Billie Livingston’s fine second novel leads us to consider the nature of our hidden lives and desires — and to question whether the sky would really fall if we admitted our true needs and ceased to blush.
As Cease to Blush opens, Vivian is late to her own mother’s funeral. Wearing a tight red suit, Vivian stands out like a pornographer’s dream amongst the West Coast intellectuals mourning the death of prominent feminist Josie Callwood. But for all of her bravado, Vivian finds herself emotionally numb and spiraling downward. Vivian and her mother were in constant conflict, with Josie disapproving of her daughter’s lifestyle; her inclination to use her body instead of her brain, and her so-called acting career, which has amounted to little more than playing prostitutes and the odd dead body. For her part Vivian has been invested in antagonizing her mother’s feminist ideology. As the story opens Vivian’s career, as well as her relationship with boyfriend Frank, is taking an unsavoury turn as she wades into the quick cash scheme of Internet porn with herself cast in the lead.
But Josie has left a big surprise for her troubled daughter: a trunk full of mementoes from her own past, all of which point to a secret life more exotic than anything Vivian has been able to pull off. Puzzling together bits and pieces, Vivian learns that her mother was at one time a burlesque performer named Celia Dare who rubbed shoulders with the flashiest celebrities of the sixties. Vivian becomes determined to uncover the true story of her mother’s life.
Chasing rumours, Vivian sets off down the Pacific coast and soon finds out that truth is a slippery snake. With only a few of her mother’s letters, some guarded anecdotes from Josie’s former confidant and a slew of books about the sixties, Vivian begins to re-create her mother’s life, placing her at the heart of some of the biggest events and scenes of the era. From the protests and beat coffeehouses of Haight-Ashbury to the frenzied nightlife of Rat Pack Vegas, from the political soirées of New York to mob meetings in glitzy Miami hotels, Celia Dare saw and did it all. Yet the glamour hid an ugly underbelly, and as Vivian peels away the layers of the past she begins to uncover her own emotional truths as well.
Cease to Blush drives the bumpy road from the burlesque stages of Rat Pack Vegas to the bedroom Internet porn business, exploring just how far women have really come. In Vivian, Livingston has created the perfect character through which to explore what it means to be an independent woman today; with Celia/Josie, it’s clear that things weren’t so cut and dry in her day either. Though Celia’s story is told vividly here, its accuracy is impossible to gauge and the ghosts are not talking. But maybe this is Celia’s gift to Vivian: the ability of the past not only to illuminate the future, but to re-imagine it.
About the author
Billie Livingston has published short fiction and poetry in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. She is the author of Going Down Swinging (Random House, 2000) and winner of This Magazine's 2000 Short Story Contest. Born in Toronto, Billie now lives in Vancouver where she writes, works in the film industry, and collaborates on various projects as a member of The Seven Sisters Writing Group(www.sevensisterswritinggroup.com).
Excerpt: Cease to Blush (by (author) Billie Livingston)
As we pulled up to the curb I could see them a little ways off, gathered around the grave like long black shadows. The sky was the blue of a cheap paint-by-number. Leonard tugged his door handle to get out. Sitting in the passenger side, I squinted behind sunglasses and sipped my vodka tonic from a travel mug.
“Let me be for a minute.” I reached up and shoved the sun visor, pulled it so it blocked the ripping afternoon glare. “Wish to hell it had rained today.” Contrary to its ceiling now, the city’s floor was one big sog after an onslaught of rain falling in sheets and drizzles and sheets again. Today was the first sunny one in three weeks. Timing is everything. Len sighed, closed his door.
I had shown up at his apartment an hour ago so we could head out together. His building is less than a block from mine. Len liked my mother. She liked him too, as much as she was capable of liking a guy. Frank, on the other hand, didn’t care for my mother, which was appropriate because she loathed him. She had loathed my choices in lovers pretty much across the board.
“Wow. Bright,” Len had said at first sight of the stoplight-red skirt and jacket I chose for the occasion. He was wearing his navy suit, a little beat up, shiny in spots, the only one he owned. I always thought if I won the lottery, the first thing I’d do is take Len shopping. Len deserves the things he can’t afford.
“I need a drink. Have you got anything?” I stood in his living room, clenching and unclenching, gulping breaths and heaving them out like garbage.
“Ah–” he touched at his suit as if patting himself down for cigarettes “–sure. I think we’re running a little late though.”
My hands jumped to shore off demands and questions, flicked him off toward the kitchen. “We’re already too late. It’s a funeral.”
Unscrewing a bottle from the cupboard over his stove, he stopped on the verge of pouring. “Scotch or vodka?”
He rescrewed the cap and grabbed another bottle, poured. “What the hell,” he muttered and poured a shot in a second glass. Dumped tonic in both. I sat on the couch and gawked straight ahead at the blank wall. He’d painted over the mural that had been there before.
“Hair of a mongrel, madam?” He handed me the drink and I looked some more at the nothing in front of me. Yesterday there was floor-to-ceiling rendition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Now it was blank with eggshell white. He must’ve done it after I left last night.
“What’s with the blank wall?”
His brows hopped. Off my blank stare he said, “Come on, you’ve been drunker. Last night. You kept bitching about it.” He swapped his tone for a whiny shrewish imitation of mine. “I hate that ugly Spider-Man with his dink hanging out.” He shrugged. “I want to do something else there anyway–You sat right there while I painted over it.”
I nodded. Last night I had wanted to drink myself to tears as though the tangibility of drunken rivulets might shove me past the gauzy void, up against some nice flinty edge. But it was more like anaesthetizing a corpse. Part of me had an urge to turn the stove on high and slap my hand on the burner and part of me thought, Christ, millions are doping themselves up with antidepressants every day to get this sensation, maybe I got a good thing going.
“Frank never showed up this morning,” I said.
He looked at his watch. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know. Probably still in bed, jerking off to porn.”
“Ach . . .” Leonard raised his hand against the image. “Please.”
Len’s a bit precious when it comes to things too raw in the sex department. When we were eighteen, out of curiosity we rented Deep Throat. I was no virgin but still sat with my face screwed up in skepticism: “Gross, he can’t stick it in there.” “Girls don’t have clits in their throats either.” Len, meanwhile, clutched his head like a Vietnam vet experiencing flashback, shock searing its way though his frontal lobe. I suggested we fast-forward to the story part. There was no story part. We pressed eject. Len rolled a joint and sketched my feet the rest of the afternoon.
“Don’t you think it’s just this side of obscene not to accompany your girlfriend to her mother’s fucking funeral?” I asked.
“You told him you didn’t want him there. At least that’s what you said last night. They didn’t like each other, you said, so why put on a big phony show.”
I stared into my glass and sloshed the fizz around. “He should want to be there for me.”
Taking a gulp, I looked past him to the blank wall again. “So, what are you going to paint there. Did we decide?”
“How ’bout I paint you?”
“You’re done then. It’s a masterpiece of photo-realism.”
Leonard slid the pads of his fingertips up and down the steering wheel. When he finally spoke again it was to remind me, “She never liked this car.” I’d tossed my keys to Len feeling too shaky to drive. He tapped at the push-button transmission.
“She thought it looked like some old Valiant she sold when she first moved here,” I said. “And she didn’t like the colour.”
My car is black. Like the guy I bought it off. Though he had a kind of pimped-out affectation he was actually a student/actor I’d met on set. He was about to drive back home to New Orleans, when he decided to sell the car and fly instead. I hadn’t made up my mind whether the car was my style or not and met up with him on campus to have lunch and another look. He was flirtatious but I wasn’t much interested. Then, outside the Student Union Building, we ran into my mother. Between the guy and the car – the look on her face.
“Provocative and wildly fun. Cease to Blush is proof that issue fiction is still being written, and very well too. A great read. You won’t be able to put it down.”
–The Globe and Mail
“Cease to Blush is a well-crafted, thought-provoking novel about where women’s beauty and vanity can take them and how a person’s exterior can hide an unknown story.”
–The Vancouver Sun
"Brazen, fast and wickedly smart, Billie Livingston knocks every gender stereotype you've ever held dear on its ass. Suspenseful and knowing, this novel unveils all the painful bits, the hard knocks and sacrifices between mothers and daughters - how we make each other strong."
–Lisa Moore, author of Alligator
Praise for Going Down Swinging:
“Poignant. . .her flailing, failing, eternally optimistic characters are so wonderful that it’s a joy to stick with them even as they tread water, hardly going anywhere. . . Livingston succeeds gorgeously in capturing the messiness and unresolvable ambiguities of familial love.”
“Livingston kicks the novel up to another level, mastering multiple points of view, deftly switching narrative voices in alternating chapters. . . Her insight into the emotional life of a mother, and her exploration of the love and understanding a child feels for even the most under-qualified parent, reveals a formidable grasp of the mysteries of the human heart.”
–The Vancouver Sun
“Livingston is a compelling new voice – one that should be welcomed and watched.”
–The Globe and Mail
“Billie Livingston vividly captures the heady romance of mother-daughter love, so strengthening in its unconditional acceptance and support, and so wretchedly debilitating in its blindness.”
–The Hamilton Spectator