Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life by Mameve Medwed








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The protagonist of Mameve Medwed’s new novel, How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life, Abby Randolph, struggles with loss, low self-esteem, and overall lethargy in coming to terms with finding her place in the world. After Abby’s mother and her lover, Henrietta, die during an earthquake in India, Abby and her childhood best friend, Lavinia (Henrietta’s daughter) split up the belongings. Lavinia cons Abby out of the best stuff. Through an antique dealer friend, Abby learns that the object of her inheritance, a chamber pot, may be of great value. Thanks to Antiques Roadshow, the provenance of the pot goes back to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and that pulls Abby out of her lassitude and toward a better place in the world. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 3, pp. 34-37:


The buzzer wakes me. I glance at the bedside clock. It’s eleven in the morning. Even though it’s Saturday, I can’t help blushing with shame. Since I hired a Rindge and Latin High School sophomore to help out on the weekends, you couldn’t say I’ve been rushing to get to my booth. Which has, I’m proud to admit, recently been receiving a glut of visitors. I’ve sold the dragon armchair. I’ve sold the glass-fronted bookcase. I’ve unloaded a cachepot and two silver-tipped walk­ing sticks. A newlywed has put the coal shuttle on twenty-four-hour hold. She needs to check with her groom. “See what a little advertising can do,” Gus crowed.

My Antiques Roadshow appearance aired two weeks ago. Though I’ve got it on videotape, one viewing is more than enough. There I am, raccoon-ringed eyes, Kabuki-mask skin, Kewpie-doll lips opened in an astonished, clichéd 0 while running underneath, like the subtitles of a foreign film, is this: Chamber Pot Belonging to Elizabeth Barrett Brown­ing — $75, 000. During my fifteen minutes of fame, I blink fast. I pull at my hair. Wow! Wow! I exclaim. You’re kidding, I add. Gosh. Gosh. Over and over like an old LP with a nick in its groove.

Now I throw on a bathrobe. I open the door a crack. The intercom has been broken ever since I moved in. “Who is it?” I call down three flights of stairs.

“Mailman. You’ve got a registered letter. You need to sign for it.”

I slip on my boots, which, though it’s March, lie just inside the door. I hurry down the stairs. Thank goodness no one’s coming or leaving to witness my slovenliness.

Except the mailman, of course. Who, given the nature of his job, has no doubt seen worse. People out of the shower. Lovers out of bed. Cou­ples in the middle of a fight. Roommates kicking each other’s empty yo­gurt cartons into the corridor.

The mailman’s wearing a cap with blue postal-issue flaps. His eyes stay on my boots. No wonder. My hair’s a mess. I slathered my face with cream last night, and haven’t wiped it off. He thrusts a letter at me. He props a clipboard under my nose with a stubby pen at­tached. I sign. “Have a good day,” he says. His heart’s not in it, I can tell.

I don’t look at the envelope until I’m back inside my apartment. I flip the coffeepot on. I fall into my mother’s armchair, upholstered in a faded chintz of cabbage roses and peonies. When I was a little girl, we’d sit here together before dinner, me curled into her lap, as she read from Winnie the Pooh, A Child’s Garden of Verses, Charlotte’s Web.

One arm of the chair shows the singed hole made when I was thirteen and sneaking cigarettes. The lumpy down cushions still give out the faint whiff of the lavender sachets she kept in her sweater drawer. I tuck my legs underneath me. My knees buttress the edge. Once, I fit here so easily.


The envelope is of thick ecru stock. Snodgrass, Drinkwater & Crabbe, Ten Court Square, Boston, Massachusetts 02110, is engraved on the up­per left. I tear it open.






TELEPHONE 617-555-8805 FACSIMILE 617-555-8818


James P. Snodgrass, Esquire



Dear Ms. Randolph:


I have seen evidence which conclusively shows (1) that you appeared on Antiques Roadshow (program number 2036) with a certain ceramic vessel (hereinafter referred to as the “Chamber Pot”) and (2) that you claimed to have inherited the Chamber Pot from your mother, Emily Granby Randolph, late of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I represent Mrs. Lavinia Potter-Templeton of Concord, Massachusetts, and Mr. Edward Bickford Potter, of New York City, children of Henrietta E. Potter, late of Cambridge and longtime companion of Emily Randolph. Henrietta E. Potter died in possession of the Chamber Pot.

Emily Granby Randolph and Henrietta E. Potter, having died simultaneously or under circumstances such that it cannot be determined which of them survived, the Chamber Pot passed to my clients under Article Second of Henrietta E. Potter’s Last Will and Testament, which was duly admitted to probate.

My clients strenuously demand that you return the Chamber Pot forthwith. If you do not do so promptly, my clients intend to avail themselves of all appropriate civil and criminal remedies. By the time you receive this letter, a restraining order will have been issued enjoining you not to sell, assign, or transfer the Chamber Pot or to remove it from this Commonwealth.

Failure to obey this order will put you in contempt of court and may subject you to further penalties.

I look forward to your timely response in this matter.


Very truly yours,


James P. Snodgrass

James P. Snodgrass



In the hands of a lesser writer, this novel would drag. Instead, thanks to Medwed, How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life, provides wit, charm, and a central character that readers will be rooting for on every page.


Steve Hopkins, June 26, 2006




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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the July 2006 issue of Executive Times


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