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On Sale: March 12, 2013
Pages: 224 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95974-4
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Reclusive movie star Jessica Lessing is finally coming out of hiding—to confront her father, a con man who has been selling her out to the paparazzi for years. On her four-day road trip to Las Vegas, she encounters three unexpected allies—Vivian, a teenager with newborn twins; Lynn, a dog shelter owner living in isolation on a ranch in rural Nevada; and Dana, a fearless ex-military bodyguard wrestling with secrets of her own. As their fates collide, each woman will find a chance at redemption that she never would have thought possible. MacKenzie Bezos’s taut prose, tough characters, and nuanced insights give this novel a complexity that few thrillers can match.

Excerpt

1. Nausea
 
In the vast valley north of Los Angeles, on a street of abandoned warehouses, behind a wall of corrugated metal topped with barbed wire, beyond an unused machine shop, in an unmarked prefab office building, inside a tiny bathroom with a hollow-core door, our first hero begins to tremble as she steps into a strange pair of pants.
 
These pants are enormous—inches thick, visibly stiff, made of a fabric coarse and gray—and when she grips the sink for balance, letting them fall, they relax only slightly, a pair of heavy phantom legs leaning against her own. A matching jacket lies felled on the floor like some hunted thing, arms pinned beneath its own weight. On the seat of the closed toilet, an open equipment bag bears a padded red helmet, its dark metal face cage regarding the water-stained ceiling. And on the floor beside it, a clipboard:

McClelland Security Services
Contingency Stress Inoculation Training
Dana Bowman, Years 1–6

with colored graph lines for Heart Rate and Test Duration descending.
 
This woman keeps her head bowed, focusing resolutely on the shining silver drain stop at the bottom of the sink. She is able to still herself this way, but over the course of a long minute, the short hair at the back of her neck begins to darken, the skin to shine, and at last a bead forms and slides down to disappear into the rolled cotton edge of her tank. She cranks the sink water on. She flips a wall switch, setting an old ceiling fan rattling. Finally she straightens and pulls the pants up tall, fitting her arms through the ragged straps of the suspenders in front of the mirror. Tall and lean. Short, dark hair. Eyes a clear green. Thin white line of a scar above her upper lip.
 
This is Dana.
 
She stops the stream of water with a still-shaking hand and cups some, sips at it, the bulk of it dribbling from her chin into the sink. She reaches behind her into the equipment bag to grab a long black strip of nylon webbing with a plastic clip. She passes it under the running tap and hikes her tank up to fit it on around her rib cage under her bra, weaving it through the suspender straps and snapping it in front over her sternum. Beyond the red helmet, in the deep of the bag, is a little black wristband with a digital display. She takes a deep breath through her nose—nothing you can hear, but you can see her chest rise and keep silently rising, followed by a long, slow fall. Then she fishes out the wristband: forty-four beats per minute.
 
She shuts the water off now and takes two neoprene sleeves from the bag and pulls them on over her forearms. She hefts the coat from the floor like you would a heavy backpack, slinging it on, tiny inside it, and makes short work of the clips in front. Then she picks up the clipboard, tucks the helmet under one arm, and opens the bathroom door.
 
On to a large break room. At the counter is a big young man in a T‑shirt and camouflage cargo pants, his brown head shaved shiny bald. He is leaning against a humming microwave, tapping a spoon in his open palm. “Shit,” he says. “The corsage I got isn’t going to match.”
 
Dana lumbers past him, setting her things on the table, and twists the dial on a padlock. Inside her locker is an oversized backpack—black ballistic nylon girded with a dozen zippered pockets. He watches as she yanks one open and withdraws a box of Pepto-Bismol tablets and fiddles with a crinkling cellophane sheet.
 
“Cujo-itis?” he says.
 
She pops a pair of pink tablets into her mouth and shuts her locker door. She twists the dial on the padlock again, and grabs the helmet and clipboard. The color is back in her face now, not so quickly from the pills, of course, but from some internal effort of her own. She manages to smile at him, even. “Smell of your mom’s leftovers,” she says, and she pushes the bar release on a fire door and steps, squinting, out into the bright courtyard.
 
Or not a courtyard, really. A half acre of sparkling mica-flecked blacktop hemmed in by those barb-topped walls and bulwarked by the unused warehouses beyond. To one side a line of six black SUVs with dark windows, windshields flashing white in the sun. At the far end a few long runs of chain-link fence leading to a low concrete outbuilding. And at the center a man in a tie and shirtsleeves next to a plain white service van. When the door crashes shut, the little building in the far corner of the yard explodes with muffled barking.
 
Dana lifts the helmet and swings open the face guard as she crosses the blacktop. She parts the flaps of thick foam at the neck and lowers it over her head, shutting the cage over her pale green eyes and the little white scar. It muffles her hearing, but right away (she will never understand this about herself, but she will continue to crave it) her heart rate slows and her focus sharpens. A paper clip on the blacktop. A helicopter banking south so far off in the turquoise sky she cannot hear it. And just before she reaches him, a flash of something at her examiner’s neck as he reaches out for the clipboard. Someone (a barber? his wife?) has nicked him with the clippers just above his collar, a nearly invisible line of fine red marks just below the short hairs, like perforations. Corey Sifter is his name. A former Marine Aircraft Wing Commander and Combat Tactics Instructor from Alabama. Who likes the chair nearest the door in the break room and eats sunflower seeds in his office.
 
Dana hands him the clipboard and the wristband to her heart-rate monitor, and in turn he hands her a different -wristband—no display, just a white plastic box with a single red button. She slips it on and pushes it up a bit, hiding it inside the sleeve of the big coat.
 
He says, “Now, you know that’s not just a token of our affection. You can press that thing if you need us.”
 
“Yes, sir.”
 
“You were in there so long last year, we thought maybe you forgot. Decided you had no choice but to make a roommate out of him and live out your days in the back of that van.”
 
“I like living alone, sir,” she says.
 
He laughs. “Fair enough.” He riffles the pages on the clipboard and then raps it with his knuckle. “I’m just hoping you don’t fall asleep this time. Your peak heart rate has dropped by at least seven points every year.”
 
Dana blinks inside her helmet, waiting. She knows such exchanges can go on a long time if she participates in them, and she is itching to get inside the van. She is still hot inside her suit; she is still nauseous. He still has the trace of a smile on his face people wear when they expect that their banter will be returned, but finally it falls away. He coughs and raps his knuckles again on his clipboard.
 
“All right then,” he says.
 
And Dana opens the barn doors at the rear of the van and climbs in, pulling them shut behind her.
 
The space is dark after the bright outside, but it is also familiar. The pair of bucket seats scabbed with duct tape and the empty rear compartment stripped down to the white sheet-metal skin. An anarchy of scratch marks on the floor as her eyes adjust. The space does for her what the helmet did, and she kneels in the center of the van and feels carefully along the underside of the seats. She leans forward to click the glove box gently open and shut. She does not watch through the windshield as a door in the far building swings open. There is just the soft sifting of her hands along the floor beneath the dashboard, searching, and the rattle of her sneakers as she turns and steps back behind the bucket seats, while outside, silent beyond the van windows, a big German shepherd barrels out, dragging a handler by a leash. It scrabbles toward the van, and Dana crouches on one knee, extending her left arm just as the barn doors swing open, flooding the van with light, and the dog flies at her, teeth bared.
MacKenzie Bezos|Author Q&A

About MacKenzie Bezos

MacKenzie Bezos - Traps

Photo © Elena Seibert

MacKenzie Bezos was born in northern California and studied creative writing at Princeton University. She is the recipient of an American Book Award for her first novel, The Testing of Luther Albright. She lives in Seattle with her husband and four children.

Author Q&A

 
Q: Where did the idea for Traps come from? 
 
A: It’s a little mysterious. I started with just an image of each of the characters at the beginning of the story—Dana stepping into the bite suit, Jessica in her kitchen with the ringing cell phone, Vivian hearing her babies crying in the next room, and Lynn searching the yard full of dogs for a girl. I didn’t have much more than this, but I felt they belonged in the same book. As I wrote and uncovered their stories, it became clear that they were unified by an idea I had been pondering for a while: that the things we feel most trapped by—bad luck, bad relationships, our own weaknesses or decisions—may in the end be essential to our good fortune. I was also very interested in the idea that our private struggles with our own demons and difficulties are all happening in parallel, and that without intention or recognition we might be playing important roles in one another’s dramas. The synchronicity of this—the design we might see if we were granted a moment of omniscience—is so beautiful to me. 
 
 
Q: Did you know how the women’s stories were going to intersect from the beginning? Or did the writing process lead you to that connecting moment?
 
A: I knew from the start that they would intersect, but I didn’t know how. I knew both how the book began and how it ended. Figuring out the moment of intersection that would take each of them between those two points is where most of the difficult work was. But it was such a fun puzzle. 
 
 
Q: Traps is your second novel, and it’s very different from your first. What was that like for you? And was it intentional?
 
A: Yes! This book is technically different from my first book in five ways—third person instead of first, multiple viewpoint characters instead of a single one, a much shorter timeline (four days instead of a year), present tense instead of past, and a very different ratio of exterior action to interior thought. It wasn’t intentional, but I do think my subconscious was probably doing me a favor. All of those new challenges made it a lot of fun to work on. And as much as I love Luther and his preoccupations, having four different main characters in Traps added a degree of variety to the process that I really enjoyed. They gave me more emotions to explore, more jobs and locations and problems to research. Every day with them surprised me. 
 
 
Q: Did you find that one voice was easier for you to write? Or did you start to identify with one character more than the others?
 
A: No. I really loved all of them equally right from the start, which is part of how I knew using all four voices was right for the story. With my first book, I started out writing from multiple perspectives too, but the other family members’ voices were so much more difficult and so much less interesting to me, and the prose in their chapters was so much worse, it was clear very quickly that the whole book belonged to Luther. With Traps, I fell in love with all of four of them. Each of them felt real and fascinating to me from the start. I still think about them daily. 
 
 
Q: The whole novel takes place over a span of just four days. Did you find that time constraint to be a challenge or was it liberating?
 
A: I loved it. Constraints give me a huge amount of excitement and creative energy, and I felt sure about the four day timeline from the very beginning. I always look forward to the moment in the process on a book when at least a dozen important elements feel too real to change. I love the puzzle that generates. The most interesting moments in a story often get forced by those limitations.
 
 
Q: What do you most hope that readers will take away from Traps?
 
A: One of my favorite things about books is the collaboration between the writer’s imagination and a reader’s personal experience. I can pick up book I read ten years ago, and it in many ways it will feel like a different story to me because my own struggles and preoccupations focus my attention on different things. I have no specific hopes about what people feel reading Traps except that they have fun, and that it feels real and powerful enough to them to affect how they see their own lives a little bit.
 
Q: Do you have a specific writing routine? Was it different for this second novel than it was for your first?
 
A: A few things were the same—writing daily is important for me, and I always write first thing in the morning—but Traps was both easier and much more fun for me to write. I think this is partly because I had better guesses from experience about how to tackle challenges as they came up along the way—e.g. this is the kind of problem I handle best if I get up at 4 am; this is the kind of problem I handle best if I just skip forward and circle back on it later; this is the kind of problem that gets easier if I stop and do a little research, etc. I also increased my working pace to boost my engagement with and enjoyment of the story. Any story is duller doled out in tiny bites, and it turns out this is true whether you’re reading it or writing it. Another difference was a little motivational trick I tried on myself. I didn’t talk about it or show it to anyone until I was finished, not even my husband, and this injected a huge amount of energy and anticipation into the process. With my first book I noticed a side effect of describing the story to people was that each time I did it sapped me of some of the drive to get the story down, sort of like the difference between your excitement recounting an amazing personal anecdote for the very first time to a best friend the day it happened to you, and the abbreviated version you’re repeating to people for the fiftieth time years later at a cocktail party. I wanted to save that first telling excitement and energy for the book. This also gave me a really rewarding carrot for finishing fast and completely. The sooner I finished, the sooner I could share it and talk to my husband about these characters that had been taking up so much space in my head over the last year and a half. By the last three months, they were so real and important to me, I could start crying just thinking about them while driving to pick up the kids from school.
 
 
Q: What was it like to work with Toni Morrison at Princeton?
 
A: I admire her writing intensely, and fortunately it turns out she is an equally gifted and dedicated teacher. She taught me a lot of lessons I still reflect on frequently while I’m working, and she was unbelievably generous with her time and encouragement long after I graduated. She really cares a great deal about her students. She’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.
 
 
Q: Are you working on a new project now?
 
A: Yes! I’m really excited about it. I’m always happiest when I’m writing every day.

Praise

Praise

“Taut but nuanced, a character-driven thriller that is both suspenseful and intelligent.” —Vogue

“Bezos writes spare, present-tense prose that lends her writing an urgency as four women slip in and out of psychic and emotional peril.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Sweet are the uses of adversity, writes Shakespeare, and MacKenzie Bezos explores that proposition. . . . Her characters are beautifully delineated and arrestingly original.” —Geraldine Brooks
 
Traps is a page turner. . . . A remarkable kind of alchemy. . . . I didn't want it to end.” —Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

“Cleverly orchestrated. . . . Each woman is impressively rendered.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Bezos galvanizes the mundane with a sense of dread, presenting four women trapped by sad circumstances and their own fallibility. . . . Bezos creates a sad, melancholic, nearly melodramatic world, almost too hard to stomach until we begin to see what she sees: “Life is full of things that feel like traps. . . . Sometimes later we see that they led us where we needed to go.’” —Publishers Weekly

“The story of four women in distress. . . . Bezos deftly weaves these disparate stories together and creates a moving tale of redemption.” —Booklist
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enrich your discussion of MacKenzie Bezos’s novel Traps.

About the Guide

MacKenzie Bezos’s engrossing novel tells the story of four very different women whose paths intersect—briefly, but significantly—in ways that will transform each of their lives forever.

Dana is a beautiful young security guard trained in special ops. She can disarm a bomb and perform emergency surgery, but is terrified of committing to the man she loves.  Jessica is an Oscar-winning actress whose father keeps selling her out to the paparazzi.  Vivian is a seventeen-year-old prostitute who will do anything to protect her twin babies.  Lynn is a recovering alcoholic living in isolation on a ranch in Nevada.  How their fates collide—and how that collision offers each of them a chance at redemption and renewal—is the subject of this emotionally powerful, finely crafted, richly textured novel. 

About the Author

MacKenzie Bezos was born and raised in Northern California and studied creative writing at Princeton University.  Her first novel, The Testing of Luther Albright, was published in 2005. She lives in Seattle.

Discussion Guides

1. In the novel’s opening scene, the narrator describes the sensation Dana feels each time she lowers her thick protective helmet over her head at the start of a mission.  “It muffles her hearing, but right away (she will never understand this about herself, but she will continue to crave it) her heart rate slows and her focus sharpens.”  How does this relate to your understanding of Dana’s character in the first chapter?  Look also at her conversation with her supervisor about her heart rate and her performance during the exercise with the dog. What is it that eludes her understanding, and what is it that she craves?

2. Discuss Dana’s relationship with her colleagues.  Look in particular at the descriptive passage on page 8, which begins, “Velasquez is another of the firm’s agents—he has worked protective shifts with Dana a hundred times—and Corey Sifter coached her through a high-speed-emergency driving course and an evacuation simulation in a smoke- and flame-filled room, but neither man has ever been shown a photo on her BlackBerry or heard her describe a movie she saw over a weekend or watched her drink a beer.”   How much does Bezos reveal in the course of the novel about the provenance of Dana’s issues with intimacy and personal  boundaries?   Are there hidden psychological reasons for Dana’s caution and unease?  How much of her self-protectiveness at work do you think has to do with her gender?

3. Discuss your impressions of Ian. He is unlike any other character in the novel and, indeed, might be considered Dana’s polar opposite. Are they truly opposites?  Are there any unexpected similarities between them? What do you think binds them together?  Given Dana’s need for control, do you find it odd that she would be drawn to such a free spirit? 

4. One of the first things we learn about Jessica is that her father is subjecting her to an extreme form of emotional blackmail. How has this altered and narrowed her life?  What do you think of the choices she has made for herself and her family?  The life she describes to her husband on page 28 is rich in familial connection and love: “I am not hiding! I’m more social than you are!  I’m with people all the time…I’m sharing what we have! I’m making this a place the girls can be proud of.  A beautiful shared community with a huge homemade extended family.”  Is she lying to herself or is this true?  How much of Jessica’s life is shaped by fear?

5. What are your impressions of the relationship between Jessica and Akhil?   What are their perceptions of each other?  Look especially at Akhil’s ruminations about Jessica’s inner beauty on page 25, concluding with, “If Akhil is her hero, Jessica is the closest he has to any religion…”  Jessica holds Akhil in similarly high esteem, and has since the moment of their first meeting, which Bezos describes in detail on page 28.  What special qualities does each bring to their marriage?

6. What is your sense of Vivian’s predicament in the first scene with Marco? She is very different from the other characters in the novel, and yet her circumstances correspond in fundamental ways to the plights of Bezos’s three other principal characters. How? 

7. What information does Bezos impart to us about Lynn’s life by inventorying the items left behind by Charlene, and the array of similarly itemized and marked boxes in Lynn’s closet?

8. The objects in Lynn’s desk drawer are similarly revealing of her character, her struggles past and present, and the parameters of her life.  Discuss the list that appears on page 50.

9. Discuss the novel’s structure. Why is it broken up into four days?  How might this relate to Bezos’s themes?   

10. Lynn and Dana manage their feelings of vulnerability by becoming exceptionally self-reliant. Jessica and Vivian are tormented by unwanted callers that force them to confront something painful in their pasts. Are there other correspondences between their respective predicaments?  What do they all have in common?  What traits do you think Bezos feels they share? Discuss.

11. How does Carla Bonham’s first message inform your perception of Vivian’s circumstances?  Carla appears in the novel only once, in the novel’s final section, yet she performs a vital function.  How has MacKenzie Bezos managed to create such an appealing and significant character through a series of brief telephone messages?

12. Discuss the scene in which Lynn reads the clipping from the Southern Nevada Gazette dated October 29, 1972. What does the reader learn about Lynn in this scene? How and why is this relevant to her present life?

13. Why does Lynn decide, on putting the clipping back into a weathered manila envelope,  “it’s enough for now—a start.”  What exactly has she commenced? 

14. “Then she takes a marker from the drawer below and along the box of spools with her empty bottle and juice glass she writes ‘Lynn’ and opens the closet door, and sets it on a top shelf with the others.”  How is this action symbolic?  Why is it important, and what do you think it symbolizes?

15. Discuss the climactic scene in which Jessica and Lynn see each other for the first time.  This is one of the novel’s most emotional and cathartic moments. How did you feel when Lynn read her list of all the ways in which she had hurt Jessica?  Can there be forgiveness after such calamitous errors?

16. On page 177, Jessica tells Lynn, “I could have skipped it. All the grief he’s caused me and my family.”  Lynn responds, “Apparently not.”  What does Lynn mean?  How does this relate to the novel’s themes?  What do you think MacKenzie Bezos is suggesting about the nature of misfortune?

17. Discuss the passage about Dana, from Day 4, that begins, “On the drive home, how is she different?”   In what sense could this question be asked about each of the four women?  What has changed, specifically, for Dana?

18. “Sweet are the uses of adversity, / Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, / Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.”  This is the novel’s epigraph, taken from Shakesepeare’s As You Like It. How do these lines express the novel’s central themes? 

Suggested Readings

Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin. Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad.  Anita Shreve, Fortune’s Rocks.  Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.  Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge.  Anna Quindlen, Black and Blue.

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