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Casebook

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A novel

Written by Mona SimpsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Mona Simpson

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: April 15, 2014
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-385-35142-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE PRAISE
READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

An Oprah.com Best book of the Year

Nine-year-old Miles Adler-Hart’s mother, “the Mims,” is “pretty for a mathematician.” Miles and his best friend Hector are in thrall to her. When her marriage starts to unravel, the boys begin spying on her to find out why. They rifle through her dresser drawers, bug her telephone lines, and strip-mine her computer. Ultimately, what they find will affect the family’s prosperity—and sanity.
        Burdened with such powerful information, the boys struggle to deal with the existence of evil, and proceed to concoct hilarious modes of revenge on their villains. Casebook brilliantly reveals an American family coming apart at the seams and, simultaneously, reconstituting itself to sustain its members through their ultimate trial. 

Excerpt

1 ​• ​Under the Bed

I was a snoop, but a peculiar kind. I only discovered what I most didn’t want to know.

The first time it happened, I was nine. I’d snaked underneath my parents’ bed when the room was empty to rig up a walkie-talkie. Then they strolled in and flopped down. So I was stuck. Under their bed. Until they got up.

I’d wanted to eavesdrop on her, not them. She decided my life. Just then, the moms were debating weeknight television. I needed, I believed I absolutely needed to understand Survivor. You had to, to talk to people at school. The moms yakked about it for hours in serious voices. The only thing I liked that my mother approved of that year was chess. And every other kid, every single other kid in fourth grade, owned a Game Boy. I thought maybe Charlie’s mom could talk sense to her. She listened to Charlie’s mom.

On top of the bed, my dad was saying that he didn’t think of her that way anymore either. What way? And why either? I could hardly breathe. The box spring made a gauzy opening to gray dust towers, in globular, fantastic formations. The sound of dribbling somewhere came in through open windows. My dad stood and locked the door from inside, shoving a chair up under the knob. Before, when he did that, I’d always been on the other side. Where I belonged. And it hurt not to move.

“Down,” my mother said. “Left.” Which meant he was rubbing her back.

All my life, I’d been aware of him wanting something from her. And of her going sideways in his spotlight, a deer at the sight of a human. The three of us, the originals, were together locked in a room.

My mom was nice enough looking, for a smart woman. “Pretty for a mathematician,” I’d heard her once say about herself, with an air of apology. Small, with glasses, she was the kind of person you didn’t notice. I’d seen pictures, though, of her holding me as a baby. Then, her hair fell over her cheek and she’d been pretty. My dad was always handsome. Simon’s mom, a jealous type, said that my mother had the best husband, the best job, the best everything. I thought she had the best everything, too. We did. But Simon’s mom never said my mother had the best son.

The bed went quiet and it seemed then that both my parents were falling asleep. My dad napped weekends.

NOOO, I begged telepathically, my left leg pinned and needled.

Plus I really had to pee.

But my mother, never one to let something go when she could pick it apart, asked if he was attracted to other people. He said he hadn’t ever been, but lately, for the first time, he felt aware of opportunities. He used that word.

“Like who?”

I bit the inside of my cheek. I knew my dad: he was about to blab and I couldn’t stop him. And sure enough, idiotically, he named a name. By second grade everyone I knew had understood never to name a name.

“Holland Emerson,” he said. What kind of name was that? Was she Dutch?

“Oh,” the Mims said. “You’ve always kind of liked her.”

“I guess so,” he said, as if he hadn’t thought of it until she told him.

Then the mattress dipped, like a whale, to squash me, and I scooched over to the other side as the undulation rolled.

“I didn’t do anything, Reen!”

She got up. Then I heard him follow her out of the room.

“I’m not going to do anything! You know me!”

But he’d started it. He’d said opportunities. He’d named a name. I bellied out, skidded to the bathroom, missing the toilet by a blurt. A framed picture of them taken after he’d proposed hung on the wall; her holding the four-inch diamond ring from the party-supply shop. On the silvery photograph, he’d written I promise to always make you unhappy.

I’d grown up with his jokes.

By the time I sluffed to the kitchen he sat eating a bowl of Special K. He lifted the box. “Want some?”

“Don’t fill up.” She stood next to the wall phone. “We’re having the Audreys for dinner.”

“Tonight?” he said. “Can we cancel? I think I’m coming down with something.”

“We canceled them twice already.”

The doorbell rang. It was the dork guy who came to run whenever she called him. He worked for the National Science Foundation and liked to run and talk about pattern formation.
Mona Simpson

About Mona Simpson

Mona Simpson - Casebook

Photo © Gaspar Tringale

Mona Simpson is the author of Anywhere But Here, The Lost Father, A Regular Guy, Off Keck Road, and My HollywoodOff Keck Road won the Heartland Prize from the Chicago Tribune and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She has received a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim grant, a Lila Wallace Readers Digest Writers’ Award, and, recently, a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Simpson is on the faculty at UCLA and also teaches at Bard College.

www.monasimpson.com

Praise

Praise

“A heart-breaker. . . . [Has] enormous emotional power. . . . Simpson’s story unfolds with magnetic force.” —The Boston Globe

“Lovely. . . . Hit[s] just the right notes of charm, humor, satire, sincerity. . . . Casebook is about a mother’s legacy to her son—important life lessons, well learned.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Captivating. . . . Lyrically capture[s] the time between childhood and adulthood, as fleeting and delicate as the golden-hour light that filmmakers chase.” —The Washington Post
 
“Simpson’s beautifully crafted novel shows us a reconfigured California family through the eyes of a smart, funny adolescent longing to keep hope alive.” —People

“Singular and haunting. . . . Filled with the quirky and succinct descriptions for which Simpson’s celebrated.” —NPR

“[A] wonderful novel. . . . A funny and sad drama about intimacies, deception and growing up.” —The Guardian (London)
 
“Simpson’s sixth novel is full of insight, even as it showcases her deft touch with character creation.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“Adult relationships are the true mystery here. Simpson manipulates the tropes of suspense fiction astutely, and the touches of noir are delicate.” —The New Yorker

“A hybrid of Harriet the Spy and Chandler’s Phillip Marlow books.” —Los Angeles Times

“Deftly tracks the unraveling of a family through the eyes of a child and then young teenager. . . . The childlike simplicity of Simpson’s prose juxtaposes touchingly with the mature themes with which she’s dealing.” —The Huffington Post

“Displays Simpson’s signature impressionism. . . . Charming, sure-footed and as engaging as ever.” —Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“Just as in Anywhere But Here, Simpson’s central, complicated relationship of parent and child is both a motif and a window into bared hearts. . . . Miles is an extraordinary character—exceptionally intuitive, observant, feeling.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

“Remarkable. . . . Simpson effortlessly snares readers inside a full, intimate world. . . . Simpson allows readers to relish the innocence of childhood and the intense yearning to discover the secrets of life.” —The Miami Herald

“Simpson once again proves herself a master.” —The New York Journal of Books

“Extraordinary. . . . Bracingly astute. . . . Brisk, beautifully modulated writing. . . . [Simpson] create[s] real kids in all their uniqueness and aching vulnerability.” —The Toronto Star

“A classic coming-of-age novel, a beautifully written example of the genre. . . . A word of warning: this is not a book to finish in a public space. Save the final few pages for private reading. This family romance deserves your undivided, teary attention.” —PopMatters

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Casebook, a work of fiction by acclaimed author Mona Simpson.

About the Guide

Miles Adler-Hart, helped by his friend Hector, spies and listens in on his parents, whom he discovers are separating. Both boys are enthralled by Miles’s unsuspecting mother, Irene, who is “pretty for a mathematician.” They rifle through her dresser drawers and strip-mine her computer diary, finding that all leads pull them straight into her bedroom, and into questions about a stranger from Washington, D.C., who weaves in and out of their lives. Their amateur detective work starts innocently enough but soon takes them to the far reaches of adult privacy as they acquire knowledge that will affect the family’s well-being, prosperity, and sanity. Once burdened with this powerful information, the boys struggle to deal with the knowledge that there is evil in the world, and that someone they know is not who he claims to be. They proceed to concoct appropriate but hilarious modes of revenge on their villain and eventually, haltingly, learn to offer animal comfort to those harmed and to create an imaginative path to their own salvation.

About the Author

Mona Simpson is the author of Anywhere But Here, The Lost Father, A Regular Guy, Off Keck Road, and My Hollywood. Off Keck Road was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and won the Heartland Prize from the Chicago Tribune. She has received a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim grant, a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, and, recently an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is on the faculty at UCLA and also teaches at Bard College.

Discussion Guides

1.  In the opening note from Hershel Geschwind of Neverland Comics, Hershel writes that Hector and Miles will continue to go back and forth with this manuscript “until they get their story straight or until they grow up, whichever comes last, or never.” How different do you think the boys’ accounts are of what happened, and what role do Hector’s footnotes play throughout the manuscript? What exactly do you think Herschel means by “grow up”?

2. This book is in many ways a coming-of age -story, but Miles learns many of his life lessons by spying on his mother, not through his own actual experience. Why do you think the author has chosen to focus so extensively on the effects of adult lives—the secret lives of parents—on their children?

3. How the motto of Miles’s and Hector’s school— motto, "is it true, is it kind, is it necessary? Will it improve on the silence?”shape their view of the world? What impact does Eli have on this view?

4. Did Miles’s extensive involvement with his mother’s personal life have a negative impact on his ability to focus on his own experiences, or did he gain greater insight into what it means to love than he might have otherwise?

5. What do we learn about Irene and about her relationships with Carey and Eli—and about adult lives in general—that we might not find out about were the novel not told through Miles’s perspective? What do we gain? Do you think most teenagers are as fascinated by the lives of their parents as Miles and Hector are?

6. Miles mentions that when Eli promises to put up Christmas lights, it was the “first feeling I had for Eli. We could be men who did that shit. I liked the idea of putting up lights ourselves” (page 28). What do the Christmas lights represent to Miles?

7. Why is Hector just as invested in uncovering the truth about Eli as Miles is? Or is he even more invested?

8. What is the significance of the notes on the kitchen blackboard? How do the quotes act as a reflection of what is going on in the story, whether or not Irene is aware of it at the time? For example, on page 41, what is the significance of the quote “benighted: in a state of pitiful or contemptible intellectual or moral ignorance.” Do you think Eli ever found Irene’s lack of awareness of his own deceit contemptible?

9. Several times throughout the novel Eli mentions his love for animals. The only stories he tells that Miles never doubts involve this deep love. Miles says at one point that he saw Eli holding the dead kittens, and he knew how to do it. Do you think the story about the sick cat, Coco, was true? Eli seems to be able to care for animals and not people. What does this say about who he is?

10. Does Eli ever really love Irene, Miles, and the Boops? What were his motives for stringing them along, and, do you think he ever believed the outcome would be different than it was?

11. On page 104 Miles describes romance as seeming like “friendship, but with a fleck of sparkle.” How do Miles’s feelings about romantic and platonic love change over the course of the novel? What does he learn from his parents’ relationship, from Eli and the Mims’ relationship, and from his friendship with Hector? Do you think Miles ever really questions his own sexuality?

12. On page 108, Miles says that when he “thinks of [his] life as a boy, it ended there that night, while the Mims stared out at the Pacific Ocean with its barreling waves, the world indifferent to our losses.” What causes this turning point?

13. What role does Ben Orion play? Why does he help Miles and Hector without asking for payment?

14. How does hearing directly from an older Hector through his comments in footnotes to the text alter or inform your impression of him as a character? What, if anything, does it bring to light about his relationship with Miles? Did it surprise you that he got into drugs when he went off to school? Do you think one of them needed the other more, and if so, why?

15. Why do you think Irene puts up with all of Eli’s broken promises? What is it about him that keeps drawing her back, despite never seeing where he lives, never meeting his child or his brother, and the fact that he never follows through on any of the futures he proposes, even with things as small as the buying of silverware?

16. On page 181, at Irene’s forty-fifth birthday party, Eli makes this speech: “All of you love Reen for many reasons. . . . But I, I love her, I love her because I, I can’t help loving her. No matter what ever happens, I am and I will always be in love with Irene Adler.” What does he mean, and what is it about Irene that makes Eli love her, or at least claim to love her, so much?

17. Who is “C” in Jean’s book dedication? Why do you think she tolerates Eli’s transgressions, and how much do you think she actually knows about them? Do you think she discovered Irene on her own? Do you think that Eli would eventually have told her?

18. What leads Miles to say that “hope for happiness is happiness” (page 229)? Do you think this statement is true?

19. Why do you think Miles lies to Eli about his mother dying in the arms of a man she loved when he runs into him years later?

20. Mona Simpson is known as an author of voice. How do you think the voice of Miles stacks up? Does he feel real?

21. What do you think Irene got out of her relationship with Eli? Does she, and do we, learn anything about her through her sexual experiences with him that give insight into who she is, or into what may have gone wrong with her marriage? Do you think she ultimately found happiness?

Suggested Readings

Michelle Huneven, Off Course; Lorrie Moore, Bark; Junot Díaz, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Justin Torres, We the Animals; Yiyun Li, Kinder Than Solitude; Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh; Paul Murray, Skippy Dies; Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding; Alice Munro, Dear Life; and Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend.

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