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Discussion Questions: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

August 20th, 2015

Hausfrau_EssbaumJill Alexander Essbaum is the author of Hausfrau, the striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning.

1. That Anna. So—-really—-what’s her deal? Her thoughts loop on a script of immutable passivity, but is that her whole story? From the onset we know she is a flawed protagonist, a damaged character, a woman who is “nothing but a series of poor choices executed poorly.” Taking into account Anna’s personal history, her psychic and spiritual makeup, and those aforementioned poor choices, is there any part of this tragedy that somehow isn’t her fault? What should she be held accountable for? Of what, if anything, are you willing to absolve her?

2. Bruno proposes to Anna with the words “I think you would make a good wife for me.” What, in your opinion, would make him think that? They’ve been together for over a decade. By book’s end it’s clear that Bruno has either known about or suspected Anna’s infidelities the entire time. Why would he tolerate them? Why would he tolerate her? Is this a sign of his weakness or his strength? What does he “get” out of this marriage?

3. Mary, in her decency, stands in direct opposition to the self–centered narcissism of the majority of Anna’s actions. Simply put, Mary seems to be everything that Anna should be but isn’t. But the book suggests that Mary’s two–shoes aren’t altogether goody, so to speak. In three separate instances, she “spills” herself in front of Anna: when she drops her purse and blurts out a more–Anna–than–Mary expletive, when she drops her purse and the erotic novel (and the wistful truth that she regrets not exploring her sexuality) tumbles out, and, finally, when she admits to the bullying and setting the fire. In these ways, Mary has more in common with Anna than Anna is open to recognizing. Do you think Mary can see past Anna’s façade? Do you think she understands Anna on a fundamental level? If not, then do you think she would ever be able to? What do you think will happen to Mary after the book ends?

4. Anna’s lack of morality is almost shocking. What do you think is her gravest mistake? Is there any point during the course of the narrative where she could have stopped the progression of events?

5. Anna rarely tells Doktor Messerli the whole truth. Why, then, do you think she continues the analysis?

6. Anna has never learned to speak German, and yet she exhibits an unmistakable talent for language: she plays with words, turns puns, thinks in entendre—-though rarely does she speak these things aloud. Is it shyness that prevents her from showing this side of herself? Fear? What would it look like if Anna could tap into her “voice”? What would it change?

7. Of all the children, Charles is the most dear to Anna. Victor is too much like Bruno for Anna to fully trust. But as the sole memento of the relationship with Stephen, one might assume that Polly Jean would hold the spot closest to Anna’s heart. Discuss Anna’s relationship with her children. She won’t win mother of the year in anyone’s contest—-but is there any way in which she can be commended? Is there anything she does as a mother that is correct? Good? Nurturing?

8. Anna confesses she majored in home economics in college. Couple this with the perfect memory of sewing with her mother, and the seed of Anna’s present psychology begins to form. As her station as a wife and a mother starts to fail her (or rather, she, them), we are able to understand that somewhere in Anna’s fundamental self she was raised to be these things. Why does she cling to this fantasy if it doesn’t seem to suit her?

9. At the end of chapter 6, Anna thinks, “I wish I’d never met the man.” Which man do you suppose she means?

10. Doktor Messerli warns Anna that “consciousness doesn’t come with an automatic ethic,” and Anna’s choices seem to bear this out. Taking into consideration Doktor Messerli’s explanation of the Shadow, her story of the Teufelsbrücke, and the final events of the book, is it possible to argue that, ethics aside, Anna has come into complete consciousness?

11. Archie says to Anna that a man can smell a woman’s sadness. In the same vein, Anna talks herself through the morning after the physical confrontation with Bruno with a “You had this coming” speech to herself (“I provoked this. . . . I brought this to myself. . . .”). By this reasoning, Anna is an active participant in her own downfall. But Anna claims to be almost entirely passive. Do you consider Anna to be more passive or more active? How does this complicate your understanding of Anna’s psychology?

12. In terms of the structure of the novel, the analytic sessions with Doktor Messerli serve to explicate, illuminate, underscore, and complicate the plot of the book and any conclusion that Anna believes she’s arrived at. Are there any places in the book where this is particularly meaningful to you?

13. There’s an intriguing symmetry to the way that the grammar of the German language—-the tenses, moods, conjugations, false cognates, infinitives, et cetera—-lays itself out in a pattern that easily overlays the poignant heartbreak of the novel. And yet, one of the themes of Hausfrau is language’s ultimate inadequacy. Is that tension resolvable? If so, how? Is this something you have encountered in your own life?

14. The book depends upon the coolness of the Swiss, the impenetrable nature of the landscape, and the solitude of nighttime in order to fully call forth Anna’s deep despair and alienation. Could this book take place in another setting? Anna’s everyday environs—-the hill, the bench, the trains, the Coop—-become characters in their own right. Are there other functions the novel’s setting serves?

15. Hausfrau is in some sense a study in female sexuality. What might the author be suggesting about the sexual appetites of a woman at midlife? What might the author be suggesting about a woman’s emotional needs?

16. An entirely speculative question: What do you think will happen to Bruno and Victor and Polly Jean? Can you imagine their lives post–Anna?

Discussion Questions: The Promise of Home by Darcie Chan

August 13th, 2015

The Promise of Home_Chan1. The Promise of Home rotates among the perspectives of several different characters: Karen, Claudia, Emily, and Father O’Brien. Were you drawn to any one of their storylines more than the others? Why do you think that is?

2. A significant portion of the narrative includes flashbacks to Father O’Brien’s youth. Why do you think the author chose to include those flashbacks when the rest of the novel takes place in the present day? What would the novel be like without them? How might the other sections change?

3. “The very hands that rested on his knees, the hands that were suddenly unable to do what he wanted them to, had held a rifle and ended a man’s life. Up until now, he hadn’t allowed that realization to sink in. . . . The weight of it, regardless of the man’s actions toward his mother, was immense” (page 70). This quote is from the moment Michael O’Brien begins to process what he’s done. Do you think he is too hard on himself, considering the circumstances? How do you think you would react in a similar position?

4. After deciding that it’s best to conceal what happened with the intruder, Frank says to a young Father O’Brien, “This is one of those tough situations, Michael, where there are no good solutions. It isn’t possible to do something right without somebody else getting hurt or paying a price. These situations will come up every once in a while during your lifetime, and you need to recognize them and choose which solution does the least harm and who should suffer that harm” (page 197). Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

5. After reading one of the letters from the briefcase, Emily learns that Father O’Brien killed a man and ultimately finds his actions, under the circumstances, to be “perfectly justified and understandable” (page 148). How do you think some of the other characters would react to the news? Why?

6. When Claudia goes in for a wedding dress fitting, Pauline offers her this piece of advice: “Falsehoods and little white lies never lead to anything good. And be careful when you decide what’s false and what isn’t. Sometimes things and even people aren’t what they seem” (page 82). How is this advice relevant at different points throughout the novel? Are there any moments in The Promise of Home when you would disagree with it?

7. Mill River is clearly a unique place to live. Why do you think so many people are drawn to it from other places, and why do you think so many people return after years away?

8. When Emily first meets Matt, she is offended by his advances and pushes him away. Do you think she is too quick to judge him based on her past experiences, or is she justified in her reaction?

9. When Father O’Brien suspects the worst has happened to Karen, he rushes to find her, putting his own health at risk. Can you think of other times when he acted selflessly? In what way(s) is he a pillar of the community? Give examples.

10. Throughout the novel, Karen struggles with suicidal thoughts and even acts upon them, but she is ultimately given a second chance. In what way do you think some of the other characters were afforded second (if less obvious) chances?

11. Claudia tolerates Misty, the rude girlfriend of her future brother-in-law, with a smile on her face, and she even bites her tongue when she realizes Misty is making inappropriate passes at Kyle. Where do you think she finds the strength and faith to stay out of the situation? What do you think her silence on the matter says about her character and her relationship with Kyle? Could she have made her concerns known to Kyle in a constructive way?

12. Frank makes some difficult decisions to help spare Michael and Anna more pain and difficulty. Do you agree with his decision to tell them that Grace died as an infant? Given his opinion of orphanages, were there any other reasonable options for him at the time?

13. What do you think of the title, The Promise of Home? In your opinion, does it fit the novel? Why or why not?

Six Best Places to Read and Write in Zürich

August 12th, 2015

Hausfrau_EssbaumIf I ask you to list “Europe’s Most Literary Cities,” you aren’t likely to lead with Zürich. But don’t let its tick–tock clockwork and bankable good looks deceive: this Swiss city has hosted its fair share of writers. James Joyce began Ulysses in Zürich and is even buried in a cemetery near the city’s zoo. Nobel laureate Thomas Mann spent time there as well. Did you know that Zürich is the home of the Cabaret Voltaire, which in its day was a haven for all avant–garde poets and artists, and the birthplace of Dadaism? Johanna Spyri lived in Zürich for several years (what’s more Swiss than Heidi?). And what’s arguably poet Paul Celan’s most famous poem, “Zürich, Zum Storchen,” is titled after an inn that overlooks the Limmat River.

I lived for a couple of years in a village just north of Zürich. During that time I spent many hours traipsing the city’s streets, roaming up cobbled paths, and marching down wending alleys as I hunted an elusive, intangible, and almost phantom element of art that all writers chase down somehow: inspiration. I have come to understand that more often than not, inspiration isn’t so much something to be sought as it is something that must be seen. And to truly see anything at all, we must stop, watch, and sometimes wait for it.

Perhaps you like to write. Or maybe you prefer to simply see the world as it moves through the motion of a day. Or maybe it is your pleasure to simply meditate on the here–ness of where you are. Whatever you desire, here are my picks for favorite spots in and around Zürich to sit and see, to stop and look, to contemplate, to watch. To write.

Zürich Hauptbahnhof

The city’s main train station is one of the busiest in all of Europe and the largest in Switzerland, serving lines from all the major European countries, as well as the local city trains. Wednesdays and at Christmastime the concourse is overflowing with local vendors hawking produce, cheese, confections, and other delicacies from temporary stalls. You will find no better place to people–watch. A warning: if someone’s running, step aside. Swiss trains leave when they say they will!

Zürichhorn

It’s almost a one–mile walk down the eastern shore of Lake Zürich from Bahnhof Stadelhofen to the part of the shoreline just before the lake begins to genuinely widen. You’ll discover a sprawling, open–lawn park and a Chinese garden that thrums with people on bright days. Walk to the shore and face south on those same dazzling afternoons, and you’ll get nothing less than a view of the outline of the Alps on the faraway horizon.

Platzspitz

You’ll find this quiet, landscaped park just north of the Swiss National Museum (itself worth a visit). It’s bordered on two sides by the city’s two rivers, which converge at the park’s north end. While in years past the park had a reputation as a hub for drug addicts, the problem has been resolved and the park cleaned up. Find a bench and write a poem.

The Kantorei

Sometimes a writer just needs a drink. The Kantorei is a café in a building with a long and storied past, well–deserving of its own blog entry. It’s the quiet ambience of the streets and the unassuming charm of this neighborhood café that sent me to it time and again, notebook in hand.

The Woods

Which woods? Any of them. Every Wanderweg will lead you somewhere new and unforeseen. I’m partial to the forest just south of the airport because it’s the one I hiked most often, but you can’t go wrong in any of them. There won’t be enough words to describe the trees, nor adjectives so precise as to name every shade of green.

The Train

Choose a city train—-any of the numbered S–Bahn lines—-and ride it end to end. Watch the commuters as they board and disembark. Imagine the landscape rolling underneath you. Psychically enter the houses you pass. Bless the sky under which you ride. Write it all down. Every bit.

Jill Alexander Essbaum is the author of Hausfrau, a striking debut novel about Anna, and American in her late thirties living in a suburb of Zurich with her Swiss husband. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Essbaum explores fidelity, marriage and the search for a life of meaning with Zurich and its suburbs as the background.


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A Conversation Between 
Ann Patchett and Elizabeth McCracken

August 10th, 2015

Thunderstruck_McCrackenElizabeth McCracken is the author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, The Giant’s House, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, and Niagara Falls All Over Again. A former public librarian, she is now a faculty member at the University of Texas, Austin, and has received grants and awards from numerous organizations, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the American Academy in Berlin. Elizabeth is married to the novelist and illustrator Edward Carey.

Ann Patchett is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction. She has won many prizes, including Britain’s Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is the co–owner of Parnassus Books.

Ann and Elizabeth discuss Thunderstruck & Other Stories….

Ann Patchett: What did you want to be when you grew up? I know this sounds like a ridiculous question, but answer it anyway. When you were Gus’s age, Matilda’s age (Elizabeth’s children are, at this moment, eight and six), did you have any vision of yourself in the future?

Elizabeth McCracken: Do you know: I don’t think so.

I have a memory of my fourth–grade self wanting to be the first woman president of the United States, but I think that has a lot more to do with my love of world records and reference books than a love of serving my country. It seemed a goal I could attain: surely by the time I was old enough to run (2001), the country would be ready for a woman president. If I were the first, I would be in reference books forever.

I’ve always been absolutely appalling about the future, but I sort of think that was my childhood religion. We were future deniers. You did your best in the present, which was all around you.

AP: Being a big believer in the present would be especially beneficial to the short story writer, both in terms of the story itself, because stories tend to focus in on the moment in which everything changes—-I’m thinking of Helen’s accident in “Thunderstruck” or the murder in “Juliet”—-but also for the writer and the reader. Novels are so dependent on the future, they take so much time, but even if life is overwhelming a person can usually find time for a story, whether it’s to write one or to read one.

EM: Hmm. I’m turning this over in my mind and, yes, I think so, though I’m always a sucker for short stories that play with time in a novel–like way: that jump into the future or climb into the past. (I’m thinking of stories by Alice Munro and Edward P. Jones.) I certainly think that my short stories these days are fixated on the present, on happenstance, on event, in a way that my older stories weren’t: the plots of my older stories were mostly fixated on the past. This isn’t an artistic decision: my life these days, and for the past decade or so, has been more shaped by the present, by happenstance, and by event than it used to be. I definitely believe that the ends of short stories are about the future, and generally the ends of novels aren’t.

AP: Do you ever think, I want to write a story that takes place in real time or happens backwards or covers a huge amount of time? I think about the movement of time constantly when I write novels, I’m obsessed with it.

EM: Your novels are all different timewise, aren’t they? And yet all page turners. I feel like I don’t understand time in novels, really. I bumble forward, is all. As far as stories go: I keep answering this question differently in my head—-Yes, No, and Who can remember? My old stories often took place over long periods of time, largely because in those days that’s what plot was to me: time passing. Even now I don’t think I could write a story in which the most important things all happened in a relatively short period of time: I need those trap doors to the past. I certainly feel like I can do things with point of view in stories—-point of view being, in some ways, just another way to bend time. Or to put it another way: it’s not that I wouldn’t do the same sorts of things with point of view in a novel, but before I started I would have to work out some sort of philosophy with point of view. In a short story, I do what I do. It does feel more elastic. Years ago, Bruce Holbert told me that coaching basketball was largely a matter of saying, “No, don’t stand like that—- Nice shot.” With technical things in short stories, that’s how I feel. I don’t care about formal perfection, or philosophy of form, or anything else.

That said, I am working on a story now which began because I wanted to write a story that was sort of inside out.

AP: The reason it’s good to have your friends conducting interviews—-

EM: Have we mentioned that we’re friends?

AP: No, we haven’t. This is all a fix. We’re old friends. But that’s helpful because friends know things that professional interviewers do not. For example, I know that three of the stories in this collection—-“Something Amazing,” “Some Terpsichore,” and “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”—-were once chapters in a novel you were working on. The novel didn’t work out, but you were able to go into the pages you had and make three very significant stories out of the characters and situations that were there. I think this is amazing. It’s as if the novel was burning down and you ran inside and rescued three stories. It took a lot of rewriting, and so I wonder, what was it like to rethink your own work in this way?

EM. It wasn’t that hard. Or at least, from this distance I don’t remember it being hard. I probably wept over the smoking wreckage of my novel the entire time.

What made it easier is that, for the first story, the wreckage was still smoking. I put away the novel at the very start of June 2005; a few days later Michael Ray, of Zoetrope: All–Story, e–mailed and asked if I had a story for his fall issue. Oh, I thought, somebody wants some writing of mine! I was in bad shape over having walked away from the novel so I clutched at this: when I’m in bad shape work is generally the only thing that makes me feel better. I took a piece of the novel and wrote a story from it. “Wrote a story” and not “turned it into a story” because I changed so much, including changing it from third to first person, which (as I tell students who blithely suggest narrator changes) is not minor surgery. I sent Michael “Some Terpsichore” on June 21; he accepted it the next day, and saved my sanity.

I think it took me another whole year to write another story from the ruins of the novel, and two more years for the third. I needed that much time between stories, I think: I couldn’t have done it all at once. I tried a fourth and it didn’t work; there’s still one plotline from the novel that I think about noodling around with, though if I did I probably wouldn’t actually look at what I already have written down.

Mostly, I think it’s a sign that the book wasn’t working as a novel. When I tell people there are three stories in Thunderstruck that were from the same wrecked novel, they want to guess what they are. Nobody has. There are no characters or timelines in common. They’re structured very differently. A good novel wouldn’t have pulled apart so easily.

AP: It would be a great parlor game, different teams making cases for which three McCracken stories had once shared the same novel. So now you’ve published two story collections, two novels, and a memoir, and as far as I can tell you’ve met with universal acclaim on all fronts. Is there one form that you think fits you particularly well? Has it changed over time, and do you think it could change again?

EM: Oh, not universal acclaim. I can remember every bit of whatever the opposite of acclaim is.

AP: Why do we always remember the bad reviews? I can’t remember anything from my good reviews, but I could do a very moving one–woman show reciting my bad reviews.

EM: I could probably quote verbatim the first review I ever got, from Kirkus. It was lukewarm and wounding.

Back to your question: now that I’ve been writing seriously for more than twenty–five years, I’m struck by how much does change: process, interests, habits. Fifteen years ago I thought I had mostly given up short story writing, but that’s because I’d come against the limits of what I knew about short stories. Fifteen years of reading and teaching, and I came up with some new things I could do. At the moment if you told me I’d never write another novel but I could continue writing and publishing short stories, I’d miss novels, but I’d find the trade–off acceptable. I think I would, anyhow. And if you told me I’d never write another memoir, I would embrace you warmly and say, “Yes, God keep me from memoirs,” because I would rather not have the material. You might feel the same way.

AP: I am nodding in passionate agreement here.

EM: If life gave me material for another memoir—-I hope it does not—-I’d probably write one. I certainly wrote that book [An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination] more quickly and with more confidence and with less revision than anything I’ve ever written. Sometimes I think of my pal Joshua Clover, who told me after I played a great game of pool when we were fellows at Fine Arts Work Center, “When a thing goes well, people usually see it as a sign to keep going, but sometimes it was their peak experience.”

Maybe someday I’ll write a novel with that level of confidence (by which I only mean, when I’d finished my memoir I knew for good or ill it had found its final form). Then I won’t write another novel.

So yes: it does change, and I bet it will change again.

AP: Fond memory: you and I were once thrown out of a bar for discussing Salinger’s Nine Stories. It was the winter of 1990 and we were fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. We’d stopped in for a drink and were discussing, very discreetly I thought, which of the nine stories was our favorite and how the book (a marvel of a book) was put together. The lounge singer told us over the microphone to take a hike. I loved that! The short story collection was so important you could get thrown out of a bar for even discussing it!

EM: Us getting kicked out of that bar—-I believe it was the Townhouse—-is one of my happiest Provincetown memories. My memory is that the lounge singer thanked us directly into the microphone for all the time it took us to leave: “Thank you, girls. Thank you. Thanks, girls.” You told me she was dressed like Julie London; I didn’t know who that was. I love that book. It’s the best short story writing manual I know.

And of course there’s a story in my first collection named after that night. We passed it one day and I said, “There’s the bar of our recent unhappiness,” and you said, “That would make a good title for something,” and we had a race to see who could write something for it first. That’s probably the only writing race I ever won against you, though admittedly I was writing stories then, and you were writing a novel for which it would have been a highly inappropriate title [The Patron Saint of Liars].

AP: Which leads me to ask how you went about putting your collection together. Did you try it in several configurations? Was there a particular arc you were going for? I love the title story of this collection. Love it. It’s edging into novella country and certainly has novella heft. Stories that size are so hard to publish on their own. They really need a book. At what point in the process of putting this collection together did you write “Thunderstruck”? Did you want to have a longer story in the collection? I feel like it’s the book’s ballast, especially coming at the end. Did you ever read through the collection and think, What this is missing is X, and then sit down to write X?

EM: The fall of 2012 I had a semester’s leave, and I wrote hard and long and with intent. When I began the last thing, I knew it would be the title story, and I knew it would somehow be different than the others. The length of the story might just be because of the momentum of writing: I’d been well–exercised, and if it was the last story, if the spring semester was breathing down my neck, why save any compositional energy for later? At any rate, I knew less about that story than any other in the collection. Perhaps it was more like a novel in that way. Perhaps (for me) that’s the biggest difference between a story and a novel: how much I know ahead of time. It’s a bit unwieldy; I was thrilled that Story Quarterly agreed to take it.

AP: So what about the X factor?

EM: I don’t think I wrote stories consciously thinking, The book needs this, or that, but when I was selecting I was pretty merciless. I kicked one story out because it was too similar to another one in the collection—-there’s a lot of peril to children in the stories but there was a limit to how many children I actually wanted to harm in a single volume. Others just didn’t seem good enough. There’s a story in my first collection that I don’t think is particularly good. (I think you know which one.) I didn’t want to do that again.

AP: Honestly, I have no idea. I loved all those stories.

EM: In Thunderstruck I put the least realistic story first, since readers are the most open–minded in the first pages of a book, or at least their expectations are most plastic. After that, I arranged them so they would seem most various.

AP: I never thought about the fact that readers are their most open–minded in the first pages of a book! Such useful information, and it makes perfect sense. I once did a onstage conversation with Allan Gurganus (who was, at different times, a seminal and beloved teacher to both of us) and he said you should always put a color in the first sentence or two of a story or a novel because it encourages the reader to think visually. I said, Gosh, it would have been nice if you’d told me that when I was eighteen.

EM: Now I’m fascinated by the idea of Opening Pages Reader Hypnosis. Does this mean if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece in the opening pages, it’s even better if the gun is fuchsia?

AP: Exactly.

Your book recently won the Story Prize for the best collection of stories. It’s a wonderful award, and so well deserved. I love the fact that so many of the writers you adore, George Saunders, Steven Millhauser, Tobias Wolff, are among the previous winners. It’s the short story writers’ Hall of Fame. How do you feel about prizes? I know a lot of writers object to them, both to the competition and to the subjectiveness inherent in saying this book is better than that one, but as someone who owns a bookstore, I love awards. It gives me an excuse to put Thunderstruck back in the front window with a big sign that says, She won! Buy the book!

EM: Oh, prizes. I’m not sure any writer could say, Prizes are entirely terrible! Prizes are entirely great! I’ve just finished reading applications for the two MFA programs I teach in, and I’m so aware of how artificial it is to choose one piece of writing over another, how much one’s own feelings about a writer change with the weather, the time of day, the nearest meal. It’s all a lottery. Bad books get prizes and terrific books are overlooked and what wins the prize one year or even one day wouldn’t the next. There isn’t yet a machine that tests for literary quality. A good thing, too.

But I would be disingenuous in saying that the Story Prize didn’t mean a whole lot to me. This is my first published book of fiction in fourteen years. I felt that in publishing it, I was tossing a coin in a fountain and making a wish, without any real certainty that anything would happen after the initial kerplunk.

AP: A lot of good has happened. I feel like this is a book I needed to read.

Discussion Questions: Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken

August 7th, 2015

Thunderstruck_McCrackenFrom the author of the beloved novel The Giant’s House—finalist for the National Book Award—comes a beautiful new story collection, her first in twenty years. Laced through with the humor, the empathy, and the rare and magical descriptive powers that have led Elizabeth McCracken’s fiction to be hailed as “exquisite” (The New York Times Book Review), “funny and heartbreaking” (The Boston Globe), and “a true marvel” (San Francisco Chronicle), these nine vibrant stories navigate the fragile space between love and loneliness.

1. Many of these stories center on someone dealing with extreme loss—-the death or decline of a child or partner. What are the different ways characters rise out of their grief? Similarly, what strategies does Elizabeth McCracken use to keep the book from being mired in tragedy?

2. In “Something Amazing,” we meet the ghost of Missy Goodby. What other characters in these stories could be read as ghosts?

3. In the conversation included here, Ann Patchett reveals that three of the stories were once part of a novel that McCracken ultimately abandoned. Can you make a case for any story trio or trios being part of a single narrative?

4. The homes that punctuate these stories are often run–down, seedy, sad, or scary, and always unforgettable—-Joyce’s house on Winter Terrace, Stony’s rental, the property in southern France, the Blackbirds’ Victorian. What role do the structures they live in play in the characters’ emotional lives? Discuss the relationship between “houses” and “homes” in this collection.

5. Romantic love is not at the heart of this collection. Do you agree or disagree?

6. What is the role of travel in this collection? In what ways do foreign lands exist as fantasy for the characters, and in what way as reality?

7. What do you make of the end of “Thunderstruck”? Is Wes painting or is Helen? Discuss the interplay between the cynical and the miraculous in this story, and in the collection as a whole.

8. How do you interpret “Thunderstruck” as the title of the story? Which character is most “thunderstruck”? What about as the title of the whole collection?

9. McCracken is terrific at closing lines. Do you have a favorite? How would you describe the feeling it leaves you with?

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