Excerpted from A Version of the Truth by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack. Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Kaufman. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Discovery, 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.
A Version of the Truth by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack
The inspiration for A Version of the Truth was Kurt Vonnegut’s quote, “You are what you pretend to be.” As novelists, we’ve always been fascinated with stories about women who reinvent themselves–transformational stories about people who hit rock bottom and appear to have no options. There are so many women, especially today, who face overwhelming challenges and find themselves stuck in lives they never imagined.
Women do different things when this happens. Some drink. Some max out their credit cards. Some take drugs. Some jump off a bridge.
So we decided to create a modern version of Eliza Doolittle, a character who had innate intelligence and charm but, due to forces beyond her control, was relegated to a life beneath her. Like Pygmalion, one of the overall themes of our book is appearance vs. reality. Both Eliza and our heroine, Cassie, are not who they appear to be. Throughout their metamorphosis, they are able to fool everyone around them.
A Version of the Truth is set in a natural environment because of our combined interest in the 19th century nature writers such as Muir, Emerson and Thoreau–all of whom were writing around the same time as George Bernard Shaw. These were romantic artists who found a connection to the spiritual world through nature. Emerson pulled it all together with his wise saying, “You can know thyself by studying nature.”
Cassie had an unhappy, even tragic past but her spirit was uplifted in the wild. She viewed herself as different, someone who wasn’t going anywhere—“a creature apart”—who reveled in the simple beauty of the natural world and was overtaken with a mystical reverence when she was out in the woods.
This is also a contemporary story of the ephemeral quality of truth in general. It is not a morality play, however. It’s about survival and reinvention. The fact is, sometimes the truth just isn’t good enough. You can be whoever you want to be, even if it isn’t true. You become your own creation. The ineffable, slippery gradations of the truth come into play in every aspect of our protagonist’s life. Her job. Her relationships with men. Even her sighting of an extinct and exotic bird.
This brings us to the subplot of this novel which uses the mystery of an extinct species of bird as a metaphor for what the truth represents in our society. The story of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker is a tantalizing “now you see it, now you don’t” conundrum that involves decades of controversy among birders, scholars and journalists, who simply won’t let the story die. In this day of technological wizardry, it is confounding that no one has been able to conclusively prove whether this bird exists or not. Fuzzy videos combined with audio tapes and years of field research by the most respected scientists in the world has only deepened this controversy.
The iconic image of the Ivory Bill strikes at the very heart of the environmental movement in this country. The bird’s majestic image has come to represent all the fears shared by the public that species are disappearing forest by forest, continent by continent. It feeds the desire to go back to a time, an Eden as it were, when these species thrived in our stately forests, valley and fields.
As for the novel itself, we created a character whose life was transformed because of a glimpse of this magnificent bird. It’s our homage to nature writers, to mystical visions and to the often global consequences of the little white lie.
From the Hardcover edition.
Seven Stages of Reading
1. For Succeeding in your Career: “Don Quixote” by Cervantes, “The South Beach Diet”
2. For Finding a Match: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, “Persuasion” by Jane Austen, “Cinderella” and “Jane Eyre”
3. To be Inspired by Romance: “Lolita” “Jane Eyre” “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, anything by Lord Byron, Yeats and Neruda.
4. For Jealousy: “The Transit of Venus” by Shirley Hazard, “Madame Bovary” by Flaubert, “A Thousand Acres” by Jane Smiley, or, of course, the ultimate jealousy book, “King Lear”.
5. For Heartbreak: “Sentimental Education” by Flaubert, “The End of the Affair” by Graham Greene, “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway, “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte or for modern girls, “He’s just not that into you” by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo
6. For Loneliness: “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath Ha!
7. For Wit: Anything by Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Discuss the storytelling approach used in this novel. Did you find Cassie’s first person narrative effective or limiting? Do you perceive her inner voice as accounting for reality? How would the story change if it were told in third person?
2. Comment on the setting of this book. What role does the wild and beautiful nature of Topanga Canyon–and the many free-spirited people it attracts, like Cassie’s mother–play on Cassie’s character and lifestyle?
3. Discuss Cassie’s decision to lie on her resume when applying for her job. Knowing all the extenuating circumstances that could take away from this act of dishonesty (her financial need, her learning disability, etc.), do you think it was worth the risk? At one point in the novel, Cassie tells Professor Pearce that she would tell the truth if she had to do it over again. Do you believe she would? Would you, if you were in her position?
4. Compare and contrast the three men we know to be Cassie’s love interests in this novel: Frank, Freddy, and Connor. In what ways is she a different person when she is with each?
5. What does it say about Cassie’s character that she considers her parrot Sam one of her best friends? Why is she able to connect with animals with such greater ease than other people?
6. Cassie says she enjoys being in the woods because “you can be whoever you want–chatty and clever and stupid and ugly and unloved and unkissed … and still feel like you belong.” What do you make of this sentiment? How does this statement go along with overarching themes in this novel?
7. In what ways is Alison initially a foil for Cassie’s character? Though she exudes perfection in her appearance, it seems she doesn’t have much to offer below the surface. What do you make of Cassie’s attempt to look and dress like her?
8. Describe Cassie’s relationship with Tiff. What does she get out of this friendship?
9. After working with Professors Connor and Pearce, Cassie begins her personal transformation and is able to grasp and take pride in her natural intelligence. But all of her accomplishments still hinge on her one unbearable untruth. In your opinion, does this make any of them less genuine?
10. On the whole, it seems Cassie’s reinvention of herself is beneficial–she becomes more confident in her thinking, is able to excel in intriguing classes, and finds love. Are there any negative aspects of her new lifestyle?
11. Cassie’s mother named her after the Greek goddess Cassandra, who could see the power of the future, but was cursed because no one would believe what she proclaimed. How is the root of Cassie’s name significant to her character, and to the story?
12. What does the ivory billed woodpecker symbolize to Cassie in this book? Do you believe she ever really saw this elusive bird? Even she doubts herself at the very end of the novel, saying, “Somewhere, deep down inside me, a thought creeps into my head. I hear it as a whisper. I hear it as a warning. Maybe the birds were never really there at all.” What do you make of the author closing the story with these words?
13. In what ways do the characters, namely Cassie and Connor, connect with the classic and popular authors that Kaufman and Mack have woven into this story, like Walden, Thoreau, Whitman, Muir, and others?
14. Cassie’s best friend Tiffany tells her that there is such a thing as “a version of the truth.” And Connor tells her “it’s not a lie if you believe it.” Do you agree with either these statements?