Open City Books
Open City Books
Open City Books

Living Room

A Novel

by Rachel Sherman

“The fractured lives of three generations of women told with zero sentimentality and a huge amount of heart. Living Room is edgy, moving, smart, funny and altogether human. Rachel Sherman is the real deal.” —Dani Shapiro, author of Black & White

  • Imprint Open City Books
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date October 15, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-1-8904-4753-3
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.95

About The Book

The follow-up to her highly praised debut story collection, The First Hurt, Rachel Sherman’s Living Room is a beautiful and disarmingly direct portrait of a family in trouble. With the tone of a modern-day Jewish The Ice Storm set in Long Island, imbued with Alice Munro’s fascination with personal history, Living Room is a deep exploration of the ripple effects of mental illness on a family, as well as a look at generational differences in mating and marriage, and a wry, wise look at suburban angst.

The novel careens between three generations of women. There is the grandmother, Headie, whose oncoming senility brings vivid dreams and hallucinations of her younger life and whose main link to reality is a new computer with which she writes strange but revealing missives to her family. Livia, a housewife with unfulfilled career aspirations and a strange eating disorder is consumed by a daily struggle to keep herself together while helplessly watching her family begin to fall apart. And Abby, Livia’s teenage daughter, the wisest of the three, who is striving to keep her mother’s dysfunction at an arm’s length while navigating the unfamiliar terrors of high school.

With The First Hurt, Sherman became known for her laser-sharp view of adolescence; here she takes it two generations further, bringing together a fascinating array of universal family experiences with unusual frankness and wisdom.

Tags Literary


“A riveting debut novel… Unsentimental yet deeply felt, this tale examines what bubbles under the surface of a supposedly happy Long Island family.” —Publisher’s Weekly

“Sherman turns her unflinching, unsentimental eye once again on deepest suburbia, where personal history festers rather than heals. [Living Room] hums along, its heavier moments tempered with plenty of dark humor and incisive language; but it’s the intimate character sketches that truly resonate. These inner monologues would be mortifying if bared in real life, but in Sherman’s skilled hands, they render the characters sympathetic, if still disturbing.” —Time Out New York

“Often praised for her lack of sentimentality, Sherman doesn’t hesitate to capture her characters’ weird, unbecoming thoughts . . . her writing lends itself to the form: her story structures tight as fists, her prose terse and unadorned.” —Rumpus

“The fractured lives of three generations of women told with zero sentimentality and a huge amount of heart. Living Room is edgy, moving, smart, funny and altogether human. Rachel Sherman is the real deal.” —Dani Shapiro, author of Black & White

Praise for The First Hurt:

“A startling debut collection. . . . As in A. M. Homes’s The Safety of Objects, the angst here is set in well-groomed places—developments, summer houses, manicured streets. . . . Sherman’s straightforward prose provides a contrast to her characters’ unsettling behavior.” —The Believer



Abby walks Jenna toward her house, across the high school fields. She looks out at the road that runs next to the grass, making sure that no teachers are around.

The sky is gray and it looks like rain but Abby leads Jenna slowly. Her house is so close to the school she can hear school sports games—the yells from the chalk-against-blackboard-like squeak of the metal bleachers—even with the windows closed. She always tries to make the time from the school to her house last as long as she can.

Abby looks over at Jenna, walking forward against the wind. A flash of the bright, shiny pink lining of Jenna’s bomber jacket peeks out while she brushes back her hair with her hand. It is getting colder, and Abby folds her army jacket around herself. The wind picks up, then seems to let go.

Abby can hear the bell ring, and looks at her watch. It is the second class she is skipping today, but for good reason.

Last period (gym) she spent in the girls’ bathroom, with Jenna, getting her eyebrows plucked.

Abby touches the new thin line of hair above her eyes as they enter the woods at the edge of the field.

“Don’t touch too much,” Jenna says, getting close to Abby, pulling her hand away from herself. “You’ll get zits.”

Jenna knows these things. Her mother is an aesthetician. Last period, in the girls’ bathroom, Abby looked into Jenna’s green colored contacts while Jenna bit her lower lip and stared above Abby’s eyes. Up that close Abby could see where the mascara had congealed on Jenna’s eyelashes.

Jenna had drawn lines beneath each of Abby’s eyebrows with blue eyeliner to guide her.

“You have such fucking long eyebrow hairs!” Jenna laughed.

It felt like tiny pinpricks, how Abby imagines acupuncture feels. It felt good to sit and let pretty Jenna Marino with her down-turned mouth and her soft brown hair, her perfectly shaped eyebrows and her mother’s special tweezers, pluck her away.

Now they are going home for Jenna to finish the job. Now it is time for wax.

At the small opening in the woods, there are old tackling dummies, just behind the trees, forgotten. There is something about being in the woods, looking out from the edge of them, onto the field, down to the school, that makes Abby feel safe.

“So,” Abby says as they stand lighting cigarettes, out of sight. She knows it is inevitable, so she takes a breath and says it: “There’s a guy that lives with us, a housekeeper kind of, from Sweden.”

Someone honks their horn from the parking lot. “What?” Jenna says.

“It’s called an au pair. He is. But he’s only nineteen. His name is Jorgen,” Abby says, pronouncing his name the way he does: U-rine.

“U-RINE?” Jenna laughs, inhaling.

“That’s how you say it, not how you spell it,” Abby says. She points ahead to the small opening in the woods.

Jenna exhales a big, long plume. “So what does U-RINE do?”

“Um, just cleans our house,” Abby says, thinking, suddenly, how strange it sounds. “And does our laundry.”

Abby watches as Jenna’s face scrunches up, her beautiful skin wrinkling around her nose. She laughs, and Abby does too.

“U-RINE,” Jenna says, making a face. “Is he hot?” She French-inhales her last drag and then drops her cigarette, stomping it.

Abby exhales, shakes her head no, putting her butt out on a tree trunk. They both rub their fingers with pine needles as they walk to cover up their smoky smell.

“Come on,” Jenna says. “Not even a little?”

“No,” Abby says, pointing to her house once they are past the line of bushes that separates her lawn from the next. She feels like Jenna might not believe her.

“You have a really nice lawn,” Jenna says as they walk across it.

Abby walks ahead and opens the back door that leads into the kitchen. She watches Jenna’s face as she enters.

Jorgen is at the counter, making chicken—plain, the way her mother taught him. He parts his hair to the side and has acne and a thick accent. He has been here for almost two months, since August.

Abby’s mother had to teach Jorgen to cook because he only knows from meatballs.

“Hi Jorgen,” Abby says. “This is Jenna.”

Abby watches Jorgen as he looks past her, to Jenna. She turns around and sees that Jenna is leaning over, taking off her shoes, and that the way she is leaning makes her breast show, the cup of her bra to the side so you can see her nipple.

All she really knows about Jorgen is that he sleeps with the fluorescent overhead lights on in the basement and that he told her and her parents, one night at dinner, that his best friend back home is in a wheelchair.

Now here he is, looking at Jenna’s breast.

“Let’s go upstairs,” Abby says, walking past Jorgen out of the kitchen.

“Do you want a schnack?” Jorgen asks.

“No,” Abby calls back, making sure that Jenna is right behind her.

The au pairs have been around forever. There had been a new girl each year, shipped from Sweden, always the same age, always blond and ready.

Au pairs were good for sitting and modeling on the couch when she did her art class assignments, drawing their ears and noses, and good for teaching her how to knit. Sometimes they were sweet, and then Abby felt bad that she liked her house better in the summers, between them, when it was just her and her mom and dad.

She liked some girls more than others. Then, this year, Abby’s mother decided to get a male au pair.

“You might like a man better,” her mother told her.

Her mother had called her into her room and moved her feet under the covers, to the side, so that Abby could sit next to her on the bed. She told Abby she was making sure to pick an unattractive one because otherwise it would make Abby uncomfortable.

From her bed, her mother picked Jorgen. She showed Abby his picture: a plain boy with darkish blond hair swept to the side. He looked like a dork in his red tracksuit (the au pairs always had shiny tracksuits, flip-flops with pointed plastic on the bottom so that it cushioned their feet, and they all loved Nike but said it wrong, without the long “e,” like “bike”).

Abby shrugged. She didn’t care, then. She didn’t even think of him until he arrived in the same red tracksuit, smelling strange, his English worse than the others’, one of his two front teeth a little brown.

Jorgen disgusted her. He said his name was pronounced “urine.” He didn’t know what he was saying, and Abby didn’t tell him.

Now Abby leads Jenna up to her room, and as soon as the door is closed Jenna begins to laugh.

“That guy is such a fucking loser!” she says. Her white shirt slips down again so Abby can see the top of her lacy bra.

“I know,” Abby says.

Abby sits on her bed and watches Jenna look around her room. Abby sees that she is staring at two framed pictures of Japanese cutouts her parents brought back from a trip they took without her.

“Lay down on your bed,” Jenna says, taking a white plastic jar from her silver bag and getting up to sit beside her.

“Why?” Abby asks.

“The wax,” Jenna says. “What do you think?”

Abby had forgotten about the wax. Jenna is here for a reason.

Jenna spreads the wax above Abby’s lip with a thin wooden stick. It is the cold kind, Jenna says, easier. She wonders if Jenna always carries wax around, just waiting for the next hairy girl to clean.

Abby closes her eyes and Jenna counts to three, then rips the stuff from her skin. This time it really does hurt.

“Fuck!” Abby says.

“Holy shit!” Jenna laughs, holding the wax up to show the hairs that have come off with it, tangled inside the goo like a web. “You’re like a man!”

Abby doesn’t say anything. She touches her new, smooth lip and feels herself blush.

Still, she is grateful. Jenna Marino, the girl with the young mother who all the teachers recognized in her face and in her laugh, is at her house. “You’re just like your mother,” said her English, Spanish, and math teachers—the classes that Jenna and Abby shared. Her mother, everyone learned early last year, had her when she was a senior at their very school. Her mother walked down the same halls, unlocked the same lockers.

“Do you think Jorgen is a virgin?” Jenna says, getting up to throw the wax in the garbage. “Sit up,” she says, coming back to sit next to her and taking one of her arms. She scoops the wax with the stick and begins to spread it from Abby’s wrist to her elbow.

Abby watches. She has not thought about Jorgen’s virginity before.

“Yes,” she says.

“That’s pathetic,” Jenna says, then turns back to Abby. “I mean, he’s a fucking guy!”

“Yeah, I know,” Abby says.

Jenna laughs, her mouth open, and Abby smiles. Jenna rips the hair from both of Abby’s arms, then holds the skin down, patting it, taking out lotion from her bag and rubbing it on her gently.

“Great!” Jenna says. “Come here!”

Abby follows Jenna to her own mirror. Both of their faces hardly fit inside the circle.

“Look!” Jenna says, pointing to her red upper lip and raw-looking eyebrows. “The swelling will go down. It looks SO much better already!”

Abby looks and sees. She compares her own eyes (they are smaller), her lips (they are bigger) and her teeth (they are whiter) to Jenna’s. She can hear Jorgen banging pots downstairs. Jenna smiles so her dimple shows.

Surprisingly, Abby does not feel ugly next to Jenna. No, she sees, she is even a little pretty. Just different, darker, pointed. Her smile is less wide, but she is just as hairless.

“See?” Jenna smirks. “Thank God you agreed,” she says, because it had been Jenna who approached her in the bathroom, told her she could do something for all that hair.

Abby hadn’t asked, but now she sees. It is what she has been waiting for. She watches in the mirror as Jenna turns and licks her on the cheek quickly, then looks into her mirror eyes and laughs again.

At night, once she is in bed, Abby imagines having a good-looking au pair. A light blond one. He can wear a tracksuit, but it has to be black. He wears the au pair sandals, but only when he is in the house.

His name is Lars, like that German foreign exchange student they had last year at school.

“Can I get you a snack, Abby?” he asks her when they are alone.

They eat potato chips together at the kitchen table and laugh and punch each other lightly on the arm.

She imagines Jenna coming over, and Lars ignoring her, only looking at Abby.

When Jenna tries to get Lars’s attention, he hardly notices; when she shows her boob, he looks away.

He is a different kind of au pair, a different kind of man. Specially picked to come to her house for a year.

Lars lets her draw him and drives her places, but mostly, he is her friend. He is special, better, not like that.