Twenty-eight-year-old Emily Bach meets her sister Jessamine (Jess) for her twenty-third birthday dinner. They are opposites in nearly every way. Emily is the CEO of Veritech, a Silicon Valley start-up company specializing in data storage; Jess is a philosophy graduate student who works part-time in a rare and used book store. Emily is a high-powered executive who is about to take her company public, and Jess is an environmentalist looking for her next cause. Both girls are beautiful, though the older sister is clever and rather guarded and the younger sister is “small and whimsical.”
After dinner, Emily loads Jess’s bicycle in her car and drives her home because it is raining. Jess would not have minded riding home in the rain, but Emily minds for both of them. Jess lives in a mansion which has been converted into apartments located on the edge of campus in an artsy neighborhood. The girls are greeted by Mrs. Gibbs, another tenant in the building. She is a “petite black woman” who works as a nurse and blesses Emily’s head. Jess has two-roommates, Theresa and Roland.
Once in her room, Jess tries on the designer outfit Emily gave her; though it fits perfectly, she quickly changes into sweatpants and an oversized T-shirt which she prefers. Emily gives her a thick prospectus for the Initial Public Offering (IPO) for Veritech Corporation and shows her the Friends and Family offering. She encourages her sister to take advantage of the limited opportunity, but Jess has no money and cares little about making more. She has only ten days in which to act, and she promises Emily she will do so.
Emily and her boyfriend Jonathan have a long-distance relationship; it is not ideal, but it does not occur to Emily to complain. Jonathan has his own start-up company on the East Coast, and she misses him, too. The girls’ mother, Gillian, died when they were ten and five years old after battling breast cancer. Knowing she was dying, Gillian wrote letters filled with advice for each of her daughters to open on their birthdays until age twenty-five. This year’s letter encourages Jess to select a career and let Emily help her when needed.
Their father has remarried; he and Heidi have two young daughters, Lily and Maya. Jess reveals that when she was twelve she read all of her mother’s letters—as well as all of Emily’s letters. Birthdays make Emily sad, for she remembers and misses her mother. Their father, Richard, lives in Canaan, Massachusetts, and he has become someone different than he was when the sisters were growing up; for example, he has taken up running, something none of them ever liked to do. Both girls think their half-sisters are adorable but lament that their stepmother never cooks. The sisters talk late into the night. Emily remembers their mother; and Jess remembers, too, when Emily talks about her.
Jess Bach works at Yorrick’s Used and Rare Books, “a secret mine or quarry where she can pry crystals from crevices and sweep precious jewels straight off the floor.” She is compelled to advise every customer and offers her opinion to each one as they look for just the right book. Her boss, George Friedman, does not like to leave her alone in the store, as she occasionally scares shoppers away. Though this store is more of a project than a business to him, Friedman hopes to make it profitable one day, and Jess is completely unconcerned about profit. On the other hand, he likes spending time with this unique girl.
Friedman is “old money, a Microsoft millionaire now returned to Berkeley” where he had studied physics. All of his friends have spent and collected, married and divorced; Friedman retired, donated, and traveled along with them, but he is an eccentric and a reader, as well. Now thirty-nine, Friedman has a house in the hills and lives a life of extreme privacy. He is paranoid about information technology, fearing the government will eventually control all information and identity. He also detests big business; despite the fact that he made his fortune on it, he calls Microsoft the “Evil Empire.” He wants pages to turn, records to spin, and prefers typewriters to keyboards. His own library of rare books is “small, select, and static”; but his stock at Yorrick’s is wide, varied, and always for sale.
He has always had trouble finding good help for the store, but Jess intrigued him and he quickly hired her. Friedman likes provoking Jess and finds her quite endearing. Though he has always wanted to be married, he has never found the right woman. At the end of her shift today, Jess uncomfortably asks her boss if he would be willing to give her an advance on her salary for eighteen hundred dollars to buy shares in Veritech. He tells her she should ask her family for the money.
Friedman’s younger friend, Nick Eberhart, is married to Julia, who is ten years his junior. She is nothing like Friedman’s growing-up impression of a housewife. The two men go running and Friedman rants about Jess. Eberhart is amused that his friend talks about this girl so often.
Friedman’s house is his obsession, and he has meticulously restored it. It is full of signed and first-edition books, antique maps, typewriters, classic comics, and fine wines. Though his life is quite civilized, Friedman is dissatisfied. He took everything he wanted in his youth, and he experienced great loss. Now he is consumed by a new desire: “to live better, or at least less self-indulgently, to give more, to start a family.” Though he hungers for companionship, he remains unfulfilled. He is “hard to please and difficult to surprise.” Friedman wants beautiful, authentic things, but nothing has satisfied his longings.
While it is true that the rather Bohemian Jess is completely non-materialistic, she thinks about money all the time because she never has any. She spends her nights now wondering where she can get the money for Veritech stock without resorting to asking her father. She feels he has disapproved of every path she has taken in her life, including her current pursuit of a doctorate degree in philosophy. Jess wishes Emily had not ever offered her the Veritech investment opportunity. Though money had never interested her before, Jess wants it now and is tired of worrying about money like most students do, but that is what she is.
One of her roommates is also broke; the other, Raymond, is skeptical that there is any money to be made in such a speculative venture. Finally, when her ten days are nearly up, she calls her father. He answers the phone and then lets Lily talk to Jess; however, Lily hangs up and her father never calls her back. Emily scolds Jess delaying so long, and Jess wishes her boss would just have written her a check. Her assessment of him is that he is “strange and self-absorbed,” pretentious and old—and he loves saying no to everything.
As she does her laundry in the basement laundry room that night, Jess wishes she could call the grandfather to whom she had been so close. Mrs. Gibbs, another tenant, comes to the laundry room. She can see that something is bothering Jess and she prays for her. Jess explains what is bothering her and Gibbs says she will talk to her rabbi about Jess’s problem. Jess is surprised that Gibbs is Jewish. Years ago, Gibbs felt the Lord calling her to become part of His chosen people and converted to Judaism. She is now a member of the Berkeley Bialystok Center. Later, Jess tells Theresa, her roommate, about her conversation with Gibbs, and Laura is also surprised that the older woman is Jewish. Theresa warns Jess that Gibbs undoubtedly wants to steal her soul. Theresa is familiar with such things because she grew up in an extremely evangelical household but managed to escape her family who still lives in Hawaii. Theresa believes Jess tends to attract fanatics.
Rabbi Nachum Helfgott was sent, with his wife and baby, to Berkeley fifteen years ago. He is part of the Bialystok (Hasidic) sect and dresses accordingly. “Burly, bearded, and gregarious,” he is a familiar sight on campus and is known affectionately as “the Berkinstoker.” Jess and Mrs. Gibbs arrive at a brown Victorian house and are greeted by the beaming rabbi. Jess had met the rabbi once when each of them was distributing leaflets in a crowd; she wanted people to save the trees and he wanted people to “Do a Mitzvah Today.” They traded leaflets, and the rabbi promised to save a tree if she would light Shabbes candles.
Now he recognizes her and tells her he planted a tree; she is ashamed that she did not light the candles. Helfgott readily forgives her, reminding her that every week the world begins again with Shabbes. Jess formally introduces herself and discovers the rabbi’s brother-in-law lives in Canaan, Massachusetts, like her father and his new family. Gibbs stands near the window, silently praying, as Jess and the rabbi enter his cluttered office. Gillian Bach, Jess’s mother, was Jewish and came from London; the rabbi’s wife is also from London, be he does not know Gillian’s family. Helfgott explains that the head of the Bialystoker movement, though an old man, views the Internet as a powerful tool to “transmit the Torah everywhere.”
Helfgott does not believe in coincidences, insisting that it is no accident that Gibbs came to him years ago though she was not a Jew, that she lives in the same building as Jess, and that Jess is involved—however peripherally—with the Internet. Helfgott has one love in addition to the Torah, and it is computers. This love began as a hobby and now he understands that he was sent to Berkeley all those years ago so he could be the one presented with this investment opportunity. Eighteen hundred is a “very special number” in the Hebrew language, for the letters add up to life.
As the rabbi writes a check, he explains to Jess that he avidly watches the stock market and already own stock in some technology companies. He is quite aware that Veritech is the next stock everyone will want to buy. He is loaning her the money with no expectation of any additional return. She will repay the loan; if she wants to do anything more than that, she can make a gift to a charity, to the Bialystok Center—or she can give nothing at all. Jess is investing in Veritech, and the rabbi is investing in her.
Emily, the CEO of Veritech, has always been the one “to take care and take charge,” and she is also the peacemaker for the company. Her partners are young and need her to be the adult, at times. Alex Zaslovsky, Chief Technology Officer, is twenty-two, a child prodigy who still speaks with a slight Russian accent. The company’s Chief Financial Officer is twenty-five-year-old Milton Leong, a jovial young man with a delightful sense of humor.
The three of them tell a romanticized version of how the company began, but the truth is that Zaslovsky and Leong writing a project and MBA student Emily Bach had been looking for an infrastructure project. The trio wants Veritech to become “the biggest Web-based...
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George Friedman is “courting a collection” of rare books from a secretive seller who showed up at Yorrick’s claiming she inherited them from her uncle. Sandra McClintock is about his age, but she looks as if she has suffered some great loss from which she has never recovered. She only shows Friedman two books, both of which are quite old cookbooks. When he gives her an appraisal on them, he asks if the other books in the collection she inherited are also cookbooks. She answers noncommittally and says she might be interested in an appraisal but looks disappointed at the amount of the check he gives her.
Jess is in the store when Sandra brings in one more book for Friedman to examine, announcing that it is the last...
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Jess knows her boss dislikes Noah but assumes that it is because Friedman dislikes any causes which are not his own. He consistently tries to convince Jess that Save the Trees is an extremist group committing violence such as spiking trees in order to maim loggers as they work. Jess has a little money now and likes the feeling; she regularly checks her stock prices as they fluctuate. At first she feels guilty about having money, but she intends to give her shares to a worthy cause.
Tonight Friedman insists on driving her after work because her bicycle is getting tuned up, and he drops her off where she requests, at an old mansion where many members of the organization live. It is the Save the Trees Co-op, and Friedman...
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Jess spends the next day and last night with Leon, talking trees and politics, and she nearly misses her early-morning flight to Boston for Thanksgiving. She does not tell her sister Emily, who is waiting to board with her, how Leon wove for her a fantasy world, a world without technology in which trees are not used for telephone poles. Jess cannot bear the thought of giving up books, however, even to save trees. She does not want to tell Emily that at sunrise Leon rushed her home to grab her suitcase and that is why she arrived at the gate with only minutes to spare before it closed.
The sisters are going to their father’s house for Thanksgiving. Jess immediately begins reading a book, afraid Emily will see...
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On Thanksgiving Day, the Bach family drives to a restaurant in Providence for dinner because Heidi never cooks. Jonathan is not with them as they all originally planned; he had to cancel because the server at his company, ISIS, crashed this morning. He promised Emily they will celebrate their Thanksgiving together tomorrow. Though Emily is despondent, Jonathan is in high spirits because Emily is in such close proximity for the holiday and because he believes he will be as rich as she is in just a few weeks.
It seems as if everyone is anticipating their imminent prosperity. Rabbi Zylberfenig has a regular student and congregant, Barbara Millstein, whose husband is the Director of Human Resources at ISIS, and she wants to...
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When Jess sees the rabbi in the garden next door again, she calls her father to come see. Richard Bach figures the man must be the one who is contemplating building “a day-care scheme” virtually in his backyard. When Jess defends the man, saying Rabbi Zylberfenig did not seem crazy to her, Bach claims all the Jews care about is infiltrating this community and accumulating money. Jess sees her father’s views have hardened into anger. He had never believed in God, but now he is antagonistic toward Him. Jess suggests her father go talk to the rabbi, but Bach says he has nothing to say.
Jonathan arrives and everyone in the family is eager to greet him, including Jess who likes him least. He is just the sort of man...
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To Jonathan Tilghman, raised on a farm in Nebraska, information is valued currency. In his world, secrets are for trading, not for keeping. Veritech’s electronic fingerprinting idea tempts him, as he recognizes its potential in the technology and security marketplace. He considers developing such an encryption service at ISIS, but he loves Emily and does not want to violate her trust.
Jonathan has always been both bright and competitive. When he started ISIS, investors practically threw money at him. He and three friends, including Orion, won fifty thousand dollars as seed money for a business start-up and stole two experienced men from MIT (where he was a student) to join their venture: Oskar Feuchtwanger, and...
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Orion’s father, Lou Steiner, is an eccentric poet, particularly popular with school children and environmentalists. Orion grew up with his mother after the divorce, and he used to avoid his father because he was an embarrassment. Emily Bach was the daughter his mother always yearned for, but Orion has been with Molly since college and no longer avoids his father. Steiner is “an original” and has only met Molly’s parents once—and he told them a drawn-out dirty joke just to see if they would laugh. Today Molly’s parents are visiting, and the young couple joins them for brunch.
Orion and Molly have talked about getting engaged but things are comfortable as they are. Molly’s father, Carl Eisenstat, is a famous...
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Orion arrives home without the milk Molly had asked him to bring. He feels as if he has been somewhere far away and art-filled all night and is now returning to his mundane, depressing life. Both Molly and Orion work nights; it has become a kind of competition between them—to see who can stay away working longer. They have a ridiculous argument over laundry and recycling. Later they decide to hire a maid service, send their laundry out, and buy a car so Molly will not be dependent on public transportation at her odd hours. They have no money now, but in six months they can solve nearly all their problems.
The next day Orion writes code as usual but cannot keep his mind on the task; all he can think about is Sorel and...
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ISIS celebrates its IPO with “equal parts relief and trepidation.” Orion notices that his colleagues are no longer talking about luxury items but about wills, trusts, and options. Investment advisors come to ISIS to present financial strategies. Gradually the awkwardness between Orion and Sorel has dissipated and he has “begun to cultivate Sorel’s friendship.” It is his only goal at ISIS now, as he has refused an executive position and is not currently in charge of any major projects.
Orion spends all his time dreaming about Sorel, about what it would be like to be with her; ISIS, which had seemed “bleak and gray” to him, has now become the place where he can see her. He works at ISIS but dreams of...
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The Millsteins have moved into a twenty-one-room mansion on the property behind Richard Bach’s house. Orion buys his first car, a BMW, and Jonathan buys Emily an engagement ring on an impulse. Within months, however, Veritech stock loses half its value and ISIS stock is down to thirty dollars a share and all extravagant plans are on hold. Millstein panics and sells his stocks at their lowest price and Jess donates nearly all her shares to Save the Trees.
Emily does not approve of her sister’s moving in with Leon and his “amorphous environmental group.” One day Jess meets Rabbi Helfgott and apologizes for not repaying his loan yet. Instead of paying him first, Jess gave nearly all her stock to Save the Trees; now...
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Friedman asks Jess if he can trust her to “keep a poker face” if he takes her to see Sandra’s collection. He may need Jess’s help, but Sandra is “skittish” and he does not want Jess to “gush” as she so often does over books she loves. While working at Yorrick’s, Jess has become a kind of book connoisseur. Though she once only valued the content of a book, now she recognizes that form matters, too. Friedman will need her for three days on short notice, but she has very little time between being a “student, tree lover, citizen of the Earth,” and lover of Leon.
Jess is not a strict vegan and is increasingly hungry in body and spirit. A year ago, she and Leon “had been inseparable,” and he has...
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Emily does not treat her business decisions as if they are life and death. She works with such “cool confidence” that she inspires others to create their own businesses. Charlie, the company chef, has opened his own restaurant, and her assistant Laura’s husband Kevin has dropped out of his accounting degree program. Laura is nervous when they buy a “two-million-dollar-fixer-upper.” Kevin confesses that he never liked accounting but could never afford to say so before. Laura is still afraid, content with what they already have; however, Kevin wants his wife to have the best of everything, despite her misgivings.
Emily founded Veritech with the ideal vision of merging technology and truth. She loves her company,...
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George Friedman and his two employees, Jess and Colm, are working feverishly to appraise Sandra McClintock’s inherited and fascinating cookbook collection. It is a difficult task as Sandra hovers incessantly, Colm is allergic to the cat, and no one is allowed to wear shoes in the under-heated house. The cookbooks range from palm-sized to gargantuan, and assessing each rare book’s value quickly and accurately is a daunting task. Each volume has hand-written notes, bits of poetry, and fine ink drawings.
Friedman is so overwhelmed that he considers calling in an expert; however, he is so enamored of it that he does not want to risk losing any of the collection to a rival. He discovers his friend Raj is also courting...
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The Stock Market dips and swoons like a “beautiful diver,” and, looking back, the analysts should have predicted the ultimate crash. Millions of speculators and day traders are scavenging for profit; Rabbi Helfgott is one of them. Though Veritech stock drops to two dollars a share and ISIS to seventy-five cents, he is hopeful. His sanguine personality is better equipped than most to weather such “market turbulence.” The Bialystok Center of Berkeley is paid for so he is not afraid, and he is confident the market will rebound.
Others are not as hopeful. When ISIS stock hits a low of seventy cents a share, Jonathan takes it personally and vows that his company will “come roaring back” because he will make it...
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Veritech experiences market fluctuations and its employees feel like “leaves tossed in unexpected storms.” Laura tries to maintain some normalcy despite the fact that her family has lost nearly half their net worth in three days. Her husband says they should not panic, though he reveals that he borrowed against some of their stock in order to pay for the renovations on their expensive new home. Laura is angry because he acted without consulting her; if he ever gambles with her “hard-earned luck again,” she will take the children and leave to start her own company. He is shocked at such vehemence from his sweet, quiet wife.
While the market is struggling, Friedman buys technology stocks. He also buys Sandra...
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Jonathan is calm and confident as ISIS stock climbs to nine dollars and then drops again to five fifty. He is impatient with all the fretting, particularly from the venture capitalists who begged him to take their money in 1998. They are obviously reading and watching the news, something Jonathan dismisses because it is outdated by the time it is in print or on the air. He is a newsmaker and an innovator who does not know economic theories but does know computers. He does not act based on trends and always looks to the future. While Emily views falling share prices as a “sad decay, a postlapsarian decline from larger, rounder numbers,” Jonathan sees the fall as an opportunity to buy back shares in his company. He is...
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Rabbi Helfgott is speaking tonight at the Tree House by Jess’s invitation. He explains it is the Jewish tradition to believe every spirit—animal, plant, insect, tree, human—“desires the Oneness that is God.” Leon asks whether civil disobedience is part of that tradition; Jess wonders if “social action can be a kind of prayer.” The rabbi maintains that prayer is proscribed and social action is improvised. In the Jewish faith, one has no need to invent, for there is already a prayer for every occasion. He says charity, on the other hand, is a kind of justice; doing something for the planet is an act of both charity and justice. Leon wants to use the rabbi to further his cause, but Jess will not do it.
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Emily knows her sister is hiding something from her. It is Emily’s thirtieth birthday, and the sisters are in Emily’s condominium reading their mother’s letters. Jess stays up reading and rereading the letters, as they are more interesting to her now than they used to be. There is something oblique about the language her mother uses; it is filled with “might-haves and could-have-beens, undescribed and unexplained.” Before Jess had always read them for information, but now she sees “subtexts and secrets” everywhere.
She suddenly realizes that, growing up, she never saw any photographs of Gillian before she married and became a mother. The girls were told that Gillian never got along with her parents in...
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In the real world love is fine, but survival matters most. Veritech is cash-poor and ISIS is in nearly the same situation. Emily feels she has “no time to breathe” and Jonathan has become “warlike, confident as ever, but edgy from lack of sleep.” He insists Mel Millstein arrange for a booth for ISIS at a job fair in Los Angeles in early September. Though the company is not hiring right now, Jonathan wants to keep ISIS in the forefront of every young programmer’s mind so that, six months from now the company can hire anyone it chooses. Jonathan insists Millstein go himself and Jonathan will probably join him. The older man is horrified because he knows his back pain on such a trip would be excruciating. When Millstein...
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Friedman hopes Jess will call or come back, at least to continue cataloguing the cookbook collection or to finish her essay, but a week passes and he hears nothing from her. He laments to his friends that he will have to find someone else to finish the cataloguing, but no one can replace her. He does not even look at the cookbooks when she is gone. When Friedman and his friend Nick Eberstat go running, Eberstat notices that Friedman no longer talks incessantly about Jess and realizes his friend might be in love with the girl. Friedman regretfully admits he was exploiting Jess by being both her employer and her lover. Now that it is too late, Friedman keeps thinking about everything he could have done differently to make the...
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Jess’s hands are bleeding from rope burns, and she weaves unsteadily between lanes as she drives away. She of how Leon severed their relationship with one condemning look up on the platform. She sees Friedman following her and “accelerates her anger and her humiliation.” Friedman follows in his Mercedes, knowing he can do better if she will just let him.
Jess drives for nearly three hours until she is calmer. She drives to Fern Hollow and parks in a dirt lot. She does not get out of the car, so Friedman finally gets into the passenger seat, He waits for her to speak, but she remains silent. Finally he apologizes for coming after her and embarrassing her. She accuses him of caring more for objects than for people...
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Years later, everyone will remember where they were on the morning of September 11. The act is unthinkable and the devastating scenes play constantly on televisions everywhere. Mrs. Gibbs is just finishing her night shift at the medical center and sees the horrific images on every patient’s television. Laura and her children are mesmerized by the images they see on the news, and Chaya Zylberfenig calls to her optimistic husband, daring him to make sense of what she is watching.
At ISIS, Jonathan’s coworkers are horrified when they realize American Airlines Flight 11, the plane which crashed into the tower, is Jonathan’s flight. Orion answers the telephone and Sorel cries as she tells him the news about Jonathan....
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The world mourns the tragedy of September 11, but nothing matters to Emily. For days she does nothing and does not plan to attend Jonathan’s memorial service. Everyone expresses their condolences, but Emily does not respond to anything. Jess is the “perfect companion, fielding phone calls” and protecting her sister.
Waking up is difficult, for every day Emily has to convince herself that her future with Jonathan is gone and so is the person she had grown into with him. Her future, she feels, is ruined and she hates him for dying so suddenly. One night Emily and Jess talk, and Jess confesses that she had to quit working at Yorrick’s but does not tell Emily she and Friedman are engaged.
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That night Jess accuses her father of keeping the secret about her mother’s identity and she wants to tell Emily immediately. Bach believes Emily has already suffered enough traumatic news. Her father does not see the revelation that the girls now have family—Jewish aunts and uncles, including the Zylberfenigs and the Helfgotts—as being particularly earth-shattering and says it was not his secret to tell. Gillian did not want her daughters to have any contact with “those people.”
It is emotional for Bach to tell Jess that when Gillian married him, a non-Jew, her family sat in mourning for seven days and then declared her officially dead to them. She wanted to be free to make her own choices, including whom she...
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Emily sits in the sunroom and thinks: “Jonathan had concealed his plans for the future, and Gillian had concealed her past.” Emily had loved them both and now she feels “entirely alone.” She wonders if she really loved Jonathan and how her mother could have written about the future even as she hid her past. Emily has always assumed people will treat her the way she treats them, but she sees now that there is no evidence to believe this is true. Even worse, she wonders about her own motives for gifting Jonathan with a Veritech secret. “Bewildered, adrift in her father’s house, she tries to find a way forward.”
In the morning Emily sends an email resigning from Veritech, explaining the events of the last...
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George Friedman closes Yorrick’s at five o’clock after a slow afternoon. He feels “worn, tired, cranky, old.” On his drive home up into the hills, he feels as if the transmission in his Mercedes is going out. When he parks his car, the young deer which is eating his lawn flowers does not even look up at him.
He collects his mail before climbing the house steps and unlocking his door. He notices a battered pair of running shoes on the mat next to the door, and his heart begins to pound. Friedman enters the dining room and sees Jess sitting at the head of the table with cookbooks spread out all around her. He wants to talk to her, but she wants to read him something from her essay first. Her observations stem from...
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By spring, the worst of the fear from September 11 has receded and there is a new, more realistic understanding in the technology start-up world. Caution has replaced “razzle-dazzle” and profits are hard-won. No one thinks about going public in the first year, and long-range planning is the norm. Books are written and professors lecture about the old economy, including ISIS and Veritech. ISIS shows itself to be forward-thinking with its ability to “shift priorities with the shifting times,” and Veritech fades into obscurity as ISIS thrives.
The loyal ones who held on to their shares lose the most. Charlie, Veritech’s cook, loses his restaurant; Laura and her family are forced to sell their house at a loss and...
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