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A Novel

Written by Kaui Hart HemmingsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kaui Hart Hemmings


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On Sale: May 15, 2007
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-662-7
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Now a major motion picture starring George Clooney and directed by Alexander Payne

Fortunes have changed for the King family, descendants of Hawaiian royalty and one of the state’s largest landowners. Matthew King’s daughters—Scottie, a feisty ten-year-old, and Alex, a seventeen-year-old recovering drug addict—are out of control, and their charismatic, thrill-seeking mother, Joanie, lies in a coma after a boat-racing accident. She will soon be taken off life support. As Matt gathers his wife’s friends and family to say their final goodbyes, a difficult situation is made worse by the sudden discovery that there’s one person who hasn’t been told: the man with whom Joanie had been having an affair. Forced to examine what they owe not only to the living but to the dead, Matt, Scottie, and Alex take to the road to find Joanie’s lover, on a memorable journey that leads to unforeseen humor, growth, and profound revelations.

Look for special features inside.
Join the Circle for author chats and more.



the sun is shining, mynah birds are chattering, palm trees are swaying, so what. I’m in the hospital and I’m healthy. My heart is beating as it should. My brain is firing off messages that are loud and clear. My wife is on the upright hospital bed, positioned the way people sleep on airplanes, her body stiff, head cocked to the side. Her hands are on her lap.

“Can’t we lay her flat?” I ask.

“Wait,” my daughter Scottie says. She takes a picture of her mother, a Polaroid. She fans herself with the photo, and I press the button on the side of the bed to lower my wife’s upper body. I release the button when she is almost flat on her back.

Joanie has been in a coma for twenty-three days, and in the next few days I’ll have to make some decisions based on our doctor’s final verdict. Actually, I’ll just have to find out what the doctor has to say about Joanie’s condition. I don’t have any decisions to make, since Joanie has a living will. She, as always, makes her own decisions.

Today is Monday. Dr. Johnston said we’ll talk on Tuesday, and this appointment is making me nervous, as though it’s a romantic date. I don’t know how to act, what to say, what to wear. I rehearse answers and reactions, but I’ve nailed only the lines that respond to favorable scenarios. I haven’t rehearsed Plan B.

“There,” Scottie says. Her real name is Scottie. Joanie thought it would be cool to name her after Joanie’s father, Scott. I have to disagree.

I look at the photo, which looks like those joke snapshots everyone takes of someone sleeping. I don’t know why we think they’re so funny. There’s a lot that can be done to you while you’re sleeping. This seems to be the message. Look how vulnerable you are, the things you aren’t aware of. Yet in this picture you know she isn’t just sleeping. Joanie has an IV and something called an endotracheal tube running out of her mouth to a ventilator that helps her breathe. She is fed through a tube and is administered enough medication to sustain a Fijian village. Scottie is documenting our life for her social studies class. Here’s Joanie at Queen’s Hospital, her fourth week in a coma, a coma that has scored a 10 on the Glasgow scale and a III on the Rancho Los Amigos scale. She was in a race and was launched from an offshore powerboat going eighty miles an hour, but I think she will be okay.

“She reacts nonpurposefully to stimuli in a nonspecific manner, but occasionally, her responses are specific though inconsistent.” This is what I’ve been told by her neurologist, a young woman with a slight tremor in her left eye and a fast way of talking that makes it hard to ask questions. “Her reflexes are limited and often the same, regardless of stimuli presented,” she says. None of this sounds good to me, but I’m assured Joanie’s still holding on. I feel she’ll be okay and one day able to function normally. I’m generally right about things.

“What was she racing for?” the neurologist asked.

The question confused me. “To win, I guess. To get to the end first.”

“shut this off,” I tell Scottie. She finishes pasting the picture into her book then turns off the television with the remote.

“No, I mean this.” I point to the stuff in the window—the sun and trees, the birds on the grass hopping from crumb to crumb thrown by tourists and crazy ladies. “Turn this off. It’s horrible.” The tropics make it difficult to mope. I bet in big cities you can walk down the street scowling and no one will ask you what’s wrong or encourage you to smile, but everyone here has the attitude that we’re lucky to live in Hawaii; paradise reigns supreme. I think paradise can go fuck itself.

“Disgusting,” Scottie says. She slides the stiff curtain across the window, shutting all of it out.

I hope she can’t tell that I’m appraising her and that I’m completely worried by what I see. She’s excitable and strange. She’s ten. What do people do during the day when they’re ten? She runs her fingers along the window and mumbles, “This could give me bird flu,” and then she forms a circle around her mouth with her hand and makes trumpet noises. She’s nuts. Who knows what’s going on in that head of hers, and speaking of her head, she most definitely could use a haircut or a brushing. There are small tumbleweeds of hair resting on the top of her head. Where does she get haircuts? I wonder. Has she ever had one before? She scratches her scalp, then looks at her nails. She wears a shirt that says i’m not that kind of girl. but i can be! I’m grateful that she isn’t too pretty, but I realize this could change.

I look at my watch. Joanie gave it to me.

“The hands glow and the face is mother-of-pearl,” she said.

“How much did it cost?” I asked.

“How did I know that would be the very first thing you said about it?”

I could see she was hurt, that she put a lot of work into selecting the gift. She loves giving gifts, paying attention to people so she can give them a gift that says she took the time to know and listen to them. At least it seems like that’s what she does. I shouldn’t have asked about the price. She just wanted to show that she knew me.

“What time is it?” Scottie asks.


“It’s still early.”

“I know,” I say. I don’t know what to do. We’re here not only because we’re visiting and hoping Joanie has made some progress during the night, reacting to light and sound and painful jabs, but also because we have nowhere else to go. Scottie’s in school all day and then Esther picks her up, but this week I felt she should spend more time here and with me, so I took her out of school.

“What do you want to do now?” I ask.

She opens her scrapbook, a project that seems to occupy all of her time. “I don’t know. Eat.”

“What would you usually do now?”

“Be in school.”

“What if it were Saturday? What would you do then?”


I try to think of the last time she was completely in my care and what we did together. I think it was when she was around one, one and a half. Joanie had to fly to Maui for a shoot and couldn’t find a babysitter, and her parents couldn’t do it, for some reason. I was in the middle of a trial and stayed home but absolutely had to get some work done, so I put Scottie in the bathtub with a bar of soap. I watched to see what happened. She splashed and tried to drink the bathwater, and then she found the soap and reached to grab it. It eluded her grasp and she tried again, a look of wonder on her small face, and I slipped out into the hall, where I had set up a workstation and a baby monitor. I could hear her laughing, so I knew she wasn’t drowning. I wonder if this would still work: putting her in a tub with a slippery bar of Irish Spring.

“We can go to the beach,” I say. “Would Mom take you to the club?”

“Well, duh. Where else would we go?”

“Then it’s a plan. After you talk and we see a nurse, we’ll check in at home, then go.”

Scottie takes a picture out of her album, crushes it in her hand, and throws it away. I wonder what the picture was, if it was the one of her mother on the bed, probably not the best family relic. “I wish,” Scottie says. “What do I wish?”

It’s one of our games. Every now and then she names a place she wishes we were besides this place, this time in our lives.

“I wish we were at the dentist,” she decides.

“Me, too. I wish we were getting our mouths x-rayed.”

“And Mom was getting her teeth whitened,” she says.

I really do wish we were at Dr. Branch’s office, the three of us getting high on laughing gas and feeling our numb lips. A root canal would be a blast compared to this. Or any medical procedure, really. Actually, I wish I could be home working. I have to make a decision on who should own the land that has been in my family since the 1840s. This sale will eliminate all of my family’s land holdings, and I desperately need to study up on the facts before the meeting I have with my cousins six days from now. That’s our deadline. Two o’clock at Cousin Six’s house six days from today. We’ll approve a buyer. It’s irresponsible of me to have put off thinking about this deal for so long, but I guess this is what our family has done for a while now. We’ve turned our backs to our legacy, waiting for someone else to come along and assume both our fortune and our debts.

I’m afraid Esther may have to take Scottie to the beach, and I’m about to tell her, but then I don’t because I feel ashamed. My wife is in the hospital, my daughter needs her parents, and I need to work. Once again I’m putting her in the tub.

I see Scottie staring at her mother. She has her back against the wall, and she’s fumbling with the hem of her shirt.

“Scottie,” I say. “If you’re not going to say anything, then we may as well leave.”

“Okay,” she says. “Let’s go.”

“Don’t you want to tell your mother what’s going on in school?”

“She never cares about what’s going on in school.”

“What about your extracurricular activities? Your schedule’s fuller than the president’s. Your scrapbook, show her that. Or what did you make in glassblowing the other day?”

“A bong,” she says.

I look at her closely before responding. She doesn’t appear to have said anything remarkable. I never know if she knows what she’s talking about. “Interesting,” I say. “What is a bong?”

She shrugs. “Some high school guy taught me how to make it. He said it would go well with chips and salsa and any other food I could think of. It’s some kind of platter.”

“Do you still have this . . . bong?”

“Sort of,” she says. “But Mr. Larson told me to make it into a vase. I could put flowers in it and give it to her.” She points at her mother.

“That’s a great idea!”

She eyes me skeptically. “You don’t have to get all Girl Scout about it.”

“Sorry,” I say.

I lean back in my chair and look at all the holes in the ceiling. I don’t know why I’m not worried, but I’m just not. I know Joanie will be okay because she always makes it out okay. She will wake up and Scottie will have a mother and we can talk about our marriage and I can put my suspicions aside. I’ll sell the property and buy Joanie a boat, something that will shock her and make her throw her head back and laugh.

“Last time you were the one in the bed,” Scottie says.


“Last time you lied to me.”

“I know, Scottie. Forgive me.”

She’s referring to my stint in the hospital. I had a minor motorcycling accident. I crashed at the track, soaring over the handlebars into a pile of red dirt. At home, after the wreck, I told Joanie and Scottie what had happened but insisted I was okay and that I wasn’t going to the hospital. Scottie issued me these little tests to demonstrate my unreliability. Joanie participated. They played bad cop, worse cop.

“How many fingers?” Scottie asked, holding up what I thought was a pinky and a thumb.

“Balls,” I said. I didn’t want to be tested this way.

“Answer her,” Joanie said.


From the Hardcover edition.
Kaui Hart Hemmings|Author Q&A

About Kaui Hart Hemmings

Kaui Hart Hemmings - The Descendants

Photo © Kara Mullane

Kaui Hart Hemmings is the author of the critically acclaimed short-story collection House of Thieves. Her work has been published in Zoetrope, Best American New Voices, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Hemmings grew up in Hawaii and lives with her husband and daughter in San Francisco.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Kaui Hart Hemmings

Random House Reader’s Circle: Many of the characters in your work are teenagers. Why are you drawn to writing about this demographic, and how do you channel their voices?

Kaui Hart Hemmings: Teenagers are a reflection of us–what we value, what we wear, how we speak, how we treat each other. They’re sort of like caricatures of adults. I like working with them for this reason. I also use them because their voices come naturally to me. They’re candid and funny, confident. I’m pretty ineloquent and I have strange thoughts. In my writing I can mask my thoughts in teen-speech because it’s okay for a teen to have ditzy ruminations, but it’s not okay for me. I can use them to say what I’ve always wanted to say.

RHRC: Was it difficult writing from a middle-aged man’s point of view? What made you make Matt King a first-person narrator?

KHH: The fact that I used a male point of view was sort of a non-issue for me. I was writing about human psychology, not male psychology. A reviewer politely wondered if I (and other women writers) chose a masculine character as a way to avoid being pigeonholed as “women writers.” Well, no. I chose a masculine character because I thought he was the best person to tell the story I wanted to tell. It’s never given any attention when a man writes from a female point of view, perhaps assuming that to do so is no big feat. A woman delving into a man’s head, however, is seen as risky. Is it because we think that a man’s psychology is so much more foreign and complicated? I don’t know. Men aren’t that knotty. Tapping into the psychology of a middle-aged woman would be a much greater challenge. I should say is a greater challenge because it’s something I’m attempting to do in the novel I’m working on now.

RHRC: Hawaii is such a strong presence in The Descendants–it is almost like an additional character. How did growing up there shape your perspective and writing?

KHH: Growing up in Hawaii has given me a front-row seat on the complicated issues of land, history, and inheritance, ideas I’m pretty obsessed with.

I don’t know if anyone can pinpoint just how a place affects you, nor do we recognize the major influence place has on our lives–the way we see, the choices we make. While I don’t know exactly how Hawaii has shaped me, I know that it has. It’s not so much a character in my novel as it is a silent force–something that stealthily moves the characters from action to action, confining them, manipulating them, inspiring them. I don’t want to write throwaway characters and, along those same lines, I don’t want to create a throwaway place. The setting had to figure in to the novel somehow. It couldn’t be symbolic; it couldn’t be cheap wallpaper. In this novel, the land itself is a major conflict for the characters. I wanted the setting to have a function besides looking good.

RHRC: The Descendants is a difficult book to categorize– it’s incredibly sad and moving in some parts, and hilarious and irreverent in others. What kind of novel did you set out to write when you started, and did it end up changing at all along the way? Were you hoping to make people both laugh and cry?

KHH: I definitely don’t have those kind of intentions when I sit down to write. In fact, I rarely know if something is funny or moving until I go back and read it for myself. There is nothing more satisfying to me than when your own work makes you feel something, or if your own words make you laugh, though I tend to look around, embarrassed to be laughing at my own joke. It’s my only gauge–myself, my own reactions, and of course it influences the way I edit.

When I set out to write a novel, my only intentions have to do with story, not emotions, ideas, or themes. I set out to make something happen to my characters, to complicate their lives and see what choices they’ll make. The emotional undercurrent relies on and is derived naturally from action, dialogue, scene. My plot changed along the way–I didn’t know Joanie was going to have an affair, but that change was made because it was a great complication for my characters to respond to. I’m constantly creating platforms on which my characters can perform.

RHRC: Joanie really comes alive on the page–and she’s in a coma the whole time! How did you make her emerge as a fully developed character?

KHH: The way people react and interact with someone is very revealing. Joanie couldn’t speak for herself, so I had to depend on the eyes of others, and because the characters each had such different perspectives Joanie was able to take on complicated dimensions. It was a challenge though, because I try to avoid flashbacks. This is always a challenge for me because I tend to feature an important though absent character in a lot of my work.

RHRC: How did you come up with the idea for this novel? Aside from the Hawaii setting, is any part of it autobiographical?

KHH: No, it’s not autobiographical, yet like anything else in fiction it’s a work of imagination filtered, to some extent, through the author’s own experience in life. The process of writing fiction is always a collage: real places, aspects of real situations or people, perhaps, but never the whole package. People in Hawaii are always coming up to me and saying things like, “The woman by the pool. That’s [so-and-so], right?” But that’s not really it.

When they talk about the book they don’t use the characters’ names. They use the names of the people they think they’re based on. It’s great to hear someone talking, gossiping, and wondering about someone who doesn’t exist.

I’m not sure how I came up with the idea for the novel. It’s like when someone asks how I decided to be a writer. I can’t pinpoint the time and I don’t recall ever really deciding. I don’t remember coming up with the idea for The Descendants. It just started as a seed, I cared for it, and then it became something different each day.

RHRC: What’s a typical writing day for you like? Do you have any routines?

KHH: My routine is shaped by the routine of my daughter. When she was a baby I worked during naps. Now that she’s three and in preschool I go on the coffee shop circuit. I alternate between three different shops and work for about an hour, an hour and a half, which translates into three pages. I like getting out into my neighborhood and seeing familiar faces before going home and becoming a shut-in. Then I write a little more, check email, have lunch, work out, read, and feel guilty that my husband’s in an office all day, slaving away. Sometimes my schedule makes me feel like a trophy wife, but unless I’m finishing up a project, there’s no way I can write all day.

But in a way I am writing all day. Reading other people’s novels is my work. Exercising is when I usually get all of my ideas (Watching TV as well). At lunch I do the crosswords so I’m working my brain, and any outing I take or interaction I make has potential for material. Never mind–I don’t feel guilty. I’m always on the clock.

RHRC: What other authors inspire you and influence your work? Is there anyone you would say is absolutely pivotal in terms of how you’ve developed your career?

KHH: There are many authors I admire: Tobias Wolff, Peter Cameron, William Maxwell. Actually, there are many books I love. It’s rare that I love an author’s entire body of work with the exception of the aforementioned. I loved Lolita, East of Eden, The Secret History, The Ice Storm, Cracks by Sheila Kohler. I don’t think I’m conscious of how other writers influence my work. I do know that whatever I’m reading manages to seep into whatever I’m writing. I’m responding in some way, mimicking, or perhaps something one writer said reminds me of something I’ve wanted to say. It’s a great thing, because in a way you’re engaging in this strange, silent conversation.

RHRC: What are you working on next?

KHH: I’m working on a novel about raising a baby in San Francisco. It has been fun to write a story where the characters’ lives have more in common with my own life than anything I’ve done before in my fiction.
I’m double-fisting and am also working on a novel set in an affluent resort town in Colorado, this time channeling the voice of a middle-aged woman. This one is also funny, yet tragic. I can’t help it. I have a feeling I will always write about the painfully funny struggles of people in Edenic settings. I also have started another novel, though I’ve put it aside for now. I have a queue of projects, sort of like an idea Netflix. Ideaflix. I want to get rid of one so I can see what’s next.

The other day I met a man who is involved in a highly publicized lawsuit. He made me think of my character, Matt King. This man is who Matt would be in fifteen years, conflict included. And now, of course, it’s all I’m thinking about. The Descendants started as a short story. I couldn’t let it go and it became a novel. Now I might not be able to let these characters rest. Sequel, perhaps?

Praise | Awards


“A Pandora’s box–style tragicomedy . . . [Kaui Hart Hemmings’s] comic sense is finely honed in this refreshingly wry debut novel.”—The New York Times Book Review

“With beautiful and blunt prose, Hemmings explores the emotional terrain of grief, promising something far more fulfilling than paradise at its end.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A surprising and affecting novel, a story about death and infidelity that manages to be a finer, lighter story about life and love.”—Time Out New York


WINNER 2008 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. What do you think of Joanie? Is she a harmless thrill-seeker or a well-meaning but self-absorbed mother?

2. At first Matt struggles to engage his daughters in a meaningful way; the family’s shared tragedy eventually brings him closer. How are father-daughter relationships different than those between mothers and daughters?

3. What role does Sid play in this novel? Do you think he impedes or facilitates Matt King’s renewed relationship with his daughters?

4. What do you think of Scottie’s journal? How can you analyze her strange behavior–why do you think she acts out the ways she does?

5. How would you describe Matt as a father? Do you think it’s irresponsible of him to include his kids on the journey to find the man that his wife was having an affair with? How does he evolve over the course of The Descendants?

6. In what ways is the depiction of Alex realistic in terms of the ways teenagers cope with crisis? Were you surprised she was aware of her mother’s infidelity? Do you think young adults more aware of the adult world around them than we give them credit for?

7. Who is at fault for Joanie and Matt’s marriage falling apart?

8. What was unique about the Hawaiian setting of the book and how did it enhance or take away from the story?

9. What specific themes did the author emphasize throughout the novel? What do you think she is trying to get across to the reader?

10. Do the characters seem real and believable to you? Can you relate to their predicaments?

11. Do you believe the Kings will have a better life without Joanie? How do you feel about the ending of this book? How do you picture the family’s future?

12. Did certain parts of the book make you uncomfortable? If so, why did you feel that way? Did this lead to a new understanding or awareness of some aspect of your life you might not have thought about before?

13. In what ways is The Descendants a survival story? A love story? An adventure story?

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