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  • Written by Jane Hamilton
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Disobedience

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A Novel

Written by Jane HamiltonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jane Hamilton



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On Sale: March 05, 2002
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-385-72175-2
Published by : Anchor Knopf

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On Sale: October 17, 2000
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From Jane Hamilton, author of the beloved New York Times bestsellers A Map of the World and The Book of Ruth, comes a warmly humorous, poignant novel about a young man, his mother's e-mail, and the often surprising path of infidelity.

Henry Shaw, a high school senior, is about as comfortable with his family as any seventeen-year-old can be. His father, Kevin, teaches history with a decidedly socialist tinge at the Chicago private school Henry and his sister attend. His mother, Beth, who plays the piano in a group specializing in antique music, is a loving, attentive wife and parent. Henry even accepts the offbeat behavior of his thirteen-year-old sister, Elvira, who is obsessed with Civil War
reenactments and insists on dressing in handmade Union uniforms at inopportune times.

When he stumbles on his mother's e-mail account, however, Henry realizes that all is not as it seems. There, under the name Liza38, a name that Henry innocently established for her, is undeniable evidence that his mother is having an affair with one Richard Polloco, a violin maker and unlikely paramour who nonetheless has a very appealing way with words and a romantic spirit that, in Henry's estimation, his own father woefully lacks.

Against his better judgment, Henry charts the progress of his mother's infatuation, her feelings of euphoria, of guilt, and of profound, touching confusion. His knowledge of Beth's secret life colors his own tentative explorations of love and sex with the ephemeral Lily, and casts a new light on the arguments-usually focused on Elvira-in which his parents regularly indulge. Over the course of his final year of high school, Henry observes each member of the family, trying to anticipate when they will find out about the infidelity and what the knowledge will mean to each of them.

Henry's observations, set down ten years after that fateful year, are much more than the "old story" of adultery his mother deemed her affair to be. With her inimitable grace and compassion, Jane Hamilton has created a novel full of gentle humor and rich insights into the nature of love and the deep, mysterious bonds that hold families together.

Excerpt

Chapter One

Reading someone else's e-mail is a quiet, clean enterprise. There is no pitter-pattering around the room, no opening and closing the desk drawers, no percussive creasing as you draw the paper from the envelope and unfold it. There is no sound but the melody of the dial-up, the purity of the following Gregorian tones, and the sweet nihilistic measure of static. The brief elemental vibration that means contact. And then nothing. No smudge of ink, no greasy thumbprint left behind. In and out of the files, no trace. It could be the work of a ghost, this electronic eavesdropping.

I was the boy in the family and therefore, statistically, the person most likely to seize upon the computer culture, the child to wire the household, tune it into our century, keep the two systems, one for me, the other for the rest of the Shaws, up and running. Elvira, my sister, was detail oriented and analytical and could have easily outdistanced me if only she'd had the desire. She had the intelli- gence, certainly, to learn complex languages, to program, to hack. But through most of the time I was living at home she was scornful of technology, stuck, as she was, in 1862 with her Civil War infantry regiment, the 11th Illinois. At a young age, much to my mother's sorrow, Elvira became a hardcore Civil War reenactor.

It was I who begged and moped a little and pleaded for some kind of computer, a dud, a two- or three-year-old dinosaur—anything would do. I built myself a cardboard replica of the first Macintosh model, and for a good half hour at a stretch I lay on my bed typing on the paper keys, pretending to write programs that would win me fame and fortune. When I was nine, I appealed to my grandmother in a simple poor-boy letter: my grandmother, the one money bag we all in our particular ways went to, again and again, a source that seemed inexhaustible and at the ready. When the box arrived on our doorstep, I sat patiently with my parents showing them the fundamental maneuvers—dragging the mouse, clicking the mouse, see Mommy and Daddy double-click the mouse—as if the two of them were babies being prodded through an ordinary developmental stage.

Several years later with my own money, I seriously upgraded. I had to lure my mother to her own e-mail account with the promise that she'd have satisfaction and even happiness. It was still early days for the kind of communication we now take for granted. Wizard that I was, I guaranteed her pleasure. I provided the password for her so she could commune with her musician friends, the hip ones, so she could have her circle of intimates right in front of her without having to go down to the end of the town. For her screen name I did away with her flat, no-crackle name, Beth, and from the full Elizabeth plucked the zippy Liza, attached her age to it, Liza38. I told her it sounded like the code name of a blond spy with a sizable bust, someone operating out of what used to be East Germany. When I was fourteen and fifteen, I liked to think that what was surely my sophisticated sense of humor had blossomed into its fullest dark and ironic potential. But big-busted-floozy spy jokes were not my mother's style. She was not herself well endowed, and from my point of view she was no seductress. She smiled at my attempt at wit: Nice try, Henry. Although she would but of course retain her dear perfection no matter what name she used, Richard Polloco, the lover, took to the pizzazz of her screen self and often called her Liza38.

When I first stumbled into her e-mail file, I didn't mean to. It was accidental. It was about as easy to type in her password as mine. I wasn't even thinking. I had no plan, nothing premeditated, no scheme in place. I realized my error as the icons slowly formed before me in their beamy pleased way. It was through my fingers that I understood the misstep. "Welcome," our provider said. My hands froze above the keys. And again the voice. "You've got mail." You've got mail. What was the old girl up to? I suppose that thought went through my mind.

I can't say for certain what the first message revealed, or even whom she had written. Because it was not only messages from Richard Polloco and messages meant for Richard Polloco that I read during that time, but others too, e-mails that my mother wrote to her friend Jane, hundreds, thousands of words, to explain, to justify, to excuse herself. What I do remember is the letter, a real United States Postal Service letter that I found in the box in the hall, the place we put outgoing mail. I noticed it because it was addressed to him, to Richard Polloco, in Tribbey, Wisconsin. My mother was in the kitchen making up a shopping list, and she must have set it there for just a minute. Richard Polloco. I already knew enough to think, I shouldn't pick this up, and I don't want to pick this up, and How can I keep from picking this up? I held it to the light, and I could see the scrap of paper inside. I could see the scrap, the size of a stamp, so small you couldn't write more than a single word on it. That's what I thought: What did she write that could be more than a single word? I held the envelope up in part because it was seemingly empty. At the angle, with the aid of the lamp, it was impossible not to see that single word on the slip of paper. You. That's all she had written. But that single word had weight. I knew enough by then to understand, to feel, if I'd wanted to, the ache in that short word.

It is true that the subject of love, generally, is exhausted, but a person can still go on for a good long time about the specifics of a love scene, including the setting and then who said what and why, and how it made the listener feel. One of the first e-mails I read, and perhaps the very first one, was my mother's message to her friend Jane, back in Vermont. "This is an old story," she began. "There is nothing new in it." What she was doing, she said, was hardly noteworthy because it had been acted and reenacted countless times before. For me, during that year, the story had no elements that felt in any way worn.

I don't believe that everything a person has seen and done is stored in the brain, there to retrieve if only you can pick the right lock. In fact, I blame the brain for making us as selective as we are, for editing out what we don't want to hear, for refusing to take hold of what could be the important detail. Still, if I have forgotten the first message, I have the sense of what it could have been. "This is an old story," my mother began. "There is nothing new in it." The seemingly shopworn tale my mother inhabited did not stop her from recounting, through the year, at great length, her feelings, her guilt, her despair, as well as the particulars—terrible in their vividness—of her journeys to see Richard Polloco in Wisconsin. Rpoll, he was, at luge.com.

This is how our family was back then, not so long ago, less than a decade ago: Elvira Shaw, thirteen; myself, Henry Shaw, seventeen; Beth Gardener Shaw, thirty-eight; Kevin Shaw, forty-three. We had moved from a small town in Vermont to Chicago when I was fourteen. My parents seemed to feel that the upheaval, the trauma, of moving from one culture to another, from Mercury to Pluto, in effect, was worth it for all of our educations. I still ask myself regularly what it was, actually, that they were thinking. My father is a high school history teacher, a job that combines the skills of preaching, mudslinging, acting, and arm-twisting. You take his American history survey course and you can never again celebrate a holiday such as Columbus Day or Memorial Day or Presidents' Day with any sense of national pride. After my father has done his song and dance, you know more than you wanted to about the roughly 9 million Native Americans who died between 1642 and 1800. You are filled with disgust, dismay, and self-loathing because a complex civilization, a creative and by and large generous civilization, was wiped out. My father was offered a position at the Jesse Layton School in the tony Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago. At the time I didn't catch the detail that he'd been fired from his job in Vermont, probably because too many of his students felt disgust, dismay, and self-loathing after learning about their heritage.

No problem, to move from the Northfield mountains, pure granite, from a town of 317, to a Midwestern city of 7 million built on a swamp. What, really, were they thinking? If we were going to go urban, my parents figured we might as well bypass the suburbs and do it up right. Without much discussion, as was her way, my grandmother purchased a brownstone for us on the upscale block of Roslyn Place near the Jesse Layton School. Minty, we called my grandmother, dollar signs blinking in our eyes. It was I, as a toddler, who parsed Grandmother Gardener down to the essential component. It goes without saying that we all wanted to be as close as we could to the aging matriarch, she who ruled with her iron hand from Lake Bluff, Illinois.

As far as the Jesse Layton parents went, the school was basically a front for the Democratic Party, for rich bleeding-heart liberals. If Kevin Shaw couldn't live on a racially balanced street, at least he was given free reign to teach as he pleased, to turn out little socialists from his class to his heart's desire, with the understanding, of course, that the firebrands would someday settle down and become responsible Democrats. Although his salary was modest, he believed his position at Layton had many elements of the dream job.

My mother, for her part, was interested in moving back home to the Midwest because of the cold and snow of the Vermont winters and the mud of the Vermont springs and the black flies of the Vermont summers. Not to mention all year round the warp we lived in, somewhere between the hardscrabble life of the real Vermonters and the artiste vacationers, giddy with their views and the mountain air and their leisure. My mother was ready to leave all of it, and it was a fine time, because the band she played in had gone through a difficult period and split up. She was free of them. Not least, I think she believed that if we stayed in Vermont, her tomboy daughter would one day take off into the hills with nothing on but a loincloth, nothing but her bare hands and sharp new canines to get herself some bloody grub.

Many friends expressed sympathy for us both before and after the move. They had the idea that Elvira and I were being wrenched away from Eden, taking that long fall from the fragrant warm garden to the gritty gray world where, it is true, Elvira would have to wear clothes. Fully dressed and in a brownstone, we would be cramped. Outside we would be in danger from both the careless ways of the rich and the careless ways of the poor. Chicago would be beautiful in a man-made way, but the splendor would hardly be noticeable because of the exhaust and the grime and the noise and the litter. The natives jogged with their dogs and could not break their strides to clean up after them; it was no better, probably, than a medieval city, the chamber pots being emptied out of windows right into the street. And there would be people, people everywhere. That would be the worst of it, I thought, the feeling that you were always in some- one's company. But I got tired of what seemed like pity, and I did want to point out to the chorus that Wellington, Vermont, was hardly Shangri-La, that at the church suppers in Wellington you could get a hot dish with beets called red flannel hash. Furthermore, the librarian, Mrs. Hegley, based on her extensive knowledge of her neighbor's moral behavior, either excused her patrons their fines or did not. My father had been a selectman, and I had heard enough of his conversations about the difficulty in getting monies for the school, for the library, for much of anything beyond snow removal within a week of a storm. Both my parents, I knew, worried about my education and my sensibility in a community where I was the only boy in school during deer-hunting season.

All this is not to say that Wellington wasn't a good place and that I don't still miss it. I was taken from Vermont before I could think to want to leave it myself, and so for me Wellington is the ideal, my old backyard there my deepest sense of home. Right away after the move I longed for it, in spite of the fact that I'd been in a conspicuous position, the kid of a proselytizing socialist schoolteacher and a city-slicker piano-playing mother. To make matters worse, we had no television, not that, as my mother used to say, I didn't absorb most everything I needed to understand about our culture by respir- ing. Inhale, I got The Simpsons, exhale Beavis and Butt-head; inhale Letterman, exhale MTV, every single song, every single leer. When we finally did get a television, when we moved to Chicago, I watched it that first summer, up in my parents' room, without moving from the bed.


From the Hardcover edition.
Jane Hamilton

About Jane Hamilton

Jane Hamilton - Disobedience

Photo © kevin Horan

JANE HAMILTON is the author of The Book of Ruth, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, A Map of the World, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named one of the top ten books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, the Miami Herald, and People magazine; Disobedience; and The Short History of a Prince. She lives in Rochester, Wisconsin.

 Jane Hamilton is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com).

 

 

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Wonderful…. Her finest novel yet.” –Chicago Tribune“Lovely…resonant…keenly wrought.” –The New York Times“Funny and moving…. An entertaining, well-plotted meditation on secrecy in the history of a loving family.” –San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle“Stunning…haunting…exquisite. Another troubling masterpiece in what’s fast become a remarkable body of work.” –The Christian Science Monitor“Suffused with the bittersweet nostalgia we feel for lost loves and failed romances…. Satisfying and moving. Hamilton writes beautifully.” –Francine Prose

Awards

WINNER School Library Journal Adult Books for Young Adults
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Jane Hamilton's Disobedience, a novel that offers a fresh look at the age-old problems of love and betrayal, the hard lessons of history, and the fragility and strength of family life.

About the Guide

When seventeen-year-old Henry Shaw inadvertently logs onto his mother's e-mail account, he discovers a secret that turns his previously stable sense of his family--and of himself--inside out. Mrs. Shaw is having an affair with Richard Polloco, a Ukrainian violin maker whose poetic messages and romantic lifestyle seem to offer an intensity lacking in her even-keeled husband. With mounting resentment, Henry tracks his mother's affair through her e-mail, and observes her with new eyes as she struggles with her daughter's obsessive interest in Civil War reenactments and her husband's maddening hands-off approach to parenting. Henry's perception of his mother is further complicated by his own first romance and his growing need to understand his parents while at the same time distancing himself from them. As the novel moves toward a violent confrontation that will change each of the Shaws, Hamilton explores the problems of obedience--to family, to one's passions, to history, to who we are at the deepest levels of identity--and reveals the hidden tensions that roil just beneath the surface of family life.

Part coming-of-age story, part meditation on the conflicting demands of romantic intensity and familial security, Disobedience creates an indelible portrait of one family teetering at the brink of disintegration, yet clinging to the mysterious bonds that hold them together.

About the Author

Jane Hamilton lives, works, and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Rochester, Wisconsin. Her first novel, The Book of Ruth, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a selection of Oprah's Book Club®. Her second novel, A Map of the World, was also selected by Oprah's Book Club® and became an international bestseller. The Short History of a Prince, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1998 and also won the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize.

Discussion Guides

1. Why has Hamilton chosen Disobedience as her title? Which characters refuse to "obey"? In what ways is the novel as a whole about power relationships within the family and the pull of the heart against the roles each family member is expected to play?

2. For centuries, novelists have used letters to help tell their stories. Is Hamilton's use of e-mail simply another instance of a long-standing tradition, or is there a distinctly new element that e-mail communication brings to Disobedience?

3. In the first e-mail that Henry discovers, his mother informs Jane about her affair and writes, "This is an old story. There is nothing new in it" [p. 3]. Later, Henry wonders if there is "anything more interesting than the story of a man and a woman coming together out of nowhere" [p. 38]. And, indeed, the story of love and betrayal is both familiar and endlessly fascinating. In what ways is the novel both telling a story and commenting on the importance of stories in our lives? What does the book suggest about how stories shape and give meaning to human experience?

4. In one of their many arguments about Elvira's involvement in Civil War reenactments, Mrs. Shaw claims that her daughter is in the grip of a dangerous and embarrassing obsession, whereas Mr. Shaw believes that it is a passion "that will hold her in good stead for the rest of her education" [p. 25]. Which interpretation of Elvira's behavior seems more accurate? How does Elvira's preoccupation with the Civil War parallel her mother's involvement with Richard Polloco?

5. Why is Liza so drawn to Richard Polloco? How is he different from her husband? What aspects of his life and his past are especially appealing to her? Is Henry right in thinking she is attracted to a life with Polloco in part because it would be a life without her family?

6. Virtually all of the characters in Disobedience are affected, in one way or another, by history: Kevin Shaw teaches history, Henry is troubled by a possible past life, Elvira is immersed in the Civil War, Mrs. Shaw performs early music, and Richard Polloco and his family have experienced firsthand the horrors of European history. At one point, Henry describes the Civil War as "nothing more than a marriage spat . . . the midlife crisis followed by forgiveness. . . ." [p. 126]. What is Hamilton suggesting about the relationship between past and present, and between national and personal history, throughout the novel? What role does their shared family history play in Mrs. Shaw's decision about whether or not to leave her husband?

7. In the novel's climactic scene at Shiloh, Mrs. Shaw rushes to Elvira's defense, brandishing a knife and threatening to murder the men who would harm her daughter. How does this scene bring all of the major tensions of the novel to crisis and resolution? How does it change each member of the family, especially Mrs. Shaw and Elvira?

8. Henry views what happens to his sister at Bloody Pond as nothing more than a prank, while his friend Karen calls it rape [p. 240]. Each person witnesses the same event but reaches a different conclusion about it. Which seems more accurate? Why do they interpret this event so differently? What might Hamilton be saying about the power of storytelling?

9. To what extent is Disobedience a coming-of-age novel? What does Henry learn about himself, about family, about love? How does his character evolve from the beginning to the end of the novel? Has he achieved a healthy separation from his parents?

10. In what ways does Henry's awakening sexual desire for Lily parallel his mother's passion for Richard Polloco? How does it color his view of his mother's affair?

11. Mr. Shaw offers Henry some advice about love: "Just make sure the dream girl doesn't think you're going to solve her problems. There's a lot of pressure on us, to save the day, to be something more than we are. I'm afraid the idea of courtly love is still alive and well after eight centuries" [p. 193]. In what ways does this statement illuminate the Shaws' marriage? Does Mrs. Shaw expect her husband to be more than he is? Or is Kevin merely justifying his own shortcomings?

12. Shirana, the psychic, tells Mrs. Shaw that in a past life she was married to her son, and when Henry discovers this, he is naturally disconcerted. To what extent does Henry's preoccupation with his mother's affair represent an Oedipal attachment to her? How does he break this attachment?

13. Does Liza make the right choice in ending her relationship with Richard Polloco? Why does she decide to stay with her husband? How is the love he offers her--what Henry describes as "lackluster love" [p. 269]--different from what Polloco provides? Where does the novel seem to come down on the dilemma between passionate romance and stable affection?


  • Disobedience by Jane Hamilton
  • July 10, 2001
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction
  • Anchor
  • $15.00
  • 9780385720465

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