Finalist, 2019 International Book Awards (Fiction – Literary)
Lovers Fall Back to Earth is a human drama about three sisters, the men they marry, and the repercussions in their lives when disaster strikes. The sisters fall in love while they are at university and the three couples become part of a group of students who are shaped by the ideas of the sixties and who meet to discuss ideas of liberty, politics, and environmentalism. Young and idealistic revolutionaries, they believe they can change the world, as they hold forth in the smoking room where they spout philosophies about personal freedom. They form strong relationships and marry but, inevitably, each couple chooses a different life style. Amelia and Reuben live as hippies, Esther and George choose a middle-class upward-mobility life, Helen and Benjamin are the academics. When an unexpected tragedy shatters the lives of all three couples, they are forced to build their lives anew, questioning the idealism of their youth as they learn to deal with the impact of their actions on those they love.
“Cecelia Frey knows the flower children. Then, and now. Where did they go with their love beads and messages of universal belonging and peace and love? Twenty years have passed since three sisters and the three men with whom their lives would mesh have moved on from the campus Cave. So long ago that they smoked and drinked and philosophized in that campus club so frequently that a table was named after them. They were the Philosophers Circle.
Cecelia Frey is adept at delivering both the spoken and the unspoken memories of her characters; the melancholy, the sadness, the bitterness over having arrived where they are now—a place where they have “failed to make any coherent sense of their lives.” Known for her skill in delivering dialogue, the conversations that run a gamut of emotion ring with authenticity. These well-drawn characters evoke compassion, frustration, outrage, and sorrow. As Frey takes us back and forth in their lives with skilful storytelling, it is clear that she feels the same affection and apprehension over the fates that befall them. This is a compelling tale of entangled lives and human foible.”
—Betty Jane Hegerat, author of The Boy
“Lovers Fall Back to Earth gives the reader rare insight into how grief, guilt, and trauma impact a network of siblings and partners. The effect on each character is often unexpected but also entirely believable. Cecilia Frey’s beautiful novel is, in turn, painful, entertaining, and tender.”
—Paul Butler, author of The Widow’s Fire
“From the very first paragraph through to the novel’s close, author Cecelia Frey will draw you in to this story of three close, but temperamentally different, sisters, their divergent paths and the impact of a tragedy. Themes of love and marriage, aspirations met and unmet, self-realization, loss, infidelity, forgiveness and redemption, are not new. But it is Frey’s exploration of character that breathes new life into those narratives. With clarity, surety and a straight-forward style, she drives the story-line quickly forward, while, in seeming counterpoint, skilfully allowing herself the slower pace, the time — and the reader the luxury — to savour the qualities unique to each character. She, and we, relish the details that give them depth and roundness; reveal their goodness as well as their weaknesses, inconsistencies, reflections, self-doubts; in short, what makes them human, their relationships and struggles believable. We recognize ourselves. It is that gift of characterization that makes this novel an outstanding, compelling read.”
—Rhoda Rabinowitz Green, author of Aspects of Nature and Moon Over Mandalay
Helena was suffocating. Water filled her mouth, her nostrils, all the cavities of her head. Her lungs were about to burst. Then she felt herself rising to the surface, face up. If she could only hang on a moment longer, one more moment. She broke the surface. She gulped, taking in great draughts of air. She knew that she must move her legs and arms. She knew that she must swim. It was the only way she could save herself. But when she tried to move, an arm, a leg, something restricted her movements. And the air was not right. It was not cold, fresh, salty. It was warm, too warm.
She opened her eyes. A black wall slapped her in the face. But it was not water. She was dry. She was warm. She was between dry, warm flannel sheets. It was only a dream. A nightmare. Amanda was not dead. She had not killed her sister. Thank God. She made a vow right then and there to be nicer to Amanda and to visit her more often.
But she was in a strange place. Where? She hoped that she was not at some man’s apartment, some fellow whom she could not remember. Had she drunk a lot last night? She couldn’t remember. But she sometimes did. One thing she did know, one thing in the here and now, was that she was too warm. No wonder she had dreamed that she was suffocating. Her hands could feel layers of blankets, a quilt. The sheets were cloying. She brought her left hand out from under the sheet and held the back of it close to her face. It was too dark to see. She hoisted herself up onto her elbows and looked around. Ahhh, there we go, red, on the night table. 4:10. She thought a moment: morning or afternoon? Winter or summer? If summer, it would be lighter. Winter then. Or possibly spring. Or fall. Early spring. Late fall. She slid herself across the sheets and felt around on the night table for a lamp. A switch. Good. She clicked the switch. The light came on in a subdued glow. She looked around her. Drapes hung in folds across the window; a dresser sat across the end wall and another stood to the right of the bed. She lay back down, her head squarely on the pillow and closed her eyes. She breathed in a remembered smell of scented bed sheets, lemon furniture polish. She knew where she was. Esther’s. In the guest bedroom. She had surfaced into the house of her sister.
From somewhere came the sound of water, a sudden gush, a toilet flushing. Someone was up and using the toilet. She, too, should get up and go to the bathroom. But it seemed too big a thing to do. She heard water running from a tap, then the tap turned off. Was someone getting a drink? Getting an aspirin, a sleeping pill, a shot of whiskey? Whatever it took to get them through the night.
She must have dozed off. Now she heard different sounds, the clinking of dishes, the shutting of a cupboard door, again, water from a tap. Someone was in the kitchen. She turned her head: 5:20.
Her mind was alert now. She would not be able to soothe it back into a comatose state. She sat up, threw back the covers and swung herself onto the edge of the bed. Her head spun. She closed her eyes. Something hurt, a pain came from some part of her body but she could not identify the spot. She felt bruised all over. She looked down to where white lace and forearm met, but there was nothing visible there to help her identify the source. A stab of pain sliced through her right eye, sliced through the other pains and through the indefinite floating pain that for two years had enveloped her every conscious moment. She realized two things: she would have to find a pain killer and she would have to find a toilet.
She made a firm resolve to stand up. She raised her head and saw the dresser. She reached out her arms and with both hands grasped the smooth wood of the edge. Supporting her weight on her hands, she stood. She took a step and her foot came into contact with something. A suitcase lay open on the floor, a suitcase piled high with neatly folded clothing. On the flapped-open lid was a small mound of something dark and shapeless — the outfit she had worn yesterday, a skirt and jacket, stripped off in a hurry and discarded. She remembered last evening, the airport terminal, the chrome and glass, the stark whiteness like an operating theatre, the emptiness because of the late hour, the voice on the intercom predicting snow, and then Esther rushing at her, furs, scarves and curls bouncing. She remembered Esther’s hands gripping the steering wheel as she manoeuvred the car through falling snow and slushy streets. She remembered the pah dah pah dah of the windshield wipers.
Suddenly, everything, everything, washed over Helena like a gigantic black tidal wave. The nightmare was a reality. The car had flown into the ocean. She, Helena, had been released into icy wet blackness. She had floated up just in time to see a dark shape like a small whale, its sheeny back glistening, pause a moment before descending, almost gracefully, and slowly disappearing into the black water and the storm-lashed night. Amanda had been trapped inside that dark shape while some twisted ironic force had flung her free, leaving her to surface into coldness so intense, so harsh, so bitter, no human being could survive it for long.
Amanda was dead. She had killed Amanda. She had killed her sister. But that was years ago. Two years and three months. Soon it would be two years and four months. Then two years and five months, and six months, and seven months. And no relief. No relief from the workings of her brain.
She remembered why she had come home to Esther.
She lurched to the bathroom. The vinyl on the floor sent a shock of cold through her feet and up through her body. She flipped the light switch, made it to the toilet and sat down. She put her head down on her knees. She remembered that the month was February. She hated February.
She pulled open the mirror door to a cabinet, careful not to look in the mirror. Esther must have something for a headache. Didn’t everyone have something on hand for pain? She found some extra-strength Tylenol and shook several into the palm of her hand. How many would it take for this particular headache? She looked down at the white oblongs. They seemed to grow in dimension, as if calling to her, offering their particular solution of oblivion. But she had something better in her handbag, something better for sleep. Where was her handbag? Her head snapped up, her hand dropped the pills. Her heart started to race and she couldn’t breathe. Where had she left her handbag last night? She turned and bolted, slamming her side and her head first against the bathroom doorjamb then, bouncing off that, against the bedroom doorway. Where? Where? Frantically she looked around. There. On the bureau. She rushed to it, snatched it up, felt in the special pocket. Yes. She had not lost it. No one had found it and taken it away from her. The bottle was still there. She unscrewed the cap and shook one small blue tablet into her hand just to make sure. But these were not for now. These were for later. These were for after she had found Ben. It was not quite time to sleep. First she had to find Ben. Then she would be out of this hell. Otherwise, she would go to another hell, an eternal hell. She had seen hell; she didn’t want to spend eternity there.
Back in the bathroom, with shaking hands she retrieved the white oblongs from the sink, swallowed two with tap water and returned the rest to the container. Hanging on to the door frame and walls, she made her way down the hall to the kitchen. She knew this house well. She had been here often. She had lived here one summer, when she had been young, happy, a long time ago, when she had been blissfully unaware of what life had in store.
The hall runner was thick and springy beneath her feet. She made no sound. The radio in the kitchen was playing softly … You don’t have to say you love me, just be close at hand….
George stood at the kitchen counter. He was wearing red jogging pants, a long- sleeved sweatshirt, and a blue denim vest. He was measuring beans into a coffee grinder.
“Good morning,” she whispered.
He turned quickly, his face breaking into a smile. She hadn’t seen him since Amanda’s funeral and her first impression was that he looked well, even better than then. He had good strong features and thick hair, the sort of looks that aged well.
“Good morning,” he said in a normal voice, advancing toward her. “It’s all right. You don’t have to worry about waking Esther. You could drop a bomb beside the bed.”
He was going to embrace her. She held up her hand. “Please,” she said. “I’m such a fright in the morning.” She evaded him further by dropping herself into a chair, then attempted to fill the awkward gap. “I remember that, Esther’s talent for sleeping.”
“She doesn’t worry about things.” George returned to the cupboard and took down a coffee filter. “That’s the secret.”
Helena noted the familiar table and chairs, heavy oak, the chairs softened by back and seat cushions quilted in cheerful floral patterns. On the table were place mats in a similar country cottage design. The fabric items were new, or maybe not so new. When had she been here last? Since she couldn’t do the calculations necessary to figure it out, she abandoned the question. She hugged her shoulders and stared at Janus, the two-faced god who adorned George’s back.
You don’t have to stay forever, just try and understand… It was a woman’s voice. George switched it off.