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August Book Club Pick: Immediate Family

Ashley Nelson Levy

Photo courtesy of Eustacio Humphrey

Our August goop Book Club pick is a short and unsparing novel—a beautiful and provocative snapshot of a family and the complicated, imperfect love that binds one member of it to another.

Immediate Family opens the night before Danny’s wedding, when his sister, our narrator, is still trying to make sense of her speech and their story.

Start reading below and then pick up a copy of the book, join us to discuss, and save the date—September 1 at 5 p.m. PT—for a live chat with author Ashley Nelson Levy.

  1. Ashley Nelson Levy Immediate Family
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From Immediate Family

Last night I told you that today might be hard for us, and you said why, and I said because you’ll be married and all grown up, and you said I’m already grown up, and gave me a look that I’ve never seen on any face but yours, a kind of mischievous pride that wavers between the certainty of your own truths and the question of whether you’ll get away with them.

I was supposed to be with our mother, helping fuss over the bride, your soon-to-be wife, but instead I made my way over to your corner of the Mexican restaurant during the rehearsal dinner. Over your head was a red piñata and behind you was a large dark window that a few hours before had held the beach. You were surrounded by our father’s friends, holding a beer that was as much a display item as the piñata; what you probably wanted was just an ice-cold Coke. The other hand was in your pocket and you hunched a bit in your collared shirt, happy to be noticed, to be at the center somehow, but unsure how to handle your body as a result. A month ago you had called to ask if I would give you a speech. When I saw your name I wondered if you were calling to apologize, to set things right between us, but instead you cut right to the question. This is exactly the way you said it: Will you give me a speech.

I listened closely to the sound of your voice because I didn’t hear it as often these days, and rather than being upset like I’d thought, I marveled at the feeling it brought along, like no time had actually passed, like the bad things hadn’t happened or maybe they still had and regardless here we were, back to our old selves again. A speech? I said. Isn’t that a best-man thing? And you explained that your best man had backed out of the speech, maybe even backed out of the wedding, and you didn’t want to talk about it because it was a long story and please. You said please twice, please give the speech, you were in a bind. Otherwise would you really be asking your sister?

Did Mom put you up to this? I said, and you breathed a loud sigh into the phone, like those brief hits of Northern California wind that come from nowhere out of the sunshine and push all your hair into your face, unsettling an otherwise pleasant day. The sigh made you sound like you had lived a long hard life even though you were twenty-eight years young and seemed to lose accountability like a sock in the wash.

So it’s a best-sister speech then, I said.

I guess, you said, and before we hung up I reminded you that I hadn’t put you on the spot at my wedding, and you reminded me that I hadn’t asked.

•••

You used to write to me when we were young; I’d find messages tucked into my shoe or lunchbox. Back then all of your letters were a signature combination of great feeling and formality that I’ve come to miss very much.

To my sister: Your the best sister in the whole world. From, Danny Larsen.

Hello, I love you HEPPY BIRTHDAY Sincerely, Your Sibling

Even now, as adults, I still hear it in your voice mails. It’s me, Danny, you always begin, as if I won’t recognize the number, or the sound of your voice.

•••

Once, when you were a teenager, I wrote you that angry letter—do you remember this? I was home from college and handed it to you on Christmas Day, for effect. You tossed it on your dresser where it remained unopened the rest of the week and, feeling remorseful by then, I took it back and tore it all up.

The letter was about money, of course, as most of our fights would come to be. You’d taken cash from our mother’s underwear drawer a few days before and bought a silver bracelet for a blond girl at school. (How much I could say in the speech about your lifelong appreciation for blond, blue-eyed girls.) When our mother discovered the bracelet in your backpack, you’d pretended the gift was for her, the dangling hearts so clearly unintended for a mother. In reality you hadn’t gotten anything for our parents for Christmas yet, and I’d just put both our names on whatever I had. When you asked me what the letter said as I packed my car to head back to school, I said it explained what I thought of you when you did things like that.

Your body settled into this statement and from across the driveway I watched the words warp into some strange shape for the journey ahead, through your ears, your frown, your throat, your heart.

Well, you said after a moment, what do you think of me? You said it so earnestly that we both couldn’t help but smile. The question seemed absurd after so many years together, and I didn’t end up answering before I hugged you goodbye.

•••

You asked me what it’s like to be married, what we did at home if we had no TV.

Talk, I guess, I’d answered, and your eyes widened like it was the last line of a ghost story.

•••

I’ve thought about us often over the past few years as I’ve tried to become a mother. I’ve thought about simpler times: like when our parents went out and we’d have pizza delivered and you’d squeeze the blue cheese dressing on our plates for dipping like I’d taught you. We’d watch whatever you’d picked out at Blockbuster because in about thirty minutes you’d fall asleep. Sometimes you’d fall asleep still holding the pizza, your little legs crossed on the couch; I was probably about fourteen, which would make you eight. Your head would slide back, your mouth open, and then when I’d take your plate your body would slide over to me, slumped deadweight on my shoulder or lap. At this age our days no longer contained physical closeness; I no longer picked you up or swung you around or carried you on my shoulders as I once had. I was fourteen and bodies were becoming new territories to me, mostly my own, and I no longer touched people without awareness. But on nights like this I would let you take full comfort in sleep, I would cover you with a blanket and finish your pizza and occasionally if you stirred I’d rub your back. What surprises me after all these years is the fear I still feel in talking about your body, a body I’ve known and lived next to for so long, a body I’ve hugged and pushed and carried and cleaned.

Were there simpler times? Was anything ever simple for you?

•••

I tell myself I can’t worry about the speech. I can’t worry about the speech in a place where everyone will have drunk too much and you’ll be so busy being famous for a day that you’ll hardly remember the words at all. I tell myself that I’m a last-minute substitute, which should keep expectations moderate at best. I tell myself that the success of a marriage does not depend on the success of the speech, and if it did there would be many more luckless unions in this world.

Maybe I worry because I’ve watched our parents plan with your bride for the past six months, how money has again translated to care. Where have you been? Maybe I worry because I want to be good for the three of them, because I’ve refused to do anything just for your sake. I helped with the cake, the color scheme for the bride, the backstage drama of who would sit next to whom. I helped with the flowers and finding our father a tie, the silverware, the chicken or steak; I conceded to wear whatever the bride picked out. I tried to help with the absence of the bride’s parents, and how our parents shouldered the costs as a result, but too often I became angry and ungenerous and consequently no help at all. I was angry most of all because of course I still loved you, because everything was always done for that reason, despite what I told myself.

When you called a month ago about the speech, I realized I had never put words to that kind of love, or more specifically our kind, and how it had always felt a little different from everyone else’s. I didn’t know how to angle it into the light, to see through it, and instead I longed to just buy the cake and wear the dress and show up on time to explain that I love you. Because what did I know about which facts should be collected or shed in the story of a person? What right did I have to speak of your life?

Excerpted from Immediate Family by Ashley Nelson Levy. Copyright © 2021 by Ashley Nelson Levy. Reprinted with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.

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