Great Expectations[1] is about a boy named Pip—an orphan raised by his sister and her husband, Joe, who is kind but poor.[2] In the beginning, Pip steals food and supplies for a convict.[3] Pip never forgets the convict, who, as it turns out, never forgets Pip either.

No one expects Pip to do much with his life, but a surprise will change that. First though, Pip befriends a beautiful but cold girl named Estella.[4] Later, a mysterious benefactor gives Pip a large sum of money, allowing Pip to become a gentleman.

Pip starts boarding school.[5] But things with Joe[6] are complicated now that Pip has fancy new classmates[7] and a lot of money.[8] On top of that, as they grow older, Pip’s classmate wants to marry Estella. Fortunately, the woman who raised Estella, Miss Havisham,[9] wants to see Pip again. He will visit her in hopes of seeing Estella and fulfilling some of his Great Expectations.[10]

[1] I read my six-year-old daughter the kids’ version. She sprawls on the top bunk, her little brother lolls around on the bottom one, and I sit on my bed, next to theirs. Since starting the book, my daughter has taken to calling the two-year-old “old chap.”

[2] We are not poor, although money is tight.

[3] In one early scene, Pip hears the sound of a file cutting through his dreams, as the convict works to free himself. When my daughter asks what it means for a sound to cut through your dreams, I say the things we hear can be like knives slicing through whatever else we were doing.

[4] My daughter draws a heart in her journal and asks me to write Pip, then Estella, inside the heart. She asks, “Would you rather marry someone kind and ugly? Or beautiful with a bad heart?” I ask what she thinks. She says kind and ugly. Then she crosses Estella out of the heart and leaves just Pip.

[5] My daughter asks me to promise that I will never, ever, send her to boarding school. I tell her I won’t, and in any case, she is not in any school right now, as the coronavirus has shut everything down. Her kindergarten teachers have observed, gently, that we’re not completing the virtual assignments. I tell them it’s difficult to fit it in after a full workday. They follow up with an email with instructions for logging in and an attachment with the curriculum. I do not read the email. I can’t bring myself to know what the other kids are learning. Instead, we read together every night. We talk about the book like a book report, like the kind I used to write in school, where I’d say, “Great Expectations is about a boy named Pip,” and she can ask questions. I hope to God this is enough education for now.

[6] My daughter observes that Joe is sad because he’s not a gentleman like Pip. She says Pip should treat him better.

[7] Recently, my daughter’s classmates made windchimes from recycled bits of things they found around the house and posted the videos for their teachers. We don’t make a video. I am trying but don’t know how to be a good teacher, single mother, and perform at my job with all of this going on. Or how to make wind chimes. And now, the two-year-old has started having nightmares, which my daughter tells me cut through her dreams.

[8] The whole part about money, i.e., the point of the book, is unimportant to my daughter.

[9] My daughter asks, “Tomorrow before bed, can you put on your pink bridesmaid dress, and I’ll put on my Elsa dress, and we’ll pretend to set ourselves on fire like Miss Havisham?” I waver on this. In the end, I say, “It depends on how quickly we can do bath time tomorrow.”

[10] “Do you like Great Expectations?” I ask my daughter one night. She asks, “What are great expectations?” I say it’s how you think your life will turn out. Like how Pip is supposed to be a gentleman, even though he started with a hard life. People never suspected someone like him would do big things. It’s also the name of the book. I do not tell her that sometimes in the moments when we’re finishing a chapter, and her brother brings his blanket up to his chin, and her eyes start to flutter shut, and I am already thinking about the next day, that I wonder just how many expectations we are allowed in this life. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says. I say, “Never mind, it was a bad question.” She says, “Can you keep reading?”

© Lauren D. Woods
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Lauren’s interview]