Cover image for A quiet storm
A quiet storm
Hall, Rachel Howzell.
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Publication Information:
New York : Scribner Paperback Fiction, [2002]

Physical Description:
249 pages ; 21 cm
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In this vividly written, suspense-driven novel, the secrets shared between two sisters erupt in tragedy.
Rikki Moore was always the star of the family, easily outshining her younger sister, Stacy, at every turn. Smart, kind, and beautiful, it was no surprise when Rikki met and married the perfect man -- pediatrician Matt Dresden. Her students at 59th Street Elementary School adored her, the church matrons solicited her help on every committee, and everyone wanted the golden couple to put in an appearance at their parties. Stacy? She was just the overweight little sister who couldn't get her love life together.
But the world didn't know about the storms that rippled just beneath the surface of Rikki's image of perfection. Ever since she was a teenager there were emotional breakdowns and obsessive behaviors -- secrets that Stacy was left to bear alone. Folks whispered, but they didn't know. When Rikki's husband, Matt, mysteriously disappears, however, the Moore family's carefully constructed image comes crashing down.

Author Notes

Rachel Howzell Hall is the assistant director of development for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and has written articles for Black Radio Entertainment magazine. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

This debut novel explores the dynamics of a family facing mental illness. Sisters Rikki and Stacey were born 11 months apart. Rikki is older, smarter, more beautiful, emotionally fragile, and suffers from "the storms in her head." Stacey is the stalwart, vigilant protector, who has placed herself between her older sister and whatever tormented her--a bully at school, a rejecting boyfriend, a mother overly concerned with the opinion of others. Rikki's attempted suicide as a teenager heightens the family's denial, and the father's early death to a heart attack uncovers betrayal. Mother and daughters are caught in a dynamic of escalating demands, denial, and trauma, and the rising hysteria threatens the marriages of both sisters. Long-suffering Matt struggles with Rikki's manic depression, and Eric resents the constant intrusions on Stacey. As Rikki's storms increase, Stacey struggles to balance her obligations to her sister and to her husband, trapped in a spiral that will test the boundaries of love and her role as her sister's keeper. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

Stacy and Rikki Moore are troubled siblings in a well-to-do African-American family obsessed with appearances in A Quiet Storm, the debut novel from Rachel Howzell Hall. From a young age, Stacy desperately tries to cover for unstable Nikki-a girl otherwise blessed with talent, intelligence, beauty and popularity-but ends up overweight and living in her younger sister's shadow. Despite her achievements, Nikki goes from being a girl who "wept at the sight of a stray cat" to a volatile adolescent who tries to commit suicide and an adult who is suspected of murdering her pediatrician husband, Matt, after their marriage falls apart. The author portrays mental illness (including the denial of it) with realism and sensitivity, but what really sets this novel apart is Stacey's lively narration, which crackles with dark humor, wisdom and self-deprecation. Though Hall tends to paint with broad strokes, she is capable of skillfully imbuing even the most over-the-top scenes with subtlety and fresh insight. Agent, Wendy Sherman. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Insightful and empathic, first novelist Hall's portrayal of bipolar disorder and its long-term effects on an African American family grabs readers from the start. Stacy, the narrator, begins her story with a childhood memory of a storm and goes on to liken her sister's life to a series of storms, an image that works very well. Stacy is compelled by family expectations to watch over and protect Arika, a sensitive child and then a troubled teen who grows into an unpredictable adult. As Rikki's illness progresses, their parents wring their hands helplessly, unable to cope. Counseling and drug therapy are sought only after Rikki's suicide attempt, but her sporadic use of her medication renders both therapies ineffectual. Despite her disorder, Rikki becomes a successful teacher and marries a wealthy doctor, though her bouts of crying and obsessive behavior eventually put her job and her marriage at risk. Meanwhile, the stress of continuing to watch out for her sister ruins Stacy's marriage and her health as well. While Arika's path to self-destruction is predictable, the shocking conclusion alone is worth the price of the book. A surprisingly accurate and touching drama of chronic mental illness, this compelling story is recommended for public libraries and book groups. - Jennifer Baker, Seattle P.L. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter Two QUEEN OF HEARTS Arika -- we called her Rikki -- pulled luck from life like a blackjack dealer pulls aces from a deck. In junior high school, she was voted Best Figure and Most Likely to Succeed. She won poetry contests, received scholarships from Bank of America and the Urban League, scored 1,500 on the SATs, graduated salutatorian of her class, and sacked lunches at the Los Angeles Mission. She taught fourth grade at 59th Street Elementary School, in the heart of South Central Los Angeles­Rolling 60's gang territory. The hearts of the boys in her class fluttered for the first time in their prepubescent lives when they met Miss Moore. The girls styled their hair with their mothers' big-barreled curling irons to simulate their teacher's cascades. Her colleagues stole her lesson plans because Rikki's students outperformed other kids in the school district. My sister received more Valentine's Day cards, more Christmas mugs, and more PTA accolades than any other teacher at 59th Street School. She earned her students' love with her warmth, her badly delivered jokes, and the Toll House cookies she baked for them every Friday. With her own money, she bought extra books for the classroom if there was a need, and during gang wars that raged outside the safety of the school grounds, she would load into her car her students who had to walk home. She dropped every frightened child at his or her doorstep. She couldn't sleep at night if she knew that she hadn't done all she could to protect them. "Teaching is my ministry," Rikki would say. Women solicited her presence for teas and receptions, committees of this and boards of that. No debutante could come out, no Snickerdoodle could be sold, and no Christmas song could be caroled unless she sat on the advisory committee or hosted a fund-raising brunch or donated at least one hundred bucks. She never forgot birthdays and anniversaries. She served God and man to make the world a better place. She out-Pollyanna-ed Pollyanna. At first. These same committee members and ladies who lunched expected me to hate her perfection, to belittle her efforts and her stewardship, but I couldn't. Rikki never gloated or bragged. She never acted smug and I'd act if I were beautiful, smart, and civic-minded. Who says God doesn't know what He's doing as He hands out gifts? To add to her abundance, God supplied Rikki with a perfect companion: pediatrician Matthew Dresden. He, too, walked humbly among men even though he was exceptional. Matt spoke six languages, including Mandarin Chinese, and had finished college days after his twentieth birthday. He had joined the Peace Corps in Guatemala for a year. Matt also made the pulses of nurses and fretful mothers at Cedars-Sinai Hospital rise and reach levels not attained with their own boyfriends or husbands. Even when he knew that many of these women's kids weren't sick, he still delighted in making his tiny patients giggle at his magic tricks and funny voices and pretended not to be aware of their mothers' intentions. Matt met Rikki at a church camp retreat. Some say it was love at first sight. Maybe it was. Maybe it was something else. It's always been my opinion that a woman should wait at least three dates to sleep with a guy. Rikki, despite her high IQ, fell short by two dates and believed Matt when he said, "I've never met a woman like you, let's spend our lives together, blah, blah, blah" (on their first date, can you believe that?) just as Eve fell for the "You will have eternal life" line from the Serpent. But I'm also a realist. We all make mistakes when a beautiful man has his hands up your skirt. Despite their premature coupling, Matt called Rikki back for a second date. Their relationship blossomed until they epitomized the All-American African-American Couple. Rikki and Matt kissed in line at Disneyland. They called each other "sweet pea" and "love bug." They kept their hands tucked into each other's back pockets. They talked at noon every day just to say, "I love you." I discovered this when the cops showed me their phone records. Six years after they met, Rikki and Matt announced their engagement to a crowd of fifty "close" family and friends over tender Chilean sea bass and steamed asparagus with a divine citrus mayonnaise. I planned this special evening once it became apparent that Rikki was overwhelmed by the font selection for the invitations and deciding whether to use the stamps with the hearts or the stamps with the cupid. Mommy muttered, "My baby's getting married," the entire evening until tears silenced her. Tears of joy? Tears of sorrow? A mixture of both? To be honest, I don't think she believed that Rikki would ever marry. Regardless, Mommy ran out of tissue by the time the waiters served the lemon tarts. Her mascara didn't mix well with the tears and the oil that already soiled her face. I wouldn't say she looked like a raccoon, but...well, you decide if you ever see the pictures. Matt's mother, the widow Zenobia, recited her own mantra that night. "Oh, how wonderful. Oh, how wonderful" -- and pretended to dry nonexistent tears with her starched monogrammed hankie. A hankie. In the twentieth century. Can you believe that? Okay, maybe my mother also accessorized with a useless swatch of material that night, but Mommy was nowhere near as tacky as Zenobia. Zenobia Dresden was one of those rich ladies who couldn't find class if it were stapled to her elbow. She decorated with a hatchet and a single color swatch: red. She drove a red convertible Cadillac Eldorado with bloodred leather seats. And her house. Eight red velvet chairs surrounded the black-lacquered table that sat in the middle of her dining room. Fake red calla lilies sat in a red vase, which shimmered in the glow of the red-and-white crystal chandelier. Of course, this was set against a photographic mural of a Hawaiian sunset. And yes, there were the animal-print throw rugs, and brass elephant planters here and there, and the black velvet painting of Jesus and His disciples. I have to admit -- she had a theme. And she carried it over to fashion -- scarlet hankie and all -- the night of the engagement dinner. As Pastor Phillips blessed the food that evening, the widow Zenobia kept her eyes open. I guess she couldn't glare at her future daughter-in-law with closed eyes. Yes, my eyes were also open, but that's different. I don't get up in church and call myself a prayer warrior like some people. And my eyes were open not because I didn't believe what we prayed for, like some people. I don't think I need to name names. After we all said "Amen," Zenobia sighed, "Oh, how wonderful, just wonderful." Like a broken phonograph, that woman. Like cheese made from soybeans. Fake, fake, and more fake. She didn't fool me. I knew that Zenobia cursed out Matt the night he introduced her to Arika Moore over dinner a year after they started to date. She actually frowned whenever she said our last name. Moore. The way some people spit out Hitler or Nixon or Cher. "You're just like your no-good father, that lousy son of a...," Zenobia said to her son after Rikki left her home. Miss Compton 1995 was her choice of daughter-in-law. Madison Reems (a Madison in Compton, can you believe it?) was a Lena Horne look-alike with an empty Cracker Jack box for a brain. To make matters worse, Matt Senior had, just before dying of congestive heart failure, left the country and Zenobia for Spain and for a dermatologist's assistant who resembled Rikki around the nose and chin. The widow hated Rikki as much as she hated paella and cortisone. Rikki laughed when Matt reluctantly told her about his mother's feelings, flicked it away with her slender hand. Chalked it up to the widow Zenobia's love of J & B, Crown Royal, Johnnie Walker, Wild Turkey, and schnapps (if someone distilled it, the widow drank it). Rikki and Matt's relationship endured. But as the time for their wedding drew closer, the gossip mill chugged into overtime. Rikki had never spoken ill of her enemies, had never stolen a boyfriend, wasn't involved in any of that talk show drama. But folks had a bad case of the grapes, you know? Matt hadn't chosen their daughters. What had Rikki done to deserve him? A friend of a friend of Mommy's told her sister's cousin's niece (who does my hair) that Zenobia said one night after prayer meeting, "I don't trust that Arika Moore. And I don't want Matthew marrying her, either. I told him, ?Son, Madison was Miss Compton 1995. She's drop-dead gorgeous, smart as a whip, and more talented than Whitney Houston. Can Whitney play the accordion? Madison can. And she don't need no drugs to keep her head straight.' But he says to me, ?Mother, Rikki's just as beautiful, highly intelligent, and taught herself piano, and I love her.' I don't care, though. There's something about that girl that's off, taking all those pills. I can't put my finger on it right now, but it's worrying me. I stay on my knees all the time, pleading with the Lord." Of course, I told Mommy about this one morning on our way to church. "Who is she to be talking about who's crazy?" Mommy said. "Rikki loves Matthew and that's all that matters. And as far as drugs go, everybody pops something once in a while. Aspirin, St. John's warts, that stuff those ADD kids take. It's all the same." As we neared the church, Mommy tucked a pink lace handkerchief in her bra and pulled on her fuchsia church hat. "Zenobia hates Rikki 'cause she ain't high yellow like Miss Ghetto America, that's all." True, I guess. But then... Zenobia Dresden did rise to the occasion on December 20, 1996, Rikki and Matt's wedding day. It was the last major social event of the year: buppies joining together in holy matrimony before God and society. Everyone came, including our congresswoman, pastors from two of L.A.'s prominent black churches, and a movie star. They probably wanted to see if Miss Compton 1995 would bust into Wilshire Methodist Church with an Uzi and a broken forty-ounce. Even as she solemnly marched down the aisle on Uncle Gregory's arm, Rikki refused to see pools of envy in the eyes of her guests. She never heard the remarks: "They're not gonna make it" and "I heard that Pastor Phillips said that they shouldn't get married" and, my favorite, "Ain't no decent woman supposed to wear a dress like that." Instead, Rikki fell for their "You look so beautiful, I'm so happy for you." My poor, turn-the-other-cheek-believing sister. And those hypocrites ate our food -- $85.50 a plate. They whispered behind one hand while the other hand, fork in place, stabbed at pieces of cake -- $1,800 for three hundred guests. They stole bottles of Martinelli's apple cider as they bitched about the "crazy gold-digger" -- $1.99 a bottle. I wish I could send every one of them a bill. They contributed to the storm, those Judases. They kissed her cheek and wished her well, but then said, "Told you so," when the buzz gradually filtered down to them in their muck and mire. Rikki and Matt fought like the dogs of Hell. Rikki talked to herself and cried for no reason. Rikki threw a $3,000 Waterford crystal bowl at Matt's head. They heard that a scar in the shape of a watermelon wedge remained on the back of his neck. It never mattered to them if these rumors were true. No one dared to ask Rikki or Matt or even me. They just ripped through the gossip like foxes in a chicken coop. They rolled around with full bellies, delighted that they had just gobbled up more ugly, hurtful morsels about my sister and her husband. I disregarded much of it: the lies and the truth, people's whispers, even some of my sister's erratic behavior. I tried to ignore it as I had since Rikki and I sat together on our canopy beds. That night when Daddy taught us about watching storms come. The same night when Rikki told me that she had storms in her head. Copyright © 2002 by Rachel Howzell Hall Chapter Three BEGINNING OF THE END It only took two hours for the phones to ring off the hook when Rikki came to church alone one Saturday four years after the wedding. The earth stood still. The sun turned to blood. Frogs flooded the streets and rivers. There was wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth... And just how many pediatricians do you know who may have to work on a Saturday? More kids than usual had runny noses and high temperatures. Matt was called in since he was a pediatrician. End of story. But no... "I talked to Sister DeHaviland today," Mommy said to me later, refreshed after her Sabbath nap. My mother took pride in her role as the top left branch on the church grapevine. She was frustrated that neither of her daughters expressed interest in carrying on the tradition. "She told me that everybody noticed that Matt missed church today." "Uh-huh," I said. "Has she talked to you?" "Who? Sister DeHaviland?" "Stacy, don't be silly. You know I'm talking about Rikki. Has Rikki talked to you?" Irritated, I stuffed the last of a third Krispy Kreme glazed doughnut into my mouth. A wave of nausea forced me to close my eyes. I wished it had forced me to close my mouth. "No, Mother, she hasn't talked to me. Why should she?" And why is it my, your, or anyone's business if her husband danced naked at the St. Patrick's Day parade? I wanted to ask; but my mouth was full. A piece of dough lodged in my throat as I croaked, "She seemed fine last time I saw her." "Seemed? Anastasia, you're her sister." I shrugged and licked the sugar from my fingers. "Yes, I know that, Mother. What do you want me to do?" "Nothing," Mommy snapped. Then she whined about my flippancy and my coldness and my lack of compassion for her and my big sister. "Don't put yourself out." "Fine. I won't." I didn't. I knew that I'd become involved no matter my level of apathy. I just wanted some time to myself before the circus came to town. I mean, I had missed church, too, but no one is interested in gossiping about a twenty-eight-year-old, 170-pound woman who does taxes for Catholic charities and freelances as a crossword puzzle writer. As soon as Mommy hung up, pissed off, and I had placed the receiver back onto the cradle, my phone shrieked again, as if on cue. For a second, I thought about not answering, but as always, I did. As I figured, it was Rikki in hysterics. I couldn't even finish my "Hello" before she wailed, "He wants a divorce! A divorce! Oh, God!" Stunned, I turned the volume down on Cops. "Oh, no, Rikki," I whispered. I knew she and Matt were separated. Matt had been renting a house in the Hollywood Hills, but sheesh, I figured their split was only temporary. A couple who called each other "sweet pea" and made love twenty-three days out of the month didn't divorce. If they could fall out of love, what chance did we mere mortals who ate peanut butter straight from the tub and shaved our legs once a month have? "Maybe we should go to Marin," Rikki continued, referring to our family cabin near Muir Woods, twelve miles north of San Francisco. "To talk about it. To try to work it out. Then maybe he'll move back in." "What if he doesn't want to come back?" I asked, immediately wanting to take back my words. "Oh, Stacy! You think he hates me that much?" "No, Rikki, wait." "He doesn't love me anymore," she cried. "I don't know what I'd do without him!" "Cheese and bread, Arika. Just calm the hell down. Damn." Rikki blew her nose, then sniffed. "We just need to get away from all this bullshit. Bastards. They just waited for this to happen." She paused. "Including that woman." Even after four years, Matt's mother still had her money on Miss Compton 1995. I grabbed another doughnut from the box on my bedside table. They came in handy in times like this. Hell, in any time. "When are you thinking of leaving?" I asked. "Not until it stops raining, I hope." It's a pretty treacherous drive up those wet, winding roads. I found Jesus en route to that cabin last winter. My car spun four times and ran over a possum. For catharsis, I wrote a puzzle entitled "The Odyssey" about it. You know, "to cry in distress, 6 letters across," "a Southern rodent, 6 letters down," "to meet one's Maker, 3 letters down." "Sooner rather than later," she said, then sighed. "Matt's a fucking jerk. I don't care. Screw him." "O-kaaayyyy," I said, aware of the acidity in her tone. "You think he still loves me?" "I'm sure he wants to work it out." Hell, I didn't know. My sister and I ended our conversation minutes later. I told her to keep me posted, knowing that I didn't have to say that. Two weeks later, right when America's Most Wanted ended, Rikki called again. She and Matthew had just talked. And because of his willingness to try and try, he had agreed to attempt to reconcile with her in the woods. She was thrilled: they would celebrate their wedding anniversary together. So when the police arrived at the cabin that Christmas, they could not understand why Matt, a dependable and predictable man, had disappeared without explanation. Months later, Mommy called me again on a Saturday afternoon, and like everyone else she asked, "Why didn't you know?" I shrugged. I knew things. Just things. Copyright © 2002 by Rachel Howzell Hall Excerpted from A Quiet Storm: A Novel by Rachel Howzell Hall All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.