Her Native Colors
What’s it about?
It’s been six years since Phoebe Martin – lawyer with a hotshot San Francisco firm, divorced mother of a 4-year-old son – has been back to her hometown of East Winslow, Vermont. But when her oldest friend Molly, who teaches tenth-grade science, announces she’s getting married in three weeks’ time, Phoebe decides to make the trip back.
Her Native Colors tells the story of that trip. What should be a feeling of celebration evolves into emotions infinitely more complex as both women wrestle with the changes in each other’s lives. Has their friendship deteriorated into nothing more than nostalgia for the old days of playing house and hooky?
With a talent for characterization, for creating a first-rate sense of place, Elisabeth Hyde illuminates the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of our oldest friendships.
More Critical Acclaim
“Elisabeth Hyde is a remarkably lucid and authoritative novelist; in fact, her technique of storytelling is so precise and polished that Her Native Colors doesn't resemble a first novel at all-except those rare first novels of equally accomplished grace: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping or Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place.”
“It is also in her knowledge of our individual differences that Elisabeth Hyde appears especially insightful and mature; at a time fraught with the shrillest competition and polarization between men and women-between family life and career-Elisabeth Hyde quietly underlines the conflicts within women. In her exploration of a strained friendship between two women with opposing goals, she writes with both irony and sympathy about the wariness-the potential hostility-with which a single parent views a couple about to marry and have a child. In a stringent landscape of Yankee culture, as fine and straightforward in its detail as an old Audubon print, the novel captures the midpoint of a friend~ ship-and of two women's diverging lives.”
“In her funny and fascinating story of lawyers in and out of love, Elisabeth Hyde has beautifully shown just how our relationships are settled by negotiation and compromise, and how our ordinary lives are governed by daily litigations of the heart. Her Native Colors is impressive not only for its maturity and wit, but also for its wisdom.”
“Her Native Colors is a rich and satisfying story of love and friendship.”
“First Rate -- It is clear that Hyde writes from experience in her hilarious, though quite serious, indictments of the small-minded, humiliating power trips that Big Boy lawyers play on their younger associates – who in turn play them on each other, their support staffs, on down the line.”
—The Seattle Times/Post-Intelligencer
“A model post-feminist novel … Her Native Colors explores the idea of ‘having it all’ versus ‘having only some of it’; each of the two central characters realizing that she has been deluded and gulled by social pressures.”
—The Los Angeles Times
“This is a well-written first novel of contemporary women coming to terms with the paths they have chosen.”
“Hyde delves well beneath the surface of Phoebe’s superwoman exterior to present a balanced, sometimes painfully funny, assessment of the price she has been paying all along.”
“Ms. Hyde’s prose is clean and crisp; she writes with unblinking honesty about the compromised existences of fast-track lawyers; she has a keen ear for the way people really talk; and she is very skillful at setting up and executing scenes.”
—Kansas City Star
“This little gem of a book concerns friendship and the changes it undergoes due to time and distance. It is beautifully written, well-structured and populated with real people.”
—The Chattanooga Times
“The novel is touching in its treatment of girls and friendships and women and choices, and the question of whether an important relationship will last when friends begin with the same values, but grow in different directions.”
This is your first novel, written after you left your job as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice. What was it like to make the transition from attorney to writer?
A few things made it relatively easy. For one thing, being an attorney gave me great discipline – I told myself I was going to write 5 pages a day, and by golly, I didn’t get out of my chair until I’d written those 5 pages, Monday through Friday. For another, I felt liberated by fact that I was no longer bound by facts – I could lie! The more, the better! And finally, there was the fear factor that motivated me. I’d given up a good job with a good salary and benefits, and if I didn’t produce something, how was I going to justify that decision?
On the other hand, I was intensely lonely. We’d moved from DC to Seattle, and I didn’t have the built-in social structure that a working environment provides. And while the fear factor motivated me, it could also be paralyzing at times.
What saved me was going to Bread Loaf for two summers in a row, and having that community of writers which continued far beyond that 2-week stretch. I remember taking the first draft of this novel (which was called Deer Season back then) and handing it to John Irving and saying, “Read this please.” Poor guy. 350 pages overnight … He gave me his feedback and liked it enough to pass it on to his agent Peter Matson, who took me on as a client. It was a very different novel at that point, and I don’t remember all that much about it except that there was a gun accident with the little boy. Not a very good premise for a novel.
How difficult was it to find a publisher?
The novel certainly had its share of rejections. But it eventually caught the eye of an editor at Delacorte, Jane Rosenman, who told me that she thought that the book’s core focus was the relationship between Phoebe and Molly. She suggested I rewrite it, which I did, and she bought it. She was a great editor for spotting that core amidst those 350 pages, and she remained my editor with Monoosook Valley.
Did you ever think about going back to law?
Always. But the longer I stayed away, the harder it would have been to get hired, and I was aware of that. Plus, the publication of my first two novels coincided with the births of our children, and I knew I wasn’t in a position to throw myself into the work environment. It just made more sense to keep writing, and hoping things would work out. If you read my copyright dates, you’ll see that there’s a long time between Monoosook Valley and Crazy As Chocolate – 13 years, to be exact. That’s a long time. I was writing, but only half time, working on the many different versions of Crazy, plus a novel that now lies deep in my file cabinet. I should just dump it in the recycling bin.
An Excerpt from Her Native Colors
From Chapter 2:
Saturday morning Phoebe was anxious to get to work. Upon waking up she had promised herself she would stop brooding about the trip – there wasn’t anything to brood about, as Janice had said; but more importantly there wasn’t time to brood; she had a brief to write before leaving. So she dropped Andrew off with Rusty before breakfast – Rusty liked to cook in the morning anyway – and drove directly to the office. She had a few more cases she wanted to look up before she actually began drafting Herb’s brief, and Saturday mornings were a good time to work in the library: there weren’t many other attorneys around, and those who were there had the same goal as she did – getting in and out as quickly as possible.
Phoebe’s law firm, Judson and Day, was one of the largest in San Francisco, with a present count of 78 partners and 123 associates. Phoebe had been there three years since graduating from law school. Within her first month she had devised a system for categorizing her fellow associates: there were those who would go for partnership – the Nuts – and those who would leave after three or four years – the Bolts. (The Nuts were clearly in the majority.) Each group had its own set of marked characteristics: Nuts, for instance, chatted with partners on the main set of elevators, while Bolts used the back elevators and kept to themselves. Nuts regularly were asked out on recruiting dinners – usually held at the finest restaurants in the city, where they would spend upwards of eighty dollars per person while glorifying the firm to the candidate. Bolts, disgusted with this deception, begrudgingly went out on one dinner, and afterward – if they were asked again, which they usually weren’t, since they failed to give enough of a pep talk to the poor interviewee -- became unavailable due to their heavy workload. Nuts had a knack for knowing when to speak at meetings and when to stay quiet; Bolts played it safe by keeping their mouths shut the whole time.
And there were other differences, of course: Nuts buttoned and belted their raincoats neatly; kept their hair trimmed; jogged along the Embarcadero with other members of the firm during lunch hour; got married and stayed married; bought houses out in Orinda; wore rubbers over their wingtips when it rained; remembered the names of the wives of senior partners; and decorated their offices with framed Japanese prints. Bolts, on the other hand, ate with the same people (other Bolts) every day; rented; took mid-afternoon breaks at nearby video arcades; and only had time to grab a plateful of shrimp and crab from the buffet at the weekly thank-God-it’s-Friday-afternoon party before escaping back to their own private office gatherings in the Barracks. Nuts and Bolts were similar in two respects: they all padded their hours, some more, some less; and they all hated Herb Sullivan.
Phoebe, of course, was a Bolt.
Her friend Janice was also a Bolt, and often Phoebe and Janice would spend their lunch hour at the baths on Van Ness – one of the few places where they could be reasonably certain not to run into any other members of the firm, who if they were inclined toward this kind of relaxation would have joined one of the more acceptable and more elaborate health-and-fitness clubs downtown. But there in the privacy of a small redwood-paneled room, Phoebe and Janice would soak themselves in one of the large round tubs, listening to rock music and letting the jets of hot water pulse against the smalls of their backs as they commiserated with each other. Janice’s problem wasn’t Herb Sullivan; her problem, for the past two years, had been Francis Clapp, a shy, bumbling Milquetoast of a partner who specialized in wills and trusts. Francis Clapp was the only partner at Judson and Day who practiced in this field, and Janice was the only associate assigned to him. Janice, who had accepted the job offer after receiving an explicit promise that she would be assigned to the litigation section, despised that area of law; she had taken a course in wills during law school, but never went to class, and managed a sixty-eight on the exam only by having hand-copied an old bar review outline on the subject the night before. “Transcription,” she would always claim, “saved my ass.” Yet although she had made it clear to the partner in charge of assignments that she wanted out – she even emphasized her grade as a sign of her lack of expertise in the area – he was unsympathetic. Janice worried that the longer she worked for Francis Clapp the more likely it was that she would get locked into wills as a specialty field. She was right.
“But look at the bright side,” Phoebe told her one day at the baths. “You’re not working your ass off for Mr. Fuckface. Try working for Herb. See what it’s like having someone throw your work back in your face when he hasn’t even read it.’
“But the guy’s so incompetent,” Janice said. “We went into probate court the other day; Frank turned beet red when it was his turn to talk. I don’t think he had even read the will.”
“What did you do?”
“Kept my mouth shut, of course,” Janice said. “It’s not my place to talk in court. Not with this firm.”
Phoebe took a sip of her Calistoga water.
“It’s enough to make you want to go back to Iowa and hang out your own shingle,” Janice grumbled.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Phoebe said.
“Well, if I keep working for Frank my career’s going to be ruined.”
Phoebe closed her eyes. “How did a guy like that ever get to be partner?” she wondered aloud.
“Who knows,” Janice said. “Maybe he slept his way to the top.”
“I still think you have a better deal,” Phoebe said later, drying off. “When was the last time you had to work on a weekend?”
“I don’t know,” Janice said. “A month or two ago?”
“I work every other goddamn weekend,” Phoebe said. “Whenever Rusty has Andrew. And I don’t screw around during the week, do I? Not like others? I work hard all week long and still I have to come in every other weekend for that baboon.”
“Yes, but at least you don’t have a problem with your hours,” Janice said. “I haven’t billed more than a thousand.” That was back in August; associates were expected to bill between eighteen hundred and two thousand hours annually (though Nuts usually billed more), and yearly reviews were coming up in November.
“Pad,” Phoebe said. She pointed her toe into her stocking and pulled.
“I already have,” Janice said.
“I’m so fat,” Phoebe sighed. “Look at this gut.”