Graduate Circles: A Women’s Epistolary Novel
It’s 1980, and college roommates, Jessica, Tammy, Kelly, and Gabriella, fresh off of receiving their MBAs from Michigan State University, spread across the globe and embark on their new lives, loves, and careers while experiencing the ups and downs, hopes and dreams, twists and turns, and success and failure that life brings.
Jessica Cleary returns to her hometown of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where she hopes to open a fashionable boutique and get her law student boyfriend, Brad, to put a ring on her finger.
Tammy Fontaine lands a job at a prestigious New York City literary agency as a junior agent and tries to find romance while harboring a secret.
Kelly Roxmire, fluent in several languages, is hired as a financial analyst at a bank in London, England, while dreaming of romance with a cosmopolitan man.
Gabriella Weller returns home to Canada, where she gets a job teaching, though she longs to become an author and catch a break when it comes to romance.
Over the next decade, the four friends communicate entirely through letters and postcards as they navigate through life, with the one constant being the camaraderie they share.
Bonus material includes two complete short stories, “Love at the Fair” and Convinced,” as well as excerpts from R. Barri Flowers’ bestselling relationship novel Forever Sweethearts.
Praise for R. Barri Flowers
“A wonderful and nostalgic love story that reminds me of such moving tales as Bridges of Madison County, Summer Harbor, and The Notebook.” — Barnes and Noble reviewer on Forever Sweethearts.
“Beautiful summer romance fling that is a great YA Read! I loved it! I can’t wait to read more from this author.” — Blissful Book Reviews on Summer at Paradise Ranch
“This was like ‘Sweet Valley High’ meets ‘True Blood.’ Fans of the ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ series will enjoy this series. Great for young readers!” — Jessica’s Reviews on Count Dracula’s Teenage Daughter
Part 1 Jessica 1980
June 14, 1980
It’s been only one week since you, Gabriella, Kelly and I relieved Michigan State of those damned hard-to-come-by MBAs and East Lansing lost four of its brightest (I really do believe this) students—and already I’m getting nostalgic. (Now that was one long opening sentence). I really miss you guys and all the great times we had. (We won’t talk about the many times when we seemed to be at each other’s throats).
Will life truly be better from now on as we were promised?
Well, I’ve moved back in with my folks again. I know, I swore I would rather go to hell than do that. Unfortunately, reality has a way of making us take a detour in the right (or wrong) direction. It was a lot easier to pay the rent when it was divided four ways. As it is, I’ll need all the money I’ve stashed away (which, believe me, is not very much) along with a small business loan from my dad (what bank would loan an unemployed ex-student $50,000?) to open up my dream boutique. Hopefully I’ll become self-sufficient, pay off my debts, and find total bliss in life.
Right now, life is anything but blissful. My mother is her usual pleasant self (I’ve wondered for twenty-four plus years now why she doesn’t like me); my dad insists on thinking I am the son he never had and keeps hoping I will someday take over his textile business of which I am not the least bit interested (but I love him dearly anyway); my sister, Rachel, has a knack for reminding me every time I look at her that even though I was Miss Bloomfield Hills six years ago, she’s the real beauty in our family. Maybe she’s right.
Last, but certainly not least, I’ll have to get used to seeing Brad even less now that I’m at home. His excuse is that he’s going to be very busy with his last year of law school at the University of Michigan. In a way it’s kind of eerie. Here we are engaged for two years (and semi-engaged the two previous years) and yet, at times, we seem like strangers. It scares me. On the other hand, after dating him since my sophomore year, I honestly cannot imagine ever being with anyone else (probably because I haven’t).
Enough about the wacky life of Jessica Cleary. How’s the new job and what’s it like living in New York? Have you heard from Gabe or Kelly? Oh how I envy all of you living in such glamorous places as New York, London, and Vancouver, BC. At least it gives me some wonderful vacation destinations to visit someday.
P.S. If this 1etter never reaches you, it’s because you gave me an incorrect address for your work place and no address that you call home.
June 15, 1980
Dig the fancy letterhead. Impressed?
The truth is right now I’m only an “apprentice” agent—meaning that I am working as a reader (or rejector) while learning the ropes of the literary agent business. However, Mr. Lucas himself (the staff here numbers fifteen) has assured me that if I am serious about this job—and I truly am—I will someday fill the shoes my stationery suggests.
Meanwhile, I suppose I will just have to pay my dues with a meager salary and meager existence as I dredge through a pile of unsolicited manuscripts.
Home right now is a basement studio in a mostly Italian section of Manhattan. Decent housing here is about as scarce as open space. You learn to take what you can get and can afford. Here’s my new address: 424 Monroe Avenue #6, New York, NY 10003.
How are you doing now that we are no longer in school?
Perhaps you and your beloved Brad are living in sin. What’s happening with the boutique venture—or have you decided to get a job (ha ha)?
I got a letter from Gabriella yesterday. She’s teaching at a business college in Vancouver, and if I know her, she’s not above giving “private” lessons to the right six-foot-four male student (smile). Haven’t heard from Kelly since I moved here. I guess the mail travels at a snail’s pace from London (or so I’d like to believe).
Well, I must get back to the task at hand, boring as it is.
Take care and write soon!
With love, Tammy
P.S. This marks the first time, other than summer vacations, that we’ve lived apart since our freshman year. Aren’t Gabe and Kelly lucky that they only had to put up with us for two years?
21 June 1980
I was so thrilled to receive your letter yesterday. It is so hard to believe that we are no longer crammed into that apartment while cramming for exams. I, for one, am glad to see those days finally over so that I can get on with my life.
So you actually plan to follow through on the boutique idea? I always assumed it was just a college student’s dream (but then, you did major in retail management as an undergrad, didn’t you?). I admire you for wanting to start your own business and having the guts to try it. I wish you luck! How does Brad fit into your master plan?
Speaking of personal lives…mine is over—at least with Martin Brentley. It was so hard to tell him that I was breaking off our engagement after he had been patient with me for more than four years. However, isn’t it better to be honest about your feelings before than after the fact?
A part of me will always love Martin. The other part of me has changed a lot from the 20-year-old girl who foolishly got engaged to a fast food worker even though she knew she would be leaving him behind in Victoria, Canada to pursue a Master’s degree in business and an American lifestyle—both of which changed her and what she saw in him forever.
At 22 and a half, I’m really not ready to marry anyone. I’m not sure what I want in the way of a relationship, except that I’m tired of feeling pressured by men into marriage (I count at least three guys at MSU who proposed to me).
Professionally, things are better. I landed a job as an instructor at a Vancouver business school. Can you imagine me—someone who always fell asleep during the long, boring economics lectures—educating students? Most of the students in my classes are 18 and 19 years old. For the first time in my life I’m feeling old!
I’m not sure if this will become my life’s work, but for now it’s paying the bills. I’ve taken a one bedroom apartment just a block from the school—and an island away from Martin.
Well, I’d better sign off for now. My cat, Fifer, is getting antsy for food and so am I.
Hope to hear from you soon and the other half of our gang.
Friends always, Gabe
P.S. I can hardly wait until the four of us can get together for a reunion. What stories we’ll probably have to tell.
30 June 1980
How are you?
I know I promised to write as soon as I found a place to live, but I developed a serious case of procrastination. I guess old habits are hard to break. I’ll try to be better in the future. I’ve just written Gabe, but don’t have Tammy’s address. Please send it when you write (if she gave it to anyone, it would be you).
I’m living in a tiny flat in a section of London called Earl’s Court. The area is somewhat comparable, economically speaking, to the “student ghetto” we couldn’t wait to get away from. So much for progress, right? Actually, I’m not complaining. I’m willing to start from the pits to get where I want to go, even though I’m still not sure where that is.
Right now I’m happy with my job. I’m working in the credit department under the customary entry title of “financial analyst.” I really lucked out being hired by this bank, courtesy of the MSU Placement Services. Of course, it helped that it was an American institution in London and that I was willing to relocate to a foreign country. Nor did it hurt my cause that I had an MBA and spoke three languages fluently. (Forget that the interviewer told me that I was hired because of my irresistible green eyes).
It is so exciting to live in a different country and a cosmopolitan city after spending the first 18 years of my life in Small Town USA and the last 5 imprisoned at the University of Michigan and Michigan State. The streets of London are crowded with artists (including con artists), magicians, musicians, and pretty young women wearing leotards or barely anything at all. Everybody’s selling or buying something.
I thought I would be lonely not knowing anyone here, but that has not been the case at all. The people are really friendly. Especially guys! There are more gorgeous looking guys here than the eye can see. Of course, being a hopeless romantic, I would like nothing better than to meet and marry the man of my dreams and bear his children. Until then, I intend to be as deliciously adventurous as I can.
So how is your sex life these days? Is Brad keeping you panting for more? I am finding foreign men to be more sophisticated sexually than the “boys” at MSU.
Have you opened up the boutique yet? I need some new clothes.
Take care and don’t take as long to write back as I took to write you.
By the way, I forgot to mention that I have a cousin living in London. His name is Erik Rogue and he’s an actor. He’s been very helpful showing me around and making me feel at home.
P.S. Any special plans for the 4th of July?
July 9, 1980
So you finally wrote from your cosmopolitan city! Tell me: have you picked up a proper British accent yet or are you still stuck with that Midwestern whine?
Sounds like you’re having a terrific time in Merry Ole England. I hope you don’t let all that “delicious adventure” wear you down. (Smile) And what is it that makes those European men more sophisticated sexually? I want to know all the juicy details. Maybe I could teach Brad a thing or two.
How is my sex life, you ask? Well, if less is better as some say (and I’m not amongst that group) then it’s great! Actually, Brad has a way of making up for lost time during the once or twice a week that we manage to see each other. When he comes here, we spend most of our time at a local motel because he claims he can’t make love knowing my mother and father are asleep in the bedroom next door.
I found the perfect little spot for the boutique. It’s in downtown Bloomfield Hills and is sandwiched between a beauty salon and a deli. It was previously a clothing store, which should make it that much easier to set up. Better news is that my dad knows the owner of the building and thinks he can talk him into lowering the rent. I’m trying to think of a good name for it.
Keep in touch.
P.S. Nothing special happened over the 4th of July, unless you consider getting plastered and sick as a dog the following morning special.
Oh, by the way, Tammy’s address is: 424 Monroe Avenue, Apt. 6, New York, NY 10003. I’m sure she would have given it to you eventually.
July 10, 1980 Dearest Jess:
You call FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS a “small” loan??? We all need to have such a personal source of borrowing power! Have you come up with a name for the boutique yet? How about JESSI’S?
What’s it like living in New York? It’s crowded, expensive (right now my salary qualifies me for the poor house), crime-ridden, polluted—and probably the most fascinating place to live in the world! I LOVE it!
I’ve been very busy of late (which explains why it’s taken me 3 weeks to write you back). I never realized going in that this is truly a full-time job. I plow through manuscripts at the office and bring them home to peruse in the ongoing, though somewhat frustrating, search for talent. Even in my sleep I find myself reading dog-eared manuscripts.
I’m not complaining though. After all, I’m on staff with one of the most prestigious literary agencies in the world and I have the determination to one day move to the top of my field.
All does not sound very well between you and Brad. Are you certain that this “stranger,” who puts his career before you is the man you want to spend the rest of your life with?
Just because you’ve never been with anyone else is no reason to stick it out if you’re having reservations (and it certainly sounds like it). Now might be the time to “sow your oats.” (Hope it doesn’t anger you that I said this).
Personally, relationships of any kind are the last thing on my mind. If I’m going to survive and flourish in a man’s world, then I must think like most successful men: that is, my career must always come first. Besides that, for me, romance is simply more trouble than it’s worth!
P.S. I heard from Kelly. She’s still as wild and unpredictable as I am reserved and opinionated. I have a phone now. I’ll try to ring you next weekend, even though I’m on a tight budget.
P.P.S. I always thought you were happy with your Scarlet O’Hara looks (I know 99 percent of the females would be).
A letter from Jessica, Bloomfield Hills July 16, 1980 Dear Gabe,
The GRAND OPENING of JESSI’S is set for August 15. I’m soooooo excited!!! I’ll begin with a small line of women’s apparel and accessories and go from there. I don’t expect to make much money the first year or two, but I’ll work my butt off to try to make this a big success.
How does Brad fit into my master plan? Well, he doesn’t exactly. That is to say, Brad knows how important it is to me to be my own woman and find my own success in the workplace; just as he is certainly his own man and hopes to become a top corporate attorney. But we still love each other very much and feel we can have the best of all worlds.
I’m sorry to hear that it’s all over between you and Martin. But I agree with you that it’s far better to break it off now than after you’re married. If I know you, it won’t be long before you find someone else to fall in love with. (Smile) Any prospects?
Say hello to Fifer for me.
July 22, 1980
I’m glad you called last night. I desperately needed someone to talk to after the big fight I had with my mom. She says I am selfish, childish, and spoiled. She knows so well how to get under my skin and there’s nothing that I can seem to do about it! (I know, you think I should move out of the house, which sounds great—only I’m still in a tight financial squeeze). I can only go so far with my dad, especially when his neck is on the line should the boutique falter.
Fifty thousand dollars is really not that much for starting a business these days. You wouldn’t believe what business properties rent for in Bloomfield Hills.
Things really aren’t as bad between me and Brad as I may have let on. That letter I wrote you was when I was really down about everything and everyone. Sure, things are far from perfect between us, but we really want to try to make it work. (I meant it when I told you I was not mad that you suggested I date other guys. You’re my best friend and I value your opinion, even if I don’t always agree with you, such as in this case).
And what about you, Ms. Literary Agent? Why should you put everything into your career and nothing into a relationship when you can have both? You shouldn’t let past relationships scare you away from all men. I’m sure there are some wonderful guys there in the Big Apple. Think about it!
Bye for now.
P.S. No woman is totally happy with her looks. When I look at my sister Rachel, I see someone ten pounds lighter than me at the same height of five-foot-eight, with less blemishes and more tone to her complexion. Believe me I’d trade appearances with her in a minute if I could.
Friendship can be priceless—but only if one is willing to pay the price to maintain it.
9th August 1980 Hi, Jess!
Enjoying my first real vacation since moving to England. How does a weekend in Amsterdam sound to you? Well, it’s even better when accompanied by a gorgeous Frenchman who thinks I’m adorable in all the right places.
Will write when I get back to London.
August 13, 1980
Just two days till the big opening! I’m really happy for you.
Does this mean that your friends (especially your best friends) can now buy stylish clothes at a SIGNIFICANT discount? Will you sell shoes? I always seem to need more of them.
So everything is now peachy rosy with you and Brad?? If you say so. (Hmm…) I just hope you give it some SERIOUS thought before you take the marriage plunge. To me it’s a tidal wave waiting to happen for anyone who says, “I do.”
And why am I so down on marriage? It really is quite simple. Most people married today seem to be divorced tomorrow. Besides, can you honestly name two people in this day and age who are “happily” married? My disillusion, no doubt, is influenced by my parents who went their separate ways when I was five. I guess I blame them for my life today and blame myself for theirs. But I also know many others who have suffered endlessly after or because the honeymoon ended.
Did I detect sarcasm in your voice when psychoanalyzing my preference to stay unattached and concentrate on my career? Has it occurred to you that this is a choice I have made with much forethought and am happy with it? Why is it in this society that it is perfectly acceptable for men to put 100% of themselves into their work while women who choose to do so are regarded as weird or having bitter feelings from past relationships turned sour?
17 August 1980
CONGRATULATIONS! How is my dear friend, the proprietress of JESSI’S? I’ll bet the store is keeping you super busy. How many employees do you have—or should I say, can you afford?
Isn’t it wonderful to know that we are all now ensconced in our careers, ready to leave our mark— however puny it may be—on this world?
I never really respected before how difficult it was to try to teach students who are far more interested in flirting with the opposite sex (or going a lot further), sleeping, drawing, or doing anything else other than listening to an admittedly boring lecture. (Sound familiar?) Now that I’ve been given a full indoctrination, I’ll never take teaching for granted again.
One of my students—a 20-year-old named Bill—has been spending an awful lot of time after class detaining me. I think he has a crush on me. Okay, he is kind of cute and I’m flattered by the attention, but really, he’s not my type. Nor would it be very smart to get involved with a student, even at the college level (funny I never looked at it that way when I was a student seriously interested in a teacher or two).
Anyway, no prospects at the moment. However, things have a way of changing from day to day. Fifer says hello to you, too!