Improvement Summary & Study Guide

Joan Silber
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Improvement Summary & Study Guide Description

Improvement Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on Improvement by Joan Silber.

The following version of this book was used to create the guide: Silber, Joan. Improvement. Counterpoint Press, 2017.

The novel opens with Reyna, a young white woman living in Harlem who is struggling to make ends meet and take care of her four-year-old son. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Reyna finds herself reconnecting with her eccentric aunt, Kiki. Reyna finds she can relate to Kiki. Both women left home at a young age to live in a new city and are somewhat estranged from their families. For Kiki, the new city was Istanbul, Turkey. She traveled there in the 1970's, fell in love with a Turkish man, and did not come home for eight years. When she did come home, she never said anything to her family about why she left her husband, Osman. She returned with beautiful carpets and a mysterious, wise smile. Reyna admires her aunt even if she does not fully understand her. She can tell Kiki struggles to understand her too. Kiki is always asking about why she has so many tattoos, for instance, and why Reyna is seeing Boyd. Reyna knows Boyd is not entirely healthy, but she cannot help it. She loves him.

Reyna has not told her family about Boyd, her black boyfriend. No one except Kiki knows he is in Rikers for selling marijuana. Reyna visits him and gets a tattoo to symbolize his release. After he gets out of jail, he finds work at a diner but craves excitement in his daily routine. He and his friends, Maxwell, Claude, Lynnette, who is Claude's sister, and Wiley come up with a scheme to smuggle cigarettes from Virginia back to New York to cash in on the huge tax difference. The scheme goes well the at first and everyone is happy. Reyna is still resistant, but eventually agrees to help out one time when they need a driver. At the last moment, however, she changes her mind and refuses to drive the car to Virginia. Boyd cannot drive it because he is still on parole and cannot cross the state line. As a consequence of Reyna's decision, Claude drives. Claude is a terrible driver, but very excited. All he is thinking about is seeing his new girlfriend in Virginia. Claude crashes the car into a truck and is killed instantly. Maxwell, who was sitting in the passengers seat, is hurt, but survives. The cigarette smuggling operation is abandoned and all the money in the car lost. Out of anger for what she has done to his friends and their plans, Boyd leaves Reyna. On top of that, she is not invited to Claude's funeral and is wracked with guilt for what she has done.

The novel shifts to the perspective of Darisse, Claude's girlfriend. Darisse lives in the predominantly black community of Richmond, Virginia. Darisse does not know about Claude's tragic accident. None of Boyd's friends thought to tell her and she is not connected to them on social media. She concludes that he "ghosted" on her and is deeply hurt. She thought they really had something. Darisse works at a hospice washing and taking care of elderly patients. One day, Darisse meets a cute black nurse named Silas. They go out on a date and see some live jazz. Darisse finds her heart opening up to this new man. Meanwhile, she struggles for parental rights over her two-year-old daughter, Jeshauna. Her husband, Lionel, makes her perform sexual favors whenever she returns Jeshauna late so she can still have parental custody over her. Jeshauna lives with Lionel's grandmother because Darisse's mother will not allow any more babies in the house. Jeshauna longs for the day when she will be able to have her daughter live with her. As Darisse's relationship with Silas evolves, she finds herself gaining strength. She still misses Claude, but she knows her life is moving in a positive new direction and is able to move on.

The novel then takes the reader into Ted's perspective, the driver of the truck that Claude crashed into. Ted is a white man in his late fifties struggling to make ends meet. He works as a truck driver and enjoys life on the road. He uses his time as a driver to visit his ex-wife, Sally, who he is having an affair with. He likes the balance of this dual life. The crash, however, turns everything upside down. Sally wants to end things, and Ted finds he is not sure if he wants them to continue either. Ted is also filled with remorse and guilt for the "kid" who died. He feels responsible because he was not entirely focused on the road, even though the police and insurance company says it was not his fault. It feels unlucky and unjust that someone should die so young. Ted ends up leaving Sally and returning to his wife Leah and her daughter, April. His chapter ends with him returning to the scene of the crash, I-95, and recreating the merging that Claude did. As he does, he visualizes the young man behind the wheel, likely hurrying to visit a girl.

In Kiki's chapter, we finally learn about what happened during her time in Turkey. The novel flashes back to young Kiki as a starry-eyed Brooklyn girl following love to a remote Turkish farm on the edge of Cappadocia. Finally, the reader learns information Kiki never revealed to Reyna: the reason for why she left Osman. After he lost his job as a carpet seller and they had to move to the family farm, Osman's mood went through a major change. He became grouchier and different from the man she fell in love with. Kiki still loved him, but the nature of their love changed. She found they were more distant. The farm also changed her. She found it to be lonely and full of hard, constant work. The winters were harsh and she found she missed her friend, Pat, in Istanbul, and human companionship. One day, three Germans antique smugglers passed their way and stay for the night. One of them, Dieter, flirted with Kiki and invited her to come with them. Kiki considered following this new potential romance, but passed up the opportunity. Soon later, she left Osman and after a series of romances, she eventually returned to New York. She kept her carpets from Osman and her other lover, Emir, as reminders of her life in Turkey.

The story then jumps back in time, returning to the Turkish farm in the 1970's. We follow Dieter as he and the other two Germans drive off, leaving the Cappadocian farm and Kiki behind. Dieter is full of thoughts about Kiki. He cannot stop thinking about her. He finds himself wondering if they will ever meet again. Steffi is the haggler of the group. She is dating Bruno, the leader of the group. Bruno is tired of her though, and one night Steffi slips into Dieter's room and they make love. One day, the three German smugglers find a curious Hittite tablet at the back of an old antiquities shop. They smuggle it with their other souvenirs back into Germany. The group is relieved to be back safety in Berlin and with the money coming in, life is good. Steffi and Dieter continue to see each other, even though Steffi's feelings are more serious. Eventually the money runs out and Bruno gets into heavy drinking. Steffi becomes extremely dependent on Dieter. One night at a Turkish restaurant he meets Gisela, a schoolteacher and they hit it off. They eventually marry. Dieter gets a job as a graphic design artist. He, Bruno, and Steffi are able to leave their life of crime behind. The novel them moves forward in time. Years later, in his fifties, the happily married Dieter travels to New York for work. He visits the Met and sees a tablet in the Ancient Eastern Art exhibit that looks curiously like the one he, Steffi, and Bruno smuggled out of Turkey. He imagines Kiki seeing the tablet and never knowing his connection to it. He finds joy in the thought that they might be connected in this small way.

From hereon in, the novel stays in present-time. The next chapter follows Monika, an affluent white woman who works at the Met in the area of provenance research. This means figuring out which objects in the museum's collection have been stolen. Monika was extra qualified for the job because her native language is German. It is revealed that Monika is the daughter of Steffi, one of the German smugglers we met in the previous chapter. Monika does not know about her mother's history, however. She always suspected she was a smuggler of drugs. Little does she know her mother once stole a Turkish artifact that is now on display at the museum she works for. Monika's relationship with her husband, Julian, has been on the rocks ever since Monika made the mistake of cheating on him with an art gallery owner. Julian, who is a struggling artist, seems unable to make any connections now in the art world. Monika wants to make things right with Julian and help him, but does not know how. Then she gets a call one night from Germany from Bruno, her mother's ex-boyfriend, informing her that her mother had a heart attack.

Monika returns home to Berlin. Her mom seems like she is doing well, but the hospital and Bruno give Monika contradictory answers. Bruno asks Monika for money for her mom. Monika cannot tell if she is being scammed, and if her mom put Bruno up to this. It wouldn't be beyond her. Her mom was not exactly Mom-of-the-Year sort. Bruno also offers to help Julian. He has connections in the Berlin art scene and could possibly find him a gallery. Monika's mother is sent home. Monika tries to take care of her, but her mother is difficult. She tells her she was not a bad mother, even thought is a lie, but she can tell her mother is happy to hear that and believes her. Monika leaves her mom some money before returning home. After she returns to New York, Bruno contacts her to let her know he found an art gallery interested in Julian's work. Julian is elated. It is a reputable art gallery. Monika is grateful things are right between them again, that she has "fixed" things, but wonders how long they will be fixed. Love can only go so far. Monika goes to her eyebrow salon and gets them done by a young black woman named Lynnette. Monika admires Lynnette for her sassy, no-nonsense attitude. This is pre-accident, pre-Hurricane. Lynnette talks about Claude, her brother who is saving up for her so she can get her own shop one day. Monika asks if he is young. Lynnette replies in the affirmative. She says he has a lot of years ahead of him.

The novel returns to Reyna's narrative. She stayed at her aunt's apartment for a while but is now back in her home in Harlem. One day she runs into Boyd on the street. He looks well. They talk in code about a buried form of love and Reyna is comforted to know that perhaps he will keep on loving her too, from afar. She knows she will always love him, even though they are through. Reyna has changed as a person. She feels great guilt about Claude but is now taking action. She sells the one thing she owns of any worth, the carpet Kiki gave her. Kiki does not mind. She wanted Reyna to use the carpet however she wanted. Reyna sells the carpet on eBay and gets nearly five-thousand dollars for it. She sends the cash to Lynnette anonymously, along with a box of chocolates. Reyna does not tell anyone about what she did. Lynnette thinks that an old boyfriend, Isaiah, sent her the money. Reyna lets her think that. She feels that love was lifting her up, even if she does not know who the love is from. It almost does not even matter. The novel ends with Reyna opening up her email to read about Lynnette's new brow bar in Philly. Lynnette sounds happy and triumphant. Reyna imagines Claude watching over his sister from afar, saying he knew all along that his sister could do it. Reyna's act of kindness weaves together the intersecting tales. We see how she has gone from a woman who was trapped into a woman, like her aunt Kiki, who is free and able to open her heart up to the world.

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