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"'Similarly thrilling' to Gone Girl...Smart social commentary meets taut heist when mom Sophie dips her toe into the black market art world, just so her family can have a nice hom...
"'Similarly thrilling' to Gone Girl...Smart social commentary meets taut heist when mom Sophie dips her toe into the black market art world, just so her family can have a nice home.” — Better Homes & Garden
Her Heists Paid the Bills.
Her Family Paid the Price.
Sophie Porter is the last person in the world you’d expect to be stealing Renaissance masterpieces—and that’s exactly why she’s so good at it. Slipping objects out of her husband’s office at the Philadelphia Museum of Art satisfies something deep inside, during a time in her life when satisfactions are few and far between.
Selling the treasures also happens to keep their house out of foreclosure — a house that means everything to Sophie. But the FBI is sniffing around, and Sophie is close to destroying the very life she’s working so hard to build. She knows she should give up her thieving ways. But she may no longer be in control. The Objects of Her Affection is a riveting story about the realities of motherhood, the perils of secrecy, and the art of appraising the real treasures in our lives.
"Sonya Cobb combines the rarified atmosphere of museum scholarship, illegal art trafficking, and the sticky desperation of young motherhood to craft a superbly written thriller."—Karen Engelmann, author of The Stockholm Octavo
"This thrilling, emotional, and tautly paced novel will appeal to fans of The Book Thief...[Cobb's] brilliant first novel is the story of a woman with nothing and everything to lose."—Booklist, starred review
Like most Philadelphians, Sophie had always bought her produce at Superfresh, or, if she found herself on the other end of town, the ACME. It had never occurred to her...
Like most Philadelphians, Sophie had always bought her produce at Superfresh, or, if she found herself on the other end of town, the ACME. It had never occurred to her to drive to an actual farm and pick it herself. But now she had children, and apparently, produce picking was an indispensable part of any happy childhood—like trick-or-treating or hunting for Easter eggs. You went peach picking in August, pumpkin picking in October. You introduced your children to the concept of agriculture, and took hundreds of pictures for the grandparents; or in the absence of grandparents, for the other moms in Music for Me class.
Now it was strawberry season, and the moms were all taking their kids to Shadyside Orchards, just outside the city, among the rippling, subdivided hills of Chester County. “It sounds nice,” Sophie said to Brian. “A day on the farm—it’s the sort of thing we’re supposed to do. As parents.” But Brian had been skeptical, pointing out that if this was really what all the moms and kids of Philadelphia were doing, they could hardly expect a quiet day immersed in the hush of nature.
“More like the crush of Sesame Place,” he’d predicted. But when he’d seen Sophie’s face, carefully arranged into a combination of disappointment and dogged hope, he’d relented, as usual, even though it meant missing his Saturday ride. But Sophie had figured that out, too. The farm was only two miles from the cycling team’s training route. If he timed it right, he could pick some strawberries with her and the kids, then jump on his bike and catch up with his team for the second half of the ride.
Brian had a lot of opportunities to say “I told you so” that morning—starting in Shadyside’s vast, SUV-choked parking lot, where they were greeted not by a flock of ducks or even a stray barn cat, but by a sluggishly waving giant strawberry and a man with a walkie-talkie. He could have said it as they joined the crowd pushing their way to the ticket booth through a forest of loudspeakers. And he probably came close to saying it when he bought full-price tickets for themselves and for Lucy, age two and a half, and Elliot, a mere seven months. But he didn’t.
As they followed the signs to the wagon-boarding zone, Sophie consoled herself that Lucy was still too young to form permanent memories; she wouldn’t necessarily grow up thinking farms were the folksy cousins of amusement parks. There would be plenty of other farms to visit…plenty of time to get it right. She looped her arm around Brian’s, grateful for his stoic good humor, hoping he wouldn’t take off before they got the call from Steve, their real estate agent.
She was pretty sure Steve was going to say their offer on 2224 Hickory had been refused, and she didn’t feel like absorbing this depressing news alone. She knew Brian would be relieved—delighted, even—to hear they weren’t going to empty their savings into a 150-year-old fixer-upper. But at least he could still be counted on to provide the silent, consoling hug she was desperately going to need.
On the wagon, the strawberry pickers sat on scratchy hay bales, facing each other like subway passengers. Unlike people on the subway, however, they all looked directly into each other’s faces, excited about the adventure, impatient to start moving, making little jokes about traffic jams. A grandmother sitting on the opposite side of the wagon looked at Lucy and then up at Sophie.
“She looks just like you!” she said.
“Thanks!” said Sophie, as she always did, even though she knew it wasn’t really the right answer. “I know” sounded unfriendly; “Really?” sounded disingenuous. She figured it must be true, because she’d heard it countless times since Lucy’s birth three years ago. Nevertheless she often found herself looking into Lucy’s wide-set brown eyes and thinking, “Is that me?” She also wondered when Lucy would first ask herself, with amazement and possibly a stab of horror, “Am I turning into her?”
The tractor started with a jerk; everyone swayed and grabbed on to each other, laughing. They pulled out behind another wagonload of people and staggered up the rutted road toward the strawberry field. “Faster!” cried Lucy, kicking her legs against the hay bale. Sophie looked down the row to where Brian was sitting, Elliot strapped to his front like an underdeveloped Siamese twin. Elliot was all baby fat and Brian was taut with lean muscle, but their heads were perfectly matched, with hair like the grain of a pine floorboard and a look of impassive forbearance in their pale eyes. Brian caught Sophie’s gaze, raised his eyebrows in mock glee. She smirked in answer, then turned to watch the slow approach of the strawberry field.
In the distance she could see a row of houses on a low rise just beyond the edge of the farm. They were large and identical, with layers of peaked roofs arrayed over a jumble of mismatched windows, the largest of which was two stories high and arched at the top. The houses huddled above the field as if whispering to each other about its quaintly inefficient use of space. Just that morning, on the drive from Philadelphia, Brian had said he’d like to widen their search to include some of the suburbs close to the city. “Not like this, of course, but maybe one of the older towns. We could get a lot more space in Mt. Airy or Germantown. And a backyard.” Sophie hadn’t responded to this. As far as she was concerned, the Philadelphia Zoo was their backyard. And the Azalea Garden, where Elliot could practice crawling through the thick, cropped grass. And the Horticulture Center, with its delicately landscaped Japanese Tea House, where they would exchange their shoes for white slippers and clap their hands to attract the koi, who would lumber up to the side of the pond looking for treats. A backyard sounded, to Sophie, like an excuse to stay home.
The wagon stopped; a step stool was proffered; the pickers climbed down and accepted empty pint baskets from the sunburned teenager just starting his summer job. The strawberry plants grew in long, bushy lines, with hay scattered on the ground between the rows. On the other side of the dirt road, at the bottom of a slope, ranks of young spruce and pine trees waited for December, when crowds of jolly executioners would come for them, wielding their red-handled saws.
Lucy broke away from Sophie and hurtled into the field, plunging her hands into one of the plants. She pulled out a large red fruit and looked up at her mother for permission.
“Go crazy,” Sophie said, and the look of ecstasy on Lucy’s face as she bit into the berry more than repaid the drive, the loudspeakers, the overcrowded wagon. Brian unstrapped Elliot and set him on the ground, where he began picking up handfuls of straw and moving them toward his mouth. Brian pried the hay out of Elliot’s clenched fists and tried directing him toward a fruit-heavy bush, but Elliot was transfixed by the loose yellow stuff, so lightweight and abundant, so easily scooped and crushed in his hands. “You might as well just let him taste it,” Sophie said, knowing that the easiest way to keep Elliot from doing something was to let him come up with the idea himself. But Brian made a face and picked Elliot up, batting his hands away from his mouth and making him drop the hay. Elliot’s arms shuddered and his face reddened as he gathered himself for an explosion of cries. Sophie dropped her strawberry basket next to Lucy and reached for Elliot.
“I’ve got this,” said Brian.
“It’s okay.” Sophie took Elliot and bounced him in her arms, cooing in his ear, searching for the rhythm and tone that would calm his fury. Brian looked at his watch again. Standing there among the strawberry plants in his red-and-black cycling spandex, he looked like a futuristic scarecrow. Sophie felt a twinge of regret for having swooped in so quickly. She’d done it that morning, too—snatching a diaper out of his hand because he was taking too long with it. She knew it was a bad habit; it wasn’t fair to Brian. On the other hand she did wonder, sometimes, if he was exaggerating his clumsiness just a bit, offering himself up for the swoop-in.
“You’ve got great weather for your ride,” she said now, feeling around for a thread to draw them back together. She genuinely wanted Brian to enjoy his afternoon away; he was here, after all, even though the farm visit was her fantasy, not his. But that was Brian—letting her get the pale yellow upholstery she loved even though they had two kids in diapers; letting her get the eight-foot-tall Christmas tree even though their apartment ceilings were only seven feet high. He was too good to her; she knew that. He wanted nothing but her happiness, and she kept trying, in spite of her mistakes, to provide it.
“I’ll be home in time to make dinner,” Brian said. He pulled a strawberry from a bush, wiping it on his jersey and holding it up to her lips. “Grilled shrimp rémoulade?” Sophie bit slowly into the berry’s red flesh; Brian ate the other half with a suggestive eyebrow raise. She laughed gratefully. Dinnertime was the moment she looked forward to every single day, Brian stirring at the stove, Sophie keeping him company, Elliot in the Pack ’n’ Play, a bottle of wine on the counter. She couldn’t cook—she hated the messy panic of it all—so in the kitchen Brian was fully in charge. Without Sophie swooping in, he was free to create elaborate meals so full of depth and complexity, they were like a window into his soul—or maybe, Sophie liked to think, his feelings for his wife.
“Why do you think Steve isn’t calling?” she asked, wanting Brian to share the savory mixture of hope and dread she’d been nursing all morning.
“I don’t know. The twenty-four hours are just about up. He’ll have to call one way or the other.”
Sophie tried to detect a hint of anxiety in his voice, but was unrewarded, as usual. “Should we call him? I think we should call him.”
“He must not have anything to say, or we would’ve heard from him.”
“Maybe we should’ve come in a little higher,” Sophie said. “What if there’s another offer?”
“I don’t even think we can afford what we did offer,” Brian said, adjusting his bike shorts. “With the renovations—it’s serious money. It’s crazy.”
“I can make it work. I’m not worried. I’ve already got two jobs lined up for this summer.” Sophie set Elliot down between two strawberry plants, then stepped into the next row to check on Lucy, who was pushing strawberries into her mouth as fast as she could pick them. Red juice stained her shirt, her chin, her teeth; even her hair looked sticky. “Lucy, we’re supposed to take some of these home, you know. Here, start putting them in this basket. I don’t think you should eat that many. How many have you had?”
Lucy held up both hands. “Lots?”
Sophie helped her fill the basket, teasing the ripe berries away from the greenish-white ones that dangled from flimsy stems like bowed heads. The sun was hot on her neck, but it was still early enough in the season for the heat to be dry and welcome.
Her mind turned back to the house, as it had for the last few days, trying to reassemble the rooms within the three stacked stories of brick, patching together her memories of the fireplace mantels, the high ceilings, the heavy, ornately faceted doors. It was a sharp architectural retort to the apartments and rental houses she’d grown up in, with their hollow-core doors and drop ceilings, the acrylic bathtubs that flexed and thumped when you stepped into them. This was a house made to last; a place to stay put.
As she toured it in her mind, she peeled away flocked wallpaper and shag carpet to reveal plaster walls and wood floors. She flaked paint off of chestnut, porcelain, and iron. She hung a fanciful light fixture in Lucy’s bedroom, and installed shelves for Elliot’s bins of toys. She renovated her childhood and offered it, freshly painted and outlined in crisp white trim, to her children.
“Here, Soph.” Brian handed her the baby carrier. “I’m going to catch that wagon back so I can change shoes and all. Call me when you hear from Steve, all right?” He reached around and patted the phone-shaped lump in the pocket on the back of his jersey. Sophie nodded, spreading the fingers of one hand across her belly. Seeing this, Brian stepped forward and pulled her into a hug. “It’s going to be fine.” His smile hovered between apology and reassurance as he stroked his thumb across her cheekbone. “Try to have fun. Call me if you need me to come back, okay? I’ll come right away.”
“No worries!” Sophie rubbed his shoulder briskly. “Have a great ride. I’ll let you know what Steve says.” She waved to him as he rode off in the wagon, wishing, too late, that she’d boarded it with him, realizing now how crucial he was to her enjoyment of the outing. Without him there, the whole thing seemed silly. Lucy loved eating the strawberries, of course, but she could do that at home, and Elliot didn’t care if he was on a farm or in the playground around the corner from their house.
She pulled out her phone, checked for missed calls, then slid it back into the diaper bag. Elliot had crawled into another row and was headed toward the Christmas trees. Sophie scooped her arm between his legs and set him down facing the other direction; he continued crawling without missing a beat. She followed him in circles around Lucy, redirecting him when necessary, until she began to feel her breasts becoming uncomfortably full—which probably meant Elliot was becoming uncomfortably empty. She lifted him up and fed his thighs through the leg holes of the baby carrier, clipping it shut against her now-aching chest. “Come on, Lucy,” she said, crouching to pick up the few strawberries that had made it into the basket. “We’re getting the next wagon.” Lucy nodded, suddenly sapped of energy. Her expression had turned inward, as if she were monitoring some kind of development in her mood. “You okay?” Sophie asked. Lucy nodded again.
Back at the farm market, Sophie found a small fenced playground with two empty benches in the shade of some oak trees. A sign was nailed to an honor box at the entrance: “Playground admission $5.” Sophie snorted and shoved a five-dollar bill through the slot. She would call Steve while Elliot ate.
Lucy ambled indifferently toward the jungle gym, while Sophie untangled herself from the baby carrier, her blouse, and her nursing bra. Elliot huffed and grunted; he was shuddering with hunger. As he started to nurse, she pulled her phone out of the bag and checked it for missed calls. Nothing.
A shriek came from the direction of the jungle gym. “Mommy!”
“What is it?” called Sophie, squinting at Lucy, who was standing next to the glaring metal slide, arms straight out, legs wide apart, her body stiff. “Come over here. What’s wrong?”
But Lucy was crying, and it wasn’t tired crying or plaintive crying or nobody-loves-me crying. It was gasping sobs, raw and edged with fear. Sophie threw the phone back in her bag, pulled Elliot off her breast, and lurched toward Lucy. The smell told her everything before she got close enough to see what was dripping from Lucy’s shorts. Lucy, champion potty trainer, enthusiastic consumer of toilet paper, avid proponent of toilet seat covers and antibiotic gel, was frozen in horror, tears streaming down her face, her juice-stained mouth turned down and quivering.
“It’s okay, honey,” Sophie said, trying to button her blouse with one hand. “Don’t worry. You just ate a few too many strawberries. Let’s go to the bathroom and clean you up.” Elliot began to snuffle desperately at Sophie’s neck. When she lifted him into the baby carrier, his confusion coalesced into outrage; his screams drowned out the sobs of his sister. Sophie stabbed uselessly at his mouth with a pacifier, then gave up and hoisted the diaper bag over her shoulder, pulling Lucy toward the bathrooms.
The women’s room was at the back of the market, requiring a slow walk down long aisles of pickled rhubarb and apple butter, Elliot wailing, Lucy bent stiffly at the waist and whimpering. Sophie was half expecting to find an honor box nailed to the restroom door, but this part of the experience, at least, was free.
Sophie led Lucy into the handicapped stall, feeling, for the first time in her life, legitimately guilt-free about this incursion, and used the handrail to lower herself slowly into a squat, knees cracking. It would have been silly to bring a stroller on a tractor ride, but she really could have used a place to store her son. She gingerly removed Lucy’s soiled underpants and socks, then lifted her onto the toilet seat, holding her as far from Elliot’s hands and feet as possible, her back twanging with pain. “Hold on to that rail.”
“I don’t want to touch anything!” screamed Lucy, digging her fingernails into Sophie’s arms. Lucy’s scream startled Elliot, whose sobs shattered into shrill, breathless shrieks. Then, from the depths of the diaper bag, mingling with the children’s cries, came a more reasonable and musical sound: Sophie’s phone.
Sophie pried Lucy’s fingers open and planted them firmly on the safety bars. She reached into the diaper bag for one of the plastic grocery bags folded up inside the central pocket and dropped Lucy’s shorts and underwear into it. She knotted the bag shut and wrapped it in two more grocery bags, which she shoved into the diaper bag. This did nothing to dispel the swampy stench that filled the stall; nor did it muffle the trill of the phone. She pulled out a packet of wet wipes and used them to swab Lucy’s legs as well as she could while Lucy balanced on the toilet seat. “You done?” she asked Lucy, who shook her head miserably. Sophie stood and awkwardly leaned over to kiss Lucy’s forehead, then left the stall to toss the wipes in the trash and wash her hands.
After a few more tries she persuaded Elliot to accept the pacifier, which transformed his shrieks into furious grunts and sucking noises. Sophie checked on Lucy one more time, then dug out her phone and flipped it open. Steve. Of course. She dialed in to voice mail.
“Sophie, hey, sorry this is so last-minute, we were having fax machine problems. Anyway, good news, they have counteroffered, and I think it’s reasonable. Call me back ASAP.”
Sophie felt herself levitate, momentarily, above the echoing bathroom stall, then become heavy again with the realization that the counteroffer would, by definition, be way over their budget. “Ready to get up?” she asked Lucy. Lucy shook her head, so Sophie leaned against the wall and called Steve back.
“I think it’s fair,” he said. “For the neighborhood, the size, it’s a good price.” Sophie could hear the optimism in his voice, and she allowed herself to be lifted back up by it, away from the stink and ache, into a pearly cloud of excitement far above the creeping suburbs of Chester County. The number wasn’t bad…the number was just a number, really. Bland, silent, you could invite it into your life without too much disruption. You could learn to live with it, move some things around, make space. “You should look into one of those new low down payment loan products I told you about,” Steve said. “My mortgage guy can work wonders. Call Brian, then get back to me.”
But Lucy was inching her way off the toilet seat, so Sophie stood her up and finished wiping her legs. She had a pair of clean underwear in the diaper bag, but no shorts, so she had to persuade Lucy that her T-shirt, thankfully on the large side, was long enough to pass as a dress. Lucy seemed too drained to protest, and even consented to put on her sneakers without socks. On the way out of the market, Sophie bought her a bottle of Gatorade, which cheered Lucy enormously because it was blue and it wore a garish, neon-scrawled label.
Sophie led Lucy back to the playground. “I just need a chance to finish feeding Elliot,” she said. “Then we can all go home and take a long nap.” She held the gate open for two boys with buzz cuts and sleeveless camouflage shirts. They barreled past her and began chasing each other in circles around the jungle gym while their mother pulled five dollars out of her wallet with exaggerated slowness and stuffed it in the honor box, making brazen eye contact with Sophie.
“I paid before,” said Sophie, but this sounded feeble, and the woman pulled back one side of her mouth and hooded her eyes. “Oh, whatever,” Sophie muttered, hurrying to the only bench that was still in the shade. She situated Elliot on her breast and called Brian, but the call went right to voice mail. She tried again; same thing. One of the boys came to stand in front of her and watch her breast-feed. His mother stalked over, slapping her platform flip-flops on the dusty ground, and grabbed him by the arm.
“Don’t look at that,” she said, turning him toward the jungle gym and hitting him on the rear.
Sophie tried Brian again but it was useless; he’d ridden out of range. Anyway, she knew how the conversation would go. He’d want to walk away. But Brian had not seen the same house she’d seen. He’d seen water damage, knob-and-tube wiring, an oil-gulping furnace. Sophie, on the other hand, had seen an address for their future. She’d walked through dozens of other houses in the past months, but this one had set something vibrating in her, some long-forgotten string that was now playing its note in her head day and night.
She switched Elliot, now in a limp daze, to her other breast. Her mind seesawed between excitement and preemptive guilt, feeling the thing she wanted so badly just within reach, knowing she should sit back and wait just a little bit longer. With time and persistence, she knew she could win Brian over. She just needed to find the words to explain why, exactly, this house was so necessary. Why she believed it could protect her from the lonesomeness of her childhood. Why she felt it could anchor her to the earth in a way that would ease that whirling, plastic-bag-in-the-wind feeling she’d had all her life. She needed him to know that buying this house was her way of giving Lucy and Elliot the childhood she’d missed; that the house might even serve as tangible proof that she was doing this thing right—this maddening, baffling, improvisational performance called parenting. She needed to make him understand that some day she wanted to look upon her grown children with pleasure and satisfaction, maybe even pride, instead of the sort of acidic regret that would force her to turn away from them forever. And that this house—with its honest proportions and solid bones—had somehow become home to this motley collection of yearnings.
Eventually she’d figure out how to explain it all in a way that actually made sense. And Brian, she knew, would get that soft look, and he would say yes, if it will make you happy, yes, of course, yes.
It seemed a little ridiculous to delay things, just so he could cautiously sidle up to a decision she’d already made.
A decision made in the wrong way, perhaps, but for the right reasons. She only wanted what was best for her family.
Sophie opened the phone, her blood buzzing with a cocktail of adrenaline and oxytocin. With a rubbery pop, as if crushing a tiny bubble, her thumb pressed the green button. Steve answered on the first ring.
“similarly thrilling" to Gone Girl...Smart social commentary meets taut heist when mom Sophie dips her toe into the black market art world, just so her family can have a nice home.”
“similarly thrilling" to Gone Girl...Smart social commentary meets taut heist when mom Sophie dips her toe into the black market art world, just so her family can have a nice home.”
“Cobb’s real-life knowledge of the museum acquisition process—she’s married to a curator—imbues this sizzling tale of suspense and moral dilemmas with a heightened sense of realism.” - Publishers Weekly
“This thrilling, emotional, and tautly paced novel will appeal to fans of The Book Thief (2006). Cobb’s clear, unburdened prose allows Sophie’s innermost hopes and anxieties to shine. Her brilliant first novel is the story of a woman with nothing and everything to lose.
” - Booklist
“Sonya Cobb combines the rarified atmosphere of museum scholarship, illegal art trafficking, and the sticky desperation of young motherhood to craft a superbly written thriller. Sophie Porter, the novel’s fierce, flawed heroine leads readers on a heady downhill race through the world of white-collar crime, where her high-risk gambles to secure the objects of her affection might mean losing them all.” - Karen Engelmann, author of The Stockholm Octavo
“A tautly plotted and elegantly written debut about the shame of secrets and the power of home. I held my breath with every twist and turn -- and marveled over each effortlessly beautiful sentence.” - Kelly Simmons, author of Standing Still and The Bird House
“An insightful and moving new voice, Sonya Cobb’s The Objects of Her Affection is a smart, entertaining book that had me pinned to my chair until the end.” - DeLauné Michel, author of The Safety of Secrets
Length: 8.25 in
Width: 5.5 in
Weight: 0.00 oz
Page Count: 352 pages