Excerpted from The Life List by Lori Nelson Spielman. Copyright © 2013 by Lori Nelson Spielman. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. Have you ever created a life list of your own? Like Lori and Brett, were you lucky enough to come upon it later in life and if so, did you find anything surprising? Have you managed to accomplish the majority of your childhood aspirations? How would your life be different if you’d completed your list in its entirety? After reading this book, are you in- spired to revisit and even attempt to realize some of those early goals?
2. Frustrated and discouraged by her mother’s final wishes, Brett exclaims, “Life as I know it has just been shredded! And I’m supposed to piece it back together in a way that some— some kid wanted it to be?” Yet Elizabeth was sure all along that Brett would emerge as a happier, more contented woman if she did a major overhaul of her life. Do you think the goals we make as children are still valid into adulthood? Would people generally be better off getting back in touch with the things that mattered most to them as adolescents as opposed to the things they think matter most as adults? Is the shedding of our childhood fancies a necessary aspect of growing up, or might we be forsaking a fundamental piece of ourselves in the process?
3. The meaning of family and heredity is a major theme throughout the novel, especially in terms of how the characters view their relatedness. At one point, Joad refers to Brett as Elizabeth’s “illegitimate daughter,” while he feels disconnected from Austin because she doesn’t look like the rest of the family. Meanwhile, Brett grapples with her own issues of paternity concerning Johnny and Charles, which mirrors their sense of affinity, or lack thereof, for her. How would you say family— real family, as the characters struggle to define it—is distinguished within the context of this novel?
4. Elizabeth implies, and Brett eventually realizes, that she abandoned much of the courage and self-assurance she possessed as a girl to strive for acceptance in the eyes of men. The author herself has said that as a guidance counselor, she has observed this trend manifest in the lives of many girls, who start out with lofty goals only to forsake them in their relationships with the opposite sex. Do you think this is a common occurrence among women? Are there other female characters in the novel who have fallen victim to this unfortunate trap, or if not, how have they managed to avoid making the same mistake?
5. Brett’s relationship with Jean Anderson, the director of the Joshua House, proves to be quite an eye-opener for her, with Jean adding a dose of grim reality to the naïve, wide-eyed way that Brett has of looking at the world. Discuss how Brett’s worldview evolves from the beginning to the end of the novel and the other characters that play a part in this. As Brett asks herself, do you think ending her relationship with Mr. Right in hopes of finding Mr. Absolutely Right was courageous, or merely due to stupidity, immaturity, or arrogance, or perhaps a mix of them all? Do you think the spark that Brett felt was missing with Herbert is absolutely necessary in a relationship?
6. Do you think people commonly resist making difficult changes in their lives unless forced to, as Brett was? How do you tackle the obstacles in your own life that might prevent you from arriving at a positive outcome?
7. Motherhood is a central focus in this story. Interestingly, though, Elizabeth, the foremost maternal figure, is deceased before the novel opens, and in many ways, it’s the “phantom” mothers and children introduced along the way who play such a pivotal role. What are some of the lessons the characters have learned or you think will eventually learn from the absence of their mother or child? Are there any loved ones in your own life who have similarly conveyed an invaluable message after their passing?
8. In her notes to Brett, Elizabeth imparts wisdom that must necessarily last her daughter a lifetime. What was the most significant lesson you took away from her?
9. Brett abandoned her relationship with Carrie Newsome out of embarrassment and fear that she wouldn’t otherwise be accepted by a new clique. Is Brett deserving of Carrie’s unfaltering affection and acceptance? Have you ever experienced a similar situation with a friend, and if so, were you able to repair the relationship down the road?
10. For much of the novel, Brett worries she might be incapable of being involved in a “normal” relationship, either because she feels unworthy of love or because she’s grown accustomed to a certain type of man. When and why does this notion begin to deteriorate and what is it about Garrett that changes everything?
11. Looking back on her journey while in the warm familiarity of what was once her mother’s and is now her own home, Brett considers “how places become people, how this house and her old iron bed still pull me in and offer comfort when I need it.” Can you think of any other locales within the novel that take on the persona of a human being? Are there any places in your own life that function in the same manner?
12. What would your life list consist of now?