Allegra Goodman: “Apple Cake”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Allegra Goodman’s “Apple Cake” was originally published in the July 7 & 14, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Betsy

In “Apple Cake,” Allegra Goodman tells the story of a woman’s death. It is touching and unsentimental, maybe funny and tough at the same time. Jeanne is 74 and dying of lung cancer. She has reached the stage where she is mostly in bed, sleeping quite a bit, but still working out what’s what in this current situation. Her “situation” remains current right up until the moment of her death, something that is both unsettling and deeply reassuring. Her older sisters compete over who can take care of her better, her sons hover around ineffectually, and grandchildren come and go.

Her sisters sat chattering about the heat, the traffic, and the rain. They were afraid to leave her alone — although she had lived by herself for fifteen years, a widow. She lived alone because she liked it. Her late husband had been difficult, to say the least.

Jeanne herself finds controlling the full-court press of visitation a bit of a task; sometimes she pretends she’s asleep. Some of these visitors are not comfortable with cancer’s slow time-table. One of them manages the anxiety of having no control over when Jeanne will ever die by remarking to her daughter, in Jeanne’s presence, “She left no instructions.”

There is a fierce humor in all this. Jeanne’s oldest sister, eighty-year-old Helen, is a bit of a bad guy. This death brings out the worst in her. Another sister is a bit of a good guy, but, nonetheless, the two sisters use Jeanne’s illness as a stage to play out an old fight about who’s in charge. This round of the fight is clearly caused by having no idea what to do to ease the prickly Jeanne, or having no idea what to do with the uncomfortable fact that what they really want is for her not keep going on and on like this — in their view, not quite alive and not quite dead either.

In the meantime, Jeanne is, in her own way, quite alive, right up until the last minute. She, too, is fighting an old battle — whether she or her older sisters will be in control of how she lives her life — whether Jeanne will have the last say in what matters about her death.

One thing in the set-up of the story caught my eye. Jeanne is alert until the very end. There is no morphine coma. I am wondering if palliative care has reached this point where pain does not require as much morphine. This is actually a very important plot point, but it poses an editorial question as to whether Goodman needed to have clarified the morphine question in some way. Many of us have been at the side of someone whose cancer seemed to require a morphine coma, even in a Hospice setting.

In her Page-Turner interview with Cressida Leyshon (here), Goodman remarks:

From a hospice point of view, [Jeanne] is fortunate. She gets to die at home, and she gets to say goodbye — multiple times. From Jeanne’s point of view, she is unfortunate, because she wants to keep on living. There is no such thing as a good death for her. She is ornery, but also very human.

I liked that — that elegant, musical Jeanne was ornery in the face of death.

Allegra Goodman’s engaging website (here) reveals that she is a mother of four who writes while the children are at school. So far — seven books. I like the deep respect she has for the ordinary lives of women. I also found her account of Jeanne’s death deeply true — a death from cancer can take a very long time. People want to think of it as static — that they’re there at the bedside, being loyal, being brave, being true, being statues at the grand event. What really happens is that ordinary life happens while some one is dying. Ordinary egos push and pull maybe a little more in the press of impending death. Goodman gets that completely. It makes me very interested in all her other work.

Finally, I like the way the apple cake functions in the story — like life, it embodies both argument and pleasure, and like life, it calls to everyone, even Jeanne.

8 thoughts on “Allegra Goodman: “Apple Cake””

  1. Paul Monsky says:

    I’m very taken by her witty, accurate and humane writing–she’s among my favorite New Yorker authors, and this story is a delight.

  2. Roger says:

    There is some really fine writing in this story, and Jeanne was a compelling character. But I’m not sure what to make of the conflict between the two sisters. Obviously, their behavior is petty and selfish, especially under the circumstances. And I suppose that the banality of their squabbling is juxtaposed against Jeanne’s deathbed situation in order to underscore just how banal such squabbling is.

    But, once Jeanne dies and the squabbling continues, especially via the baking, I think the drama dissipates. What is left to care about? The sisters themselves are distasteful, not just unsympathetic but tedious. I didn’t care whether they would reconcile or feel badly that they didn’t. I’m wondering if anyone else felt that any dramatic stakes remained after Jeanne’s death….

  3. Betsy says:

    Roger, I want to comment on the first part of your question – the conflict in general between the sisters.

    A few weeks ago (the June 23rd issue) The New Yorker ran Janet Malcolm’s “The Book Refuge”, an article about three real sisters, now in their sixties (approximately) who own and run the Argosy, the Manhattan fine books bookstore they inherited from their father. The story of the bookstore itself is fascinating, but Malcolm also tells equally fascinating snippets of the sisters’ lives. They love the store, and they love their work, but Malcolm catches them in several noticeable disagreements with each other about how they remember their father and his work. I happened to read this article after I read “Apple Cake”. In comparison, it’s noticeable that the Cohen sisters repeatedly turn away from their disgreement to concentrate on work, something at which they are very successful.

    What stands out for me is that I have no sisters. This relationship is foreign ground for me. I have the feeling, however, that women who are part of three sister relationships may identify with the conflict.

    I sense, though, that there is an engine beneath the surface that drives the dynamics of being one of three sisters, and that engine is different to what drives three brothers. I am put in mind of football great Archie Manning’s three sons, although you’d have to be at a Thanksgiving dinner to test out the whether the relationship between those three brothers is fundamentally different than the ones in the Malcolm and Goodman stories. I suspect that the engine in the three sister relationship has to do with women’s place in society and their power or lack thereof and their sense of that from the very beginning.

    So I argue that to women this three-sisters relationship is not tedious but curious.

    The original three sisters are, of course, Lear’s daughters. In this case, Jeanne is the Cordelia of the bunch, But unlike Lear, where Cordelia must prove her love for her father, what Jeanne must prove is that she loves life.

  4. Greg says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Roger! As for the sisters fighting, I admired Sylvia for standing up for what her mother truly wanted with respect to her remains. Helen had her own religious agenda…..but of course Sylvia took it too far by baking the cake!

  5. mkevane says:

    I’ve been a long time quiet Mookse reader… the insights here are wonderful for an “amateur” short story reader like me. I think there was more to the story than a portrayal of dying and sisters… and I was hoping Betsy would uncover the signs and symbols… in particular, when Goodman suddenly shifts to a confusion of fairy tale and actual story as Phoebe (gold hair trailing) and Christian (deerslayer) enter the scene, and Jeanne breaks out laughing…. are we supposed to start interpreting the whole story as the endless rehashing of meta-stories… ? the great circle of life as the three little pigs have their houses blown down… the apple cake itself, magically transforming those gathered at the deathbed… the last paragraph, with its wonderful mixture of the prosaic (a shelter dog?) and deep story (the evil “stepsisters” keep fighting, even as they gather at “Singing Beach”)! I wonder if the whole story isn’t a deliberate mashup of fairytales, or Shakespeare, as you suggest, or the Muses, somehow?

  6. Betsy Pelz says:

    Michael, nice to hear from you again.

    The fairy tale link that you suggest interests me – obviously, two older sisters manhandling their younger sister really should call up Cinderella!

    And I like the idea of a magic cake. That apple cake, perfectly baked, really does work magic. People are called away from death by it, brought back to life. There’s an art to good cooking. Also an art to good story telling – another thing that calls us back from death.

  7. lotusgreen says:

    As the eldest of three (one sister, one brother), what struck me here was the solemn, unpardonable, and irretrievably human interactions of the members of this family.

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