Hats, like first husbands in my experience, are usually a mistake. But the invitation was specific. And demanding. A GATSBY party. Wear white. And below that, in imploring cursive: "Hats for the Ladies."
It's still unclear to me how hats were involved in Fitzgerald's story—only a few are mentioned in the novel—or, frankly, why any adult above the age of twenty would care to attend this sort of theme party. I'm also still not sure that this part of the story—how Miles Noble's first party at the house it took five years to design and build came to be themed around this book he'd once given my sister—was ever fully explained, but as Peck kept pointing out, I was a foreigner, so what the hell did I know?
Like many of her observations, this one wasn't entirely accurate. Peck, short for Pecksland—that's the sort of mother she has—is my half sister. We shared the same father, although he died when I was three and she was seven, after he'd left her mother for mine. I'm as American as she is, with the same navy blue passport. It's just that I never lived in the States and, according to her, I don't know anybody, or any of the sorts of people she would have liked me to know: American celebrities, fashion designers, New York socialites, people who could get a table at a place called the Waverly Inn, those sorts.
I didn't own any hats of the kind I imagined Daisy Buchanan might have worn, but on this, as on so many things, Peck was adamant. She not only insisted (read: begged, pleaded, and threatened to kick me out of the house) that I accompany her to Miles Noble's party, but also that I follow the oddly specific sartorial directions. She was often adamant, often about absurd things, but particularly about hats. On this, there'd been no room for argument. She hadn't seen Miles in seven years and she needed someone—me—by her side for this encounter.
I'd only been in Southampton for three days and I was in no mood for a party. Even one hosted, as Peck kept dramatically exclaiming, by the first and only man she'd ever loved. It was the Fourth of July, a holiday about which I'd always been reverent, but at that point in the summer I was still jaundiced and cynical, a divorced twenty-eight-year-old aspiring writer whose creative ambitions had led only to a dead-end job as a translator at a lifestyle magazine for tourists in Switzerland. And my only blood relative, aside from the half sister I hardly knew, had only been gone a couple of months. I was far more saddened by Lydia's death than I might have expected, especially as I hadn't seen my aunt in a few years. I was a weepy, confused mess and was finding it hard to be there, in her house, without her. So at first I politely declined Peck's invitation to join her.
But being polite and declining invitations do not agree with my glamorously eccentric half sister, and since I was at the very beginning of what was supposed to be a month of sisterly togetherness at the house we'd jointly inherited from Aunt Lydia, I reluctantly agreed to go with her. In the interest of getting along, I pulled the only dress I'd brought with me from my suitcase of jeans and T-shirts and borrowed a hat from the strange assortment Aunt Lydia had left in the house, unwisely choosing a drooing off-white bowler that made my head itch and kept falling over my eyes as Peck inexpertly maneuvered our aunt's ancient station wagon down the driveway.
"There's a situation," she announced as she pulled into the sun-dappled street, spraying gravel like she was commandeering a getaway car. This is a standard expression from Peck, who tends to speak in proclamations and for whom life is one long series of situations. A situation could be anything from the mysteriously locked safe in Aunt Lydia's closet that we had not been able to open to the guy wearing nothing but wet tighty-whitey BVDs we'd witnessed just that morning slowly pedaling his bicycle home from the beach. (Or the situation could be me.)
This was true. I was trying, I really was. But to say it wasn't going well between Peck and me would be an oversimplification. The first three days had been, well, strained. Inheritances will do that, people tell me. Our circumstances weren't necessarily unusual: a beloved elderly aunt bequeathing a small second home to two nieces who must come together to settle the estate. Except the two nieces, half sisters raised an ocean apart by two utterly different women who'd both loved the same man, had a complicated relationship. And it was a house in the Hamptons. Southampton, to be specific. (Apparently there are nuances I couldn't possibly understand, being a foreigner.) Also, as Peck kept telling me, nobody calls it "the Hamptons."
Certain types of New Yorkers, I was to learn, and style-obsessed Peck, to her delight, was now one of these New Yorkers, go to the Country on weekends and in the summers. To them "the Country" refers to anyplace outside Manhattan, which is "the City." The City is where you live during the week. On the weekends, you go to the Country. Even suburbs like Larchmont and Scarsdale are the Country to such city people, as are Southampton, East Hampton, and Westhampton. These were the sorts of distinctions about which my sister was appalled to find I didn't already know.
"Literally." Peck often started a sentence that way. Lit-tra-ly. It was a verbal tic and could be contagious. She sped up and then slammed on the brakes as she cursed the driver ahead of us. "I don't see how we could be related. You have no sense of priorities."
This was a theme she kept revisiting. Peck felt vehemently that we should ignore Lydia's wishes—"It's not like she would know"—and keep the house we'd inherited. In her view, to trade the house for money was like looking a gift horse in the mouth and, therefore, terrible manners. I was far less prone to vehemence, but on this Lydia's mandate for us had been clear. And I had absolutely no interest in keeping what would only be a sad reminder that all of them, my father, my mother, and my aunt, all the members of that generation of Moriartys, were gone. Only Peck's mother was still around, and she was living in Palm Springs, "where she belongs," as Peck, who adored her mother, put it.
In her opinion, I should have immediately jumped to the obvious solution, one that involved my moving to New York, where everybody lives, allowing us to keep the house in Southampton for shared weekends and summers. Or I should go back to Switzerland, where, last she checked, the Hampton Jitney—an evocative name for what was nothing more than a big green bus that took people from Manhattan to the villages of the Hamptons and back—did not make any stops, and simply leave the house in Southampton to her. She didn't see why she should be forced to sell just because I was so determined to be, in her view, difficult.
"Lydia made it pretty clear in the will she didn't expect us to keep it," I said. "I'd like to honor her wishes." Whenever I pointed out that Peck couldn't afford to keep the house, that we couldn't afford to keep the house—even together, according to the lawyers, we couldn't afford to pay the taxes, let alone for any of the maintenance on the place—she would sigh dramatically and change the subject. "You know what your problem is?" she would ask, and then pause, as if awaiting a response. "You're afraid to live."
Now she made a sound like a harrumph. "Were you always so obedient?"
"I suppose so," I said.
That morning, I'd made things worse, voicing the perhaps too caustic opinion that she was only interested in seeing Miles Noble again because she'd recently discovered that he'd become such a financial success that he'd built himself an enormous house—a place that grew larger, "twenty thousand square feet," "thirty thousand square feet, at least," every time I heard Peck express her enthusiasm about seeing it—in Bridgehampton.
Pointing out that my half sister seemed more intrigued with the idea of this extravagant evidence of wealth than she was with the man himself was not something that needed to be said, I'll admit. But she had been going on and on endlessly about that very subject—"Literally? I can't believe he's so ... successful"—since I'd arrived, so I wasn't exactly being the contrarian. I was simply trying to get out of putting on a dress and a hat and going with her.
Since then, she'd been even more impatient with me, and she made another noise when I clutched the armrest as she swerved to avoid a woman walking three Labradors. "Jesus Christ," I muttered, as we then narrowly missed a Range Rover headed in the opposite direction.
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Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek. Copyright © 2010 by Danielle Ganek.