When Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history. Empty Mansions, a New York Times bestseller, is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance.
This book is great for a book club discussion! If this is in your book club’s queue, then we have the perfect discussion to help frame your chat. Enjoy!
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Huguette Clark and Paris Hilton: compare and contrast. Using the theme of the burdens of inherited wealth, in which era would it be easier or harder to be a young heiress, the 1920s or today? Can you imagine being that wealthy and not sharing your opinions and daily adventures on social media?
2. The authors reject easy explanations for Huguette’s eccentricity and reclusive nature, emphasizing that she was always shy, living a life of imagination and art. As they say in the epilogue:
We will never know why Huguette was, as she might say, “peculiar.” The people in her inner circle say they have no idea. Out- siders speculate. It was being the daughter of an older father! It was her sister’s death! Or her mother’s! The wealth! It was autism or Asperger’s or a childhood trauma! Easy answers fail because the question assumes that personalities have a single determinant. Whatever caused her shyness, her limitations of sociability or coping, her fears—of strangers, of kidnapping, of needles, of another French Revolution—Huguette found a situation that worked for her, a modern-day “Boo” Radley, shut up inside by choice, safe from a world that can hurt.
Do you accept the authors’ embrace of complexity and uncertainty? Or do you think of Huguette’s reclusivity as springing from a single cause—e.g., failed romances, her sister’s death, a mental illness?
3. What is your reaction to nurse Hadassah Peri and the $31 million in gifts Huguette gave to her family? Do you agree with readers who say her behavior was despicable, that it’s unethical for a caregiver to receive such gifts, that she should have refused the gifts? Or do you agree with readers who say Huguette certainly knew what she was doing, that Hadassah was her patient’s closest caregiver for twenty years, that the gifts were only a small share of Huguette’s net worth?
4. Was Huguette’s life a happy one? What are the ingredients of a happy life? If you find her life to be sad, how do you reconcile that with her apparent lack of sadness?
5. If you had been on the jury deciding the battle over Huguette’s will and her $300 million estate, would you have
found that she was incompetent and defrauded? Would you have given all her money to her Clark relatives? Or would you have followed the will, giving it all to the nurse, the Bellosguardo Foundation for the arts, the attorney Bock, the accountant Kamsler, Dr. Singman, Beth Israel Medical Center, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, her goddaughter Wanda, and the personal assistant Chris? Which of those people, on either side, do you trust?
6. Was W. A. Clark an admirable man? Or was he admirable only early on, when he was like a Horatio Alger character working arduously in dangerous circumstances to build a copper fortune? In light of the times in which he lived, was W.A. Clark justifiably vilified for his methods in seeking a Senate seat? Was he actually a robber baron? Is he accountable for environmental waste today from the copper mines he developed in the 1870s? Or was this simply business as usual in the sordid world of politics and development on the Western frontier? If Clark had been as generous to public charities as Carnegie or Rockefeller, would he have been absolved by history, as they largely were, of the sins of his business career?
7. Empty Mansions is based on facts, documents, and testimony. That leaves mysteries in the lives of its characters. Did the uncertainties add or detract from your enjoyment of the story? Would you have preferred that the authors psychoanalyze Huguette, creating dialogue and filling in missing scenes as a screenplay would? Considering the limits of what the authors could learn, what do you most want to know about W.A., about Anna, about Huguette? If you could
have had conversations with Huguette, as author Paul Newell did, what would you have asked her?
8. Is there more to the American Dream than financial security? Does it require making a contribution to society? Did W.A.’s American Dream get out of control? Is Huguette an American Dreamer of another type?
9. On Huguette’s death certificate, her occupation was listed as “artist.” Beginning with W.A., consider what part creativity and imagination play in this story. Was W.A.’s imagination the source of his power? What did Huguette inherit from her father in the way of tastes or interests or capabilities? From her mother? Consider the words of the founder of Huguette’s prep school, Clara Spence, who urged her students:
I beg you to cultivate imagination, which means to develop your power of sympathy, and I entreat you to decide thoughtfully what makes a human being great in his time and in his station. The faculty of imagination is often lightly spoken of as of no real importance, often decried as mischievous, as in some ways the antithesis of practical sense, and yet it ranks with reason and conscience as one of the supreme characteristics by which man is distinguished from all other animals. . . . Sympathy, the great bond between human beings, is largely dependent on imagination— that is, upon the power of realizing the feelings and the circumstances of others so as to enable us to feel with and for them.
Did Huguette follow those words? What role did imagination and sympathy play in her life? What role do they play in yours?
10. Did you like Huguette? Were there points in the book where you were frustrated by her and/or felt sympathy for her? By the end of the book, did you feel as if you knew her well? Did your view of her change throughout the book?
11. Many characters in Empty Mansions have moral dimensions of both good and bad. Do you believe W.A. was more good than bad? What about attorney Wally Bock? Accountant Irv Kamsler? Nurse Hadassah Peri? Personal assistant Chris Sattler? Dr. Henry Singman? Were there any characters who seemed to be simply good or rotten in their relationships with Huguette? Were you engaged or frustrated by the authors’ insistence on showing the good and bad in characters?
12. If Empty Mansions were made into a movie, what actors would you like to see in the major roles? What movie that you’ve seen should it be most similar to? Would you make it a psychological drama? An epic family saga of Western bonanza wealth? A Gilded Age study of manners and family relationships? What scenes would be the most delicious to write?
Bill Dedman is on Facebook! Join the conversation with him.
Readers! We have an exciting giveaway opportunity for you today. Enter for your chance to win BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS by Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo.
In this brilliant and breathtaking book a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human through the dramatic story of families striving toward a better life in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. As India starts to prosper, the residents of Annawadi are electric with hope. Abdul, an enterprising teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Meanwhile Asha, a woman of formidable ambition, has identified a shadier route to the middle class. With a little luck, her beautiful daughter, Annawadi’s “most-everything girl,” might become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest children, like the young thief Kalu, feel themselves inching closer to their dreams. But then Abdul is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power, and economic envy turn brutal.
With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects people to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, based on years of uncompromising reporting, carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds—and into the hearts of families impossible to forget.
Winner of the National Book Award | The PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award | The Los Angeles Times Book Prize | The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award | The New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award
Recently I was going through drafts of old manuscripts, and this is what I found: a scene of the Burgess family emerging from the middle of Abide with Me. I was surprised to see it there. Clearly, I had been thinking about these boys—these Burgess children—for many years, before they finally landed in a book of their own. Abide with Me was my second novel; it took me seven years to write it, and it was published eight years after my first novel, Amy and Isabelle, appeared in 1998. Olive Kitteridge was my third book, published in 2008. After that I sat down and began, or thought I began, The Burgess Boys. So to discover this scene of the Burgess family, sketched out so many years earlier, indicated to me the tenacity of their hold on my imagination. I had no memory of having written anything about the Burgess family that long ago. But now, on notebook paper, in blue ink, here was a scene in which Polly Burgess—who later became Barbara Burgess— seeks out the large-hearted Reverend Tyler Caskey to see if he will perform her husband’s funeral. She sits behind the wheel of her car in the man’s driveway, three small children with her, and Tyler comes to realize that something is very wrong. Polly Burgess is understandably agitated, but Tyler has no way of knowing that one of the children is responsible for the family tragedy. He asks Polly, out of concern and politeness, if she has a church of her own. Polly takes umbrage, interpreting his question as one of castigation, and drives off, one of the boys looking out the rear window. Tyler is haunted by the image.
As it happens, Tyler and the Burgesses are never to meet again.
The two storylines were ultimately separated: Tyler Caskey had his own book, Abide with Me, and the Burgess kids grew up and are with you now. It is always hard for me to clarify and properly remember how a book got its start, but coming across this scene reminded me of just how long images or thoughts can linger in my mind before reaching the final page. And it gave me some clue as to what I had first been drawn to in writing The Burgess Boys, part of which is how different cultures deal with distress. And this has to do, quite naturally, with time and place. Had the Burgess kids been born into an affluent family of today’s New York City, there is a good chance that all three, along with their mother, would have had extensive therapy after the accident that comes to determine so much of the rest of their lives. Or friends might have talked openly about their own pasts, and how they dealt with childhood traumas. But the Burgesses grew up half a century ago in northern New England, where a person’s inner life was traditionally not something for common discussion. “Grit your teeth and bear it” was, and perhaps still is, the maxim children heard as they grew up in this part of the world.
And that’s what the Burgess kids did. They gritted their teeth and went forward, which is actually what most people do in most parts of the world. Surprisingly—surprising to me, anyway—most people bear ostensibly unbearable things. It is the particularities of bearing life that make us distinct and singular. The Burgess siblings each grew in different ways, according to who they were and who they thought they were. The country grew as well. A Somali community emerged in the whitest state of the Union, and people responded to this, as people have responded for years to immigrant populations everywhere. We know that some people carry a strong fear of the unfamiliar. Others are moved to immediately defend a vulnerable population. Most people, I think, fall somewhere in between, balancing their fears with a desire to be decent. And what this means, really, is that change takes time. It takes time, for example, for a town that has traditionally been all white to accept that their high school soccer team has become one mostly of dark-skinned people, to see in the stands women wearing hijabs as they cheer their sons and brothers on. Time is needed to learn that our view of the world is exactly that: our view, and not a view belonging to someone else. And our view is, and should be, continually open to change.
Books help. They help by allowing us to imagine the realities of another person’s inner—and outer—life. Bernard Malamud said that we value man by describing him. So when I describe Jim Burgess, I am aware of—and honor—the anxiety and pain he has lived with his whole life. When I describe Susan Olson, I am aware of the quotidian bravery she maintains. I am aware of Bob Burgess’s steadfast heart, which keeps beating in spite of the cigarettes he smokes. When I describe Abdikarim, I respect and value the terrible violence and disruptions of his history. But I am the writer. Being aware of these aspects of character is my job. That Zachary Olson is only half aware of the severity of his actions seems in keeping with the idea that many of us—as we live our lives without such writerlike examination—are only half aware of what our actions mean. This is where the conversation between reader and writer comes in. Readers can more clearly see aspects of themselves and of others if the writer has been scrupulous in crafting a fictional truth. It is not “good” or “bad” that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives. To present this in the form of fiction helps make our humanness more acceptable to the reader; this is my wish.
The Burgesses’ story is an American story. We are a country built on the continuing influx of a variety of cultures, and we are also a country in which the dream of reinventing ourselves continues to thrive. Running away—especially to a city—has long been attractive to those who want to leap from their pasts. Our American, and changing, sense of family reflects confusion about what the individual is entitled to, and what our responsibilities may or may not be to those we leave behind. In a different culture, in a different time, these confusions would play out another way, or not even be confusing at all: For example, there was a time in rural New England when children were expected not to leave but instead to marry and remain nearby, helping with the family farm, or perhaps the family business. There was a time when a child grew up and worked in the same textile mill that his father and mother had worked in. But most of those mills are now gone. The mill that the Burgess father worked in has long been closed. And so this story belongs to the Burgess boys. It belongs to their sister as well, but it is the boys who have attempted, with desperation and arguably some success, to get ahead of that determinative sunny day when they were small children in the town of Shirley Falls, Maine.
I wrote the story, but you will bring to it your own experience of life, and some other reader will do the same, and it will become a different story with each reader. I believe that even the time in your life when you read the book will determine how you receive it. Our lives are changing constantly, and therefore not even our own story is always what we think it is. The mutability of life—our losses, our loves, our fears—can at times be overwhelming. I hope that reading The Burgess Boys makes this changeability become, if even only for a few moments, more manageable. No one is alone in wondering: How did that happen? How did I get to this place right now? History, our own and the world’s, continues to be made, and the accuracy of history continues to be questioned. As the Burgess kids discover, we are what we remember—and what we don’t remember, too. But in the complementary acts of writing a book and reading a book, you and I share the commemoration of lives, each in our own way construed.
From the Random House Reader’s Circle extra content.
Bret Anthony Johnston, the award-winning author of Corpus Christi: Stories delivers a breathtaking debut novel, Remember Me Like This, to us on May 13, 2014. Ready to get your hands on a copy? You’re in luck! Enter HERE for your chance to win an advance reader’s edition from RHRC!
“It is as a writer that I admire the architecture of Remember Me Like This, the novel’s flawless storytelling. It is as the father of three sons that I vouch for the psychological authenticity of this depiction of any parent’s worst fears. Emotionally, I am with this family as they try to move ahead—embracing ‘the half-known and desperate history’ that they share. I love this novel.”—John Irving
About the Book:
A gripping novel with the pace of a thriller but the nuanced characterization and deep empathy of some of the literary canon’s most beloved novels, Remember Me Like This introduces Bret Anthony Johnston as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today. With his sophisticated and emotionally taut plot and his shimmering prose, Johnston reveals that only in caring for one another can we save ourselves.
Four years have passed since Justin Campbell’s disappearance, a tragedy that rocked the small town of Southport, Texas. Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Did he drown in the bay? As the Campbells search for answers, they struggle to hold what’s left of their family together.
Then, one afternoon, the impossible happens. The police call to report that Justin has been found only miles away, in the neighboring town, and, most important, he appears to be fine. Though the reunion is a miracle, Justin’s homecoming exposes the deep rifts that have diminished his family, the wounds they all carry that may never fully heal. Trying to return to normal, his parents do their best to ease Justin back into his old life. But as thick summer heat takes hold, violent storms churn in the Gulf and in the Campbells’ hearts. When a reversal of fortune lays bare the family’s greatest fears—and offers perhaps the only hope for recovery—each of them must fight to keep the ties that bind them from permanently tearing apart.
Enter HERE to win an advance reader’s edition of Remember Me Like This.
Last week, Katie Hafner’s Mother Daughter Me went on sale in trade paperback. We are excited to share these questions and topics for discussion with you below.
Questions and Topics for Discussion:
1. Do you find Hafner’s mother to be a sympathetic character? Why or why not? Do you think the author herself is a sympathetic character? Why or why not?
2. Hafner often finds herself in the middle of arguments between her mother and her daughter. Do you think it was possible for her to effectively mediate, while also working out her own difficulties with her mother?
3. Money plays a significant role in the book. Discuss why money can be such a flashpoint for families. Why do you think it was a point of contention in Mother Daughter Me?
4. Objects, such as the piano, also held great emotional significance throughout. Did the piano and other gifts carry different meanings for Hafner and her mother? How did their different understandings of the symbolism of those tangible objects lead to conflict?
5. Hafner is a longtime journalist who turned to memoir writing. How do you see her skills as a journalist employed in the writing of Mother Daughter Me?
6. Memory—and the presentation of memories—can be tricky when writing memoirs. Many of Hafner’s childhood memories emerge during sessions with the therapist Lia. Others surface when she finds letters and other documents from the past. How do you think Hafner handles the reliability of her own memo- ries, especially from her early childhood? How do you think she handles the issue of memory when her recollections differ from her mother’s?
7. In its piece on Mother Daughter Me, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of children of parents who drink, “While their parents black out and forget, they remember, and their memories, their stories, matter. More than assigning blame, this is Hafner’s point—and her memoir is a brave manifestation of it.” Do you agree with the writer? Do you think Hafner steers clear of assigning blame? To what extent do you think it is necessary make a parent confront the details of a difficult past?
8. After Hafner’s husband, Matt, dies suddenly, Hafner tells the reader, she quickly does everything wrong. Instead of waiting to make any big changes, she acts hastily and, as she admits, inappropriately. What is your opinion of Hafner’s hasty decision to make large life changes? Are you sympathetic?
9. Bob, the man Hafner starts to date during the year chronicled in the book, is an anchor of sanity and stability throughout the book. How do you think Hafner was able to let another person into her life in during this year of such chaos and tumult? What role did you see Bob playing as he entered the family?
10. Hafner discusses the difficulty that subsequent generations often have in not repeating the mistakes of their parents, especially when it comes to inflicting trauma on one’s children. Do you think Hafner succeeds in breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma that her own mother was unable to break?
11. Hafner discusses the long-term effects of divorce on children, citing Judith Wallerstein’s book The Legacy of Divorce. Why do you think she chooses to discuss divorce at such length, when alcohol might seem to be the bigger problem?
12. Hafner’s father comes off as a complex, much-loved, but muted character in the book. Why do you think Hafner chose to keep him in the background of the narrative?
13. Do you think Hafner has created a balanced view of herself and her mother? Was she even in a position to do so? Are there examples of why or why not?
14. Why do you think the author’s sister had a life that was so deeply troubled, while Hafner herself, despite coming from the same background, was able to make different, healthier choices earlier in life?
15. Despite being in many ways a typical, occasionally difficult teenager, Zoë also shows herself to be surprisingly adult and insightful at times. What role do you think she plays in the choices that Hafner makes once Zoë’s grandmother comes to live with them?
16. Hafner describes in detail her relationship with her daughter, and the fierce attachment between the two. What do you think drew them so close? Does their bond add to the challenges they faced that year?
17. The mother-daughter relationship is inherently complicated, which Hafner makes very clear in the book. What are your thoughts on what makes the mother-daughter bond so complex, and often so fraught?
18. Toward the end of the book, Hafner states that instead of feeling the need to act as the constant pleaser and appeaser, she can finally “have relationships with all of the people that I love without having to connect the dots between them.” Does this insight seem like a good life lesson? Is there a contradiction in loving two people while knowing they may never reconcile? How does Hafner confront this question?