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A Novel

Written by Carleen BriceAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Carleen Brice

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: December 24, 2008
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-49717-8
Published by : One World/Ballantine Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt|Reader Reviews

Synopsis

“A wonderful, jazzy, exciting read.”
–Nikki Giovanni, author of Acolytes

Broke and burned-out from grad school, Shay Dixon does the unthinkable after receiving a “vision” from her de facto spiritual adviser, blues singer Nina Simone. She phones Nona, the mother she had all but written off, asking if she can come home for a while.

When Shay was growing up, Nona was either drunk, hungover, or out with her latest low-life guy. So Shay barely recognizes the new Nona, now sober and with a positive outlook on life, a love of gardening, and a toddler named Sunny. Though reconciliation seems a hard proposition for Shay, something unmistakable is taking root inside her, waiting to blossom like the morning glories opening up in Nona’s garden sanctuary.

Soon Shay finds herself facing exciting possibilities and even her first real romantic relationship. But when an unexpected crisis hits, even the wise words and soulful melodies of Nina Simone may not be enough for solace. Shay begins to realize that, like orange mint and honey, sometimes life tastes better when bitter is followed by sweet.


“Carleen Brice has woven her talent for storytelling into a funny, sad, and perceptive novel that speaks to all of us who navigate less-than-perfect relationships with our parents or children.”
–Elyse Singleton, author of This Side of the Sky

“Brice deftly shows the importance and joy of understanding our past and not only forgiving those who hurt us, but loving them in spite of that hurt. Readers of Terry McMillan and Bebe Moore Campbell will find a new writer to watch.”
–Judy Merrill Larsen, author of All the Numbers

Excerpt

Chapter 1

What Would Nina Simone Do?

i should have known things were getting bad when Nina Simone showed up. Don’t get me wrong. I love Nina. I’ve been listening to her since History of Jazz sophomore year. The professor taught us to worship the great men of jazz, but it was the women who drew me in: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Bessie Smith, Mildred Bailey. They were queens, priestesses, goddesses—encouraging me, pointing me away from danger, schooling me in the ways of life. Especially Nina Simone.

I listened to Nina Simone a thousand times, and I always got something from her music. But the night she came to me for the first time she must have known I needed more than a song could offer. I knew a famous singer—and a dead one at that—shouldn’t have been in my bedroom, but somehow I wasn’t surprised to see her because I had been wishing she were there. Wishing she would tell me what to do.

Usually when I was down I could keep going. But this time I bumped up against something that I couldn’t get over, a wall as hard and cold and impossible to see through as frosted glass. I had lost my job writing grant proposals for an indigent-care clinic, stopped going to class, and received an eviction notice from my landlord. But still all I could do was listen to music, hanging on to the life preserver of Nina Simone’s eerie, regal voice.

That night, I was listening to the fast version of “House of the Rising Sun.” It’s a live recording, seven minutes long. Nina gets so into it, you can’t make out what she’s singing. Behind her, the band chants “rising sun, rising sun” over and over, and the audience claps to the fast beat. The piano, the clapping hands, and the tambourine sound like church and juke joints, like sweat and heat, free and alive. I started dancing. I hadn’t had the energy to get out of my pajamas for a week, but “House of the Rising Sun” had me shaking my head back and forth, twirling in circles, and pumping my arms and legs up and down like I was performing a tribal ritual, like I was one of Alvin Ailey’s dancers. I danced through the song three times until all thoughts of jobs and grad school and unpaid bills were erased from my mind, and I could sleep.

At 3:33 a.m. I opened my eyes and Nina Simone was there, as if I had conjured her, standing in front of my bedroom window, blue moonlight spotlighting her features—thick lips, proud nose, slanted eyes rimmed in kohl like Cleopatra’s. I had been asking myself for days WWNSD (What would Nina Simone do?) and now she had come to tell me. I didn’t know if she was a ghost or a hallucination, and I didn’t care. Eyes wide, heart thumping like the speakers in the car of a teenaged boy, I sat up and waited for Nina Simone to say something wise, to tell me how to fix the mess I’d made of my life, to comfort me, and convince me that I had everything I needed to move forward inside me.

“You’ve really screwed up now,” she said.

“What?”

“You heard me.”

That’s how low I had sunk. Even the spirits of the dead or my own daydreams were turning on me. “I thought you were going to offer me some advice!”

“You’re a grown woman. Why should I tell you what to do?”

It sounded bad when she said it. But I was tired. Tired of always having to figure things out, tired of always having to do everything myself. I’d been taking care of myself since I was eight years old. So for someone else to tell me what to do was exactly what I wanted. For once in my life, I wanted someone else to carry the load. “Because I need help!” I shouted. They were words I had never said before. But then again Nina Simone had never been in my apartment before. It was a night of firsts.

”You got that right,” she said, taking in the mounds of dirty clothes, used Kleenexes, heaps of junk mail, textbooks, CDs, notebooks, and milk-crusted cereal bowls and teacups.

“What I need is . . . is just a break. A rest. A time-out.”

Just the week before, Carl, my advisor, had convinced me that time off was what I needed. Actually, he had “strongly suggested” that I take a year off.

“No!” I had yelled, the most intense emotion I had shown in forever. As exhausted and sick of everything as I was I couldn’t just drop out. I couldn’t be away from school for an entire year.

He stared at me, even more worried.

“I mean, I can’t fall that far behind. I can take a semester off. You’re right, a semester off will do me some good.”

“Okay,” he said, relief washing over his face.

I guess since that MIT student set herself on fire a few years ago—even after visiting the mental health service—the plan was to get depressed college students off campus ASAP. Let them be someone else’s lawsuit in the making.

“What will you do with your time off?”

“I have no idea.” What did people do with time off? I had never taken a day off in my life. If I didn’t have to work, I still had papers to write or tests to study for. Even during the summers I took at least one class or put in extra hours at work. I’d never even skipped school before now. Playing hooky was something that bad kids, going-to-end-up-just-like-their-parents kids did.

“What about your family? Friends? Don’t you have anybody who can help?”

You would think that since I was sitting in front of him in dirty, rumpled clothes and a bandanna on my head, looking like “Who shot John?” as my old hairdresser Belinda used to say, he would know the answer to that question.

Of course, being an academic, he wasn’t much better dressed. Like me, he had on the requisite khakis and button-down shirt. We could have been twins except his clothes probably didn’t come straight out of the hamper. He still thought I was like all his other students, who got care packages, plane tickets, and checks from home. But all I ever got from Nona were postcards from her new, allegedly sober, life. And friends? The last good friend I had was in high school. Stephanie was still back in Denver. I hadn’t spoken to her since we graduated.

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

“I don’t know what’s going on, but you might want to see someone. You know? A professional. I want you to come back ready to finish your thesis.”

My thesis was just one of many things that had stalled. I nodded, exhausted. All I wanted to do was go back home and turn on my music.

“Let’s touch base in a month or so. Send me an e-mail, let me know how you’re doing.”

“I’ll be fine,” I repeated.

Though, clearly, I was far from fine. Things had only gotten worse. I had been “resting” for a week now, and look what happened: A dead woman was sitting in my bedroom talking to me.

“Go home, Shay,” Nina Simone said.

She knew my name.

“You need to go home,” she said.

She must have read my mind, which shouldn’t have been too hard considering there was a good chance she was being generated from the same place. But like Carl, she didn’t understand.

The last time I saw Nona I was in my junior year in college. She came to Iowa City when she reached the step where they make you apologize. She was very pregnant, and I couldn’t believe how ugly she was. Her face was all broken out and she must have gained fifty, sixty pounds. Not just in her breasts and stomach, but in her face, arms, hands, back, butt, and thighs. The bags under her eyes were puffed up like pot stickers. Even her feet were fat.

When I saw her, saw how heavy and zitty she was, I was almost happy she had come. I kept my eyes on her bloated feet the whole time she read her apology. Her voice shook. I don’t remember exactly what she said. Something about being sorry she let me down, sorry I learned I couldn’t trust her. But I remember her saying something about us “being mother and daughter again” and, even though I was looking down at her feet, I saw her rest her hand on her stomach when she said the word mother.

That was too much. Acting like her pregnancy was a good thing, not a horrible, stupid mistake. I had actually been hopeful when she told me she was going to A.A. For the first few months I thought, Wow, she’s really going to do it this time. Stupid me, I actually let myself believe her. Then she got pregnant. Knocked up by a guy she met in A.A., who promptly left her high and dry just like my own father had; and there she was expecting me to believe that things were different. She couldn’t even do A.A. without going off with some guy! She was thirty-six years old and she had never heard of birth control? Never heard of AIDS or chlamydia or herpes?

She told me she hoped I would give her another chance. I think she wanted me to shout “I forgive you!” and throw myself into her arms. But I just stared at her feet, at the flesh rising like bread dough over the straps of her red sandals.

Nina Simone gingerly toed a pair of jeans out of her way, revealing the panties I had worn with them weeks ago tangled up inside, and walked toward me. I hoped she wouldn’t get too close. It had been a while since I had seen soap and water. I was cloaked in a cloud of funk toxic enough to re-kill a dead woman.

She sat on the foot of my bed. “You could rest. Let your mother take care of you.”

I snorted. “That’s not how it worked. I took care of Nona. And I’m done.”

“Maybe it would be different. Maybe you’ve got nothing to lose.”

I doubted it would be very different, but she was right about my having nothing to lose. Spending the next few months in my old VW Bug didn’t sound very appealing. But still I hesitated.

“Go home,” Nina Simone urged, her long earrings swinging like chandeliers.

So I picked up the phone and called Nona for the first time in seven years.

Table of Contents

"ORANGE MINT AND HONEY is a wonderful novel about a young woman, Shay, who is an exhausted, burned out and broke grad student returning to live with her long-estranged alcoholic mother. What she finds is an upstanding, recovering mother with a three year old daughter. Shay's anger and resentment of her mother's "absence" when she was growing up erupts when she realizes what she has missed in her young life. Living with her mother and little sister is not without conflict and despair but Shay comes to terms with her relationship with her mother through forgiveness and love. It's a great first novel and I'm looking forward to her next book. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to receive an advanced copy of ORANGE MINT AND HONEY." - Cam Grizmala, Mission Swamp Book Club

"This was a great read and another book for my book clubs. The book will definitely initiate a good discussion regarding the mother-daughter relationship, learning to forgive and living in the present. There are so many layers we can discuss including alcoholism and what effect it has on the family, Carleen Brice makes you feel the emotions of her characters, both good and bad, and once you start reading it you will find it difficult to set down." - Nancy Buenemann, Read & Wine Book Club

"First …thank you for the opportunity to read not only a new book, but a new author. Some times it’s a fine line between love and hate which the emotional tension between Nona, the recovering alcoholic mother and Shay, the grown daughter showed well. It was interesting to watch Shay come to terms with Nona, the mother of Sunny versus the Nona of Shay’s childhood. I think the ultimate confrontation between the two was done well. Nona felt more real to me than Shay for some reason and I could empathize with her more easily. I had a harder time with Shay and I can’t put my finger on exactly why …her ‘voice’ didn’t always seem real to me. Some things just seemed disconnected to the story ...Nina Simone for instance, was she just a device to move the story along when necessary? Overall, it was an interesting read. Thanks again for the opportunity." - Paula Morris, Hudson, OH

"I loved it!! The awkward interaction and the deep seeded anger that the daughter (Shay) felt towards her mother rang so true. The beauty of the book was how the author allowed both central characters to be so sympathetic and not just the daughter who was so obviously neglected and emotionally damaged by her mother. I also don't feel like this book is JUST a book that should be targeted to African American women any more than a book like LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE should be targeted to just Hispanic women. The story line crosses ethnicities and is a story about relationships. I am a woman in my late 40's and white and live in a suburb west of Denver (which was another delight for me in reading this book.) I will be recommending this book to my friends and reading group as soon as it is available! Thank you for letting me share in the magic of this book." - Susi Devrient, The Moveable Feast Book Club
Carleen Brice|Author Q&A

About Carleen Brice

Carleen Brice - Orange Mint and Honey
Carleen Brice was recently named 2008 “Breakout Author of the Year” by The African American Literary Awards Show for her debut novel Orange Mint and Honey, which was also a selection of the Essence Book Club. She is also the author of Walk Tall:Affirmations for People of Color, and Lead Me Home: An African American’s Guide Through the Grief Journey and edited the anthology Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband and two cats.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Carleen Brice

Kelli Martin is an editor and writer. A Williams College graduate, she lives with her husband in Brooklyn, New York.

Kelli Martin: Carleen, let me start out by saying that this is a mesmerizing, powerful novel. I had to stop myself from racing through the pages. It is filled with meaningful layers and symbolism, yet it is so accessible and moving and heartwarming. Shay and Nona and Sunny and Oliver stayed with me long after I had turned the last page. Now let’s begin with Orange Mint and Honey’s moment of creation. I read that you knew you were ready to write this story when you heard the voice of Nona, Shay’s mother. Often, we read that it’s the protagonist’s voice that the author hears first. Why do you think it was Nona who you heard first and who moved you to write this novel, rather than Shay?

Carleen Brice: I tried to write this story years ago, but it was too one-sided. I was too young. I think as I got older I related more to Nona’s character, and that was really important to me–to make sure that she was a real, threedimensional person. Shay’s voice was already in me for a long time, but I couldn’t write the story until Nona came to me.

KM: What classic and contemporary novels, memoirs, or poetry did you have in mind or use for inspiration when you conceived and wrote Orange Mint and Honey?

CB: I didn’t really have anything in mind when I started. But Alice Walker’s essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” probably was in my mind from the beginning. Such a great metaphor for the unsung contributions of the women who came before.

KM: Carleen, you write some of the truest, most raw and powerful scenes: Shay losing her virginity, Shay and Nona’s confrontational showdown in the church. Is this something you had to work at–making these parts ring so emotionally true? Or is this an element of your writing that comes naturally, almost easily, to you? Did you have to dig deep into your own life to capture the requisite emotion or is it more your creative imagination inhabiting someone else’s life? Or both?!

CB: The easiest scenes for me to write are the highly emotional ones. I can just put myself there and feel what the characters are feeling. Sometimes as I’m writing I’m speaking the words out loud as the characters would, almost like I’m reading a script in my head as I type. Those scenes pour out, but they are exhausting! Especially a scene in which I have to put myself into the minds of both people, to keep track of how both people would naturally feel.

KM: Gardens figure prominently in Orange Mint and Honey, from therapy to solace to peace to wishing well to healthy addiction to site for growth. Do you share the characters’ love of gardens? If so, what drew you to fall in love with them in the first place and how do they figure in your life now? Why do you see them as healing?

CB: I do have a love of gardens. Until a few years ago, I was always just a container gardener, but Denver has been in a long-term drought, so my husband and I got rid of the front lawn and started planting low-water plants. (It’s called a “xeriscape garden.”) I worked on our yard as I wrote about Nona’s yard, and just sort of turned into her. I even use Nona’s “God box” concept (and it works!!).
Gardening is healing (and addictive) because it works on you on so many different levels. Physically, it’s movement, so you get endorphins. Psychologically, it’s rewarding to have a vision in your mind and see it come to fruition in your yard. And since it never turns out quite like you envision, it’s spiritual, because it helps you see there are forces at work in the universe far bigger than we are. And just the beauty of flowers is healing, the colors and the scents. There’s just something magical about the whole experience.

KM: To cope with her emotions and the stress in her life, Shay pulls her hair. Why did you use trichotillomania to show her anxiety?

CB: I wanted a visual way to show that her childhood still affected her. It’s one thing for a character to say she’s been hurt or traumatized, but it takes it to a different level to show what that really means. I have a good friend who suffers from this form of OCD and she let me use it in this story.

KM: Which character was most natural to write and why? Which was most challenging to write? Were you surprised by which character(s) became your favorites or least liked?

CB: I was surprised by how much I liked Oliver. Originally, he was just this geek, but he turned into such a wonderful person. I absolutely love him. Love, love, love him! I didn’t have any young guys read for me, but Oliver is a combination of the good boyfriends I had (not many) when I was young, and my husband, and my brothers and my nephews. And . . . a guy who used to work at my video store. Every time I went in, I just wanted to pinch his cheek. Ivy was the most challenging character to write. I empathized with her, but at the same time I knew she wasn’t going to get her act together, which was important to show: Not everybody recovers. That’s life. But she was so manipulative and hostile that it was hard to remember her humanity, and that underneath it all she was a lost girl just like Shay. They are kind of two sides of the same coin.

KM: Nina Simone is a provocative choice for a character. Why her and what do you think her role is? What impact has she had on your own life and love of music? What other classic and contemporary singers do you love?

CB: Nina Simone is the herald who sets Shay on her path, and she’s a straight-shooting guardian angel. She’s like Glinda the Good Witch, only with more sass and more soul. Why her? Because she’s the one who came to me. And I instantly loved the idea because she was such a larger-than-life character in real life. I love all the singers I mention in the book (including Bootsy Collins!). I like old-school R & B and neo soul. I’m a huge Prince fan (as was Nona), and I love Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. I just saw Corinne Bailey Rae and John Legend in concert, and will definitely keep my eyes and ears on both of them.

KM: Was it a deliberate choice to make Shay a virgin? We’d love to know why.

CB: It was not a deliberate choice at all. True story: I was washing dishes, thinking about the story and realized Oh my God! She’s a virgin! You would think that since she’s a character that I made up I would know such a thing, but I was a good chunk into the first draft before I discovered her secret. And, of course, that dramatically affected the direction of the plot. It’s like that old line about if you show a gun in the first act, somebody better shoot it before the play is over. Well, if a twenty-five-year-old is a virgin (and doesn’t want to be) . . .

KM: You do an extraordinary job, Carleen, of exploring and evoking how hurt Shay has been by her mother’s alcoholism. In fact, Shay tempers her begrudging love for Nona with constant reminders (self talk) about her mother’s mistakes. It’s an amazing way for the reader to learn about both women and about the past. Was this balance deliberate? If so, why did you want to explore that?

CB: This is the root of the book, that we can love someone and hate them at the same time. Especially a parent. The mother—daughter relationship can be so complicated in the best of circumstances, and when you add an issue like alcoholism it compounds it so much. I wanted to make it clear that both women have very complex emotions.

KM: You did a wonderful job making sure Nona came across as sympathetic and human, not a one-dimensional bad guy. What research did you do to accomplish this? Do you think Nona deserves the punishment Shay gives her?

CB: I read a lot about recovering women alcoholics. One of the common characteristics is deep guilt for what their drinking did to their children, and women typically have a very hard time forgiving themselves for it. Our society is very, very hard on mothers who don’t live up to almost impossible standards. And when you take a woman like Nona, who really did do bad things, I could see how she wouldn’t be able to forgive herself. But it’s actually an important part of recovery to let the past go, and stop torturing yourself, and I wanted that for her. Nona does deserve what she gets from Shay. But I agree with Nona that, after a while, it’s obvious that Shay doesn’t want to let Nona make amends. To me, that’s one of the
interesting aspects of forgiveness. The person who is wounded must be willing to accept the apology (when it’s sincere) and if she won’t, then there’s nothing the person who caused the harm can do. Nona’s efforts are sincere, so I’m glad when Shay finally gives her a chance. To me, that’s what forgiveness is: just the willingness to loosen one’s grip on the grudge and see what happens.

KM: The mother-daughter church showdown is out of sight! Why did you choose the church as the locale for this necessary confrontation? Why did you write it with some of the women taking Shay’s side and some taking Nona’s side?

CB: Thank you! It was very important to me that Nona be able to air her side of the story, and I needed a way for her to also show that she was fed up with trying so hard. The church was a natural place to do that. I’m not a regular churchgoer, but one of the things I love about the idea of church is that it should be a place of truth, a place to be stripped bare, and a place to be real. That’s when healing and forgiveness can really happen. I wrote some of the congregation taking Shay’s side and some taking Nona’s side because I saw that happening with readers. In one of my critique groups, the women who were daughters, but not mothers, took Shay’s side and the women who had kids took Nona’s side. As the writer, it was fun to see that happening, so I decided to put it in the book. I think it makes it a much better scene. Thank God for writers’ groups!

KM: About your writing process: Do you have a specific place or time of day when you craft your work? Do you work from an outline where the entire book is laid out from beginning to end or do you write free-form, from what unfolds organically from your mind?

CB: I have a home office and I have a laptop. So sometimes I work in my office, sometimes in the kitchen, sometimes on the patio or in a coffee shop. I prefer to write first thing in the morning, but I write at night, whenever. All the time! I kind of write and outline at the same time, going act by act. The middle is usually the hardest part for me, so I need to have lots of ideas going into the middle or else I get in trouble.

KM: What are you working on next?

CB: My next novel is about two sisters. The two sisters, one biracial and one white (they have the same mother, but different fathers), were separated by adoption. The biracial sister was adopted and raised by a black family. The white sister was kept and raised by their grandmother. The story explores race and identity and what makes a family.

KM: Thank you so much for taking time to chat with us, Carleen. Orange Mint and Honey is a love story and a family drama full of hope and humor–and so much powerful, raw emotion. I think I speak for all of your fans when I say that we can’t wait to see more novels from you in the future.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Forgiveness is a central theme in the novel. Explore the ways in which Shay, Nona, Stephanie, Lois, Ivy, and Oliver take steps to forgive or not forgive one another. How does each person redeem (or not) him- or herself?

2. What do you think the author’s perspective is on forgiveness? In your own life, what paths to forgiveness have you taken? Do you think the past ever ceases to matter, when it comes to matters of forgiveness and redemption?

3. In what ways does Shay show her love and hate for her mother? Do you feel more sympathetic toward or side with either of the two women more than the other? Why?

4. At what point in the novel does Shay stop constantly recounting her mother’s past? In what ways does Shay finally start to open up to Nona?

5. Motherhood is a pivotal theme in Carleen’s debut novel: There are many mothers and daughters, surrogate mothers, and surrogate daughters in Orange Mint and Honey. Discuss the roles of motherhood–and daughterhood–each of the main women characters play. What makes a woman a mother?

6. Throughout the novel, Shay is on the cusp of womanhood. At what point(s) does she decide and actually begin to grow up and embrace her future? Pinpoint in your own lives a moment or experience in which you started to become an adult woman.

7. There are several sisters and surrogate-sister relationships in Orange Mint and Honey: Shay and Sunny, Lois and Nona, Ivy and Shay. Explore each dynamic and how they are sisters to each other.

8. Throughout the novel, Shay is determined to make Nona “pay” for her past mistakes as a mother. At a gathering of recovering alcoholics Shay thinks: “Where were the signs of the wrong choices they had made? Years of drinking should have ravaged these women. I wanted scars.” And “It was all I could do not to run back into the kitchen and let her have it, but she wanted it too much. Silence was how I could make her pay.” Do you think Nona deserves Shay’s punishment? Why or why not? In your own life or in society as a whole, explore the various degrees of “mistakes” that mothers are allowed or not allowed to make. What are their consequences?

9. What do you think Nina Simone’s role in the story is? Why does Shay admire Nina so much? Explore the role music plays in Orange Mint and Honey.

10. Why do you think Shay pulls her hair (a condition known as trichotillomania)? In what ways does your body show its stress and overwhelming emotions?

11. Part of Nona’s recovery is working in the garden. What role does the garden play in Nona’s and Shay’s lives? In your own lives, is there a similar space that you see as healing?

12. Oliver is a powerful force in Shay’s life. What part did he play in her maturing and becoming a woman? Why do you think she decided not to continue her relationship with him? Do you think she could have–or should have–continued to be with him?

13. When Shay returns home, she sees that Stephanie’s home and her personal style are extremely different than what they used to be. What is the significance of this? Discuss one of your close friendships that may have shifted after the two of you had been close in childhood or college. Why do you think that shift occurred?

14. After being in a relationship with Oliver and after yelling at Nona in church, Shay’s feelings had become “completely out of control” and an “emotional overflow.” Why do you think this happened and why is it significant? Discuss a time in your own life when you have felt and done the same.

15. Shay tries so hard to not be like her mother. Throughout the novel, in what ways are Shay and Nona different, and in what ways do their choices and personalities become more similar? What about for you and your own mother or mother figure?


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