“Utterly charming from beginning to end”—Booklist
“Lively and inspiring!”—Hartford Courant
“A great feel-good story.”—Philadelphia Examiner
“This is a perfect book for book clubs to discuss, for friends to share with one another, or to just enjoy on a hot summer day with a cool glass of lavender lemonade by your side.”—Sharon’s Garden of Books
After losing her boyfriend and her job in one fell swoop, Noreen has no idea what her next step is. So she puts on a new pair of sneakers and a seriously outdated pair of exercise pants, and walks. Before long she’s joined by two neighbors as lost as she is. Throw in a road trip to Seattle for a lavender festival, a career-coaching group that looks like a bad sequel to The Breakfast Club, some terrific romantic comedy twists and turns, a quirky multigenerational cast of supporting characters, and the result is a tribute to female friendship that will inspire you to pick up the phone and call all your old friends—and maybe even start your own walking group.
Join Noreen, Tess and Rosie as they walk and talk, talk and walk, tally their steps, share their secrets, and discover that even big changes happen one step at a time. You’ll be lacing up your own sneakers in no time!
“Now I knew that the hardest part of any workout was just putting on your sneakers. Once you got started, all you had to do was keep placing one foot in front of the other, no matter what was or wasn’t happening in your life, no matter how happy or sad you were. I’d taken that first step because I’d wanted to look better. I’d wanted my clothes to fit. But it hadn’t taken me long to figure out that the biggest benefit was less about vanity than it was about sanity. Walking always helped.”—The Wildwater Walking Club
“The Wildwater Walking Club is a quick smart read that will get you thinking about walking, friendship, and making time for the things you love.” –Bookreporter.com
“Readers who enjoy a celebration of friendship will want to walk the beach alongside the Wildwater trio.” –Midwest Book Review
“The Wildwater Walking Club reminds us of what’s important in life – the joy of friendship, the power of a brisk walk, and of course the importance of a good book. I couldn’t put it down. –Anisha Lakhani
“The woman of The Wildwater Walking Club are a delightful trio, full of heart and determination. As they – literally – put one foot in front of the other, the three new friends find unlikely paths that point them toward more fulfilling lives. Their journey left me genuinely inspired (and with the curious urge to go out and buy a clothesline).” –Jean Reynolds Page
Excerpted from The Wildwater Walking Club
Copyright © Claire Cook. All rights reserved.
On the day I became redundant, I began to walk. Okay, not right away. First I lay in bed and savored the sound of the alarm not going off. I’d been hearing that stupid beep at the same ridiculous time pretty much every weekday morning for the entire eighteen years I’d worked at Balancing Act Shoes.
I stretched decadently and let out a loud, self-indulgent sigh. I pictured the zillion-count Egyptian cotton sheets I’d finally get around to buying. I’d pull them up to my chin to create a cozy cocoon, then wiggle down into the feather bed I’d buy, too, a big, fluffy one made with feathers from wildly exotic free-range birds.
I’d once had a pair of peacock earrings that came with a note saying, “Since peacocks lose their feathers naturally, no peacocks were harmed in the making of these earrings.” I’d always meant to look that up to see if it was a marketing ploy or if it was actually true. If so, then maybe I could find a peacock feather comforter. Though I suppose what would be the point of using peacock feathers in a comforter if you couldn’t see them? Perhaps I could invent a see-through comforter that let the iridescent blues and greens shimmer through. Though I guess first I’d need to come up with a zillion-count see-through Egyptian cotton.
I closed my eyes. I flipped over onto my back and opened them again. I stared up at a serious crack, which I liked to think of as the Mason-Dixon Line of my ceiling. My seventh-grade history teacher would be proud she’d made that one stick.
I rolled over, then back again. I kicked off my ordinary covers. On the first morning I could finally sleep in, I seemed to be more awake than I’d been at this hour in decades. Go figure.
After a long, leisurely shower, a bowl of cereal, and an online check of the news and weather, I called Michael on his cell at 8:45 A.M. It rang twice, then cut off abruptly without going to voice mail.
So I sent him an e-mail. “Call me when you can,” it said.
A nanosecond later my e-mail bounced back. “Returned Mail: Permanent Fatal Errors,” it said.
I dialed his office number. At least that voice mail picked up. “Hi, it’s me,” I said. “I seem to be having technical difficulties reaching you. But the good news is I have all the time in the world now. Anyway, call me when you get this.” I laughed what I hoped was the perfect laugh, light and sexy. “Unless, of course, you’re trying to get rid of me.”
By 11 A.M., I’d watched enough morning TV to last me a lifetime, and I still hadn’t heard back from him. I tried to remember if we had specific plans for that night. Michael worked for the buyout company, Olympus, so we’d had to keep things on the down low. I mean, it wasn’t that big a deal. I was leaving anyway, and he’d be right behind me, so it was just a matter of time.
After the initial army of auditors had stopped acting like nothing was going on, when everybody with half a brain knew something was obviously up at Balancing Act, Michael had been one of the first Olympus managers to come aboard. He was handsome, but not too, and exactly my age, which gave us an immediate bond in an industry that more and more was comprised of iPod-wearing recent college grads. Some of them had become friends, at least work friends, but they were still essentially children.
Michael and I had commonality, both current and past. I was a Senior Manager of Brand Identity for Balancing Act. He was a Senior Brand Communications Manager for Olympus. Potato, potahto. The athletic shoe industry is market-driven rather than product-driven, which means, basically, that even though we don’t actually need a two-hundred-dollar pair of sneakers, we can be convinced that we do. Fads can be created, predicted, or at least quickly reacted to, and in a nutshell, that’s how Michael and I both spent our days.
But even more important, we’d both danced to Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” gotten high to the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman,” made love to “Sweet Baby James” back when James Taylor had hair. Maybe not with each other, but still, we had the generational connection of parallel experiences, coupled with your basic boomer’s urge to do something new, fast, while there was still time.
One of the first things he said to me was, “It’s business, baby.”
We were sitting in the employee cafeteria, and I felt a little jolt when he called me baby. He had rich chocolate eyes and a full head of shiny brown hair without a strand of gray, which meant he probably dyed it, but who was I to talk.
“Of course, it’s business,” I said. I gave my own recently camouflaged hair a little flip and added, “Baby.”
He laughed. He had gorgeous white teeth, probably veneers, but so what.
“What’s your off-the-record recommendation?” I asked.
He leaned forward over the button-shaped table that separated us, and the arms of his suit jacket gripped his biceps. I caught the sharp, spicy smell of his cologne. Some kind of citrus and maybe a hint of sandalwood, but also something retro. Patchouli?
“The first deal,” he said, “is always the best.”
“So grab the VRIF and run?” I asked, partly to show off my new vocabulary. Balancing Act employees, even senior managers like me, didn’t find out we’d become the latest Olympus acquisition until the day it went public. Since then, the buzz had been that the way to go was to take your package during the VRIF or Voluntary Reductions in Force phase. Olympus was all about looking for redundancies and establishing synergies, code for getting rid of the departments that overlapped.
Right now, the packages were pretty generous. I could coast along for eighteen months at full base salary, plus medical and dental. They were even throwing in outplacement services to help me figure out what to do with the rest of my life. The only thing missing was a grief counselor. And maybe a good masseuse. By the time we got to the Involuntary Reductions in Force phase, aka the IRIF, who knew what I’d be looking at.
Michael glanced over his shoulder, then back into my eyes. “Here’s the thing, Noreen. Or do you prefer Nora?”
“Nora,” I said, even though no one had ever called me that until this very moment. I’d been called Nor, Norry, Reeny, Beany, NoreanyBeany, even StringBeany, though I had to admit that one was a few years and pounds ago. Mostly it was just plain Noreen. Michael’s baby reeled me in, but I swallowed his Nora hook, line, and sinker.
I forced myself to focus. “Wall Street,” he was saying, “will expect some performance from the synergy created by combining companies. The way to get performance is to streamline numbers, to create efficiencies. Human resources, finance, operations, marketing—lots of overlap. Ergo…”
I raised an eyebrow. “Ergo?” I teased.
He raised his eyebrow to match mine, and even though it would be another two weeks before we ended up in bed together, I think we both knew right then it was only a matter of time.
I leaned my elbows on the table. “So, what?” I said. “I leave so you can have my job?”
“Off the record,” he said, “I’ll probably be right behind you. I mean, take my job, please. You’d be doing me a favor. I’m just waiting till they offer the VRIF package to the Olympus employees they’ve brought in.”
“Seriously?” I said. “You really think you’ll take it? And do what?”
He laced his fingers together behind his head and arched back in his chair. “Let’s see. First off, I think I’d light a bonfire and burn up all my suits and ties. Then I’d chill for a while. Maybe buy a van, find me a good woman, drive cross-country.” He smiled. “Then look around for a partner, someone to start a small business with.”
At eleven-thirty, I called Michael’s cell again. The second ring cut off midway, once more without going to voice mail. I waited, then pushed Redial. This time it cut off almost as soon as it started ringing. I sent another e-mail. It bounced back with the same fatal message. I called his office number, but when that voice mail picked up, I just hung up.
I was seriously creeped out by now. I thought about calling someone else at work to see if maybe there was a logical explanation, like everybody in the whole building was having both cell service and mail server problems, but I couldn’t seem to make myself do it.
I thought some more, then threw on a pair of slimming black pants and a coral V-neck top over a lightly padded, modified push-up bra pitched as a cutting-edge scientific undergarment breakthrough in subtle enhancement. A little figure-flattering never hurt, even if it was hyperbole, and if nothing else, the coral worked well with my pale skin and dark hair. The last time I’d worn it, Michael had said I looked hot. Smoking hot, come to think of it, though that was probably an overstatement, too.
The midday drive into Boston was a lot shorter without the commuter congestion. Who knew that unemployment would be the best way to beat the traffic? Still, I had plenty of time to get a plan. I’d simply pretend I’d left one of my favorite sweaters behind and wanted to grab it before someone ran off with it. And I was in the neighborhood anyway because I was meeting a friend for lunch. And I just thought I’d poke my head in and say Hi, Michael. And he’d say he was just thinking about me, trying to remember if we had plans for dinner. I’d tilt my head and tell him if he was lucky, maybe I’d even consider cooking for him. And he’d smile and make a crack about maybe it would be safer to get takeout.
The main lot was packed, but eventually I found a parking spot. I reached into my glove compartment for the lanyard that held my employee badge, slipped it over my head, and made for the front entrance.
When the revolving door spilled me out into the lobby, I held up my badge for the uniformed guard.
He waved his handheld scanner over the laminated bar code like a wand.
I headed for the elevators, the way I had a million times before.
“Ma’am?” he said.
I turned. He held up his scanner. I held out my badge again.
This time I watched. When the laser light hit the bar code, it flashed red instead of the customary green.
We looked at each other. This was the grouchy guard, the one who never said a word and always looked like he wished he were anywhere but here. I found myself wishing I’d tried a little harder to befriend him.
I laughed. “Well, I guess it didn’t take them long to get over me.” I gave my hair a toss. “Lucky me, I took a buyout. I just need a minute to run up and grab something I forgot.” He didn’t say anything, so I added, “A sweater. A cardigan. Black, with some nice seaming around the buttons. I’ll be back before you even start to miss me.”
“Sorry, ma’am, I can’t let you do that. Orders.”
I blew out a gust of air. “Just call up,” I said. “Sixth floor.” I held out my card again so he could read my name.
He ran his finger down a list on a clipboard. “Sorry, ma’am. You’re on the No Admittance List.”
“You’re not serious,” I said, though it was pretty obvious that he was.
I waited. He looked up again. I met his eyes and couldn’t find even a trace of sympathy in them, so I tried to look extra pathetic, which by that point I didn’t really even have to fake.
“Maybe you can call somebody and ask them to bring it down,” he said finally. “On your cell phone,” he added.
“Unbelievable,” I said. I stomped across the lobby so I could have some privacy. Since I hadn’t really left a sweater behind, I decided to just cut to the chase and call Michael’s cell. Half a ring and it went dead.
There is always that exact moment when the last shreds of denial slip away and your reality check bounces. I closed my eyes. Eventually, I opened them again. I called his office number. “You piece of shit,” I whispered to his voice mail.
I stood there for a minute, scratching my scalp with both hands. Hard, as if I might somehow dig my way to a good idea. When that didn’t happen, I walked out, without even a glance at the guard. I kept my head up high as I walked across the parking lot, in case someone was watching from one of the windows. I found my car and climbed back into it.
Just as I was getting ready to pull out onto the access road, I caught the purple-and-white-striped Balancing Act Employee Store awning out of the corner of my eye. I banged a right and pulled into a parking space right in front of it.
I stopped at the first circular display I came to and grabbed a pair of our, I mean their, newest shoe, the Walk On By, in a size 8 1/2. It was strictly a women’s model, positioned as the shoe every woman needed to walk herself away from the things that were holding her back and toward the next exciting phase of her life. Shed the Outgrown. Embrace Your Next Horizon. Walk On By.
Even though I’d been part of the team to fabricate this hook out of thin air, I still wanted to believe in the possibility. I handed the box to the woman at the register. I held up my badge. I held my breath.
Her scanner flashed green, and she rattled off a price that was a full 50 percent off retail.
“Wait,” I said. I ran back to the display, grabbing all the Walk On Bys in my size. Then I sprinted around the room, scooping up whatever I could find in an 81/2. Dream Walker. (You’ll Swear You’re Walking on Clouds.) Step Litely. (Do These Sneakers Make Me Look Thin?) Feng Shuoe. (New Sneakers for a New Age.) I didn’t stop until I’d built a tower of shoe boxes on the counter.
“Take a buyout?” the woman asked as she rang me up.
I gave her my credit card, and she handed me a bright purple pedometer. “On the house,” she said. “It’s the least Balancing Act can do for you.”
“Thanks,” I said. I hooked it onto my waistband, and that’s when I started to walk.
So this is rock bottom.
No, this is.
. . . . .
The Wildwater Walking Club Book Club Questions
1. Claire Cook walked 10,000 steps along with her characters while writing The Wildwater Walking Club. Did this novel inspire you to dust off your pedometer and get out there?
2. How does each of the three main characters—Noreen, Tess and Rosie—change during the course of the novel? What triggers these changes?
3. Noreen takes a buyout from Balancing Act partly because of Michael’s influence. Have you ever let a career decision be influenced by a man you were dating? Kind of dating?
4. If you were Rosie, would you have uprooted your family and moved them to the lavender farm to help your father? If not, which of your siblings might have stepped up?
5. Have you ever had to decide whether to tell a teenager’s mother you saw her/him sneaking out/smoking a cigarette/ etc.? Where do you think you should draw the line between doing the right thing and minding your own business?
6. What do you think the three women’s reaching out to Annalisa, who is essentially a stranger, says about them? About women in general?
7. Do you believe men like Michael-Don’t-Call-Me-Mike are essentially redeemable? Why or why not?
8. Balancing Act sneakers and slogans include: Dream Walker. (You’ll Swear You’re Walking on Clouds.) Step Litely. (Do These Sneakers Make Me Look Thin?) Feng Shuoe. (New Sneakers for a New Age.) If you were creating your dream sneaker, what would you name it and what would its slogan be?
9.Do think clotheslines should be outlawed or encouraged? Why?
10. If The Wildwater Walking Club is made into a movie, who would you want to play Noreen? Noreen’s mother? Tess? Hannah? Rosie? Rosie’s father? Michael? Rick? Brock? Sherry?
11. Which parts of the novel made you laugh? Cry?
12. Which character in The Wildwater Walking Club is most like you? Which one would you most like to hang around with?
13. If they were real and you were dating, would you be more apt to date Michael or Rick? Tell the truth.