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Excerpt: 'A Student of Living Things'

Rona Brinlee of The Bookmark in Atlantic Beach, Fla., recommends A Student of Living Things by Susan Richards Shreve in her conversation about summer reading with Susan Stamberg on Morning Edition. "As the story unfolds," Brinlee says, "we get all the ingredients of a page-turner: mysterious characters, a secretive love, and lots of twists and turns."


Today is my brother's twenty-seventh birthday. It's only seven in the morning, one of those hot, brown, swampy days in Washington, the air so thick it's difficult to breathe. Children drape like damp cloths over the fire hydrants, around the lampposts, too weary to play. The long-suffering National Guardsmen, half asleep in their fatigues and sidearms, lean against the cool marble of government buildings.

I've arrived early at the Eastern Market, since my mother will be coming for a special lunch this afternoon—the first time she has been to my apartment since I moved away from home. She'll bring her sister, my aunt Faith, and perhaps her son, my cousin, who lost his leg four years ago in an explosion.

"His leg but not his life," my mother says every time his name, which is Bernard, comes up.

My mother would prefer to recognize the day of my brother's murder. It's in her character, just as it's in my father's to celebrate the day of Steven's birth, to slip over the evening of April 4, when my only brother was shot on the steps of the George Washington University Gelman Library, where he was studying for his law exams. My father likes to think the years will continue to accumulate to Steven, although our memory of him is locked in at twenty-five. I understand the feelings of both of my parents and neither of them. It's the way with parents—just as you think you know them, they slide away like mercury breaking into slippery bits that would take endless patience to reassemble.

I am no longer a patient woman.

The market is southeast of the Capitol, near Union Station, and is open every morning from 6:00 A.M. until 2:00, although recently the vendors have been closing down quickly at noon, loading their trucks and beating it out of town during the lunch hour, when trouble, if it's going to happen, usually begins.

This morning I wander through the stalls, pleased to be in the company of people, pressing against women who lean over the wooden tables with their fruits and vegetables to weigh. We smile back and forth, familiar to one another, since most of us shop every day, buying little, only sufficient to last through breakfast the next morning, a sense of transience about our lives.

For months before Steven was killed, there had been a silent civil war, fear creeping under the skin, a menacing suspicion of one group of people for another, a distrust of the outsider in a city of outsiders.

Now we've been in a state of emergency for almost three weeks— the National Guard circling the city of Washington—something that has happened only once in recent memory, during the riots that broke out after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Now there seems to be an actual civil war, difficult to describe.


"Who to trust?" my mother asked at a recent Sunday dinner, turning the front page of the newspaper facedown. "It's as if everyone is the enemy or could be."

"This country isn't a safe house, Julia," my father said.

"Then I want to move," she said, getting up from the table, clearing the plates, turning on the water to rinse them.

"Where would we go?" I asked.

"Away!" she said with conviction, as if she knew a route.

"Try these." A withered, prune-faced woman, burned dark by the sun, gives me a taste of artichokes mixed with chickpeas and spices. It's delicious.

I love these small Jerusalem artichokes and think I'll make a salad of them for lunch with sweet tomatoes and maybe mango, which is ripe and not too soft, even in this heat. The goat cheese is light, and I get a small piece of it rolled in herbs and crusty olive bread and roasted red peppers, which the vendor says she makes herself.

I think a lot about food, especially sweets and fruit, the rosy fruits in particular. Peaches and plums and cherries.

Every morning since Asa was three weeks old—and he's almost three months now—I walk from my apartment along East Capitol past Lincoln Park to the market, and, walking, I babble to Asa and think about food. I buy, of course, but very little. I don't eat that much myself, skinny with nerves, and Asa is still nursing. But I imagine putting meals together, elaborate meals to which I'd invite strangers who would become friends, women with children and single men and fathers and soldiers, some of the people I see day after day at the market. We speak, but I don't know their names.

"I'm having a lunch party," I say to the woman vendor who gave me the artichoke dip to taste.

"Very nice!" She pops a raspberry into my mouth. "Good?"

"Excellent," I say.

"Who's coming to your luncheon?" she asks.

"My mother. Do you know her?"

"Your mother?"

"She's small with curly hair, which hasn't gone gray yet."

I'm proud of that about my mother. Her hair, still dark at almost sixty, gives me a sense of permanence.

"I know your mother, of course," the woman says. "She comes with you on weekends, all the way in town from the suburbs."

"Her name is Mrs. Frayn," I say, to place her as a friend.

People in Washington know about our family because of Steven. Not that it's unusual for a young man to die here. Many have been killed in the twenty years since we moved from New York City, when Steven was seven and I was three. But then the violence was personal, drugs or guns or gang warfare or domestic quarrels, and in the last few months it's a random bomb or arson or a staged accident, and several are injured or die at once.

Steven was assassinated in the late afternoon, and he was alone, except I was standing beside him. It wasn't an accident that he was the one chosen.

Excerpted from "August 11: The Morning of My Brother's Birthday" from A Student of Living Things by Susan Richards Shreve. Copyright © 2006, Susan Richards Shreve. Reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. All rights reserved.

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Susan Richards Shreve