An Exaltation of Larks

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GRAND PRIZE WINNER of the 2017 WRITER'S DIGEST BOOK AWARDS

September 11, 1973: Eleven-year-old Alejandro Penda watches from his apartment window as Santiago, Chile falls to a military coup, destroying his family and his childhood. Arriving alone in America, he's taken in by the Larks: a prominent family in the town of Guelisten. Though burdened by unresolved grief for his disappeared parents, he becomes fiercely loyal to the Larks, eventually marrying one of their daughters, Valerie.

September 11, 2001: Javier Landes watches from his apartment window as New York City falls to terrorism. As one of Manhattan's top-paid male escorts, this professional lover has never lacked for company and is loyal only to himself. But in the wake of 9/11, Jav is named guardian for an orphaned nephew in Guelisten and must open his carefully-guarded heart to pain he's long suppressed.

Alex, Valerie and Jav meet first in their twenties, with a sudden attraction each finds strange and compelling. When they meet again in their forties, they discover not only is their bond still strong, but their life experiences are strangely similar. Each was shaped by a 9/11, and their unfinished business from the past will change everything they know about love, loyalty and friendship.

Across three decades and two continents, Suanne Laqueur's fifth novel explores the unpredictability of sexual attraction, how family ties are forged, torn and mended, and how love's downfall can turn to exaltation.

October 1973
Santiago, Chile

The doorbell rang at three in the morning.

Alejandro Penda was awake immediately, sitting up in the double bed in his parents’ room. Clementina, his mother, was slower to rise, her silhouette big and round in the moonlight.

The bell rang again. Alejo moved as close as he could to Clementina, his arm creeping across her pregnant belly.

“Cálmate, hijo,” she whispered.

“It’s a friend.”

“Shh.”

“Papi said friends ring the doorbell,” Alejo whispered. “Soldiers and police bang with their fists.”

“Get up,” Clementina said, throwing the covers aside. “Come.” She pulled on a robe, tied it above her stomach and stretched hands to her son. “Ahora, Alejito.”

She pulled him toward her closet and pushed him inside.

“Stay here,” she whispered as the doorbell rang again. “Just to be safe. It’s me they want, anyway.”

She shut the door. It was pitch dark within, a pillowy, inky blackness Alejo could sink his fingers into. It stopped up his ears, making the sound of his own heartbeat enormous, like an angry fist pounding on a door.

Friends ring the doorbell.

The bell rang one last time. Then silence, except for the blood rushing in Alejo’s ears.

He was not quite eleven years old and didn’t understand what was happening in the world. Only that Chile was heaving and bucking, caught up tight in a fist of change that squeezed harder and harder every passing day. The fist belonged to a man named Pinochet, who was the arm of something called the Right. Alejo tried to fathom his parents’ frantic whispering, but he couldn’t make sense of what was right and left, only what was us and them.

Back in September, they bombed La Moneda, the presidential palace, where our president Allende lived. Allende was dead now. They filled the streets with soldiers and crammed the skies over Santiago with low-flying airplanes and helicopters. They showered the streets with leaflets. The daily bomb blasts and dynamite explosions were their doing. But if they were the Right and the Right was right, it meant we were the Left. Which meant the left was…wrong?

Huddled under dresses and jackets, Alejo pulled his kneecaps tight to his mouth. The fear burned like a hard fire, pressing him from all sides, as if the walls of the closet were moving together. His mind chattered like teeth and silent tears leaked through his squeezed eyes, wetting the thin fabric of his pajamas.

Cálmate, hijo.

Four days ago, his father didn’t come home from work. A doorbell rang that night too, but at the respectable hour of eight. It was Eduardo’s assistant, Milagros. Her clothes were scorched, her eyes reddened with smoke, burns on her arms and hands and legs. The soldiers had torched the librería and arrested Eduardo.

“Alejo, go to your room,” Clementina said. He ducked only halfway down the hall and hid behind a bookcase, listening. Clementina kept the front door half-closed and he could only catch scattered words.

“Leftist sympathy… Dissident literature… Student uprisings… A threat… Arresting foreign enemies.”

Alejo’s mind juggled the words around, trying to extract his father from them. Eduardo Penda was a tall, slender man. Handsome, almost pretty, with dark wavy hair and green eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. He was left-handed, as was Alex—was that what Milagros meant by leftist?

Dissident. Did that mean absent-minded? Eduardo’s gaze was either fixed down in a book or up at the sky. He was always late, forgot important dates and often walked out of the apartment wearing two different shoes. But he knew everything about books and history and the magic inside stories. He owned a wonderful shop on the Calle Trinidad, filled with the smell of ink and paper and coffee, and the hum of students debating beneath tall, crammed bookshelves.

The librería was a threat? Eduardo was an enemy of the people? Eduardo loved people. The students loved him.

Clementina was crying now, which drew Alejo back toward the door. He was man of the house when Eduardo wasn’t home. He crouched down, peering around the edge of the door, avoiding Clementina’s foot that tried to shoo him. In the hall, other apartment doors were cracking open, tips of noses inching out, sniffing for news. The air was heavy with suspicion and fear.

Foreign enemies, Alejo thought, remembering the words on the leaflets showered over the city, calling for Santiguans to denounce all foreigners. He knew Eduardo was the son of Italian immigrants. Clementina came to Chile from Spain when she was sixteen. Were Spanish and Italians Right? Or Wrong?

“My guess is he’s in the Estadio,” Milagros said. “Or the Villa Grimaldi. I heard they’re detaining people there as well.”

Alejo couldn’t imagine what his father would be doing in the Stadium. Playing soccer? For a moment he pictured Eduardo kicking a ball around with some other men, passing the time with a friendly game while all this nonsense got sorted out.

Maybe it’s not so bad, he thought.

“Go home, Mila,” Clementina said, her hand sliding along her curved belly. “It’s not safe here.”

“You should get out of Santiago,” Milagros said. “Go to the American embassy at least. I know one of the attachés. Tell him your brother-in-law is a U.S. citizen and he can help with VISAs.” Her hand reached for Clementina’s and their fingers laced, knuckles clenched white on Clementina’s stomach. “Tina, get out while you still can.”

“I can’t. Not without Eduardo. He needs me.”

The women kissed cheeks. Milagros slipped away and Clementina shut the door. For hours she paced the apartment, her lovely curved brow twisted up with worry. Every so often she looked wild-eyed at Alejo, as if expecting him to make the decision whether to stay for Eduardo or flee without him. He avoided her eyes and went into the kitchen to make them some eggs.

On the wall by the phone hung the calendar, still showing September’s page. Alejo had been crossing out the days in anticipation of their upcoming trip to Portillo—their last ski trip of the season. But the Xs stopped on September 11, 1973. The day Pinochet came to town, froze the calendar and put the country’s plans on hold.

Clementina and Alejo ate their eggs in silence, an unspoken decision to stay.

They should have gone.

                                                      * * * * * 

Alejo, now man of the house, shook in the dark of the closet, reaching up to hold the sleeves and hems of his parents’ clothing. Worn out by fear, his young nerves shredded, the ball of his body tipped sideways until his head came to rest against the closet wall, cushioned by his mother’s winter coat.

He began to play the game his father made up: Alejo named an animal, Eduardo gave the group term.

Lions.

“Pride.”

Bears.

“Sleuth.”

Zebras.

“Dazzle.”

Giraffes.

“Tower.”

Pandas.

“Embarrassment.”

Alejo went on quizzing himself, his eyes dipping and drooping. When he woke with a start, dawn was evident in the thin crack of light beneath the closet door.

He snuck out once—to use the toilet and load his arms with things from the kitchen. He returned to his hiding place and waited.

The doorbell didn’t ring. Nor the phone. The outside din of helicopters, guns, explosions and screams slipped into the open bedroom window and through the crack of the closet door.

Toads.

“Knot.”

Camels.

“Caravan.”

Rhinoceros.

“Crash.”

Crows.

Murder, Alejo thought.

His mother never returned.

A former professional dancer and teacher, Suanne Laqueur went from choreographing music to choreographing words. Her work has been described as "Therapy Fiction," "Emotionally Intelligent Romance" and "Contemporary Train Wreck."

Laqueur's novel An Exaltation of Larks was the grand prize winner in the 2017 Writer's Digest Book Awards. Her debut novel The Man I Love won a gold medal in the 2015 Readers' Favorite Book Awards and was named Best Debut in the Feathered Quill Book Awards. Her follow-up novel, Give Me Your Answer True, was also a gold medal winner at the 2016 RFBA.

Laqueur graduated from Alfred University with a double major in dance and theater. She taught at the Carol Bierman School of Ballet Arts in Croton-on-Hudson for ten years. An avid reader, cook and gardener, she started her blog EatsReadsThinks in 2010.

Suanne lives in Westchester County, New York with her husband and two children.

6"x 9"
Black text on 60# cream paper
491 pages
Softcover, matte finish