Cover image for A summons to New Orleans : a novel
A summons to New Orleans : a novel
Hall, Barbara.
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Publication Information:
New York : Simon & Schuster, [2000]

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286 pages ; 23 cm
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Using her own ordeal as a rape victim in New Orleans, Hall has created an enthralling portrait of three remarkable women, each struggling to come to terms with lives that haven't worked out the way they planned. A Summons to New Orleans is an intensely personal, provocative look at contemporary womanhood.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

When Nora's college pal Simone, now a food critic, invites her to spend a week in New Orleans, Nora is grateful for a chance to escape the problems that are plaguing her at home--a husband who has left her, a sense of having failed her children, and an overbearing mother. Her problems seem to fade, however, when she learns that Simone needs her support because she was violently raped a year before. Now the rapist is being brought to trial. Nora and Simone are joined by a third friend, Poppy, who has recently turned to religion and away from her concerned husband. As events unfold during their week together, Nora is confronted with some ponderous and challenging questions about her life, "truth," and the nature of belief. Author and TV writer Hall draws on her own experiences as a woman who was raped in New Orleans to render a vivid and thought-provoking story that skillfully embodies the uncertainties inherent not only in the judicial system but in any human interaction. --Grace Fill

Publisher's Weekly Review

Honor squares off against fair play in Hall's (A Better Place; Close to Home) thoughtful third novel. Nora Braxton's life has been slipping out of control. Her husband has left her for a young Red Lobster waitress, her children are in crisis and her crazy/mean mother can't stop saying, "I told you so." When vivacious former college roommate Simone Gray, a successful model and television restaurant critic, invites Nora to New Orleans for a "midlife reunion," she jumps at the escape. Once there, she discovers that Simone has also invited their other former roommate, Poppy, an outspoken artist and recently born-again Christian whose religious conversion has resulted in a separation from her Jewish husband. When Simone finally arrives, Nora and Poppy discover the real reason for the summons: Simone wants her two old friends to witness the trial of her rapist. Subplots involve Poppy's abusive father and Nora's strained history with her mother. Facile character sketches belie complex themes in which the relationship between freedom and violence in American life is explored. Hall's keenly sensitive insight into Simone's psychological plight is hard-won: cover copy informs the reader that Helen was herself a victim of rape in New Orleans. A strong and admirable messageÄabout taking responsibility for one's actions, forgiving oneself and moving onÄdistinguishes Hall's latest. (Aug.) FYI: Hall, an award-winning television writer, is the executive producer of Judging Amy. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Nora sat on the four-poster bed, cradling the phone in her lap as if it were a cat. She was trying to think of someone in New Orleans to call. She had to go out, and she didn't think she could do it alone. Her room was nice enough, with a high ceiling and ornate molding, hardwood floors and antique rugs and mirrors, an armoire, a high-backed sofa with Queen Anne legs, or at least what her mother would call Queen Anne. To her, everything curved was Queen Anne. Maybe this was more like Regency, or one of the Louis, Nora thought, lamenting the fact that she knew so little about antiques, or history, or anything, for that matter. All Nora knew was raising children, and she wasn't even particularly good at that. Or maybe she was just feeling that way because her thirteen-year-old son, Michael, had announced his intention to move in with his father when the school year was over. He did not give her a good reason, but thirteen-year-olds never had reasons for anything, good or bad. They lived deeply rooted in the moment, completely wedded to the now, in a way that would put Buddhist monks to shame. Her daughter, Annette, was six, and she found her brother's actions to be highly repulsive. Annette put a premium on logic. She was the most literal-minded child Nora had ever encountered. Even though that was age-appropriate, Annette seemed particularly afflicted with linear thinking. Obsessed with fairness, intent on making the numbers add up at every turn, needing answers to the most unanswerable questions. She was a rule-follower, an easy child who never had to be told anything twice. As pleasant as that was to deal with, Nora worried. She worried that Annette was unimaginative, not creative, incapable of feeling joy. Or maybe Nora was thinking of herself. New Orleans was supposed to be an antidote to that. As usual, it was Simone who had talked her into doing something so out of character as making this trip. She had called Nora at work one day, and launched immediately into this great vacation she had dreamed up, in New Orleans, right after Jazz Fest, she said, when the hotel rates would be down. She knew all the chefs in town, of course, so they would eat like royalty. There were a lot of single men in New Orleans, and she knew most of them, if Nora was ready for that kind of thing. She'd pay Nora's airfare if she would just please, please, please do an old friend a favor -- come spend a week in New Orleans. At the time, Nora had had a client in her office, a woman, six months' pregnant, whose boyfriend was reluctantly giving in to marriage. She was there with her mother, who was insisting on a proper wedding despite the circumstances. The bride-to-be looked miserable. She was not the least bit interested in the calligraphed invitation that Nora had to offer. This was a business Nora had started after Annette entered the first grade. At home with nothing to do, and trained to do nothing in particular, she taught herself calligraphy and then set up shop doing handwritten invitations and announcements. She was surprised, even now, at how many people were actually interested in this service. She was making money at it. And even as she did it, she couldn't help wondering, who would want to spend that kind of money on fancy, pretentious writing? It was strange, being successful at something that meant nothing to her. In any event, it was hard for her to respond to Simone's demand, though a generous one, with these miserable people sitting right there across from her, looking as if they were about to be led to their execution. "Can we talk about this later, Simone? I'm interested, but I'm busy." "Just say yes," Simone insisted. "That's all you have to do. Say yes." "The kids are still in school..." "Leave 'em with your mama." Even though Simone was not the least bit Southern, having been born and raised in Los Angeles, she had developed a strong accent during the time spent at the University of Virginia, despite having moved back to California immediately after her four years were up. Sometimes Nora wondered exactly what those four years had been about. Simone was the daughter of a successful movie executive, and she had been offered modeling contracts right out of high school. There was no need for her to spend four years in Charlottesville, Virginia, hanging out with people like Nora and all her other friends in oxford-cloth button-downs, Top-Siders, khakis, add-a-pearl necklaces, kelly green and navy skirts, and tortoiseshell hair bands, shagging to beach music and pretending to care about basketball and the honor code and Thomas Jefferson. But that was what Simone had done, unapologetically, and during her time there she never even hinted at her life in California. She tried to pass for a Virginian. "Nora Kay? Are you listening? Leave the kids with your mama and meet me in New Orleans. When are you going to get a chance like this again?" "But what's it for?" Nora asked. She always needed a reason to get on a plane. "For fun. Think about having some before you die." "But why New Orleans?" "Only a person who's never been there could ask that question. God's sake, Nora. How many things have I ever asked you for in my life? I need this. I need you to help me." This gave Nora pause. Simone often demanded, but Nora could not remember the last time she really needed anything. "Well, okay, let me think about it," Nora had said, but she knew that meant yes. She knew she was going. Out of curiosity, if nothing else. Now here she was, alone in the Collier House, a charming nineteenth-century town house with wrought-iron railings and open courtyards and fountains and cats and ferns and black men in starched white jackets hurrying around, their keys jangling. She could hear distant laughter and the occasional sound of a horse and carriage clopping down Chartres Street. The air was thick and humid, even more humid than back home, and bugs as big as mice crawled around on the bricks outside, and there was a faint sweet-and-sour stench to the place, an amalgam of stale water and garlic and smoke and pungent flowers. It was getting close to seven o'clock and the sky was washed with that sad, retreating light, enhancing the general atmosphere of romantic decay, and music was starting to drift up from somewhere. Probably from Bourbon Street, she imagined, though she couldn't really imagine what Bourbon Street was. She had heard it was a big deal, always lively, a favorite area for pickpockets, but basically safe. "Generally safe." This was what she was told about the Quarter. When she checked in, the clerk had taken a map and blacked out the streets of the Quarter where she should not go -- nothing beyond Dauphine, he said, and blacked out that area with a pen. "Beyond here, thar be dragons?" Nora questioned. The clerk had smiled but did not answer. It was hard for her to imagine living in a place where streets had to be struck from a map, places declared off limits, like a haunted forest. Still, lovely as this setting was, and as exciting and historic and educational as the city seemed from a distance, Nora did not feel festive. She felt icky, as Annette might say. She had a low-level sense of unease. She knew it might be coming from the fact that she never really went anywhere alone, hardly ever to a strange city, and she certainly never left her children with her mother. Her mother, who had stoically (if not, in fact, proudly) submitted to the nickname Boo years before Nora was born, was walking that fine line between mean and crazy. Everyone knew she was mean, there was no disputing it. There was only a question of when she would no longer be able to control that meanness, thus rendering her unpredictable, mentally unstable enough to be put away. Michael and Annette found her amusing, and harmless enough. She was not mean to them, ever. Instead, she entertained them by informing them of just what a troublemaking hellion their mother had been in her day, and by regaling them with all the bad choices Nora had made in her life, including marrying that Braxton man, "your father, sorry to speak against him, but look how he's behaved, y'all deserved better than that, and I tried to tell her, I tried as God is my witness, but her head has always been hard as a rock and she's never been scared of the devil...." Nora pictured it, her children eating bologna sandwiches and bruising each other with their knees under the Formica kitchen table, while Grandma Boo rattled on. Michael was probably not going to be so tolerant of criticism of his father, and it would serve Boo right to get an earful from him. But God help Michael, Nora thought, if he dares to talk back. Then again, that might do him some good. Her life felt completely out of control. The phone in her lap rang and she jumped and threw it to the ground, as if it had burned her. She scrambled for the receiver and said, "I'm sorry about that." "Mrs. Braxton?" It was a man's voice, sweet and slow and Southern. "This is Jerome at the front desk." "Oh, yes. What can I do for you?" she said. She realized that she had started to talk to everyone as if they were potential clients. Jerome laughed and said, "Well, I was going to ask you the same thing, Mrs. Braxton. Just wanted to let you know that you did receive a message from a Mr. Simon Gray. That was at six thirty-five, by way of a facsimile." "Simone," Nora said. "I think that's Simone Gray. It's a she." "Okay," Jerome said, as if he had no objection. "And the message is, Mrs. Gray will not be arriving today." "Miss," Nora said, flustered, then corrected herself. "I mean, Ms., Ms. Gray." "Yes, ma'am." "And you're supposed to know her. She's supposed to be well known by the owners of the hotel." "Well, maybe she is. I just work here on occasion. Is there anything we can do for you, Mrs. Braxton? Any dinner reservations you'd like us to make?" "Wait a minute. What do you mean, she's not coming?" "Would you like me to read the fax to you?" "Yes, please." "'Dear Nora, Sorry, but I won't make it in today. See you tomorrow. Explain later.'" "That's it?" "Yes, ma'am." "I came here for her. She talked me into it. She paid my airfare." "Yes, ma'am." "And she's not coming? What am I going to do in New Orleans? I don't know anyone in New Orleans." "I could help you with dinner reservations. We recommend Nola's in the Quarter. It's a short walk, but you do need reservations." "I don't want to go out to eat." "All right." "Did she leave a number?" "Just a fax number, ma'am. Would you like to send a fax?" "No," Nora said. She felt petulant and hopeless, and now she understood why Michael got into these moods, where every suggestion she made to him was answered by an irascible "No." When a situation got irritating enough, all solutions were annoying, simply by being solutions. Seeing your way out of the fix was a form of defeat, because it was the fix you didn't want to begin with. Nora wanted Simone to arrive and show her around New Orleans, and take her mind off her kids back in Virginia, sitting at the kitchen table with her crazy mother. But this was not going to happen. Not tonight, anyway. She did not want to hate Simone. Could not, in fact, hate Simone. Never could. She loved her the way she loved men who were bad for her. Loved her shortcomings as much if not more than her virtues. After all, if Simone were a different sort of person, she would not have found herself in New Orleans, about to embark on an adventure. That was the good news and the bad news. "No," Nora said, "no fax. Just...I don't know. Just give me...give me room service." "We don't have room service, ma'am. There is an honor bar outside your door. And, of course, I'd be happy to help you with reservations..." "No, thank you, I'll figure something out." She placed the phone on the bedside table and continued to sit, staring at the coffee stain on her black sundress, a mishap during turbulence on the plane, which made her feel a little depressed about herself, remembering that no matter how many frivolous trips she embarked on, and how hard she tried to be sophisticated and adventurous, she was basically a spiller of things. A mess-maker. This tendency had caused her, in recent years, to start dressing in black almost exclusively. She was tired of trying to get mustard and tea and wine out of pastel-colored blouses, and anyway, she just felt like wearing black. It suited her these days, and in a perverse way she enjoyed going against the grain. If she lived in New York, it would be one thing. But in Charlottesville, Virginia, no one wore black unless they were going to a funeral. Michael didn't pay much attention to her dressing habits, didn't pay much attention to her, period, but Annette was supremely embarrassed by her mother's recent fashion trend. "Other mothers don't go around wearing black," she often accused. Nora wanted to say, "Other mothers didn't have their husbands leave them for a twenty-eight-year-old waitress, and then run away to Florida to escape paying back taxes in Virginia, and ruin their credit and leave them liable for his debts and make them take up an odd occupation like calligraphed invitations, now, did they?" How she longed to say some inappropriate thing like that to her children, who still blamed her for the breakup, and suspected her of infidelity or of being a bad homemaker or just a persistent nag -- some shortcoming that had caused their perfect father to up and disappear. "You're a fool to protect them from the truth," Boo often said to her. Hissed at her, actually. "Cliff Braxton is no better than a common criminal, and they deserve to know it." "They'll know it soon enough, Mama, and what's the point of breaking their hearts now?" "All right, then," Boo said, sneering. "You'll learn your lesson the hard way, but don't come crying to me, sister." All her life, Nora had been warned against crying to her mother, and she never had and never would. Still, Boo warned against it on an almost daily basis. She was seventy-five now, and determined to see some satisfaction before she went to her grave. She crossed the room and parted her curtains. It was barely light outside, and the crickets and cicadas were making their crazy death sounds beneath her window, and the doleful sound of the music from Bourbon Street was getting louder. Nora thought, What the hell, I'm in New Orleans. She went to the mirror in the big marble bathroom and brushed her hair and put on some makeup. Her hair was short and an expensive blond color. When it caught the light, it looked natural. Ray, her gay hairdresser, had promised her it would change her life. "Nobody will know the truth but you and your sweet Jesus." And it was true that her hair looked good, but it didn't seem to belong on her. She felt she should look more depressed. Cutting her hair had made her look younger and thinner and generally more together. It was not in keeping with how her insides felt, all churned up and perpetually queasy with dread. She did not care that Cliff was sleeping with June Ann or anybody else, but it was embarrassing to have your marriage fail in such a way that it made the papers. Most people could crawl off and lick their wounds in private. Irreconcilable differences, she could have said to people, letting them wonder. But no, there the story was on page 3 of the local paper -- "Town Council Member Pursued by IRS." The article went on to say that he had last been spotted outside Montgomery, Alabama. People knowing of his whereabouts were asked to notify the local authorities or the FBI. Nora knew where he was. He was in Miami, but she wasn't about to surrender that information. Extraditing Cliff would only mean more embarrassment for her and her children. She just decided to let him stay put. He occasionally sent child-support checks, and she was afraid that if he were brought to justice, those might stop. Was that wrong, she asked herself, to protect him from the law so she could put food in her children's mouths? If it was, she'd just have to live with it. He owed her more than he owed the government. She had not told Simone why she and Cliff broke up. Simone might know anyway -- she seemed to know everything -- but she was nice enough to let it go as a simple divorce. She was even nice enough to say that Cliff had never been good enough for her, that now she could find herself a real man. Simone had never been married. Lately, Nora wondered if she might be gay, but she knew that was stupid because Simone had dated nearly every man who mattered at UVA. Tall, skinny, with Cher-like black hair (the Sonny era), and full of that great aloof quality -- indifference mixed with a sheltered intelligence -- Simone never had any trouble attracting either men or women. She had a great sense of humility, either real or convincingly affected, which made her impossible to dislike. She was a listener, a quizzer. She liked to know about other people's problems and rarely volunteered her own. She was the person Nora always turned to when life seemed bleak and unimaginative. Simone could make her laugh. Simone could make her own life seem exciting, just by commenting on it. Like when she told her about her breakup. "Oh, my God!" she exclaimed. "Nora Kay, imagine you, out there for two seconds, a single woman. You'll have men breaking in your windows. With your brains, and that figure, and those adorable babies, who wouldn't want you? This is going to be the most exciting time of your life. What an opportunity, to get back out there, knowing what you know. Now you can really start to live." It was a nice enough thing to say, but so far from the truth that Nora didn't even feel obligated to point out that fact. It was true that she still looked pretty good. Her face was apple-shaped, and all that acne in high school really had paid off (oily skin, no wrinkles, as her mother had promised). Now from a distance she looked like someone in her twenties. And her children were beautiful, and she did have some life experience stored up, but no man would break her windows or anything else. They wouldn't because she wouldn't let them. She was, and always had been, mildly afraid of men. Not afraid that they would hurt her, but afraid that she would hurt them, with her quick tongue and impatient nature. She had a history of being mean to men, and she had no real idea why. Except for the fact that her mother had hated her father with a special intensity usually found only in skinheads or sociopaths. They had stayed married, though, letting their hatred breed unrestrained, multiplying until it finally had killed her father. The angrier of the species survives, Nora thought. Cliff was the first man who had ever left her. He left her for a woman with no scars, visible or otherwise. Hell, I'm going out, Nora decided. I'm in New Orleans, and I never get to go anywhere, and it's generally safe. Tomorrow I'll figure out what I'm going to do. Copyright © 2000 Barbara Hall. All rights reserved.