(Scroll down to read an excerpt and find book club questions.)
A More Magazine Don’t Miss Pick!
March Monroe and her daughter Olivia are going to college. Not together at the same school, of course, just at the same time. March knows Olivia is going, naturally, since she and her husband have just made their first exorbitant tuition payment. But Olivia doesn’t exactly know the arrangement…yet. It’s not as if March plans never to tell her; she just figures she’ll wait a bit — until they’ve had a little time to miss each other. So imagine Olivia’s surprise when one day she shows up for training at a local radio station and finds out that one of the other interns is…her mother.
Sharing an internship with her royally ticked-off daughter is not March’s only new challenge. Among the multiple decisions on her mind are what to do about a slightly tired marriage, a fourteen-year-old son who probably won’t be speaking to her for much longer, and a midlife crush, not to mention Quantum Physics and You — the class that might just put her over the edge.
Laugh-out-loud funny, Multiple Choice is an effervescent novel of family life that will strike a chord with women everywhere – whether they have kids in college or are just now choosing their own majors.
“very funny…with plenty of giggles.”—Hartford Courant
“Her quirky voice and sense of humor are as strong as ever.”—Orlando Sentinel
Excerpted from Multiple Choice
Copyright © Claire Cook. All rights reserved.
During your child’s senior year in high school, it is most important for parents to try to
a. remain positive
b. set firm, consistent limits
c. save money
d. live through the experience
My daughter, Olivia, and I were going to college. Not together at the same school, thank goodness, just at the same time. And I knew she was going, naturally, since we’d just made our first exorbitant tuition payment to Boston University, but she didn’t exactly know about me yet. There were a few things that needed work in this arrangement. I knew that.
Any mother who has an eighteen-year-old daughter would completely understand why I didn’t mention my decision to go back to college to Olivia. What? I can’t believe it. Are you actually copying me? Don’t you think you should consider getting your own life? I could clearly hear her saying some or all of these things every time I thought about bringing it up. It wasn’t that I planned never to tell her. I just figured I’d wait a bit—maybe Columbus Day weekend, maybe over Thanksgiving—until we’d had a little time to miss each other.
I sat in an ugly square chair outside my academic counselor’s office and tried to justify my omission. I mean, what kind of mother doesn’t tell her own daughter that she’s going back to school? When Olivia was eight, or even ten or twelve, I pictured years of open communication between us. We’d never really cut the cord, just upgrade to a wireless connection. Yeah, right. The thing is, until your daughter has grown into a college freshman, you can’t possibly know the depths to which your whole family will sink.
I chose Olde Colony Community College because its brochure promised “an accelerated program for adults interested in completing their bachelor’s degrees expeditiously and affordably without sacrificing quality.” I called my old college, the one I’d dropped out of well over twenty years ago, to ask them to send my transcript. I was tremendously relieved that both the college and the transcript were still in existence. I asked two of my former clients to write letters of recommendation for me. And, finally, after stalling almost as long as Olivia had before she wrote hers for BU, I sat down to write my admissions essay.
In 100 words or less, what light—in the form of personal qualities, rich life experiences, and untapped potential—will you add to our already glowing, close-knit adult baccalaureate program?
As I review my life to this point and contemplate my future, I am convinced that I am at the perfect juncture for continuing my education. I have juggled work and pregnancy, toddlerhood and another pregnancy, soccer and skating practices scheduled at the same time in different towns, warring teenagers, homework and family crises, sickness and health, better and worse. Nothing can throw me. I am organized and motivated, and look to the completion of my bachelor’s degree as just the first step in an integrated experience of personal growth and academic challenge.
If a more down-to-earth answer is what you are looking for, please allow me to add that I have considerable experience in teaching aerobics and exercise for all populations, as well as in planning what might broadly be called “parties,” but in fact includes a wide array of functions from showers to memorial services. I bring these experiences, as well as my current work as a directionality coach, sometimes called a life coach or a career coach, with me to your program, all of which I would be happy to share with my cohorts. (I’m not sure what your policy is, but perhaps we could discuss bartering tuition for some or all of these?)
I realized that I’d gone well over the one hundred words, but didn’t know what to cut, so I sent it in anyway. I received an acceptance letter a few weeks later, which seemed awfully quick to me. And here I was, practically before I knew it, sitting at Olde Colony watching the door to my individualized academic counselor‘s office open.
I stood up and extended my right hand. I’d planned to start off by asking why they didn’t have dorm rooms for women in their forties, especially the ones who have kids at home and are still married, but one look told me she’d be way too young to get it. “Hi,” I said with a smile. “I’m March Monroe.”
“Right,” she said. She gave my hand a rubbery little squeeze. She had baby-fine red hair and tiny square teeth that made her look about twelve years old.
It wasn’t a great start, but I was sure I could bring her around. I sat down in another ugly chair across from my baby counselor’s desk, and pulled out a neatly printed purple index card from my oversized black bag. “Okay, I’ve already registered for three classes online.” I reached back into my bag and pulled out a new pair of reading glasses. “I’ve signed up for The English Novel Before 1800, The Dawn of Greek Civilization, and Quantum Physics and You.”
I took off my glasses and folded them up. “So,” I said, “what do I have to do to get the internship requirement waived so I can add a fourth class?”
“Sorry,” my counselor said around the hot-pink bubblegum she was chewing, “but a three-credit internship is one of the unique features of our program, and an essential requirement of the degree we offer.” She took a quick breath, then continued, “The purpose of which is to build the confidence of our returning students and, ultimately, to enhance their value in the postacademic workplace.”
“But you don’t understand,” I said, wondering if I should ask her for a stick of gum so we could bond, and if maybe then she might even tell me her name. “I have plenty of work experience. Did you get a chance to read my essay? It’s all in there. I’ve done consulting work. I’ve owned my own businesses. Couldn’t I petition out of the requirement?”
“Sorry, that’s not possible. But you sound like an excellent candidate for our Business Administration major. Initiating the New Business Venture is one of our most popular courses.”
I rolled my shoulders back a few times. “Let me try to explain this. I don’t want to finish my degree to get a better job. I want to take classes that are brainy and ethereal and totally impractical. I want to major in something that won’t get me anywhere in the real world. Something exotic and multisyllabic.”
“Uh, okay, I think that would be under Language Arts. Give me a minute while I check.” My child counselor worked her tongue through the bright center of her wad of gum as she flipped through an instruction manual of some sort. She stopped and shook her head. “Sorry. I just started here and I haven’t had one of those yet. I’ll have to ask somebody and get back to you. But, anyway, you have to do the internship for all of our majors. Check the bulletin board on the way out—and just, you know, pick one.”
I managed to shake my head and check the bulletin board at the same time, while I tried to decide whether this was a battle I wanted to take on. Probably not. I’d just get the damned B.A. any way I had to, and then maybe I could go someplace a little more flexible for graduate school. I scanned a glossy, full-color internship brochure from Seaside Aquarium. A couple of cute college kids in shorts stood at either end of a large tank. Special opportunity to get deeply involved in the hands-on care of marine animals, the description read. I was old enough to know that this probably meant feeding the fish. And their invitation to Hatch sailfish sculpin and/or nautichthys oculofasciatus eggs and rear the fry sounded way too much like mothering to me.
I moved quickly past possibilities at an insurance agency, a bank, a market research firm, and a construction company, looking for a little glamour, wqbm radio a simple, computer- made flyer said in black ink. interns always welcome. I knew WQBM. It had lots of local news and sports and weather and traffic reports, so my husband, Jeff, usually kept it on in his car.
I had a sudden picture, crystal clear, of the whole family taking a drive together out to the Berkshires a month or so ago while we listened to an oldies show on WQBM. I remembered cranking up the music from the front seat, and all of us singing along with the Beach Boys. Olivia reached her arm around her younger brother, Jackson’s, shoulders, and they tilted their heads together when they sang the high parts. It was probably our last day trip as a family who lived together year-round. I felt a sharp jolt of missing Olivia.
WQBM was on the outskirts of Boston, so at least it would take me almost out of the suburbs and into the city I even knew where it was: You could see it from the Southeast Expressway, so I could probably get there without getting lost. And, not that I’d ever really stopped to consider it before but, come to think about it, I liked radio.
I copied down the phone number from the flyer onto the back of my purple index card and walked out to my car. I put my keys in the ignition of my Dodge Caravan and checked my watch. Since I didn’t seem to be late for anything, I decided to call the station from my cell phone.
“WQBM,” a female voice said. “Cutting-edge news and the best in local programming.”
“Hi, my name is March Monroe, and I’m wondering if you still have any openings for interns this semester. I know it’s late but I just found out—”
“Three-thirty in the kitchen.”
“Excuse me?” I had this horrible feeling that I’d somehow identified myself as someone who’d be willing to make sandwiches.
“There’s an intern meeting at three-thirty. In the kitchen.”
“You mean I can just show up? I haven’t even filled out an application.” On the way to the car I’d been thinking how I’d answer the inevitable question: What skills and experiences will you bring to your WQBM internship? I figured I could take my Olde Colony essay and add to it, distilling the last two decades of my life into a concise and witty exposition, with the thought that, if it was good enough, they might want me to develop it into an on-air slice-of-life commentary. People were always telling me I had a nice voice.
The woman on the other end of the phone laughed. “I don’t think we even have any applications. Just bring whatever you need signed for your school. Are you in high school or college?”
It was a simple question, but it made me feel about a hundred years old. “College,” I said. “The second time around.”
“I’ve been thinking about doing that myself. Anything to get me out of this zoo.”
Well, I thought, what the hell. Worst case scenario: If all the other interns were in high school, at least I could hang out with the receptionist.
I wished I’d had time to go home and change my clothes, but it was all I could manage to track down Jeff at work by phone and ask him to pick up Jackson from soccer practice. I was wearing a black skirt and a sweater I’d borrowed from Olivia’s closet this morning, and was balancing the guilt about not asking her permission with the sad truth that even the clothes Olivia hadn’t bothered to take to BU were much nicer than most of mine. This sweater was one I’d given her for Christmas, which was probably why she didn’t like it, even though its deep rust color brought out the flecks of gold in her green eyes. Olivia’s eyes were her best feature.
I found a parking space at the far end of the WQBM parking lot. I’d been feeling a bit conflicted lately about my ten-year-old Dodge Caravan. On one hand it was paid for. And there was always plenty of room for everybody and everything, the seats were removable, and it always started. On the other hand, it absolutely screamed suburban mother, which I had to admit was technically accurate. Still, I figured the walk would distance me just a little from both the minivan and the image.
After dragging a brush I found in the glove compartment through my hair, I put on some lipstick in the mirror on the back of the visor. Then I double-checked myself in the rearview mirror, which had better light, since it was getting harder and harder to tell if I’d stayed inside the lines of my lips. Of all the aggravations of aging, the one I minded most was my failing vision.
The receptionist was talking on the phone when I approached her glass cubicle. She covered the mouthpiece with one hand. She had red, talonlike fingernails and must have been at least ten years younger than I. “March Monroe,” I whispered. “I’m here for the intern meeting.” She nodded and pointed at a door midway down a long, narrow hallway, then removed her hand to laugh into the phone. I’d pictured her older and friendlier.
I knocked softly on a door marked kitchen. “Sounds like another victim,” a man roared from within. “Entrez-vous, if ya catch my drift.” Against my better judgment, I turned the knob and pushed the door open.
The first person I saw was Olivia.
Book Club Conversation Starters
1. March Monroe is returning to college to complete her degree many years after leaving school to marry Jeff and raise a family. What are her feelings toward the decisions she made as a young woman? What are her feelings about returning to school as an adult?
2. There are few events in life that we get a chance to do over again. If you could relive any aspect of your youth—knowing what you know now—would you do it? What would you do differently and why?
3. March says that “relationships, the ones that last anyway, are really an extended game of Let’s Make A Deal.” How do the various relationships in Multiple Choice prove that quote either true or false? Do you find it true in your own experience? Can you think of any other game title that March might have used?
4. Are there any Ahndrayuhs in your neighborhood? How about David Callahans in your workplace? And—tell the truth—are there thongs in your underwear drawer? Is your husband a boxer or a briefs man?
5. After March’s radio show, she stops to buy dinner on the way home and hopes the woman ringing up her purchases will recognize her voice. Have you ever had a moment of almost fame like that, when you thought the world might stand up and take notice, but it didn’t quite turn out that way? Do you still dream of fifteen minutes of fame? Would you settle for five?
6. The phrase “karma is a boomerang” appears several times in the course of the book. Do you believe this is true? Does March? Give some examples of March’s karma-related behavior.
7. When book groups meet to discuss Must Love Dogs, they often serve Sarah’s winey macaroni and cheese, made without butter and with white wine instead of milk, and served in wine glasses for best effect. What might your book group, real or imagined, serve when discussing Multiple Choice?
8. “I’d spent so many years doing things I didn’t really want to do for people I didn’t really like.” Do you think this speaks to March’s need to please people or is it about time management? Or is it both? Is this quote true for most women? Do you think we all reach a point in our lives when we realize we don’t want to be all things to all people?
9. Mothers and daughters share a complicated and profound union, built on years of mutual observation. How do March and Olivia demonstrate their intimate knowledge of each other’s behaviors and needs during the course of the book? In what ways are they strangers?
10. Multiple Choice is Claire Cook’s third book. Never Too Late is her twelfth. What do you think her next one should be about? Which is your favorite so far? Why?