7/24/95, Beach Book of the Week
Reviewed by Pam Lambert
Fired cookbook editor Judy Mills has a lot to fall back on — great legs, a handsome husband who makes big bucks as a commodities trader, a restored Connecticut colonial and membership in The Oaks, the prestigious country club where she hopes to network her way into a new job. But when Judy’s best prospect, feminist lawyer Claire Cox, is found bludgeoned to death in a sand trap, she finds herself taking on another assignment — working with sexy Det. Tom Cunningham as the police try to penetrate The Oaks’ wall of silence, and the mystery.
As sparks and wisecracks fly between the two, readers will recognize the suburban sleuth turf staked out by Susan Isaacs. But this breezy second novel shows that Heller, a Connecticut resident and former publishing executive, is also intimate with the territory. Knowing and naughty, her mystery is engaging enough to divert-but not enough that you forget to reapply the sunscreen.
Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
Reviewed by Melissa Ruggieri
It’s a sophisticated hub fueled by snob appeal — the type of place where a phony smile and a handshake is equated with friendship. Women aren’t permitted to eat in the men’s dining room and members have names such as Duncan Tewksbury and Weezie Evans.
It’s exactly the scene that a blunt, Jewish girl from New York would despise – and Judy Price does.
If only she hadn’t lost her eight-year position as cookbook editor at Charlton House, Judy never would have stepped on the manicured green lawn at The Oaks club. But now that her shrewish associate publisher has pink-slipped Judy, her husband finds it the opportune time for her to start networking with other wives at the club.
Not only does Judy, acerbic, but incredibly grounded, loathe the catty cliques that permeate the club crowd, but athletics aren’t her thing, either. She violates the dress code by showing up for a tennis match in the wrong color outfit and has hysterically bad luck with her tennis game.
Her milquetoast husband, Hunt, however, is a proverbial schmooze golfer – abandoning his wife almost nightly for a round with the boys from his investment firm.
Soon, poor Judy finds herself near breakdown, wishing she could drown herself in a bowl of tiramisu. She is jobless (albeit still financially comfortable), Hunt is more concerned about the 18th hole than being intimate with her, and her bratty stepdaughter, Kimberly, grows more insufferable with each weekend visit.
Enter Claire Cox, a famous feminist socialite who breaks the stuffy rule at The Oaks that prohibits admittance of single females. Claire’s commitment to changing the archaic bylaws spurs an uproar among the good-ol’-boys network, but she plows ahead anyway.
When Judy learns of Claire’s affinity for cooking, she presents Claire with the idea of writing a celebrity cookbook, which Judy could edit, putting an end to her job woes.
But no sooner does Judy start mapping out the first draft than Claire is found dead in a sandtrap on the club’s golf course.
Seem far-fetched? Maybe, but that’s the point. Author Jane Heller (who resides in Stuart), purposely exaggerates the stereotypical features of the clubgoers. Her first book was Cha Cha Cha.
Judy’s causticness and self-deprecation is the only reality in the club’s world of shallow clods, and Heller delightfully skewers their narrowminded observations. As a light read, The Club, Heller’s second novel, doesn’t have to work too hard to hold your interest. But don’t read it too quickly, or you might miss some of her sly social commentary.
7/30/95, Reviewed by Margaria Fichtner
Judy Mills, the narrator of Jane Heller’s sly, funny little tale of life, sex and murder among country-club snobs, is not having a good day.
At 39 and what ought to be the pinnacle of her career as a scrappy cookbook editor (who else would have thought up a garlic-is-good-for-you number titled So Your Breath Smells – You’ll Live Longer!), Judy has been summoned into the office of her nightmare of a boss and fired. The publishing house is being restructured; food is not part of its new “mix.” Eyes flooding, Judy storms back to her office to pace “back and forth. Since my office was the size of a hamster’s cage, my pacing took the form of laps and, before long, I was dizzy.”
Pretty soon, you will be dizzy, too. Heller, a part-time South Floridian, whips a frothy summer read around Judy; her dull indifferent commodities-broker husband, Hunt Price; and her step-daughter from hell, Kimberley.
When Judy’s job search yields zilch (even she admits it was stupid to show up for an interview at Save the Manatee Press in a sheared beaver coat), Hunt urges his wife to become active in The Oaks, the prestigious but shabby country club where he spends virtually all his free time perfecting his golf swing and trawling for new clients. “You’re the one without a job, babe,” he says. “Maybe you should get over there and find one.”
Fighting an urge to drown herself in a bowl of tiramisu (“I wondered if Jack Kevorkian had thought of it”), Judy finally perks up enough to give The Oaks a try, but she remains unimpressed until a new member shows up: Claire Cox, a Gloria Steinem-like superfeminist lawyer who sets out to sweep the club of its various cobwebby biases and likes Judy’s suggestion that they collaborate on a new cookbook, Smart Women, Scrumptious Courses.
But then Claire is found bludgeoned to death in a sand trap, and a sad-eyed detective enlists Judy’s help in solving her murder. Jealousy, rubbery food, financial chicanery, al fresco extramarital gymnastics and the murky secrets of privileged WASPs all keep things zooming, and Heller’s sometimes whiplash dialogue and gentle touch with loopy lives prove deft and diverting.
Heller entered Susan Isaacs’s suburbia in her lively first novel, Cha Cha Cha. She’s there again, taking well-aimed shots at affluent yuppiedom in this witty, well-plotted second effort. Judy Mills, Jewish princess and New York cookbook editor, is fired after her publishing house is acquired by another; at the same time, her aptly named WASP commodities-trader husband, Hunt Price, has become obsessed with golf and networking at The Oaks, an old-line Connecticut country club. While attempting to perk up her marriage and deal with her manipulative stepdaughter, Judy herself tries networking at The Oaks. There, she meets dynamic feminist Claire Cox, the club’s first single woman member. When Claire is found dead in a sand trap, Judy is hired by the local police to help probe the club’s membership. Game, acutely self-aware and likable, Judy offers sharp insights into country-club vanities, her relationship with a hunky detective and her battles with the severely jealous Hunt (who eventually joins in as her sidekick). Heller delivers perfect reading for the beach-or pool-side at the club.
Kensington published the hardcover edition of my second novel, The Club, in the summer of 1995, with the paperback following a year later. The idea for the book was sparked by a front-page article in The New York Times having to do with country clubs. More specifically, the article stated that country clubs were the last bastion of male dominance and that women were, in fact, discriminated against. Women weren’t permitted full membership, for example, nor could they play golf on Saturday or Sunday mornings – prime time for men. And – horror of all horrors – women couldn’t eat in the so-called Men’s Grill, let alone set foot in the place.
I thought, what would happen if a feminist became a member of such a club and tried to make the rules more equitable?
She’d get murdered, I decided. Right smack on the golf course!
So The Club became my second comic mystery-romance. The hero and heroine are a married couple who belong to The Oaks, a stuffy country club in a fictional Connecticut town. When a feminist does get into the club and forces people to examine their values, she’s soon found dead in the sand trap – bludgeoned with the golf pro’s pitching wedge. Was it one of the members who murdered her? Our hero and heroine help the police find the answer, and in doing so rejuvenate their stale marriage.
The Club was chosen by People magazine as a “Beach Book of the Week,” which isn’t exactly like winning the Pulitzer Prize but is a nice pat on the back just the same.
My husband took this photo of me for the book jacket of The Club. The sun was just setting as he posed me amid the swaying palms at the riverfront Florida house we were renting. We had just moved south from Connecticut, but by the time The Club was published we were fully acclimated to our new home state.
Read the First Chapter
Is there a more dreaded sentence in the English language? Sure, “You’ve got six weeks to live” is right up there on the All-Time Dreaded Sentences List. So is “I’m leaving you for somebody else.” But “You’re fired” really, really hurts if (a) you’re a loyal and long time employee of the company; (b) you’re good at your job; and (c) you make a point of never letting your boss know how profoundly incompetent you think she is.
To be fair, my incompetent boss, Leeza Grummond, the vice president and associate publisher of Charlton House, didn’t exactly say “You’re fired.” She opted for the cozier “We’re going to have to let you go.
Let me go, my ass. Twenty-six-year-old Leeza was canning thirty-nine-year-old me. I was in shock. Total shock. I was in such shock that my mouth dropped open and stayed that way for several seconds, and I began to drool all over my robin’s egg blue, just-back-from-the-dry-cleaner, Anne Klein II silk blouse.
I must be dreaming, I thought, aware of the cliche but in too much pain to come up with a fresher explanation. Yes, that was it. I was dreaming that Leeza Grummond, my nightmare-of-a-boss, was firing me.
“Last year’s merger with Pennington Press has necessitated a reevaluating and refocusing of our publishing program,” Leeza explained as I continued to stare at her in disbelief. “We’ve decided to return to Charlton House’s roots, to revitalize the company’s literary legacy.”
What would you know about the company’s literary legacy, I wanted to say to Leeza, who graduated at the top of her class at Harvard Business School but hadn’t read a novel since high school. The little shit talked incessantly of focus groups and direct respondents and profit and loss statements but was speechless on the subject of literature. Sure, she had expertise in the selling of toothpaste. But she knew as much about the book business as my mother, whose idea of “business” was what you did in the bathroom, not the boardroom.
“Charlton House published Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald,” she was saying, as if I didn’t know. “But somewhere along the way we lost our reputation as a quality publisher.”
Yeah, bitch. When you showed up, fresh from Procter & Gamble in your androgynous suit and androgynous hair, and made us the joke of the industry.
“We’ve decided that 1995 will mark our renewed commitment to our heritage,” she droned on. “The Pennington Press division of our company will publish the more commercial, mass market titles, while the Charlton House imprint will be devoted to books with literary appeal, books that will endure.” She paused, letting her words hang in the air like bad perfume. “Which brings me to you, Judy.” She cleared her throat. “I regret to say that cookbooks won’t be part of this new publishing mix. You’ve been a fine editor, but we just won’t be needing a cookbook editor any longer.”
“But I’ve been here eight years,” I managed to say. “And I’ve made money for this company. A lot of money.”
In the past couple of years alone, I’d edited half a dozen bestselling cookbooks. No, I wasn’t Julia Child’s editor or Martha Stewart’s editor or even The Frugal Gourmet’s editor. I was a scrappy sort of editor who found cookbooks where others wouldn’t think to look. For example, when George Bush let it be known that he hated broccoli, I moved quickly to publish The I Hate Broccoli Cookbook, which hit The New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for two months. And when USA Today ran a front-page story on the health benefits of garlic, who do you think was the genius who signed up So Your Breath Smells — You’ll Live Longer! And then, of course, there was my real blockbuster, Valerio’s Kitchen. It was I who saw the “singing restaurateur” on “Regis and Kathie Lee” and contacted him about doing a cookbook for Charlton House. The book sold a hundred thousand copies in hardcover and Valerio became a household name. He was so grateful to me for discovering him that he insisted he was in love with me. “You’re not in love with me,” I told him. “You just think you’re in love with me, the way patients think they’re in love with their doctors.” Undaunted, Valerio held fast to his love and continued to propose marriage to me, even though I was married to someone else.
“Yes, Judy, you have made money for Charlton House,” Leeza acknowledged. “You’ve been a very valuable member of our team.”
Our team. The woman ran the company like a dictator of a third world country.
“You’ve been so valuable to us,” she said, “that we’re giving you three months’ severance.”
“Three months’ severance?” Was she kidding? I was worth much more than that.
“Yes, three months,” she said as she straightened her bow tie and flicked a speck of lint off her skirt. “In exchange, we’d like you to stay for a couple of weeks. To make the transition easier.”
“Easier for whom?” I said, trying not to sound shrill. “For you? For the person who’ll be taking over my office? For the accounting department?”
“For all of us, frankly,” she said. “We don’t want there to be any bumps.”
Bumps? My career had been reduced to bumps? I was being reduced to bumps? What was there left to say? To do? Crying in front of Leeza was out of the question. I was a professional, after all. So was stabbing her with the sterling silver letter opener on her desk. And I certainly wasn’t going to beg her to reconsider. Obviously, her mind was made up to fire me. Still, there was a tiny part of me that kept waiting for her to say, “April Fool’s,” even though it was March, and hand me a bonus check instead of a pink slip.
I looked at her expectantly, but she only blinked a couple of times, then checked her watch. I was keeping her from something. Something extremely important, no doubt. Perhaps there were other employees to fire, other hearts to break, other lives to ruin.
I stood up and made a move to leave her office.
“I won’t be staying for a couple of weeks,” I said, my voice quivering but clear. “Or even for a couple of days. I’ll be out of here within the hour.”
Now it was Leeza’s turn to look shocked. “I’m afraid you can’t just leave,” she said when she recovered. “What I mean is, there’s still the matter of your interfacing with Human Resources. For your exit interview.”
Interfacing. Human Resources. Exit interview. What had Charlton House come to? What had corporate America come to?
“Goodbye, Leeza,” I said, as I gave her one last look. “I hope you realize what a terrible mistake you’ve made.”
I turned and stormed out of her office, my eyes flooding, my heart pounding, my stomach churning. Down the hall I marched, ignoring the stares, the questions, the whispering. I was desperate to reach the safety of my little office, where I had happily spent most of my adult working life. When I got there, I locked the door and began to pace, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Since my office was the size of a hamster’s cage, my pacing took the form of very short laps and, before long, I was dizzy.
I sat at my desk and began to sob.
What will I do without my job? I blubbered. It’s my identity. My power base. My source of income.
Well, it wasn’t my only source of income, I reminded myself. There was Hunt’s income from his job as the head of the commodities department at Fitzgerald & Franklin, the stuffy, old-line investment banking firm that kept promising to make him a partner and never did. But I couldn’t live off Hunt. In the seven years of our marriage, I’d never lived off Hunt. We’d always been a two-career couple, pooling our resources to buy cars and houses and trips to the Caribbean, a modern couple who split all our expenses, even groceries. We needed my income to keep things balanced. If I suddenly had no pay check, what would become of our lifestyle? What, for example, would become of our membership in The Oaks, the country club Hunt had insisted we join so he could network on the golf course, male-bond on the tennis court, and schmooze in the swimming pool? He’d said joining the club was his last shot at making partner at F&F. Personally, I thought country clubs were a total anachronism. They were exclusionary and cliquish and harkened back to the days when white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men ruled the world, and they had nothing I wanted or needed out of life. Even the athletic facilities held no lure for me. I didn’t care about sports (my idea of exercise was REM sleep). I didn’t play golf, was never very good at tennis, and because I feared what the chlorine would do to my frosted blond hair, I avoided swimming pools.
Still, Hunt had been persuasive. “If you don’t belong to a club, you’re out of the loop, Judy,” he’d said. “Getting into a prestigious club like The Oaks, where most of the members are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, can mean a big boost to a guy’s business.”
“Sure,” I’d smirked. “If the guy is an undertaker. The people at The Oaks are so old that when you first meet them, the initials that come to mind are CPR, not CEO.”
Hunt had accused me of exaggerating, and he was right, of course. There were some young people at The Oaks. They just acted old.
My musings were interrupted by a knock on my office door.
“Judy?” came a voice. “It’s Arlene. Let me in, okay?”
Arlene was my best friend at Charlton House. She had been the company’s romance editor as long as I had been its cookbook editor. We were the only two editors whose books made any money for the place. And now I’d been fired. I guessed Arlene had heard the news and come to console me.
I unlocked the door and motioned for Arlene to enter. Her eyes were red and swollen and she looked paler than I’d ever seen her. Obviously, she had heard about my firing and was not taking it very well.
“Please don’t be upset,” I said, patting her on the back. “We’ll still see each other. You’ll come up to Connecticut for the weekend, and I’ll come into the city for lunch. It’ll be just like the old days. You’ll tell Loathsome Leeza stories and I’ll tell Loathsome Leeza stories and we’ll have a good laugh.”
“You don’t understand,” she said gravely.
“Of course, I do,” I said. “We were soul mates. Buddies in a storm. Editors in a sea of number crunchers. I know it’s very difficult for you to deal with my getting fired.”
“It’s not your getting fired that’s upsetting me,” she sniveled.
“Then what is it?” I asked.
“It’s my getting fired,” she said and began to cry.
“You too?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Leeza called me in a few minutes ago. I thought she was going to congratulate me about The Duchess and the Delivery Boy making the Times’ bestseller list. But no. She didn’t care that the book is selling better than any other romance novel out there right now. What she wanted to tell me was that the company was downsizing and I was getting downsized.”
I sat at my desk and tried to take it all in. “How could anybody be that stupid?” I asked. “Downsizing or not, you and I bring in bestseller after bestseller and instead of giving us a raise, Leeza fires us.”
Arlene shook her head. “She said the company is going in a different direction.”
“Yeah, down the toilet,” I said. “Doesn’t this idiot know that sex and food are the only things that sell in a troubled economy?”
With her shaggy brown hair and poignant, thin face, Arlene looked like a lost puppy, and no wonder. She didn’t just edit romance novels; they were her life. Thirty-eight and single, she buried herself in the books instead of going out and trying to meet a man. Night after night, in her Laura Ashley-decorated, one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, she imagined herself lassoed by a cowboy or kidnapped by a pirate or seduced by a half-breed Apache, just like her favorite heroines. Every so often, I’d tactfully point out that life wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the stories she loved and that, perhaps, she was losing her sense of reality. “Reality is overrated,” she’d say.
The woman had a point.
“Feminism sucks,” I said suddenly.
“Why?” said Arlene.
“Because of the Leeza Grummonds of the world,” I said. “Feminism has unleashed these women, who have MBA degrees but no common sense, to run our big companies. Well, if they’re the best thing feminism can come up with, we should all go back to the kitchen. We can do less damage there.”
Arlene tried to smile. “Speaking of the kitchen,” she said, “I know you’ll get another job, Judy. You’re a great cookbook editor. You have a real understanding of food.”
“Thanks, Arlene. I appreciate that.”
I suppose I did have a real understanding of food, what with my family history. On my mother’s side were the eaters — big, fat women who ate and ate and ate and always wondered why they were so fat. On my father’s side were the food purveyors. My grandfather, Milton Millstein, arrived in this country from Germany, shortened his name to Mills and opened a butcher shop on Long Island. When he retired, my father took over the running of Mills’s Prime Meats. He made such a success of the operation that he opened two more stores. Then two more. Then, some advertising genius suggested my father should appear in his own TV ads, like Frank Perdue and Tom Carvel. My father loved the idea and, thanks to the power of television, went from being an anonymous butcher to being “Mr. Butcher.” He made a lot of money being Mr. Butcher, but the whole experience did something to his mind: he started speaking in cuts of meat. He called his brother Louis’s daughters a pair of rump cuts. He called his brother Louis’s wife a beat-up old brisket. He called me, his only daughter, a tenderloin. It wasn’t until I went off to college that I realized that when men call a good looking woman a “ten,” it isn’t short for “tenderloin.”
“You’ll find another job too,” I told Arlene. “You’re the best romance editor in New York.”
“Maybe so, but the job market isn’t what it used to be,” she said. “There were so many mergers and takeovers in the eighties that there are only six publishing houses left in the business. I just got fired from one of them, so that leaves five.”
“What a nightmare,” I said. “I’m going down to the mailroom to see if they have any cartons. Then I’m packing my stuff up and going home.”
“I’ll see you, Judy,” Arlene said wistfully.
I gave her a hug. “Of course you will. We’ll probably find jobs at the same company. It’ll be just like it was at Charlton House — only better.”
She managed a weak smile and left.
I returned from the mailroom fifteen minutes later and found that I had a couple of visitors.
“May I help you?” I said to the two security guards who stood on either side of my desk.
“No,” said one of them. “We’re here to help you.
“Help me what?” I said.
“Pack up and leave,” said the other. “We’re here to make sure everything goes nice and smooth.”
I was outraged. “Why wouldn’t everything go nice and smooth? Do you expect me to set fire to the place?”
I decided to ignore them and began packing up my personal belongings — my Rolodex, my Filofax, the philodendron plant Hunt had given me, the crystal paperweight the author of The Psychic Cook had given me. I was about to reach for the Charlton House coffee mug on my desk when one of the guards stopped me.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked, peeling the man’s hand from my shoulder.
“The mug’s company property,” he said. “It stays here.”
Oh, so that’s it, I thought. This isn’t a dream. It’s an episode of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Someone is videotaping this and sending it to the network.
“How about these?” I said to the guards as I opened my desk drawer and pulled out a handful of Charlton House pencils. “These okay?”
“Nope,” one of them said and grabbed them.
God, they’re not kidding, I realized. Leeza is some piece of work. She fires her most successful editors — women who actually make money for the company — and she’s worried about a bunch of number two pencils!
“I guess I won’t even try to take those with me,” I said, pointing to the file cabinet in the corner. I had hoped to pack up a few important files-files that might help me get another job.
The guard smiled. “Not a chance.”
I smiled back. It was either smile or slit my wrists.
“Well, that about does it,” I said, surveying my office for the last time. I swallowed the giant lump in my throat as I took a long, hard look around the room in which I’d spent so many wonderful hours. Suddenly, I spotted the needlepoint sign on my wall and scurried over to take it down.
“Sorry, Miss Mills,” one of the guards said as he tried to stop me. “That’s a no-no.”
I spun around to face him. “Get out of my way,” I said, steel-eyed. “The sign on the wall is mine.”
I pulled the sign off the wall and placed it gently in a carton.
They could take my job but they couldn’t take my sign, which Hunt had given me on our first wedding anniversary. He’d asked his secretary, a whiz at needlepoint, to make it for me. It read: LOVE MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU’RE HUNGRY-NOT WHEN YOU’RE MARRIED TO A COOKBOOK EDITOR!
Corny, maybe. But it was Hunt’s stab at humor, and since he wasn’t exactly the most humorous guy on the planet, it meant a lot to me.
I gathered my belongings, wished the security guards a nice life, and went home.
Judy Price’s life is to die for. She has a handsome husband with bullish prospects on Wall Street, a career as a cookbook editor, her own BMW, and a landmark house on two sylvan acres in affluent Chesterfield County, Connecticut. But lately, she’s been having sexual fantasies about the air conditioner repair man. When Judy is downsized by her company and can’t find another job, her husband suggests she hang around The Oaks and “network.” The trouble is, she chafes at the rules at the Club, where she’s banned from the Men’s Grill and the “visually eventful” 18-hole golf course, and consigned to B-list tennis, overcooked dinners in the main dining room, and the gossip of other golf widows. What’s more, the Club’s idea of multiculturalism is an all-white band playing Motown’s greatest hits at the Memorial Day Dance. Judy finds an unexpected ally in Claire Cox, America’s foremost feminist, who has broken the Club’s iron-clad rule against admitting single women. There are lots of things about The Oaks Claire wants to change – until she’s found dead in a sand trap on the golf course – bludgeoned with the golf pro’s pitching wedge. When ruggedly handsome local detective Tom Cunningham asks Judy to secretly investigate, she finds herself changing from a conventional wife into a daring woman – one willing to risk her life to bring a killer to justice and a husband to his senses.