Charlotte Murphy—trusting wife, loving mother, and dedicated teacher—comes to suspect that her wealthy, arrogant husband of eighteen years has been cheating on her and that the principal of the inner-city vocational high school where she teaches English has been changing answers on state-mandated standardized tests. Seeing their teacher’s unhappiness, her students convince her to let them give her a movie star makeover. When they’re done, Charlotte doesn’t recognize herself and vows to change her life. Charlotte’s new life is further complicated by the unwelcome attention of Theo Lagakis, the school’s dean, who has a hidden agenda. Whom can she trust?
Charlotte’s story is enhanced by the poetry she loves to teach, as well as with first-person commentary from her student and close observer, Valerie Martin. Valerie, a serious student, faces not being able to graduate from high school due to the allegedly forged scores.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Ms. Murphy’s Makeover by Jacqueline Goldstein, Charlotte Murphy is a high school teacher in a poorer section of The Bronx. She teaches English at a technical high school where the students learn a trade as they get their high school education. When Charlotte comes to suspect that her husband of eighteen years is having an affair, and that the principle of her high school is cheating on the state tests, Charlotte is forced to take a hard look at her life. She becomes very depressed, so the beauty school students at her high school convince her to let them give her a makeover. When they finish, Charlotte is both amazed and appalled. Amazed that she doesn’t recognize herself, and appalled at the amount of makeup and other sophisticate goop the students used on her. But the makeover convinces her to change her dull and unsatisfactory life. It also increases the unwanted attention of the high school dean. Now Charlotte is really in a pickle.
The story is well written, humorous, heart-warming, and heart-breaking. It will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you want to read it again and again.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Ms. Murphy’s Makeover by Jacqueline Goldstein is the story of high school teacher Charlotte Murphy in a time of crisis. Believing her life is pretty close to perfect, with a job she loves and a rich and successful husband, Charlotte is devastated to discover that her husband, whom she has been married to for eighteen years and has twin girls with, is most likely having an affair. Then she gets a double whammy when she finds out that someone at the inner-city vocational high school where she teaches English has been secretly correcting the answers on her students’ state-mandated tests, and the probable culprit is Charlotte’s close friend the high school principal, who gets a hefty bonus if the kids score higher on the tests. Hurt and confused, Charlotte is not herself, and her students notice. Positive that all Ms. Murphy needs is a Hollywood-style makeover, her beauty-school-in-training students convince her to let them give her one. Seeing how excited they are, she is unable to say no. But when they finish, Charlotte isn’t sure whether to be pleased or appalled. Either way, she knows that she needs to do something to change her life before it spirals out of control.
Ms. Murphy’s Makeover is heart-warming, poignant, and thought-provoking tale about doing the right thing, in spite of peer pressure, and standing your ground for what you believe, even when it hurts. Splashed with humor, charming and realistic characters, and an intriguing mystery, this is one that you will want to keep on your shelf and reread at every opportunity.
It seemed the farther she was from her Connecticut home, the more attractive she became. Charlotte Murphy speed-walked past a construction site near the parking lot, charting a winding path through broken glass, dog feces, and other souvenirs of a Bronx weekend. At thirty-eight, the mother of teenagers, she hoped to pass the workmen unnoticed. But wolf whistles soon began. It could not be what she was wearing, a modest gray twin set and matching skirt. Probably it was just the hair, as her husband claimed. Red hair and white skin were exotic in this neighborhood. As she hurried to the brick building where she worked, Charlotte looked straight ahead, ignoring the barrage of catcalls and comments.
She also chose not to see the smirking face of Ted Lagakis, the new dean of discipline, who lounged against the iron fence surrounding the school. As she approached, he also gave a wolf whistle, low and mocking. Tall, burly, and far from handsome, Lagakis looked more like a bouncer in some seedy club than a fellow teacher. At least he was not smoking, but Charlotte knew that would change when Bertha Trombetta arrived. Those two had a morning ritual of puffing away in full view of the students.
A few of those students stood slightly apart from the dean, munching on chips and sipping fruit punch in neon colors rather than eating the free breakfast provided in the cafeteria. Charlotte managed to greet Lagakis and the kids with a crisp “Good Morning” when her foot chanced on something slippery and she skidded, just as she neared the dean.
He caught her easily. “Good Morning? Now it is.”
Thick fingers, sprinkled with dark hairs, gripped her arms. The blue stone in his pinky ring winked at her. Heat radiated from his large body, in spite of the chilly September breeze.
Charlotte made her own body rigid, definitely off limits. Lagakis dropped his hands and pointed at Charlotte’s feet. She followed his gaze and realized that a used condom was stuck to the sole of her shoe. Lagakis’s smirk deepened as Charlotte tried to remove the condom without letting it touch her skin. She scraped her foot repeatedly against the concrete step at the doorway. Lagakis nearly doubled over, laughing. When the repulsive thing finally came off, Charlotte glared at him.
The dean raised his hands before his face, as though to ward off a blow. “Sorry, doll. I couldn’t help it.” His laughter followed her into the building.
Inside, the vestibule was dark and cool, its walls plastered with student-made posters welcoming visitors to The Bronx High School of Aesthetics. Charlotte paused and took several deep breaths, pretending to admire the newly decorated area. It had felt like a full day’s work, just getting from her car to the school.
“Go right in, girly.” George, the ancient security guard, waved Charlotte past the metal detectors and toward the marble staircase that led to the main office. There she moved her time card from Out to In and greeted the secretaries. She checked the cubby for her mail and then headed up a dimly lit staircase to her classroom–a sunny, high-ceilinged refuge with a thriving philodendron spilling tendrils over the window ledge.
As she paused to water the plant with standing water left over from Friday, she looked out the window and saw boys in gang colors throwing lit matches into the mailbox outside the school.
These were not her students. Her students were nice kids who wanted to be cosmetologists, or whose parents wanted them to be in a school where they’d be relatively safe. Teaching them enough English to pass the state exam was Charlotte’s job. Dealing with security was not.
Where was Lagakis? Most likely, he’d gone inside to call for backup.
Automatically, she locked the door, secured her purse in a metal cabinet, and then removed a pile of journal notebooks from the wooden closet. She selected the one on top. Purple cover. Purple ink. It had to be Valerie’s.
Charlotte knew that some kids needed a safe place to write about their lives. She promised she would keep their writing confidential and would not penalize them for poor spelling and grammar. Valerie had written PLEASE DO NOT READ on her latest entry. And so Charlotte set the purple notebook aside, and took up the next one on the pile.
She had barely opened it when she heard the familiar clicking sound of the principal, Natalie Albert, using her master key to open the locked door. The principal, tall and model thin, had the reputation of never wearing the same outfit twice.
Today a red power suit complemented her dark hair. Her chocolate brown eyes sparkled.
“I hate to say it, sweetie, but we just caught a break.” Natalie was about to say something else when her eyes zoomed in on Charlotte’s new ring. “Oh my. What’s old Francis done now?”
Charlotte was stung, and more than a little annoyed. “A lot of hard work, that’s what.”
She knew better than to tell Natalie that her husband had lost his wedding ring. He thought maybe it slipped off when he was swimming. He’d been filled with remorse, replaced it immediately, and bought Charlotte a diamond celebration ring as well.
“Oh, Charlotte. Don’t be so sensitive. Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about, my friend. Bertie Trombetta died last night. A heart attack. The witch is dead!”
It took a moment for Charlotte to process this information. In the distance, a church bell chimed. Ask not for whom the bell tolls.
Natalie bowed her head and folded her hands in pretend piety, their lacquered red nails pointing to the ceiling. “There is a God, after all.”
Charlotte closed her eyes and swallowed hard. “Dead? Are you sure? She was here Friday, teaching across the hall.”
The image of Bertha Trombetta, smoking, floated before Charlotte’s eyes.
“Screaming her head off, probably. I bet she gave herself the heart attack. But I must say her timing was perfect.”
This was cold, even for Natalie. But the principal was under a lot of pressure. Charlotte thought she understood. “Are you saying the visitors won’t come?”
Natalie gave a short laugh. “Nothing can stop that.” She placed her hands on Charlotte’s desk and leaned in close. “Life goes on. That’s actually why I’m here. Charlotte, I need you to go to Bertie’s funeral.”
Charlotte immediately shook her head no.
Natalie waved a hand, anticipating Charlotte’s objection. “I know, I know. I should go myself. Normally, I would. But I can’t this week. Not with the visitors from State Ed here. And someone has to represent the school.”
Charlotte thought of an escape. “Does Lagakis know?”
Natalie nodded. “I just told him. He’s in his office, on the phone with the family.”
“Perfect. Send him. Or do we need him in the school?”
Natalie laughed a second time. “Be serious. But yes, he asked and I can’t very well refuse. You’ll have to go with him. I’m sorry.”
Charlotte exploded. “No! And Bertie wouldn’t want me there.”
Natalie smiled, showing newly whitened teeth. “She won’t know.”
Technically, Charlotte could refuse. But Natalie was more than her boss. She was a friend, of sorts. Twenty years ago, they had attended the same college. Natalie recognized Charlotte at a job fair three years ago and offered her the position of teaching English at a vocational high school for cosmetology.
At the time, downsizing at Francis’s firm had made the Murphys anxious, and Francis had been relieved when Charlotte was offered work. He’d kept his job, however, along with a big raise. Now he was after her to quit. And Charlotte didn’t want to.
Natalie pressed her advantage. “You owe me, sweetie. I need this.”
Charlotte made a last ditch effort. “Look.” She pointed at her stack of journals. “I’m swamped.”
“Sweetie, I know you don’t read those things, anyway.”
“I read every word. Unless they ask me not to. It’s for critical thinking.” Charlotte put air quotes around the last two words.
“Save the buzz words for the visitors. I need this, Charlotte. With you there, maybe Lagakis will behave himself.”
“Good luck with that.” Charlotte sighed. “But all right. Under protest. And you owe me.”
“Excellent. Now. A teensy suggestion. At the funeral, glam up a little. Lose the librarian look for a day. Black dress. Heels. Hair down.”
“The librarian look? Is it that bad?”
“Look, we are a school of beauty here. So. You have a black dress?”
“I do, but Francis says black makes me look–conspicuous.” Her husband had used another word, but Natalie didn’t need more ammunition.
“Oh, yes. Pope Francis. Was he speaking ex cathedra?”
Charlotte had to smile at the image of her husband in papal vestments.
“I’d be on the phone to my lawyer so fast.”
Maybe that’s why you’re divorced. Aloud, Charlotte said, “What does it matter what I wear?”
One of Natalie’s more annoying habits was whispering behind her hand. She did so now, although they were alone in an empty room. “You never know who will show up at these things. Bertie was always threatening to go to the media. There may be reporters. That woman had a big mouth.”
“So? Wait. Is something wrong? Is that why State Ed is coming?”
Natalie looked Charlotte full in the eye. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s a purely routine visit.”
A bell signaled the start of class, and Charlotte could hear students in the hallway. “Showtime. I have a class coming in.”
Natalie placed a hand on the doorknob, but turned back. “Bring a student with you tomorrow. Someone presentable. And keep your eye on Lagakis.”
Students had already gathered outside, awaiting admittance. Bertha Trombetta’s wide, homely face was before Charlotte’s eyes, and lines from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass resounded in her ears.
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and
still in the coffin–I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips
the white face in the coffin.
DO NOT READ!
Everybody knows the job. We take care of our teachers. Even Suzette. She got pulled out of class to do a mural on a big sheet of shipping paper from Staples to cover up graffiti on the long wall and it looks crazy professional. I did an essay for the bulletin board, only the principal said I had to copy it over, being I did it in purple ink. At least I was only copying from myself. I mean other essays on the board were from a couple years ago. The principal saves them in this file and she just gives them to kids to copy on fresh paper and sign their name and this month’s date. The cosmetology teacher did our hair, took pictures, and put them up like it was our work too. I have to do a presentation when the visitors come–wax the cosmetology teacher. Just her legs. She’s been growing them out mad hairy, but I’m getting graded on it, and I think she’s being observed too, which is like a test they give our teachers.
We rehearsed all the questions, in case the visitors ask us like how come we study for Regents Exams. The answer is so we can pass the tests and graduate, duh, but they make us practice and we don’t mind since it wastes class time. Oh and there was that dorky substitute in the building today because Ms. Trombetta died last night, RIP, and people in her class who hadn’t studied for the quiz were like, Yes! To me it made no difference, being I get Murphy for English now.
© 2016 Jacqueline Goldstein
Author, Sally Koslow:
Authentic, humorous and tender, in her big-hearted debut, Jacqueline Goldstein’s Ms. Murphy’s Makeover will open your mind as it warms your heart. ~ Sally Koslow, author of The Widow Waltz
Author, Marian Thurm:
A funny, yet poignant tale of betrayal, resilience, and second chances. ~ Marian Thurm, author of Today is Not Your Day and The Good Life
Charlotte, Ms. Murphy, would be at home on the pages of a Jane Austen novel, but where she belongs is here, on the pages of Ms. Murphy’s Makeover, navigating between the landscapes of an inner-city classroom in the Bronx and on the verge of a collapsing marriage in the suburbs of Connecticut. I love this book. I must warn readers: It will haunt you in the way only a story as courageous as Ms. Murphy’s Makeover can. ~ Patricia Dunn, Director of The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Rebels by Accident
Author, Rebecca Marks:
“Ms. Murphy’s Makeover will make you laugh and cry with its roller-coaster ride of ups and downs–gangs and scholars, truth and treachery, love and lust, death and rebirth. A must read for anyone who loves a good book.” ~ Rebecca Marks, author of On the Rocks
Author, Eileen Palma:
“The true-to-life situations, the three dimensional characters, and the tension- filled romance make this the perfect book club pick. Ms Murphy’s Makeover deserves to be savored, but the action and romance make it hard to resist flying through the pages.” ~ Eileen Palma, author of Worth The Weight