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Every Time We Say Goodbye: A Novel
by Natalie Jenner

Published: 2024-05-14T00:0
Hardcover : 336 pages
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The bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls returns with a brilliant novel of love and art, of grief and memory, of confronting the past and facing the future.

In 1955, Vivien Lowry is facing the greatest challenge of her life. Her latest play, the only ...

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Introduction

The bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls returns with a brilliant novel of love and art, of grief and memory, of confronting the past and facing the future.

In 1955, Vivien Lowry is facing the greatest challenge of her life. Her latest play, the only female-authored play on the London stage that season, has opened in the West End to rapturous applause from the audience. The reviewers, however, are not as impressed as the playgoers and their savage notices not only shut down the play but ruin Lowry's last chance for a dramatic career. With her future in London not looking bright, at the suggestion of her friend, Peggy Guggenheim, Vivien takes a job in as a script doctor on a major film shooting in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios. There she finds a vibrant movie making scene filled with rising stars, acclaimed directors, and famous actors in a country that is torn between its past and its potentially bright future, between the liberation of the post-war cinema and the restrictions of the Catholic Church that permeates the very soul of Italy.

As Vivien tries to forge a new future for herself, she also must face the long-buried truth of the recent World War and the mystery of what really happened to her deceased fiancé. Every Time We Say Goodbye is a brilliant exploration of trauma and tragedy, hope and renewal, filled with dazzling characters both real and imaginary, from the incomparable author who charmed the world with her novels The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls.

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Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE???ELEVEN YEARS LATER??THE SUNWISE TURN BOOKSHOP, LONDON??December 10, 1954??Opening night for Vivien had gone like a dream.??All the things that could have gone wrong, or had done in rehearsals, failed to transpire. The audience had laughed at the right places and cried at the end. There had been four curtain calls for the only female-authored play on the London stage that season, and extended cheering after the heavy red velvet curtain had fallen to the floor with a final, glorious thud.??Vivien could still hear the roar of the crowd as she stood on the second floor of Sunwise Turn, the Bloomsbury bookshop that helped finance her writing efforts. As a significant shareholder in the shop, she drew a nice little dividend each year and spent several afternoons a week behind the till. She preferred that time—the leisurely, not-even-sure-why-I-popped-in-here energy compared to the rattle of the morning customers who arrived armed with a bizarre array of requests. Tabitha Knight, their youngest employee, was more adept at fielding those, with her innocent face and subdued manner.??It was long past midnight, and the reviews of Empyrean, Vivien’s second play, would soon hit newsagent stands throughout the West End. Alec McDonough, her longtime editor, popped out during the after-party festivities to lug a pile of the morning newspapers back. Her first play had opened two years earlier and not been granted its fair share of attention from audiences or critics alike; the reception tonight, however, had been undeniably positive. Vivien felt inside that strange mix of anticipation and dread that was the artist’s lot. The entirety of years of work now rested in the ink-stained fingers of a handful of notoriously viperish critics.??As Vivien stood in a corner of the second-floor gallery, nervously sipping a crystal glass of brandy, Sir Alfred Jonathan Knox finally made his move.??“Do you think you shall keep at your writing?”??Vivien turned to him in surprise at the familiarity of the question. They had only been introduced backstage that night, her friend Peggy Guggenheim extolling Sir Alfred’s philanthropic efforts as he stood fidgeting with embarrassment next to her.??“I mean…” He cleared his throat, and she noticed that his hands were jammed into the pockets of his black dinner jacket. “I only meant that, if you were to settle down…”??“Oh, I’ll never settle down.”??“I’m sorry?”??“I might marry—most people do, after all—but it won’t be to settle.”??He looked so confused by her words that she felt almost sorry for him. “Perhaps settle is not the right term…”??Vivien had had her share of romantic disappointments over the years, but watching a man struggle to pin down a single word, relative to her own skill in that area, was particularly disheartening. Sir Alfred’s plain-but-pleasant-enough features shifted quickly from confusion to concern until he looked ready to take another tack. He’s going to bring up those children again, she thought to herself with a grimace, then felt sorry. He was, after all, a wonderful civic example, known throughout the nation for both industrial success and philanthropic effort.??“The children come to Devon on the weekends, to ride and scout and take other lessons. For years we have done our best—my late wife and I, that is—to give them a home of sorts, a place of their own to, ah, settle.”??Vivien had to laugh inwardly at his use once again of that term. At the same time, she felt awful. She should consider a man like Sir Alfred, so generous and charitable and eager to please. Why did his goodness irritate her so? She was inclined to see it as a mask of some kind, a diversion from what he really wanted. Of course he wanted to help the refugee children in his care, but he also wanted people to think of this largesse when they thought of him: why else would he talk of it so? More than anything, he wanted to be thought of. He clearly needed another wife. But if Vivien were ever to marry a man like Sir Alfred, she would most certainly need to keep writing, given the limited conversation.??Alec’s footsteps could be heard coming back up the stairs. He reached the landing, and from across the room Vivien instantly recognised the look of disappointment and quiet panic on his face.??“Oh God,” she muttered while her mentor, Lady Browning, came over to grab the top news copy from Alec who stood frozen in the doorway.??All the women—for, as usual, they were mostly women up there, lounging about the bookshop’s second floor—watched as Lady Browning, with a practiced hand, tore open the Daily Mail to the exact page, then silently mouthed the words as she read.??“Insufferable prigs!” She threw the paper down and pointed an accusatory finger at Alec, who helplessly shrugged as the male representative closest to her in proximity. The few other men present had already intuited the dangerous mood about to descend and would normally have plotted their retreat, but for being trapped by the late hour and the chivalry owed their dates.??“I can’t look,” Vivien muttered while Peggy Guggenheim stepped forward to pick the paper back up. A longtime patron of the shop, the famous art collector had arrived that afternoon from Venice in time for both Vivien’s opening night and the Christmas social season. “No, wait.” Vivien looked down, letting her long, dark hair fall about her face like a curtain. “Read it to me.”??“‘Empyrean’s portrayal of a group of village women fending for themselves during the war, who fall into a utopian society they will stubbornly refuse to dismantle, shouts its political agenda with all the nuance of a harpy. Miss Lowry’s idea of a happy ending may leave much to be desired, yet unfortunately remains the only positive aspect of this often crude, simplistic sophomore effort premiering last night at the Aldwych.’”??“It’s not supposed to be a happy ending.” Looking back up at Peggy, Vivien rolled her eyes in irritation. “And it’s supposed to be abstract.”??“Crude my word,” Guggenheim practically spat as her Calder-designed earrings swung violently about her head. “If you were a man, they’d call it progressive.”??“What will Spencer say?” Lady Browning, better known as author Daphne du Maurier, asked in reference to her and Vivien’s agent.??“I believe his exact words this time were ‘do or die.’” Vivien flopped down onto one of the large wingback chairs near the fireplace that warmed the gallery while Peggy Guggenheim took the matching chair next to hers. “And as you know, he’s not one to mince them.”??Tabitha Knight silently entered the room with a pot of tea on a silver tray and quickly looked about at the downcast faces. She had a watchful manner, an artistic eye, and little enthusiasm for books. Tabitha’s adoptive mother, despairing over her daughter’s lack of interest in anything except art, had suggested the sales assistant position at Sunwise Turn to get her “out of her head.” Tabitha, however, was happiest alone in the second floor’s gallery and event space, where several invaluable pieces from Peggy Guggenheim’s personal art collection were on display. For most of that night, Tabitha had been contemplating Guggenheim’s latest loan to the shop, Boy Smoking by Lucian Freud. Vivien had overheard the young woman commenting on the portrait’s effectiveness due to its lack of context, and Guggenheim responding that part of Freud’s emerging genius was how he severed the body from the soul. Vivien had listened curiously because when she looked at the painting, all she saw was a floating head.??“Come to Italy,” Guggenheim was now saying to Vivien at her side, tracing circles in the air with the length of her cigarette holder. “My friend Douglas Curtis is on his way there, trying to evade those idiotic McCarthy hearings. He’s got a two-picture deal to direct and an unfinished script.”??“They’ll just accuse me of trying to escape.” This was how Vivien always referred to the London drama critics, the ubiquitous they that her mentor, du Maurier, and other writers had warned her about.??“One doesn’t go to Italy to escape the past, but to acquire one,” Peggy replied with an outsized wink. Guggenheim did everything on an ambitious scale, from her Carnival parties and huge abstract earrings to her lifelong enmity toward those who crossed her. Maybe the secret to living a large life, thought Vivien in despair, was to go out and do exactly that.??“I shall write to Douglas,” Guggenheim continued. “Imagine filming anything without an ending in sight. It would be like trying to paint a peach from a bowl of pears.”??Out of the corner of her eye, Vivien could see Tabitha Knight quietly eavesdropping on their conversation as she fiddled with the tea serving.??“She wants to see my collection,” Peggy whispered with a nod towards the girl. “Eighteen’s the perfect age to visit Italy: old enough to appreciate the history, but not at all ancient-looking oneself.”??Vivien detected the wistfulness in Peggy’s voice at growing older. They all were—Vivien herself was thirty-five and well past the spinster threshold. “Tabby’s already been there,” she replied, also lowering her voice. “During the war.”??Peggy turned to Vivien, earrings clinking, with a look of confusion. “I thought they found her and her brother in Cyprus?”??Vivien shook her head. “That was the displaced persons camp. They were in a children’s concentration camp in Yugoslavia first, then somehow escaped over the Alps to Italy, where the padre hid them.”??“She told you that?”??“No, her mother, Frances, did. Tabby never speaks of it.” Vivien lowered her voice again. “After the liberation, the children were on a refugee ship sailing from Italy to Palestine when the British attacked outside of Haifa. The young men on board tried to fend them off and they were all deported to Cyprus for their efforts. That was when the Red Cross brought Tabitha and her brother here.” Vivien paused thoughtfully. “Imagine ending up living in the country of one’s attackers. It would make quite the plot for a film.”??“See?” Guggenheim said, putting her hand knowingly on Vivien’s forearm. “You’re already halfway there.”??* * *??After the party, Vivien went to bed late and stayed there, eager to avoid the harsh light of day and even harsher reviews. She had a low tolerance for criticism, especially the mean-spirited kind. Du Maurier and others always urged retreat in the face of it, but even at this early stage of Vivien’s career, she felt like she was running out of places to go.??The telephone rang and Vivien, eyes still closed, reached out to lift the brass receiver off its marble base. The rotary phone had been a present one Christmas from Peggy, who refused anything ugly in a home to the point of having recently turned her Venetian palazzo into a part-time museum.??“Vivien?” a young, breathless female voice asked over the phone.??“Mm-hmm.” Vivien yawned. “Yes, hullo, who’s this?”??“Avery.” A pause. “St. Vincent.”??Sitting up, Vivien pressed at her right temple with her free hand. “Avery? Is that really you?”??There was another pause, during which Vivien could hear the nervous clicking of fingernails on one of the far-off, highly varnished antique surfaces that she recalled too well. Thirteen years ago, Vivien had become engaged to Avery’s brother, David, heir to the earldom of St. Vincent, as they anxiously awaited his military orders. In early 1942, his infantry had been sent to the desert of Africa to fight the German and Italian coalition. Caught up in the ill-fated Battle of Gazala, David had been pronounced missing and presumed dead, and his titled family had never been heard from again. Until now.??“Mummy and Papa don’t know I’m calling.”??Mummy and Papa. How very Avery. Vivien quickly did the math and realised the girl must be in her mid-twenties by now.??“I wanted to write you but wasn’t sure where. Then I saw the advert for your play. The stage manager gave me this number.”??Vivien recalled Avery St. Vincent’s girlhood penchant for detective work, the stacks of Agatha Christie novels strewn under her lit à la duchesse canopy bed, but said nothing.??“I imagine you’re quite angry with us still.”??Vivien’s head started to pound. Having just been eviscerated by the top London theatre critics, she was in no mood for a call from her late fiancé’s little sister. “Then you didn’t forget me after all.”??There was silence, then more nervous fingernail tapping. Vivien was surprised that she hadn’t scared Avery off by now. She wondered what kind of young woman Avery had grown into—and how much she might resemble her beloved brother.??“It’s just that we had a letter, you see. After the war.”??Vivien’s left hand started to hurt from its grip on the shapely brass handle of the receiver. “A letter?”??“Yes. David was on a list of missing prisoners of war.” Another pause. “There’s no grave, no other information, I’m afraid.”??“He didn’t die in Gazala?”??“It seems some in the battalion were captured and shipped to the south of Italy, after Tobruk fell. One of them mentioned David in an interrogation report after the war.” Vivien heard a sharp intake of breath. “We should have told you ages ago. We didn’t know where you were.”??“Through your own fault.”??“Yes, of course. Oh Vivien, I know it’s very little—”??“No, it’s not. It’s only the little I could have been left with. And that is rather large to me.”??Avery burst into tears, and Vivien felt all the stress of the weeks leading up to the play—all that work, all for nought—dissipate in the face of her past.??“I kept thinking time would help,” the younger woman said between sobs.??“How could anything help?” Vivien put one hand on her stomach, feeling winded by the truth of her own words.??“Papa kept at the War Office for years, trying to learn more.”??“I suppose I should be grateful for that.”??Another awkward pause. “Can you forgive us?”??“Oh Avery, if you remember anything of me at all…”??* * *??After the call, Vivien stayed in bed. There was no further ringing of the telephone—everyone who knew Vivien, even a little, knew to leave her alone after such a public thrashing of her work. She kept thinking about the coincidence of Peggy’s words from the previous night: One doesn’t go to Italy to escape the past, but to acquire one. How bitterly ironic, to think of David himself having been there, alive, waiting for her—for anyone—to find him.??Vivien rarely cried, a blessing in such a tough profession as hers, but to her surprise long-pent-up tears now flowed freely. The St. Vincents might have failed her as a family, but she had doubly failed herself: she hadn’t questioned the official, now baseless, explanation of David’s death during the war and sought the truth, and she had not truly moved on with her life ever since. That was quite the feat. The truth had found her instead, making the past even more painful—something Vivien would not have thought possible until now. She would have done something very differently, if only she had known.??A decade had passed since the war, and everyone who could move on had done so—much more fully than Vivien. The other bookshop women were all forging purposefully ahead in the wake of widowhood, marriage, and divorce. More children were on the way, too, something that Vivien remained ambivalent about. Why not embrace the present, if you couldn’t fix the past???Of course, Vivien had not done either, leaving her life half-measured at best. Instead, she kept at her writing in the fermented cruelty of the London theatre world, so full of unwritten rules and grey skies and ham salad for tea. She kept her heart safe from the many admirers—she kept further pain at bay. But none of this did justice to the memory of David. He had not been given the chance to avoid pain. He had not been given the chance to embrace life again, either.??Vivien might never learn what had happened to David, but she knew one thing for certain: he would have fought for her to the very end. After so many lost years, Avery’s sudden news was giving her the chance to do the same for him.??One never knows when to expect the unexpected in life, but even the author in Vivien could never have imagined this.???Copyright © 2024 by Natalie Jenner... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. Every Time We Say Goodbye is set, largely, in Rome in the mid-1950s. What aspect of the setting did you find the most compelling? Did you learn anything that was new to you about the time and place?

2. Vivien Lowry is both guarded and selectively open, defensive and vulnerable. How did you react to these aspects of her character and how did you feel about Vivien at the very end of the story?

3. For a time in the 1950s and 1960s, Italy was one of the major centers of international film. What stars and films of the time do you know and which of them best embodies that moment in time for you?

4. In Every Time We Say Goodbye, Italy is still somewhat under the shadow of its Fascist past and the events of World War II – what was the most surprising aspect of this element for you?

5. The schoolgirl assassin is not a real-life figure, though aspects of her character and background are based on real events and real resistance fighters. What did you think of her? In a similar situation, would you act as she did or not?

6. There are some real life figures, primarily actors and movie people, woven throughout the novel. Who were you most surprised to see in the book? Who did you want to see more of?

7. Though the central figure in the novel is Vivien, there are a number of other characters with their own unresolved aspects of their pasts or struggles as they try to find a way forward in their lives. What is it that drives Levi Bassano? What did you think of the choices made by Claudia Jones? What other characters did you most enjoy?

8. What did you regard as the major themes in Every Time We Say Goodbye?

9. After you closed the book, what scene did you find yourself reflecting on the most? Were there any moments that you find particularly compelling or even haunting when you think about the novel?

10. What do you think happened to Vivien and all the other characters after the last chapter of the book?

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