Raised on their family's Thoroughbred farm in Kentucky, Charlotte and Knox Bolling grow up steeped in the life cycles of the horses surrounding them. Despite their opposing natures, the connection between these two sisters is unbreakable, even when Charlotte abandons Four Corners Farm in favor of Manhattan. But a single day changes everything for Knox, and in order to confront the ways her sister defines her, she must leave the home she’s always known. A powerful story of love, duty and family, Losing Charlotte reminds us that there are some bonds that cannot be broken.
Excerpted from Losing Charlotte by Heather Clay. Copyright © 2010 by Heather Clay. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.
Q. This is your first novel. What was your inspiration for writing Losing Charlotte?
A. I had heard of maternal deaths like the one that occurs in Losing Charlotte, and I suppose the inspiration for a book came at the point my imagination took over after the bare facts of such accounts had been related to me. These deaths are rare, but they do happen, and the idea of something so Victorian happening in a modern hospital setting led me to wonder how such an event would affect the modern family – in which, for example, the old-fashioned expectation that a widower might court his wife’s surviving sister has ceased to exist, but might be rattling around subconsciously somewhere in the mind of one or more of the characters. The plot and questions that coalesced around such an event brought much that I wanted to explore about family ties, place, and the gaps siblings are asked to fill in for one another to the surface, and the writing took off from there.
Q. The story unfolds in two locations: a horse farm in Kentucky and the West Village in New York City. You live in New York now. Did you grow up on a farm?
A. I did. The setting of Four Corners Farm is almost completely autobiographical; my family runs a Thoroughbred horse farm in central Kentucky, which functions as its own little universe, and had always been a seminal place in my life and writing. The contrast between the two places where I spend the majority of my time – Kentucky and New York – and between the notions of North and South, as well as the community life on a family farm necessitates versus the isolation and independence possible in a large city, seemed fertile ground to plow as I told the story of two sisters with very distinct personalities and lives.
Q. The story is told from the perspectives of two characters—Charlotte’s sister Knox and Charlotte’s husband Bruce. Did you always know that Charlotte’s character would come to be shaped through Knox and Bruce? Who was more difficult to write?
A. The novel went through more populous incarnations; at one point, every character in it had a voice. But as the book began to take shape in part as the story around an absence, a lacuna which each of Charlotte’s family members would describe somewhat differently and mourn differently, it made sense to me to focus in on the two characters who had the most to lose when she died: Bruce, for obvious reasons, and Knox, because she has so much unfinished business with Charlotte, and because she defines herself by the ways in which she is different from Charlotte, and has no practice existing without her sister to measure herself against.
I knew I wanted Knox and Bruce in the same house, bumping up against each other and caring for babies, but throughout, I found Bruce’s voice much easier to write in. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I chafed at times against Knox’s regressive tendencies, her desire to arrest herself in an idealized past. Or simply that Bruce’s story falls more outside my own experience, so I felt freer to imagine it.
Q. The first thing we read about Bruce is that he “had learned early that mothers can leave.” How does this fact from his childhood prepare him for losing his wife and mother of his babies? How does this affect his view on fatherhood?
A. I think part of what makes Bruce so passionate about Charlotte, despite his whispered, interior misgivings about their relationship, is his knowledge that the people we love aren’t going to be here forever. This makes him both more trusting and fervent than he otherwise might be, but also more fatalistic; he knows the other shoe can drop. He thus clings doggedly to whatever he has, and though initially, perhaps, the idea of children strike Bruce as a threat to the world he’s created with Charlotte, his boys become part of that. Knox is the same, in a certain way; her idea of the intact family unit is what she clings to, what makes her feel safe. I think Bruce will have to work hard not to be too smothering a father.
Q. Your writing is very sensual, especially the descriptions of Charlotte, the title character who haunts the story. When I picture her in my head, she’s definitely stretched out by a fireplace, blinking slowly with her dreamy eyes. Did you have any particular people in your own life in mind when you invented her unique character?
A. Charlotte is a composite of women I have known and imagined who get to use beauty
as a currency, but also butt up against accepted ideas about what is beautiful, or perfect, or easily likeable. Women who could live on a pedestal because people so want to put them there, but keep getting bumped off because of their wilder natures, or their flaws, or the unrealistic expectations of others.
Q. The relationship that grows between Knox and Bruce, who are virtually strangers brought together after Charlotte’s death, is fascinating. How did you approach developing this dynamic?
A. I was afraid to go there, at first, which was part of why I kept writing chapter upon chapter in different voices. I was circling the scenes I needed to create between the two of them very warily, because I didn’t want to descend into cliché, and yet I knew that, in some form, whether verbally, sexually or otherwise, they needed to confront each other. At once point, I kept sending Bruce out for long, meandering walks, just to keep from diving in to the dynamic you describe! Finally, there was nothing left but to write those scenes, as halting and awkward and difficult to render as they were.
Q. Do you consider Losing Charlotte a story about family, a story about identity, a story about relationships, a love story? All of the above?
A. All of the above. I suppose, to me, it is primarily a story about identity. A dear friend of mine once said that the reasons she reads fiction is to find out how people survive. I think it is a story about survival, too – though an unresolved one.
Q. You have two daughters and have written for Parenting Magazine. Were you already a mother when you started writing Losing Charlotte? The atmospheric way you write about the babies in their surroundings is very striking.
A. One of the fantastic and unexpected boons of having stewed over the book so long was the experience I gained in the meantime: becoming a mother to two baby girls! Certainly, becoming steeped in infant care, physically emotionally and every-which-way, made my rendering of the day to day tasks Bruce and Knox face more accurate, and hopefully their responses to Ethan and Ben deeper and richer on the page. Sometimes I wonder if I could only have started a book about a mother’s death in childbirth before I had children, and only finished it – and sounded halfway knowledgeable – once my daughters were here.
Q. Whom do you read who inspires you? What are you reading now?
A. I just finished Penelope Lively’s Family Album, which I found very interesting, and am in the middle of Mary Carr’s Lit right now. I’ve been lucky enough this year to discover Elizabeth Bowen. I can’t wait for the new Alice Munro! Anything about that family ache, about what’s unsaid, misunderstood, the simple and tragic passage of time…am I describing all fiction right now? I guess all fiction inspires me, then. If it’s good.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I’ve got the first chapter of a new novel, and many short story ideas that I want to get to as well, after working on one book for so long and shuffling them to the side. What comes to fruition first – we’ll see.
“Clay tenderly yet honestly navigates this family’s earth-shattering loss. . . . Beautifully composed.” —Elle
“What happens when the person closest to you is suddenly gone? This heart-wrenching story explores the bond between two sisters—one charmed and rebellious, the other a good girl—after a tragedy changes their family forever.” —Glamour
“A breathtaking novel about loss and healing. . . . Even the moment most likely to be played for tears . . . is done with a remarkably efficient realism; not until I finished reading those pages did I realize that I’d been holding my breath the whole time.” —Emily Freeman, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Clay’s writing style is dreamy, elliptical . . . she describes moments with beautiful precision and aptly relays the murky, battering numbness of grief. . . . Lovely.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Friction between sisters has served as a plot staple since the dawn of the novel. . . . Handled properly, it provides a near-perfect occasion for exploring the societal and familial expectations placed on young women, as Heather Clay does in her introspective first novel. . . . Clay beautifully portrays the awkward dynamic of family gatherings. . . . Bold and confident.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Heather Clay is a graceful and assured new writer with a great gift for character: the people in her fiction are as complex, beautiful and real as they are in life. . . . A spellbinding first novel.” —Lauren Groff, author of Monsters of Templeton
“How far would you go for family? Clay’s heart-wrenching debut novel will spur you to wonder. . . .Clay’s characters are flawed yet fun, and her storytelling style is as endearing as an old friend’s.” —SELF magazine
“The family in this novel is so vividly imagined that I am still thinking of them: not as characters but as real people.” —Ann Packer, author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier
“Sets up [a] situation with clarity and care, then works it through with subtlety.” —The Boston Globe
“Lovingly observed. Clay knows how to craft a realistic plot and characters who, under pressure, change in believable ways.” —The Columbus Dispatch
1. What does the prologue tell you about the relationship between Charlotte and Knox and the roles they have in the family? What responsibilities does the young Knox assume and why?
2. In considering her life, Knox says, “It traveled in concentric circles around her, like orbiting matter, and her job was to stay fixed and let it happen” [p. 16]. Does this reflect a sense of contentment or does it represent a willful passivity and even smugness? What aspects of her interactions with Marlene support your view? In what ways does teaching dyslexic children satisfy Knox’s image of herself and her place in the world?
3. To what extent is Knox’s attitude toward Ned based on her father and the family dynamic she has always known? Why does she find male vulnerability off-putting? Does this explain her antipathy to Charlotte’s choice of a husband and her own reluctance to marry Ned or are there other factors at work?
4. Discuss the conversation between Charlotte and Knox [pp. 25–30]. Is reverting to childhood patterns—“to love and hate each other so nakedly, and so simultaneously”—common between adult siblings? Are the thoughts and feelings of each sister presented fairly or are they seen solely through Knox’s eyes?
5. Why does Bruce’s narrative begin with the flashback to his childhood and his reaction to the disappearance of his friend’s mother [pp. 43–54]? How does it relate to the descriptions of Charlotte’s childhood home?
6. How would you characterize the relationship between Bruce and Charlotte? What needs does Charlotte fulfill for Bruce? What does Bruce provide for Charlotte? Why does Charlotte create false or at least fanciful images of herself and of Bruce? What do Bruce’s description of their relationship and his confession [pp. 147–148] suggest about his commitment to Charlotte? Do most couples experience “a moment—or many—that would remain forever inexplicable to anyone else but was understood within their universe of two, rendering them bound in a new way” [p. 149]?
7. What do the family’s reactions to Charlotte’s death show about the ways people cope with tragedy [pp. 117–118]? What do their emotional states, both at the hospital and when they return to Kentucky, reveal about Knox’s understanding of herself, her father, and her mother? What role does Robbie fill for her?
8. Discuss Bruce’s impressions of Charlotte’s childhood and the conclusions he has drawn about her parents and Knox [pp. 142–143]. Why does he accept “the synopsis Charlotte had arrived at after years spent in therapy and engaged in the burial of her former self” [p. 143]? How does this influence his behavior with Knox?
9. What does the Christmas dinner [pp. 153–161], as well as the conversation the sisters have at the bar [pp. 166–169], show about the beliefs, real or imagined, that shape the way they view each other? Do you think Knox misreads, misremembers, or exaggerates Charlotte’s behavior and its effects on the family?
10. How do alternating perspectives of Knox and Bruce affect the portrait of Charlotte? What do their descriptions of Charlotte’s behavior and attitudes have in common? Is one perspective more reliable than the other? Is Bruce more willing than Knox to acknowledge personal hang-ups and biases? In what ways does the time she spends in New York force Knox to explore and come to terms with her mixed feelings about Charlotte [pp. 198–199; 204–207; 214–216]?
11. What propels the growing intimacy between Bruce and Knox? Contemplating the consequences, Knox thinks, “She couldn’t claim not to have chosen it, or to have been swept into something she wasn’t conscious of, or couldn’t control” [p. 235]. Do you think that Bruce feels the same way?
12. “There were moments in everyone’s life, Knox supposed, that showed you that you weren’t the person you thought. Maybe these moments taught you something good about yourself, or shamed you” [p. 248]. What has Knox learned about herself by the novel’s end?
13. In an interview Heather Clay said “I had heard of maternal deaths like the one that occurs in Losing Charlotte . . . . And the idea of something so Victorian happening in a modern hospital setting led me to wonder how such an event would affect the modern family” [randomhouse.com]. What historical or literary traditions does Clay draw on?
14. What does Losing Charlotte illustrate about caretaking and parenting? What is the significance of Knox’s view that the sisters had "been forced by birth into mutual territory and yet emerged . . . as if they'd been raised in separate countries” [p. 30]? To what extent are Mina and Ben responsible for the competitiveness and resentments that exist between Charlotte and Knox? In what ways are Bruce and Knox transformed by the obligations as well as the pleasures of taking care of the twins? How does Knox’s notion of herself as family caretaker evolve throughout the novel?
15. Part of the novel takes place in Kentucky and part in New York City. How does the contrast between the two settings enrich the themes of the novel? How do the depictions of the secondary characters—Marlene and Ned in Kentucky, Bruce’s mother and his friend Jeb Jackman and Charlotte’s ex-boyfriend Stephen in New York, for example—reinforce the sense of place and culture?
16. The rhythms of nature and the breeding cycles on the stud farm are an integral part of the novel [p. 33, for example]. How do these descriptions serve as metaphors for human behavior?
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