It Might Have Been What He Said

A Novel

“Isabel could remember the precise moment she tried killing her husband. Strangely enough, she couldn’t recall why.”

Thus begins the tangled tale of love and betrayal between Isabel, a precious book publisher, and James, a talented writer who is known in equal parts for his sense of entitlement, his drinking and his womanizing. Confounding all that is reasonable, they marry and become as devoted to each other as they are to their young son. So what happens to drive Isabel to her act of insanity?

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Excerpt

Isabel could remember the precise moment she tried killing her husband. Strangely enough, she couldn’t recall why.

“How do you think of yourself?” asked the psychiatrist.

Without hesitating Isabel answered, “In three parts.”

“And they are . . . ?”

“Mind; heart; sex,” said Isabel.

“Is that the order of their importance?”

“Not necessarily . . .”

“So there isn’t one that’s more important than the other two?”

Isabel was becoming irritated by the psychiatrist and his line of questioning.

“No,” she replied. “But I sometimes consider my heart and sex to be instigators. When that happens, I depend on my intelligence to keep everything in perspective.”

“It seems to me that you’ve suggested your mind is the most important part of you,” proposed the psychiatrist.

“I wasn’t ‘suggesting’ anything.” Isabel’s impatience was edging its way toward contempt. “What I said was clear. Intelligence saves me by stepping in, sometimes at the last moment, with the ‘yes, but . . .'”

“Evidently not this time,” said the doctor.

Isabel’s haughtiness was the thin ice covering bottomless self-doubt.
She appeared in control . . . she was anything but. She didn’t want to talk about the desperate state she was in; circumstances left her no choice. Isabel distrusted psychiatrists. She stared unflinchingly at this one and – despite his years of professional training – made him feel uncomfortable. The doctor hoped it appeared otherwise. He continued the interview. “Why? Why murder when there were other choices?”

“I don’t remember,” was her answer.

It was the simple and complicated truth.

Isabel’s failure to recall what prompted her to attempt murder was ironic – it was supremely ironic because, in addition to a rational disposition, Isabel had a photographic memory. Like a camera, her eye captured images of what she had seen; like a photo album, her mind enabled her to recollect her past in exact detail.

“Where was your ability to reason, then, Isabel, when you lost yourself in such an irrational act?” asked the psychiatrist.

“I don’t know,” said Isabel.

“All right . . . let’s concentrate on now. Where’s your memory now, when it’s crucial to recall the circumstances?”

“I don’t know,” she repeated.

Isabel was just as confounded by her dire situation as the psychiatrist. Neither understood they were chasing false leads. Isabel’s motive for murder wouldn’t be pieced together in images. It would be found at the end of a trail of words. The psychiatrist wasn’t entirely wrong. Isabel did in fact place trust in the one part of herself that was her analytic intelligence. She had always imagined it living in a separate place, away from overreaching sentiments and appetites.

“Describe how it works,” said the doctor.

“What?”

“Your memory. Explain, step by step, how you retain everything you read or see. Let’s use the example of a document. If I ask you about a certain clause in a document, what happens?”

“The images appear in sequence,” explained Isabel, “from general to specific. First comes the designated page; and then the paragraph; then the specific clause.”

Isabel’s mental route was circuitous but effective: as long as she processed memory by what she had seen, she could remember anything. What Isabel omitted telling the psychiatrist was far more revealing: she dreamed with the same visual clarity. The night before her wedding, Isabel had a dream that lasted the brief time it took to convey a simple scene: her future husband, in the back seat of a limousine, driven away as she was left standing on the curb of an unknown street. It was a short dream, taking only a few conscious seconds, but its details refracted like distinctly colored shards of glass. What was odd was its vantage point, as though whatever happened was being witnessed from above. She woke with such foreboding, she was sure the dream would become real. Eventually it did.

Fifteen years later, just as it was in the dream, her husband left her standing on the curb of a street as he was driven away. Isabel was unable to see through the limousine’s tinted windows and wondered whether he was looking straight at her, or if he had fixed his eyes ahead. The car pulled away, exactly as it had in the dream. The street on which she was left, unrecognizable at the time of the premonition, was the street in front of their New York apartment where – two floors above – their son was watching from the window.

It was starkly final. Her husband had left her. Isabel denied it, but their twelve-year-old son knew. He saw it from the window in his room. Isabel witnessed exactly what her son had, but her entire being rejected the fact of it. Weeks passed. There was no ¬alternative but to accept reality. By then, Isabel no longer consisted of three equal parts. Immeasurable despair had reduced her to only one – a disabled heart.

Not satisfied with consuming her by grief from within, her unmoored heart became dead matter pressing down on her chest from the outside. Whatever was left of Isabel was struggling to escape from beneath its crushing weight.

Forced to choose between what she felt and what she knew, Isabel decided her ability to reason was her sole source of rescue. In the only way she understood to find her bearings, Isabel reconstructed their relationship in sequence, from background to foreground: She met James. She loved James. She married James. They had a child together. They made a life together. What had happened next? What went so abruptly wrong that she would try to kill him? Not infidelity. They were then, as they had always been, the most intimate lovers. She loved him unquestionably at the time she tried killing him. It wasn’t her formidable mind that drove her to it – she was known for her intelligent calm. No one part of her seemed responsible.

Isabel was sure that if she could accurately remember what happened in that murderous moment, it would explain what preceded and followed. Much like the page in which the contrac¬tual clause had been embedded, her mind’s eye required a visual landscape that would trigger the process of remembering. But some¬thing was wrong. Her brain – utterly dependable until now – offered Isabel nothing. There was no delineated shape of what had happened . . . only a blur. There was no vivid color to her memory . . . only white rage. Isabel had seen what she had seen at the time it happened – she was sure of that. Pictures had been snapped, but for some unknown reason her brain refused to develop them.

After great effort, Isabel brought forth one clear image. It was James’s expression of stunned confusion the moment he felt her first blow. She started with his expression of disbelief and worked backward to remember the rest.

Praise

“A soignée book publishing executive has attempted to murder her husband—yet can’t recall why. Tracking the glamorous couple in Manhattan, the Amazon, L.A., and Paris, this brisk page runner has the makings of a summer blockbuster.”
— The New Yorker Special Section of Summer Fiction , Must Reads of 2006

“An elegantly written, consistently surprising first novel . . . Collinsworth is the master of the tart put-down, near Austen-like in her keen analysis of the strange ways of the upper crust, and an ace tweaker of the conventions of the romance novel. This assured book works on so many levels—both as entertainment and as a movingly, mordantly funny morality tale—that it’s hard to believe it’s a first novel.”
— Booklist (starred review)

“Collinsworth’s promising debut novel tells the story of a couple madly in love, and just plain mad: it opens with protagonist Isabel Simpson at the psychiatrist discussing her murder attempt on her husband of twelve years. Twelve years earlier, Isabel was an ambitious publisher propelled by a childhood spent with a suicidal mother and a wealthy but unsympathetic father. Having already achieved success that belies her young age, Isabel seeks out irascible writer James Willoughby after stumbling upon his impressively written article describing his childhood home. Determined to put his talent to work for her, Isabel ignores his reputation for being insufferable and catches up with him for lunch-only to find his reputation well-earned. Nevertheless, an intense love affair begins that eventually yields a marriage and a son, and their rocky path toward the relationship’s violent downfall makes up the balance of the book. (This engaging novel’s) clear, compelling prose deals honestly with the desperate human desire to believe in love’s saving power.”
— Publishers Weekly

“What drove Isabel to attempt to kill her husband she adored? She doesn’t know—and you won’t either, until the delicious denouement. Spare writing and witty dialogue make Eden Collinsworth’s debut a mesmerizing read.”
— Marie Claire, 10 Best Things to Do

“An Elegant debut.”
— Vanity Fair

“A publishing pro picks up a pen . . . (and) shows her literary expertise.”
— USA Today

“An eloquent and heartrending dissection of a disintegrating marriage.”
— Harper’s Bazaar, Hot List

“Collinsworth, in her debut novel, articulates with elegance and passion the end of love. Her portrait of a marriage devastated me.”
— Dominick Dunne

“A thrilling, compelling novel about the gravitational pull of love and money. Gripping, readable and shimmering with glamorous details. . . . This is a story which takes up where The Great Gatsby left off.”
— Susan Cheever, author of Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle

“First novels are rarely this spry, fun, and archly enjoyable. . . . Collinsworth is a confident and gifted storyteller who can balance self-conscious cleverness with the thrills of pure entertainment. . . . A tale building force as it moves along to a particularly fine and quiet ending. ”
— New York Post

It Might Have Been What He Said is elegant and original, lean and clever, and suddenly, surprisingly, funny.”
— Annabel Davis-Goff, author of The Fox Walk, This Cold Country and Walled Gardens

It Might Have Been What He Said delivers one off-center zinger after another and renders two quirky people credible. I couldn’t put it down . . . it is an enormous act of will and wit on the writer’s part.”
— Jesse Kornbluth, journalist, former editorial director of AOL, editor of Headbutler.com, and author of Notes from the New Underground

“It held me from start to finish. . . . I was mesmerized.
— David Brown, producer of Jaws, The Player, and Driving Miss Daisy

“There are shades of obsession, like in The English Patient, and reminiscences of excessive consumption, like in The Great Gatsby. But in the end, this is a truly original tale of ultimate undoing.”
— Bookreporter.com