Tea-Leaf Prophecies Essay, Research Paper
Life is a journey one embarks on without any knowledge of where it is going to lead or what might be encountered on the path. With this journey comes a mindset, the traveler often has an idea where they want the path to lead but do they really have any control over it? Harriet Mahoney traveled in a path that looked to be a straight line, but to her excitement and amazement, ended up have many sharp turns and gradual curves. Isabel’s Bed, a novel by Elinor Lipman, tells of her on the path of life and the discoveries about herself and the world she makes on the way.
Harriet Mahoney has spent her “thirties engaged to a spoiled child” (3) and attempting to become a writer. When her boyfriend and owner of a bagel chain, Kenny, breaks up with her, she is forced to move out of her apartment into a new home and a new life. After answering an ad in the New York Review of Books for room and board in exchange for writing, she whisks herself off to Cape to fulfill her dreams. Harriet is hired to write The Isabel Krug Story, based on her new housemate’s scandalous tabloid past centered around Isabel and a fatal affair. While researching the details, Isabel and Harriet become like sisters – fighting occasionally, but continually inspiring each other. When the book is finally ready to be written, Nan, the murderous wife of Isabel’s lover, is released from the insane asylum. Once she signs on to write her side of the story, much against Isabel’s will, the book takes on several new twists leaving Harriet to pursue a new life of love and happiness.
All her life, Harriet has been described as dependable and as Isabel put it when she hired her, “normal” (3). Harriet had the normal dreams of becoming someone she wasn’t, the normal dreams of having someone who loved her unconditionally, and the normal dreams of having a life that was full of excitement and thrills. Harriet’s life though, was none of these. When her “bald and malcontent boyfriend” of twelve years broke up with her, her life finally took a turn for the better. While living with Kenny, she was striving to become a novelist. She had taken all the normal steps in the process of writing but those steps were the exact things that were stopping her. She joined a writing group to get constructive criticism and while the group was supportive of her writing, they always told her it lacked something. What it usually lacked was something that terrified her, sex. I wrote “pretty parlor skits about manners and used actions which suggested rather delineated sexual activities” (64). The reason she was unable to do that was because sex was what would eventually lock her into a lifelong relationship with Kenny. He had told her that the only way he would ever marry her was if she conceived his child or he felt like it. Sex was the only way to produce his child and since she always knew deep down that their relationship was out of comfort rather than love, a child would trap them both. This fear of entrapment is seen later in the book when Harriet is worried about cooking. “I don’t mind cooking, but what if I want to sleep late or go out for dinner?” (75). Another reason she cannot write about sex is that she is not comfortable with herself.
Harriet comes off immediately as a very self-conscious person. At the first glance from Isabel, her gray hair goes from an extension of “character and substance” (13) to just gray hair. She feels frumpy in her mail order clothing and can only think about what she should be wearing to make Isabel happy with her. Her whole life has revolved around making other people happy. She became her mother’s confidant when her parents got a divorce to ensure her mother’s love. She changed her writing in order to make her writing group happy with her and she did whatever Kenny wanted so that she could stay in her comfortable routine. Her life has taught her through the divorce of her parents and her break-up with Kenny for a younger girl that she needs to do whatever will keep other people happy. By living with Isabel, she was able to conquer both of these issues. Isabel wouldn’t set a schedule so it forced Harriet to decide what she wanted to do with her life, when she wanted to eat, when she wanted to write, when she wanted to take a walk on the beach. It was all up to her. Another person at Isabel’s that helped her conquer her self-consciousness was Pete DaSilva, the handyman. Pete and Harriet immediately get along because she associates herself as part of the Help. After months of long walks on the beach and exchanging looks at Isabel’s extremes, Pete and Harriet realize their love for one another. He was the type of lover that was completely opposite from Kenny, “he didn’t run his hands down my sides and frown at my hips, didn’t make disparaging remarks or trace any blue veins with a reluctant finger. If anything, he stopped for a few seconds when I was out of my clothes and took the kind of breath that could only be interpreted as appreciation. I forgot all my guidelines and my self-consciousness” (339). He made her feel beautiful on the outside which was the block she had placed on herself that had to be met before should would allow herself to be beautiful on the inside. By removing herself from the surroundings that suppressed her, she was able to find what she wanted in life and enjoy it.
Isabel Krug was like no other, she was blonde, big-breasted, and felt as if the world revolved around her. Everywhere she went she “swept in like a movie star soaking up atmosphere for an ethnic character role” (84). Unlike Harriet, she was all about sex and made sure the attention was on her. The reason she hired Harriet was to write the story of her tabloid affair. She had been having an affair with Guy VanVleet when his wife found them in bed and shot him. Isabel had saved every news story published and transformed her room into a shrine to herself. “Newspaper clippings floated magically on its curved mauve-woolen walls…and her bed, covered it sheared sheepskin the color of eggplant…was littered with celebrity biographies” (22). She wanted the public to know her story, or at least the story she was choosing to tell. The affair started out when Isabel became Guy’s personal shopping consultant and evolved into much more. He showered her with gifts and truly was in love with her, while she was still unsure of how much she loved him. Isabel had never had a problem in the men department though. There was always some guy ready to open a door for her or buy her a drink. In her first true act of kindness, Isabel consoles Harriet on her men problems offering the advice, “I give lessons” (??). Isabel also works to immediately pull Harriet into her world of lavish items and hired help. She takes her shopping to find her clothes that don’t “look apologetic” (171) in New York and to a salon to get a new haircut. Isabel is also very open about her body and through this openness encourages Harriet to be more open about hers. “There weren’t even bubbles in the bath to obscure her private parts from me, her acquaintance of less than twenty-four hours. There was no getting around her breasts. … Ordinarily I’d feel sorry for a woman with water-balloon breasts, knowing the burdens they imposed, but I could see that Isabel prized them and regarded them as my first research project, as if seeing them would help me write between the lines” (36). Just as Isabel helped Harriet change, Harriet also helped Isabel. She became much more caring after writing the book and living with Harriet. At Guy’s memorial service, she mourned with Nan instead of against her and gave up her room, the master bedroom, to Pete and Harriet because “It was meant for two people in love” (384).
Isabel’s Bed takes place in Truro on the Cape mainly at Isabel’s house which was “more Malibu than Cape Cod” (10). It was made out of “cement cylinders painted white, big ones and small ones, as if client Krug had said to an L.A. architect, ‘Make me feel as if I’m living inside a toppled pyramid of canned goods’”(10). The front door was a large curved steel door without a doorknob that immediately reminded Harriet of the Jetsons. Once inside, there was glass wherever there was ocean, blond wood wherever there was floor, and spiral staircases wherever ceiling disappeared into cylinders. Each room in the house had a different theme. One was all gray with a gray-tinted glass dome for a ceiling and fabrics made from natural fibers – cotton, wool, silk, and mohair. Another had walls that “looked like petrified sand, like indoor dunes” (15) and raisin colored walls and fabrics. The bathroom with this room was all glass with jets built into the walls and a floor made of sandstone with a drain in the middle. Isabel’s room was the largest and had all shades of purple with rounded woolen walls and a sheared sheepskin bedspread. Harriet’s favorite room, the black and white kitchen, was built into a skylight over the foyer and had the look of a “balcony caf? at an upscale mall” (22). Everything could be seen from it, “the harlequin kitchen, the master suite with its two penthouse lofts, the dim glow of Provincetown up the coast, and a deck designed by a student of the tides” (22). Behind the house, lay the ocean stretching on forever; it was like a private beach that no one knew about interrupted occasionally by wild blueberry shrubs and random beach grasses and driftwood. “I arise at first light with the sound of the ocean in my suite… and feel as if I have invited the sand inside. As the great orb rises, I take my coffee out to my private deck and stare at this glorious panorama before I actually commit words to paper” (15). This setting creates a feeling of peace, a place where Isabel has ultimately retreated to and where Harriet is well on her way to. The enormous house gives Harriet the mood of Isabel and while making her at peace with herself, also intimidates her.
The theme of Isabel’s Bed is that once a person accepts life, everything else falls into place. Harriet always had trouble writing because it was something she was forcing herself to do. She never sat and thought about whether she was a good writer or not. Once she realized she wasn’t, she was able to concentrate on finding something that she enjoyed. Harriet also never considered that she didn’t have to stay in her relationship for the rest of her life, and once she accepted their break-up, she immediately found a new love. This book has used the contrast between Isabel and Harriet to tell the story and that contrast also carries through to the theme. Isabel had long accepted her imperfections and had found what made her happy and made her feel beautiful. She ended up living in a huge house, with lots of money, and felt like she was worth all the credit she gave herself.
The one thing in life that Harriet let carry itself was getting to Isabel’s. At the beginning of the book, a tea-leaf reader told Harriet that she saw her “living in a house with many beds and big-mouth blonde” (1), Harriet turned and left because she was “looking for literary prophecies” (1). She answered the ad with the realization that “even prophecies had expiring deadlines” (3), and let herself be swept up into the soap opera drama and excitement she had always been searching for. By accepting what life was going to throw her, she fulfilled her fate and was able to enjoy to sharp turns and gradual curves of getting there.
Lipman, Elinor. Isabel’s Bed. New York: Washington Square Press Publication of Pocket Books, 1995.