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On Sale: June 01, 2004
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-47840-5
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Alice Hoffman’s most magical novel to date—three generations of extraordinary women are driven to unite in crisis and discover the rewards of reconciliation and love.

Women of the Sparrow family have unusual gifts. Elinor can detect falsehood. Her daughter, Jenny, can see people’s dreams when they sleep. Granddaughter Stella has a mental window on the future—a future that she might not want to see.

In The Probable Future this vivid and intriguing cast of characters confronts a haunting past—and a very current murder—against the evocative backdrop of small-town New England. By turns chilling and enchanting, The Probable Future chronicles the Sparrows’s legacy as young Stella struggles to cope with her disturbing clairvoyance. Her potential to ruin or redeem becomes unbearable when one of her premonitions puts her father in jail, wrongly accused of homicide. Yet this ordeal also leads Stella to the grandmother she was forbidden to meet and to a historic family home full of talismans from her ancestors.

Poignant, arresting, unsettling, The Probable Future showcases the lavish literary gifts that have made Alice Hoffman one of America’s most treasured writers.

Excerpt

THE VISION

I. Anyone born and bred in Massachusetts learns early on to recognize the end of winter. Babies in their cribs point to the brightening of the sky before they can crawl. Level-headed men weep at the first call of the warblers. Upstanding women strip off their clothes and dive into inlets and ponds before the ice has fully melted, unconcerned if their fingers and toes turn blue. Spring fever affects young and old alike; it spares no one and makes no distinctions, striking when happiness is least expected, when joy is only a memory, when the skies are still cloudy and snow is still piled onto the cold, hard ground.

Who could blame the citizens of Massachusetts for rejoicing when spring is so close at hand? Winter in New England is merciless and cruel, a season that instills a particular melancholy in its residents and a hopelessness that is all but impossible to shake. In the small towns surrounding Boston, the leaden skies and snowy vistas cause a temporary color blindness, a condition that can be cured only by the appearance of the first green shoots of spring. It isn't unusual for whole populations of certain towns to find they have tears in their eyes all through the month of March, and there are those who insist they can see clearly for the very first time.

Still, there are some who are slower to discern the signs of spring. They distrust March and declare it to be the most perilous time of the year. These are the stubborn individuals who continue to wear woolen coats on the finest of days, who insist it is impossible to tell the difference between a carpet of snowdrops and a stretch of ice in this slippery season, even with twenty-twenty vision. Such people cannot be convinced that lions will ever be turned into lambs. In their opinion, anyone born in March is sure to possess curious traits that mirror the fickle season, hot one minute, cold the next. Unreliable is March's middle name, no one could deny that. Its children are said to be just as unpredictable.

In some cases, this is assuredly true. For as long as their history has been known, there have been only girl children born to the Sparrow family and every one of these daughters has kept the family name and celebrated her birthday in March. Even those babies whose due dates were declared to be safely set within the snowy margins of February or the pale reaches of April managed to be born in March. No matter when an infant was due to arrive, as soon as the first snowdrops bloomed in New England, a Sparrow baby would begin to stir. Once leaves began to bud, once the Blue Star crocus unfolded, the womb could no longer contain one of these children, not when spring fever was so very near.

And yet Sparrow babies were as varied as the days of March. Some were calm and wide-eyed, born with open hands, always the sign of a generous nature, while others arrived squalling and agitated, so full of outrage they were quickly bundled into blue blankets, to ward off nervous ailments and apoplexy. There were babies in the Sparrow family who had been born while big, soft snowflakes fell and Boston Harbor froze solid, and those whose births took place on the mildest of days, so that they drew their first breaths while the robins built nests out of straw and twigs and the red maples blushed with a first blooming.

But whether the season had been fair or foul, in all this time there had been only one baby to be born feet first, the mark of a healer, and that child was Stella Sparrow Avery. For thirteen generations, each one of the Sparrow girls had come into this world with inky hair and dark, moody eyes, but Stella was pale, her ashy hair and hazel eyes inherited, the labor nurses supposed, from her handsome father's side of the family. Hers was a difficult birth, life-threatening for both mother and child. Every attempt to turn the baby had failed, and soon enough the doctors had begun to dread the outcome of the day. The mother, Jenny Avery, an independent, matter-of-fact woman, who had run away from home at seventeen and was as unsentimental as she was self-reliant, found herself screaming for her mother. That she should cry for her mother, who had been so distant and cold, whom she hadn't even spoken to in more than a decade, astounded Jenny even more than the rigors of birth. It was a wonder her mother wasn't able to hear her, for although Elinor Sparrow was nearly fifty miles from Boston, Jenny's cries were piercing, desperate enough to reach even the most remote and hard-hearted. Women on the ward who had just begun their labor stuck their fingers in their ears and practiced their breathing techniques, praying for an easier time. Orderlies wished they were home in bed, with the covers drawn up. Patients in the cardiac unit felt their hearts race, and down in the cafeteria the lemon puddings curdled and had to be thrown away.

At last the child arrived, after seventeen hours of brutal labor. The obstetrician in charge snapped one tiny shoulder to ease the birth, for the mother's pulse was rapidly dropping. It was at this very moment, when the baby's head slipped free and Jenny Avery thought she might lose consciousness, that the cloudy sky cleared to reveal the silvery splash of the Milky Way, the heart of the universe. Jenny blinked in the sudden light which poured in through the window. She saw how beautiful the world was, as though for the very first time. The bowl of stars, the black night, the life of her child, all came together in a single band of light.

Jenny hadn't particularly wanted a baby; she hadn't yearned for one the way some women did, hadn't gazed longingly at rocking horses and cribs. Her stormy relationship with her own mother had made her wary of family ties, and her marriage to Will Avery, surely one of the most irresponsible men in New England, hadn't seemed the proper setting in which to raise a child. And yet it had happened: this baby had arrived on a starry night in March, the month of the Sparrows, season of snow and of spring, of lions and lambs, of endings and beginnings, green month, white month, month of heartache, month of extreme good luck.

The infant's first cries weren't heard until she was tucked into a flannel bunting; then little yelps echoed from her tiny mouth, as though she were a cat caught in a puddle. The baby was easily soothed, just a pat or two on the back from the doctor, but it was too late: her cries had gone right through Jenny, a hook piercing through blood and bones. Jenny Sparrow Avery was no longer aware of her husband, or the nurses with whom he was flirting. She didn't care about the blood on the floor or the trembling in her legs or even the Milky Way above them in the sky. Her eyes were filled with dizzying circles of light, little pinpricks that glimmered inside her eyelids. It wasn't starlight, but something else entirely. Something she couldn't comprehend until the doctor handed her the child, the damaged left shoulder taped up with white adhesive as though it were a broken wing. Jenny gazed into her child's calm face. In that instant she experienced complete devotion. Then and there, on the fifth floor of Brigham and Women's Hospital, she understood what it meant to be blinded by love.

The labor nurses soon crowded around, cooing and praising the baby. Although they had seen hundreds of births, this child was indeed exceptional. It wasn't her pale hair or luminous complexion which distinguished her, but her sweet temperament. Good as gold, the nurses murmured approvingly, quiet as ashes. Even the most jaded had to agree this child was special. Perhaps her character was a result of her birth date, for Jenny's daughter had arrived on the twentieth of March, the equinox, when day and night are of equal length. Indeed, in one tiny, exhausted body, there seemed to exist all of March's traits, the evens and the odds, the dark and the light, a child who would always be as comfortable with lions as she was with lambs.

Jenny named the baby Stella, with Will's approval, of course. For despite the many problems in the marriage, on this one point they agreed: this child was their radiant and wondrous star. There was nothing Jenny would not do for their daughter. She, who had not spoken to her own mother for years, who had not so much as mailed a postcard back home after she'd run off with Will, now felt powerless to resist the mighty forces of her own maternal instinct. She was bewitched by this tiny creature; the rest of the world fell away with a shudder, leaving only their Stella. Jenny's child would not spend a single night apart from her. Even in the hospital she kept Stella by her side rather than let her be brought to the nursery. Jenny Sparrow Avery knew exactly what could happen if you weren't there to watch over your child. She was quite aware of how wrong things could go between mothers and daughters.

Not everyone was doomed to repeat history, however. Family flaws and old sorrows needn't rule their lives, or so Jenny told herself every night as she checked on her sleeping daughter. What was the past, after all, but a leaden shackle one had a duty to try and escape? It was possible to break chains, regardless of how old or how rusted, of that Jenny was certain. It was possible to forge an entirely new life. But chains made out of blood and memory were a thousand times more difficult to sever than those made of steel, and the past could overtake a person if she wasn't careful. A woman had to be vigilant or before she knew it she'd find herself making the same mistakes her own mother had made, with the same resentments set to boil.

Jenny was not about to let herself relax or take the slightest bit of good fortune for granted. There wasn't a day when she wasn't on guard. Let other mothers chat on the phone and hire baby-sitters; let them sit on blankets in the Boston Common on sunny days and on blustery afternoons make angels in the snow. Jenny didn't have time for such nonsense. She had only thirteen years in which to prevail over her family's legacy, and she planned to do exactly that, no matter the cost to herself.

In no time she became the sort of mother who made certain no drafts came in through the windows, who saw to it that there were no late-night bedtimes or playing in the park on rainy days, a sure cause of bronchitis and pleurisy. Cats were not allowed in the house, too much dander; dogs were avoided, due to distemper, not to mention allergies and fleas. It did not matter if Jenny took a job she despised at the bank on Charles Street or if her social life was nonexistent. Friends might fall away, acquintances might come to avoid her, her days of reviewing mortgage applications might bore her silly, but Jenny hardly cared about such distractions. Her only interest was Stella. She spent Saturdays chopping up broccoli and kale for nourishing soups; she sat up nights with Stella's earaches, stomachaches, bouts of chicken pox and flu. She laced boots and went over lessons, and she never once complained. Disappointments, fair-weather friends, math homework, illnesses of every variety were dealt with and put in their proper place. And if Stella grew up to be a wary, rather dour girl, well, wasn't that preferable to running wild the way Jenny had? Wasn't it better to be safe than sorry? Selfish pleasures dissolved the way dreams did, Jenny knew that for certain, leaving behind nothing more than an imprint on the pillowcase, a hole in your heart, a list of regrets so long you could wrap them around yourself like a quilt, one formed from a complicated pattern, Love knot or Dove in the window or Crow's-foot.

Soon enough, Jenny's marriage to Will Avery fell apart, unwound by mistrust and dishonesty, one thread and one betrayal at a time. For quite a while there had been nothing holding these two together but a shared history, the mere fact that they'd grown up together and had been childhood sweethearts. If anything, they stayed together longer than they might have merely for the sake of their daughter, their Stella, their star. But children can tell when love has been lost, they know when silence means peace and when it's a sign of despair. Jenny tried not to think what her mother might say if she knew how badly their marriage had ended. How self-righteous Elinor Sparrow would be if she ever found out that Will, for whom Jenny had given up so much, now lived in his own apartment on the far end of Marlborough Street, where at last he was free to do as he pleased, not that he hadn't done so all along.

That Will was unfaithful should have been evident: whenever he lied, white spots appeared on his fingernails, and each time he was with another woman, he developed what Jenny's mother had called "liar's cough," a constant hacking, a reminder that he'd swallowed the truth whole. Every time Will came back to Jenny, he swore he was a changed man, but he had remained the same person he'd been at the age of sixteen, when Jenny had first spied him from her bedroom window, out on the lawn. The boy who had always looked for trouble didn't have to search for it after a while: it found him no matter where he was, day or night. It followed him home and slipped under the door and lay down beside him. All the same, Will Avery had never presented himself as anything other than the unreliable individual that he was. He'd never claimed to have a conscience. Never claimed anything at all. It was Jenny who had insisted she couldn't live without him. Jenny who forgave him, who was desperate for one of his dreams, one that would remind her of the reason she fell in love with him in the first place.

Indeed, if Elinor Sparrow found out they had broken up, she certainly would not have been surprised. She had correctly judged Will Avery to be a liar the moment she met him. She knew him for what he was at first sight. That was her talent, after all. One sentence and she knew. One shrug of the shoulders. One false excuse. She had marched Will Avery right out of the house when she found him lurking in the parlor, and she'd never let him return, not even when Jenny begged her to reconsider. She refused to change her opinion. Elinor was still referring to him as The Liar on the brilliant afternoon when Jenny left home. It was the spring of Jenny's senior year of high school, that feverish season when rash decisions were easily made. By the time Jenny Sparrow's classmates had been to the prom and were getting ready for graduation, Jenny was working in Bailey's Ice Cream Parlor in Cambridge, supporting Will while he managed to ruin his academic career with hardly any effort. Effort, on the other hand, was all Jenny seemed to possess. She washed dishes after a full day of work; she toted laundry to the Wash and Dri on Saturdays. At eighteen, she was a high school dropout and the perfect wife, exhausted, too busy for anything like regret. After a while her life in her hometown of Unity seemed like a dream: the common across from the meetinghouse where the war memorials stood, the linden trees, the smell of the laurel, so spicy just before blooming, the way everything turned green, all at once, as though winter itself was a dream, a fleeting nightmare made up of ice and heartlessness and sorrow.


From the Hardcover edition.
Alice Hoffman|Author Q&A

About Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman - The Probable Future

Photo © Deborah Feingold

ALICE HOFFMAN is the bestselling author of twenty-five acclaimed novels, including The Third Angel, The Ice Queen, Practical Magic, and Here on Earth, an Oprah Book Club selection. She has also written two books of short stories, and eight books for children and young adults. Her work has been translated into more than twenty languages and published in more than one hundred foreign editions. She divides her time between Boston and New York City.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Alice Hoffman

Jennifer Morgan Gray is a writer and editor who lives in New York City.

Jennifer Morgan Gray: The title The Probable Future has many possible meanings. What did you hope to convey about the permanence—and changeability—of destiny by choosing this title? Were there any others you considered and then discarded during the writing process?

Alice Hoffman: Finding the right title is much like being givena gift. The title arrived during the writing of the novel. I realized in the process that “seeing the future” is impossible. There are thousands of possible futures all dependent on
choice and circumstance.

JMG: Did you begin the novel with a particular image, situation, or idea in mind? Or was there one character in particular that sparked your imagination for this book?

AH: The novel began with the image of a young girl who awakes on her thirteenth birthday with a “gift”—the ability to see the way some people will die. The impact of such a gift interested me. I wrote the novel after a period in which I lost many people I loved, including my mother, and I was trying to make some sense out of how unpredictable life and death are.

JMG: I was struck by the significance of names in the book, including Stella, Sparrow, and Unity, to name just a few. Did you write the book with these names already in place, or did you choose them later as the story unfolded?

AH: Names most often come with the character for me. If I ever have to change a name for any reason (repetition, another character in another book with the same name) I’m completely thrown—it’s almost as if characters are “born” with their names.

JMG: The town of Unity is as vivid a character as any of the people in the story. Did you base Unity on an actual town, or was it in some ways an amalgam of what a small New England town should be? In which ways is it idyllic? What flaws does it possess?

AH: The town of Unity was named in much the same way as the characters—it arrived along with the place—and of course it is ironic, as the town is torn in two. There is an official history and an unofficial history. One excludes the contributions
of women, such as the Sparrows. That’s the history I’m interested in.

JMG: Many of your novels are rooted in the tradition of magic. In writing The Probable Future, how did you manage to blur the lines between fantasy and reality but still make the plot events seem plausible? How do you trust your readers to
make that leap and still identify with—and relate to—your characters?

AH: I feel that the tradition of literature, of storytelling, is rooted in magic. Realism seems to me a newer, less interesting tradition. I grew up reading fairy tales, science fiction, fantasy. As far as making the leap to belief, as soon as a reader opens a
book he or she must suspend belief—marks on paper become a real world. The next leap, to identify and relate with fantastical occurrences, seems easy to me. The sort of magic I write about is that which is rooted in the real world—the probable and the possible.

JMG: Stella veers from being a recalcitrant thirteen-year-old to a young woman who is wise far beyond her years. How did you strike that balance in evoking her personality, and how did writing her character pose a challenge? Why do you think that many people in Unity are drawn to her, despite her troubled past and notorious family history?

AH: I’ve always felt that adolescence is what makes the person. That time is the most intense, the most difficult, the most amazing time in a person’s life. In the beginning of the novel Stella is a child; by the end we can see the woman she will
become. I think we are drawn to her because she’s true to herself, she’s fearless in an emotional sense.

JMG: This story is told from many points of view. What made you decide to employ this method? Who do you feel is the most reliable narrator of the story? Is there one person who you feel forms the “heart” of The Probable Future?

AH: I’m not sure the writer chooses the story. I think it’s more that the story chooses the writer. I think the heart of The Probable Future comes in thirteen parts—all of the Sparrow women. Because the novel is the story of a town, there are many points of view, all of which flow together into one history.

JMG: It has “additions added on like frosting,” you write of Cake House. This statement also could be a description of the multilayered aspects of the novel. Did you envision Cake House as a physical embodiment of the novel’s shape while
you were writing? How does the house function as a symbol— both good and bad—to the Sparrow women and to the inhabitants of Unity?

AH: I think Cake House is symbolic of history and the way history is told. Story upon story, fact upon fact. The novel is an “anti-history,” if you will, taking history apart and examining the pieces that make up the town of Unity’s past.

JMG: A theme that threads through the book is the strong links of family—and how those bonds can be created by more than blood ties alone. Was there one relationship that you found the most compelling to create? Which was the most
frustrating to write?

AH: Because I began the book soon after my mother died, I was thinking about the complicated and amazing relationship between mother and daughter. It seemed to me that motherdaughter relationships are in constant motion—the way you feel about your mother at sixteen can be radically different from the way you feel about
her at sixty. I was always interested in the importance of grandmothers
and how they enrich one’s life. I was extremely close with my grandmother Lillie. She was the intermediary between me and my mother for many years, and I think girls often feel close to their grandmothers in a way they can’t in a mother-daughter relationship. There’s a freedom, an easing up, a friendship. Those of us who have or had such relationships with a grandmother know how lucky we
are.

JMG: In interviews, you’ve said that your own experiences with illness affected your rendering of Elinor and her battle with cancer. How did your own experience shape her character? How does Elinor learn to live with illness? In which ways does being sick open her mind and her heart, especially in her relationships with her family and with Brock Stewart?

AH: I feel that illness can define you. In illness one has the opportunity to try to spend the rest of one’s life as the person he or she wants to become. Sometimes, of course, this isn’t possible—pain, circumstance, violence can be forced upon someone. But sometimes it is possible to let your illness lead you to an understanding of the world you didn’t have, and couldn’t have, before your illness. I think my experiences with those I loved in times of dire illness and dying, although filled with sorrow and pain, have been the experiences that have taught me the most about what it means to be human. As for my own illness, as a breast cancer survivor I have met amazing women, those who survived and those who didn’t, who have enriched my life in ways I could not have imagined. I’m in awe of these women, including many of my readers whom I’ve met when on book tours. The character of Elinor revealed her illness to me during my writing of the book, and I think she saw her dying as a chance to right some of the wrongs in her life, to throw off pride and ego, and get to the heart of her life: those she loved. Her family and friends.

JMG: This book is steeped in history, especially that of Unity itself. Did the story of the town come first, or did the tales of the present-day characters? Along the same lines, how did you create the history of the thirteen generations of Sparrow
women, and that of Rebecca Sparrow in particular? Did you extensively research the era of the Salem witch trials in order to effectively convey her story?

AH: Stella Sparrow came to me first, in the here and now. But no character comes unencumbered by a personal history— just as no person does. The ghosts we carry with us, the ideas and experience of our ancestors, reverberate in the present. The theme of witches and witchcraft for me often has more to do with women’s history than with spells and magic. That women have drawn strength from controlling health—medical issues, birth issues—has also made them threatening. The same is true for “witches”—strong women in touch with the natural world. Women who can’t be controlled are often viewed as dangerous. I always find it amusing to see, even still, how many little girls dress up as witches on Halloween. There’s a pull to “our” history: brave, mysterious, powerful.

JMG: Each of the Sparrow women becomes embroiled in a romance of sorts that she wouldn’t normally have considered. How do the men who surround Elinor, Jenny, and Stella—including Will, Matt, Brock, Jimmy, and Hap—act as foils to
them? How do they complement them? How does the women’s choice of men affect their evolution as characters? Or do you think that they really have a choice in the matter?

AH: I thought of The Probable Future as my own version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—everyone is with the “wrong” person, who at first seemed “right.” The mystery of love, who you fall in love with, and why, is endlessly fascinating. I think behind all these pairings in The Probable Future is the sense that love is not only blind, it’s dumb! The choices you make can be based on what you“think” you should want, who you “think” you should be. That’s what some of the characters in the novel discover, thankfully, before it’s too late.

JMG: At the end of the novel, Jenny and Stella are grappling with death, yet they seem both truly alive and in tune with each other. Did you picture this hopeful conclusion from the outset? How do you envision their continued development,
both in relation to the outside world and to one another?

AH:When I begin a novel I don’t predict a conclusion. That isthe fun of fiction for me—the journey of discovering who the characters are and how their lives will turn out. They often surprise me and start to make their own decisions. That’s how I know the writing is going well. But I do think that by the end of the novel Stella and her mother, Jenny, are amazed to find that they can view each other as “people,” not just as extensions of one another as “mother” or “daughter” but as complex and fascinating women.

JMG: Is there a particular subject or topic that’s currently piquing your interest and imagination? What can readers look forward to reading next from you?

AH: I’ve just finished Blackbird House, interrelated fictions that all take place in the same house at the edge of Cape Cod from the late 1700s until the present. I have a little farm out on the Cape, which people said was haunted. In fact it stood empty and abandoned for several years, perhaps because of this. In my fiction, houses are often characters—they matter, they define the action and the people who live inside them. I realized that houses are indeed haunted—by their own pasts, by the lives that have been led in the same rooms you now live in, by the stories left behind. So I invented a history for my house. It was great fun for me to write and, in the end,
I love and appreciate my house even more than I did before.

Praise

Praise

“A thrilling adventure of literary alchemy . . . A magical, mystical tour de force of pure entertainment.”
The Seattle Times

“Delicious . . . Hoffman is an unapologetic optimist, and optimism is in short supply these days. It feels like a vacation to curl up with [The Probable Future].”
The New York Times Book Review

“Instantly alluring . . . A mysterious, modern-day fairy tale . . . Hoffman is an amazingly talented writer with a beautiful sense of sentence construction, an intriguing imagination, and the ability to create compelling, complex characters that readers care about.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Hoffman’s ethereal tale of a family of women with supernatural gifts is a magical escape, grounded in the complex relationships between mothers and daughters.”
Marie Claire

“HOFFMAN KNOWS HOW TO PUT MAGIC INTO HER NOVELS, sometimes as an element of the plot;
always in the quality of her writing.”
The Hartford Courant

The Probable Future dazzles with its bristling examination of life’s trying tests of the women of the Sparrow family. The electrifying result is an under-the-microscope look at love, friendship, and the ties that blind and bind.”
The Seattle Times

“[A] bewitching story of gifted women unlucky at love . . . Hoffman is now expert at sketching the New England landscape in the past and future, and the equally chilly psychological landscape of extraordinary women trapped in an ordinary word. . . . She shows a deft hand at tracing the movement from child to adult, showing an unusual ability to create sympathetic characters of all ages.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Hoffman has perfected her very own entrancing style of magical realism and mystical romance anchored to the moody, history-laden Massachusetts countryside. . . . Hoffman’s newest cast of characters is unfailingly magnetic, from her eye-rolling teenagers to her wryly in-love seniors to her suddenly aflame fortysomethings, and the story she tells is as lush as it is suspenseful, as rich in earthy and sensuous detail as it is sweet and hopeful.”
Booklist

“Hoffman is at her best, chronicling in meticulous and beautiful detail the ways the three Sparrow women are transformed . . . The characters are richly
drawn, each idiosyncratically real and yet each just a bit of a sorceress.”
Book magazine (four stars)

“Full-bodied, wholly absorbing characters . . . Hoffman’s storytelling is as spellbinding as ever.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Spellbinding . . . Of all the magical realists writing today, she may have the best sense of balance.”
Portland Oregonian

“Filled with vivid . . . characters and cinematic descriptions of New England landscapes, this book will be a hit.”
Library Journal

“[A] lyrical, magic-infused work . . . Another witches’ brew of ethereal characters [and] lush settings.”
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Delicious . . . Like a piece of old-fashioned chocolate cake, Hoffman’s novel feeds a craving.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Delicious . . . Hoffman is an unapologetic optimist, and optimism is in short supply these days. It feels like a vacation to curl up with this fairy tale suffused with the ‘filmy green light’ of spring, smelling of ‘wild ginger and lake water,’ its sweetness balanced by deft touches of the Gothic.”
The New York Times Book Review


Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Each of the Sparrow women has a secret view into the lives of others—Stella sees their deaths, Elinor their falsehoods, and Jenny their dreams. In which ways do these attributes make the women more perceptive to those around them? How does this paranormal ability insulate and isolate them? Who adjusts the best to using her gift to accomplish something good, and how does she do so?

2. In which ways does Jenny’s extreme overprotectiveness of her daughter cause a rift in their relationship? Do you think the two will be closer as time wears on? Why is Stella so much tougher on her mother than on her father? How is Will affected by Stella’s unadulterated devotion to him?

3. Why does Stella ally herself with Will? In which ways is he a devoted father, and how is he lacking as a parental role model? What characteristics does Will share with Jimmy?

4. How do you account for the estrangement between Elinor
and Jenny? How does the stubbornness of each woman expand the breach between them? How does Stella act as a bridge between her warring mother and grandmother?

5. The three generations of Sparrow women all are drawn to men with problems, both hidden and visible. Is this always true in love? Is every relationship fraught with problems, hidden or otherwise? Can you think of other works of fiction in which everyone is in love with the “wrong” person or where the “wrong” person turns out to in fact be “right”?

6. How does love transform characters in the novel? Which evolution was the most surprising to you?

7. The season of spring is a tangible presence in the novel. How is it a harbinger of change, and how does it pose a turning point for Stella in particular? How is it a symbol of renewal in the book, but also of death?

8. What about Elinor is so compelling to Brock Stewart? How does she feel about him? Why does Brock feel that he has let Elinor down? Would you classify their relationship as romantic, friendship, or something in the middle? Why?

9. What message does the book convey about history? There seems to be an official and an unofficial history. Matt is interested in the “unofficial history”—the history of the women in town and their effects on the fabric of their society. What part of history is written with “invisible ink”? Which groups are most forgotten in the official history of our
country? Why is it important to note that all of the monuments on the town green of Unity honor men and those who have fought in wars?

10. “For the first time, she didn’t want anyone’s opinion but her own,” Stella thinks when she doesn’t ask for her best friend’s opinion about Jimmy. How is this a significant moment in the development of Stella’s independence? In what ways does Stella rely on Juliet, both for guidance and support? In friendships, as in love, do opposites often attract? Why do
you think this is so?

11. How does Liza evolve from a “plain girl” into the woman Will falls in love with? In which ways does she act as a mother figure to Stella? What ultimately draws Will to her, and how does her advice and guidance change him? How does Liza’s past loss—her own history—affect the person she ultimately becomes?

12. In which ways are Matt and Will similar? How are they different? How does each react to being his “brother’s keeper”— both figuratively and literally? How does their affiliation with the Sparrows shape them, for better or for worse? Do you think both of them love Jenny? Why or why not? Who do you think is the right man for Jenny? Do you believe there is one true love for each of us or that circumstances dictate whom a person loves?

13. Throughout the history of the town, the Sparrow women have changed the lives of others—often unnoticed. What changes did you as a reader see?

14. Why does Elinor leave Cake House to her daughter Jenny, instead of to someone else? Is the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter often less fraught than that
between mother and daughter? Was this true for you? Do you think that Jenny has made peace with her childhood home by the end of the novel? More important, has she made peace with her mother?

15. Why is building a memorial to Rebecca Sparrow so important to Stella? What does Rebecca symbolize to the town of Unity at the opening of the book? Has that conception
changed by the conclusion of the novel? How does Stella’s acceptance of her family history contribute to that shift, both in the minds of her family and to the outside world? What is the place of the witch in history? What does it signify for women about their own place in society?

16. Juliet often mentions that each person has a “best feature.” In your view, what are the best features of the main characters? Are they always aware of what their best feature is, or do they often long to be other than they are?

17. Is there a sense of magic in The Probable Future? Do the gifts of the Sparrow women seem magical? Is a “gift” often a “curse”? Does what brings you the most pleasure often bring the most pain as well? What do you believe is the greatest gift a person can have? What is the connection between love and magic?


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