrument of the devil.

Vera was brutishly determined to correct what she was sure was an onerous situation. Ian's confused and lank right hand was required to open and close scissors for hours at a time, so that its strength might improve. It filled practice notebooks with hopelessly illegible handwriting. Everything was done to shore up the use of his right hand and simultaneously discourage his left each time it instinctively tried to assist. After months of retraining, Ian managed to will his brain and hands to work in artificial tandem. But just barely. Like a disgraced army general, his strong left hand was forced to abdicate command to the subordinate right hand. And his right hand, like a fatigued infantryman, was pushed into battle after exhausting battle without any ability to lead.

The dreaded news of dinner that night presented yet another level of hand doubt for Ian. Vera insisted Ian's left hand was to hold his plate; but when eating with his parents, he had been castigated for not keeping it face up on his napkined lap. To make matters even more complicated, his mother had recently changed the rules by instructing the children to eat in the European manner, wherein both hands work simultaneously.

"Izzie, Vera has never been invited to eat with Mother and Father at the dining room table," Ian correctly pointed out at one time. "I'm sure it's because she hasn't gotten her hands right yet," he reasoned.

Unlike her brother, Isabel understood why her parents would never invite Vera to dine with them. It was because Vera's place was not at their table. But there was a corresponding factor to be weighed: Isabel recognized long ago that her mother had subcontracted the children to the staff. It would be naive to think of Vera in a marginalized position, regardless of where she ate her meals.

"What if there was no one method?" suggested Isabel. What if they simply adjusted to the variables imposed by each of the three different grown-ups making the rules?

"What do you mean?" blurted Ian with a look divided equally between consternation and fear.

"Let's try something," said Isabel. "Tonight we eat with Mother and Father, so tonight we'll put our hands in our laps." She reassured her brother, "Just watch me when you get confused."

Ian listened intently to Isabel and tried to follow what she was saying.

"Tomorrow morning, when we have breakfast with Vera, hold your plate with the hand that's in your lap tonight," instructed Isabel. "Before we go to bed, I'll put a dot on the back of your lap hand. All you'll need to do if you forget which hand is which is to look for the dot."

Ian carefully considered his sister's proposal. It didn't involve outright defiance, which was good because defiance was simply not in his nature. But it seemed slightly disingenuous; the idea of cribbing from a pen mark on his hand reminded him of cheating. Ian couldn't absorb the moral consequences right then, but decided to agree to Isabel's scheme on blind faith. He wanted a way out, and Isabel seemed to have a map. If he couldn't follow it, he would follow her.

Ian was put to the test that night and at breakfast the following morning. Isabel's strategy spared him punishment both times. It was then that Ian placed his trust entirely in his sister's ability to navigate the swirling eddies of their childhood; and Isabel made a conscious decision to subjugate her emotions to the far more serious matter of prevailing.


Isabel's father, Rufus Simpson, was like a weather condition with its own physical properties.

Single-minded and ambitious, Mr. Simpson never had the slightest doubt about his place in the scheme of things. The nature and degree of his success instilled respect in men and adoration among women.

Mr. Simpson's corporation produced steel. His business travel resulted in long absences from the family. But even when he was at home, Rufus communicated with his two children by routing articles from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Each clipping was attached to a cover note typed by Miss Drake, his secretary of many years:

Dear Ian (or Isabel): I thought this would be of interest ... Father Enclosure(s)

Most of the world's steel came from integrated mills utilizing massive blast furnaces until Rufus recognized an opportunity in producing molten steel cost-effectively. He designed and built small- cylindered electric arc furnaces. They became known as mini-mills. That allowed Rufus to manufacture concrete-reinforcing bars that became known as rebars. That provided Rufus a yet-to-be-tapped tier of the steel market ... which generated a profit margin of 7 percent for a new product category ... which ate into 4 percent of the industry's tonnage.

Rufus Simpson believed life was a race to be won, and he took personally anything impeding his progress. It did not prevent Mr. Simpson from being a courtly man. As a small child, Isabel noticed he would remove his hat in the elevator even if she were the only other passenger. At the same early age, Isabel knew her father to be as hard and cold as the steel that had built his fortune.

When — during a contentious labor strike — an anonymously menacing phone call was made to the Simpson home, Rufus invited the union leader for lunch at the Chicago Club. There was no mention of the unfortunate incident during the course of their meal. Afterward, Rufus led his guest from the club's dining room to its hushed library. Gesturing him to one of the French windows overlooking Wabash Avenue, Rufus asked nonchalantly, "Do you see that man — there — on the corner?"


Excerpted from "It Might Have Been What He Said"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Eden Collinsworth.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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