I had to know. What exactly is the story that the woman's reading in Amazon's Kindle ad? It appears briefly on the screen before the camera pulls back to reveal the beach. But now I'm almost sorry that I asked…
Last week I interviewed the author who wrote the book, Where the God of Love Hangs Out. And in preparation, I'd read the story itself. It's "Sleepwalking," the first in a four-story cycle by Amy Bloom, and the story is actually about a 19-year-old boy who has a sexual encounter with his stepmother. It's the day after his father's funeral, and it's told from the perspective of the grief-stricken widow, Julia. She cries while singing to her younger son, and then staggers through the hours in a daze.
After the funeral was over and the cold turkey and the glazed ham were demolished and some very good jazz was played and some very good musicians went home drunk on bourbon poured in my husband's honour, it was just me, my mother-in-law, Ruth, and our two boys, Lionel junior from Lionel's second marriage, and our little boy, Buster.
It's an incredibly sad story, but it's also extremely well-written. (Bloom has written stories for The New Yorker, and was nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.) According to Wikipedia, Bloom also worked as a psychotherapist and created a series on The Lifetime Network about psychiatrists called "State of Mind". Like a clinical psychologist, Bloom writes a story which provides an honest answer to the question of how this could happen, and her story doesn't flinch from its painful aftermath. "I was already sorrier than I'd ever been in my whole life, sorry enough for this life and the next…"
It's the stepmother's story, as she struggles to find a way to make things right - but first she must confront the fact that her son wants to continue the relationship.
I reached across the table but he shrugged me off, grabbing my keys and heading out the door…
And that's the sentence which appears at the top of the Kindle's screen in Amazon's ad. That's what she's reading at the beach…
I sat for a long time, sipping, watching the sunlight move around the kitchen. When it was almost five, I took the keys from [her husband]Lionel's side of the dresser and drove his van to soccer camp. [Her other, younger son]Buster felt like being quiet, so we just held hands and listened to the radio. I offered to take him to Burger King, hoping the automated monkeys and video games would be a good substitute for a fully present and competent mother. He was happy and we killed an hour and a half there. Three hours to bedtime.
We watched some TV, sitting on the couch, his feet in my lap. Every few minutes, I'd look at the clock on the mantel and then promise myself I wouldn't look until the next commercial. Every time I started to move, I'd get tears in my eyes, so I concentrated on sitting very still, waiting for time to pass. Finally, I got Buster through his…
Amy Bloom actually wrote that short story in 1993, when she was 40 years old. Over the years she wrote two more stories about the family - with the son returning for the family Thanksgiving dinner with a girlfriend 10 years later. It's told first from the son's perspective, and then from the mother's - but last year, Bloom produced a final story which reveals how things finally ended up. She'd published the two Thanksgiving stories in a 2000 collection, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. But it's in her newest collection, published in January, where readers get the final word about Lionel and Julia.
I asked Amy Bloom if she would ever write another story about the characters - if there would ever be more stories about the family. "There might be," she replied. "I'm not sure. Not at this point. I'm done with these characters now. I'm on to this novel, and I'm sure that it's - if the next generation makes themselves known to me, I'll probably go back and write a few more stories." I also asked what she thought of Amazon's choice of the story for their Kindle ad. "I wasn't embarrassed," she replied circumspectly (repeating "I didn't think this was embarrassing," when it came up again later).
And then I remembered the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Norman Mailer, who was once asked if he'd had a favourite of his stories. He'd said it was like being asked if he had a favourite among his children. I decided maybe it wasn't the right question to ask the story's author. But 17 years after the original story was written, a page from it still flickers across millions of TV screens. And each day dozens of people then feel compelled to go into Google and type in this mysterious sentence.
"I reached across the table but he shrugged me off, grabbing my keys and heading out the door…"
David Cassel loves his Kindle. He's written about technology for 15 years, with articles appearing at Salon, Wired News, CNN, MSNBC and the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition. His blog "My Kindle and Me" is updated daily, and is also available on the Kindle.