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Ellen Sussman Discussion Questions: A Wedding in Provence

May 21st, 2015

Wedding in Provence_Sussman

When Olivia and Brody drive up to their friend’s idyllic inn—nestled in a valley in the Mediterranean town of Cassis—they know they’ve chosen the perfect spot for their wedding. The ceremony will be held in the lush garden, and the reception will be a small party of only their closest family and friends. But when Olivia and Brody’s guests check in, their peaceful wedding weekend is quickly thrown off balance.

The first to arrive is Nell, Olivia’s oldest daughter from her first marriage. Impulsive and reckless, she invites a complete stranger—an enigmatic man who is both alluring and a bit dangerous—to be her guest at the wedding. The next is Carly, Olivia’s youngest daughter, the responsible and pragmatic one. Away from her demanding job and a strained relationship, she feels an urgent need to cut loose—and for once do something brash and unpredictable. Then there is Jake, Brody’s playboy best man, and Fanny, Brody’s mother, who is coping with the fallout of her own marriage. And in the middle of it all is Olivia, navigating the dramas, joys, and pitfalls of planning a wedding and starting a new life.

A delicious, compelling, and utterly enchanting novel, A Wedding in Provencecaptures the complex and enduring bonds of family, and our boundless faith in love.

Let these discussion questions guide your book club (or your own thoughts) about the novel…

1. A Wedding in Provence starts by introducing a happy couple on the way to their idyllic wedding. How did this affect your

expectations for the book? Were you nervous about how events would unravel?

2. Nell is clearly a loose cannon. What were your initial thoughts when she decided to bring Gavin to the wedding? Did you think he was dangerous, or just a fun-­loving, spontaneous stranger?

3. Were you surprised when Carly took off with Gavin? Why or why not?

4. In many ways Carly is Nell’s opposite, but the two sisters end up attracted to the same man, however briefly. Is it possible that they aren’t actually as different as they seem? Do you think they share any other similarities?

5. At the beginning of Chapter Sixteen, Olivia and Emily are discussing Nell’s vulnerability. Was Emily’s advice to Olivia helpful? How would you have suggested that Olivia manage her daughters’ differences?

6. After learning that Sébastien cheated on Emily, Olivia is clearly rattled. She says “We’re brave old fools. . . . We still choose love when we know everything that can happen,” (page 19). Do you think a marriage can survive infidelity?

7. What did you think of Sam leaving Fanny after fifty-­five years of marriage and refusing to come to Brody’s wedding? Were you surprised when you found out why?

8. Throughout the novel, Olivia and Brody are faced with numerous obstacles that threaten to ruin their low-­key wedding weekend. From Nell’s surprise guest to Carly’s disappearance and Sébastien’s infidelity, which do you think caused the biggest stir? Why?

9. Of all the characters in the novel, which one did you most sympathize with?

10. Even though Olivia’s big day is the backbone of the plot, the narrative rotates among her perspective and each of her daughters’. Was there ever a time when you felt drawn to one of the three points of view more than the others? When and why?

11. As Olivia and Brody get ready to commit to marriage, they witness their friends and family struggling with relationships. Is their love tested by these struggles? Do you think it’s hard to say yes to love when we know everything that might go wrong in a marriage?

12. Of all the themes present in this novel—­love, loss, starting fresh—­which resonated with you the most? Why?

A Conversation with Ellen Sussman and Amanda Eyre Ward

May 14th, 2015

Wedding in Provence_Sussman

When Olivia and Brody drive up to their friend’s idyllic inn—nestled in a valley in the Mediterranean town of Cassis—they know they’ve chosen the perfect spot for their wedding. The ceremony will be held in the lush garden, and the reception will be a small party of only their closest family and friends. But when Olivia and Brody’s guests check in, their peaceful wedding weekend is quickly thrown off balance.

The first to arrive is Nell, Olivia’s oldest daughter from her first marriage. Impulsive and reckless, she invites a complete stranger—an enigmatic man who is both alluring and a bit dangerous—to be her guest at the wedding. The next is Carly, Olivia’s youngest daughter, the responsible and pragmatic one. Away from her demanding job and a strained relationship, she feels an urgent need to cut loose—and for once do something brash and unpredictable. Then there is Jake, Brody’s playboy best man, and Fanny, Brody’s mother, who is coping with the fallout of her own marriage. And in the middle of it all is Olivia, navigating the dramas, joys, and pitfalls of planning a wedding and starting a new life.

A delicious, compelling, and utterly enchanting novel, A Wedding in Provencecaptures the complex and enduring bonds of family, and our boundless faith in love.

Amanda Eyre Ward: Ellen, I love how A Wedding in Provence transported me to France. Can you talk about how the setting of Cassis inspired the story?

Ellen Sussman: I lived in Paris for five years when my daughters were babies. We’d vacation every summer in Provence. (I know—­lucky me!) When I thought about writing a novel about a fiftysomething-­year-­old couple getting hitched, I knew immediately that the wedding would take place in Provence. I wanted a setting that was rich in sensory stimulation: The heat! The food! The smells! The light! That blue blue sea! Mix all that with love, and you’ve got a heady combination.

I had not visited Cassis until a few years ago. It’s a charming town on the coast, less touristy than many of the towns along the Côte d’Azur. I fell for Cassis in a big way—­in fact, I now dream of living there one day. When I walked in the mountains, when I kayaked in the calanques, when I feasted in one of the cafés along the sea, I could imagine my characters at my side, already coming to life in this fabulous setting.

AEW: I have started spending time choosing where each of my characters lives, even down to finding their house, where they buy their coffee, etc.

Did you visit Cassis for research, and if so, can you talk about how you research a setting? Do you walk around taking notes on the sky, or locate where each character will have a drink?

ES: On my first visit to Cassis, I just soaked it all up. I don’t think I even took notes. But my senses were on high alert—­I seemed suddenly able to see things, smell things, taste things with remarkable clarity. Then I wrote the first draft of the novel, pouring all of those observations and sensations into my story.

I went back to Cassis for a weeklong visit between draft one and two of A Wedding in Provence. (Yes, this kind of research is the most fun part of my job!) This time I knew what I was looking for. What did it sound like when it rained? What did it feel like to swim in that delicious sea? What might Carly have seen while sitting at the beach café in Cassis? (In fact, I did see a man surreptitiously taking photos of a lovely young topless woman on the beach—­while his much older wife prepared a picnic for the two of them. And that went right into the novel!)

So some of what happens in that research week is planned and some is dumb luck. I hadn’t thought of using the stormy weather in the novel until we experienced the wild winds of the mistral and I realized it was a perfect backdrop for the drama of my characters.

AEW: How does a novel come to you: fully formed, or in snippets? Does the character come first? Does this change for each novel?

ES: I never know very much about my novel when I’m first starting out. Sometimes it’s a scene that gets me going—­sometimes it’s a character. But I never know what’s going to happen at the end of the novel. I like working that way—­it keeps me curious and interested. I’m on a quest; I need to find out what’s going to happen. And I think that energy goes into the writing. I want my reader turning pages—­and if I’m writing to discover, then they’ll be reading to discover.

That makes for a wonderful first-­draft experience. I give myself free rein to follow my characters anywhere. They dictate what happens—­and I let them fumble their way through complicated situations. It’s the second, third, and fourth drafts where the hard work takes place. Then I have to take a look at the world I’ve created and determine if I’ve shaped the novel well, if I’ve given the characters their full journeys, if I’ve explored this fictional world with depth and passion.

AEW: Any words of wisdom about plotting a book with love and relationships at its center?

ES: In A Wedding in Provence, I knew that I wanted to write a novel about a second chance at love. And I wanted to write about fifty-­year-­olds grappling with love and commitment and family. So I had one driving question that propelled me through the novel: How do you commit to love and marriage when you know so much about all the ways in which love fails?

I don’t start writing a novel with answers—­just questions. Again, I’m on a quest—­I want to learn and discover rather than to report on what I already know.

Once I created Olivia and Brody as the central couple, with their questions about love, I thought, Let’s shake up this world even more. So both of Olivia’s daughters struggle with love. Brody’s mother has just found out that her husband of fifty years has walked away from their marriage. Brody’s best man is de­termined to never fall in love. Olivia’s best friend discovers on the first night of this supposedly idyllic wedding weekend that her own husband has cheated on her. Can anyone get it right?

I gave myself a lot to work with. That’s when the fun begins. I didn’t know what would happen during this wedding weekend, but with so much conflict brewing, I was never at a loss to create drama on the page.

In the end, what did I learn about love? Maybe there is no real way to know that this time we’ll get it right. In the end, we close our eyes and dive in. I’m a love junkie—­I think we just go for it.

AEW: Do you write every day?

ES: Yes! I’m a very disciplined writer. I think it’s crazy to wait for the muse to sit on my shoulder—­I may be waiting a long time. Instead I show up and demand that she shows up too. So I work from nine till noon every day. And I write one thousand words a day. I treat it like a real job—­I get dressed (changing from my yoga pajamas to my yoga clothes), plant my butt on my chair, don’t answer the phone, disable the Internet. (There’s a software program, Freedom, that enables me to do that. And I need it!) I’m a tough boss—­if I haven’t finished my word count by noon, then I march back into my office after lunch. But most days I’ve managed to hit one thousand words, and then I head to the hills for a hike with my dogs.

Some of the best writing gets done during my nonoffice hours. I’ll take notes during that hike, or while waiting at the dentist’s office, or in the middle of the night. Since I write daily, the fictional world swirls in my brain at all times. You might say my characters are my constant companions.

AEW: Now, you have two lovely daughters, and so does ­Olivia. Is the book at all autobiographical?

ES: No! Yes! No! Yes! Here are some of the similarities between A Wedding in Provence and my personal life. I got married for the second time—­in France (though not in Cassis). I have two daughters, twenty-­six and twenty-­eight, the same ages as Nell and Carly. But that’s about it—­the rest is truly fiction. Nothing that happened in the novel happened at my wedding in France. (My girls were twelve and fourteen then. I’m quite sure there were none of the Nell/Carly sexual shenanigans at my wedding!)

My daughters are very different from each other—­though not in the bad girl/good girl roles that Nell and Carly assume. I’ve been fascinated by how siblings can be so strikingly ­different—­as if they don’t come from the same parents or the same set of familial experiences. I wanted to explore the sister bond, sibling rivalry, how kids define themselves in opposition to each other. In the end, I’ve created very different characters from my own daughters. But yes, my own very personal exploration fueled that quest.

And yes, the novel is peppered with tiny autobiographical moments. I really did turn the invisible key on my older daughter’s forehead so that she could turn off her thoughts and go to sleep when she was a child. And yes, my husband and I once stayed at an inn in Provence where the owner’s white retriever, Ulysse, became our lovable Rent-­a-­Dog for daily hikes.

AEW: What are you working on next?

ES: I’m a little superstitious about this—­I don’t talk about a new project until I’ve at least written a first draft. It’s too ­fragile—­or maybe I’m too fragile! If someone were to say: That’s a lousy idea, I might trash the file and never look back. So I keep my characters in a tiny protective bubble—­no one else knows them or what they’re up to.

But I can say this: I’m trying to strike out in a new direction. The new novel takes place in San Francisco. And it’s told in first person—­I haven’t done that before. I’m loving my characters—­they’re not like anyone I know. And so this journey—­for them and for me—­will take us places we’ve never been.

Thanks, Amanda, for taking the time to interview me. Great questions!

I’d love to recommend Amanda’s books to all my readers. She’s one of my favorite writers—­if you don’t already know her work, you’re in for a great reading experience. Check out her latest: The Same Sky. You’ll be wowed.

A Conversation with Jodi Picoult

May 8th, 2015

Leaving Time_PicoultFor more than a decade, Jenna Metcalf has never stopped thinking about her mother, Alice, who mysteriously disappeared in the wake of a tragic accident. Refusing to believe she was abandoned, Jenna searches for her mother regularly online and pores over the pages of Alice’s old journals. Desperate to find the truth, Jenna enlists two unlikely allies in her quest: Serenity Jones, a psychic, and Virgil Stanhope, the jaded private detective who’d originally investigated Alice’s case along with the strange, possibly linked death of one of her colleagues. As the three work together to uncover what happened to Alice, they realize that in asking hard questions, they’ll have to face even harder answers.

Random House Reader’s Circle had the chance to chat all about LEAVING TIME and writing with Jodi Picoult…

Random House Reader’s Circle: What was the original inspiration for this novel?

Jodi Picoult: I have three kids, and my daughter—-my youngest—-was getting ready to go to college, which meant I’d be an empty–nester. It was daunting, to say the least. Then I read a fact: In the wild, an elephant mother and daughter stay together until one of them dies. I thought, How enlightened! Why can’t we be like that? I began to do a little digging on elephants, and learned how advanced their cognition is. And when I discovered that they actually grieve and experience and process loss, I was completely hooked, and knew I would be writing about what it meant to be left behind . . . and also that I had my profession for the character of Alice.

RHRC: What kind of research about elephant behavior did you do to write the novel?

JP: For research, I was privileged to first spend time at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, meeting their elephants and learning what the caregivers do and how the sanctuary operates. I also went to Botswana and spent a week with a researcher, tracking herds in the wild, much like Alice does in the book. I learned to track elephants by footprint, to tell them apart, and to observe their behavior and mannerisms. I also gathered stories about evidence of elephant cognition and the unbreakable bond in elephant relationships. For example, the researcher I worked with found a male juvenile whose trunk was caught in a snare. He wouldn’t survive without the trunk, so a decision was made to have the Wildlife Management folks euthanize him. The researcher drove the Wildlife Management worker to the elephant in a vehicle, but the worker was inexperienced and shot the elephant in the forehead instead of behind the ear. This left the elephant in even more pain, trumpeting. At that moment, a huge matriarch charged down the hill at the vehicle. This young male had been ejected from the herd already—-he was in his teens—-but his mother heard his distress and came running all the same. She stood over him, like a mother stands over a small calf for protection, until he died. Another example occurred in Pilanesberg, South Africa, where a reserve existed for elephants that were orphaned after culls for population control. It was a social experiment—-they thought these teen elephants would bond into a herd, but that didn’t happen, because there was no matriarch. So a decision was made to bring two older females, Durga and Owalla, back to Africa from the United States where they had been working and training. It was a success—-the two matriarchs formed two thriving herds. However, Owalla got bitten by a hippo sixteen years later and couldn’t be anesthetized for medical reasons. They knew she was going to die, if not treated. So Randall Moore—-Owalla’s former trainer—-was called in. He found the herd, got out of his vehicle, and called Owalla by name. The younger members of the herd scattered, terrified of this human contact. Owalla came forward and greeted Randall, and then lifted her trunk and her leg according to his commands, letting the vets treat her without any anesthetic. After sixteen years of being completely wild, she remembered him, and his commands.

RHRC: Is there a favorite thing you learned about elephants during your research?

JP: Elephants are among the few species in this world (including humans) that show cross–species empathy—-they will help out another animal in distress even if there is no biological advantage. Their grieving rituals are remarkable, too—-an elephant will have a change in behavior if it comes across the bones of another elephant. They get quiet and reverential, and their tail and ears droop. Elephants will return to the site of a herd member’s death for years afterward, to stand quietly for a while before moving on. They have been known to break into research facilities and take bones of an elephant that are being used by a researcher, and to bring them back to the site of that elephant’s death. At The Elephant Sanctuary, I met Sissy, an elephant who survived the 1981 Gainesville flood by being submerged for twenty–four hours with only her trunk above water. When she got to the sanctuary, she was traumatized and took to carrying around a tire, like a child’s security blanket. Eventually she bonded with an elephant named Tina and they were fast friends. But Tina died, and when she did, Sissy stayed with her—-and remained by her grave for a few days. Finally, she placed her tire on the grave—-like a wreath—-and left it behind, never to return to it, almost as if she believed Tina needed the comfort more now.

RHRC: You’ve said in other interviews that the endings of your books still sometimes surprise you. Did you know how Leaving Time would end?

JP: Yes. It has a KILLER twist and I needed to know exactly what happened or I wouldn’t have been able to write the book the way I did. That’s all I can say without giving anything away!

RHRC: Leaving Time, like many of your novels, is told in shifting perspectives from multiple characters’ points of view. What’s it like to inhabit so many different voices during the writing process?

JP: I always think of the narrative as a stream, and there are a bunch of different Wellies lined up on the side of the bank. Writing in a certain character’s voice is a little like stepping into one of those pairs of boots. They feel different than other boots might as you step into the narrative stream, and catch it at a given moment, and it informs how you think and speak and move. Then you step out and try on another pair of boots. I really like letting the voices flow through me while I’m writing. In that sense I guess I’m a little like Serenity.

RHRC: Like Leaving Time, your novel Second Glance also contains a supernatural element. Do you believe in psychics and ghosts? Did your beliefs change at all as you were researching and writing these two books?

JP: One of the things I learned during the research of Second Glance was that ghost hunters appreciate skeptics—-they keep everyone else honest. To that end, you shouldn’t believe in the paranormal unless you have a valid experience. I did research with Chip Coffey, a U.S. psychic, for Leaving Time. He has a TV show called Psychic Kids, in which he helps parents deal with kids who have paranormal abilities as a child, as he did. A lot of Serenity’s voice comes from Chip, who is such a fantastic guy—-one of the first things he said to me was “I’m gay, I’m Catholic, and I am a psychic. . . . I hit the trifecta!” That funny irreverence was part of what I wanted to give Serenity. When I first met Chip, I gave him permission to tell me anything that “came across” during our time together. At that meeting, my grandparents were still both alive. Chip mentioned something about my grandmother that no one knows—-not even anyone in our family. It’s not something you can Google about me, for example. That was impressive. But I was MORE astounded when, six months later, I was writing and I called Chip out of the blue to ask him a question about Serenity. In that interim period, my grandfather had died at age 101. My grandmother had been having a tough time and was crying at night and saying my grandfather was sitting on the edge of her bed. Before I could even ask my question about Serenity, Chip interrupted, “Your grandfather wants your grandmother to know it’s not her time, and he’ll come and get her when it is.” Now, Chip couldn’t have known I was going to call that day. Might he have been stalking the New York State death records? I guess so, but it seems unlikely. I was pretty amazed by that insight!

RHRC: At the heart of this story is the bond between a mother and a daughter. As a mom, is this a more personal novel than some of your others?

JP: I like to think of it as a love letter to my youngest—-the one with whom I share a bond of writing, since we co–authored a YA novel called Between the Lines. The happy ending here, though, is that Sammy called me after she was at college for a few months to say she missed creative writing . . . and that she wanted to co–write the sequel to our YA book that summer. So not only did I get to spend an entire summer working with her—-I get to promote Off the Page with her this year, too!

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A Conversation between Ruth Reichl and Emily Giffin

May 7th, 2015

Delicious_ReichlRuth Reichl’s bestselling fiction debut about sisters, family ties, gourmet food, and a young woman who must finally let go of guilt and grief to embrace her own true gifts is a dazzling addition to Reichl’s beloved memoirs that have long illuminated the theme of how food defines us.


Emily Giffin: What made you want to try fiction?

Ruth Reichl: Fiction is my passion, my addiction, the thing that has gotten me through every tough time. I can’t imagine life without it. When I was a child, people used to joke about me always having my nose in a book. I’m so grateful to all the authors who gave me entire worlds to vanish into, and I’ve always hoped that I’d be able to pass that gift on. But as a longtime journalist, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I started saying that if I didn’t have a day job, I’d try writing a novel. And then, there it was: Gourmet was gone, and it was time to try. You, of course, already knew this, but I found that writing fiction, creating an entire universe, was pure pleasure.

EG: You set the novel in the world of food magazines. How much of the book is based on your experience at Gourmet?

RR: The scenes at Delicious! are invented, but they certainly reflect what took place at Gourmet. The test kitchen, for instance, is very much like the one we had at the magazine (except that there was no mean Maggie). The Delicious! Guarantee is completely made up (although I do think it’s a good idea), but Mrs. Cloverly’s first complaint is real. The call (from an anonymous reader), came long before my time at Gourmet, but it was a story that Zanne Stewart, the executive food editor, loved to tell. Beyond that, the Gourmet staff was both quirky and kind, and I like to think that if Billie Breslin had shown up at the magazine, we would all have fallen in love with her and taken her under our wings.

EG: Food plays such a vital role in all your work, and seems inextricably tied to the understanding of the characters themselves. How is food a portal to a character’s essential nature?

RR: If you watch what people eat, you can find out so much about them. Eating is learned behavior; one of the ways cultures define themselves is by teaching children what to eat. That’s why most religions have rules about food. But as we grow older, we also begin to make our own food choices, and they are equally telling. If I tell you that I love very spicy dishes, I’m not just talking about food; I’m telling you that I’m an adventurous person. If I tell you that I don’t eat red meat, I’m giving you an important piece of information about myself.

As a writer, you know how useful this is; food is an easy way to telegraph information about a character. Say you’re writing about two mothers: One feeds her children Happy Meals every night and the other makes homemade baby food from organic vegetables. You’ve told your readers a great deal about these women in very few words.

EG: Your heroine, Billie Breslin, is in her early twenties. Why did you choose to explore this particular time in a woman’s life? Was there a real–life inspiration for Billie?

RR: Billie is completely invented. But when I started writing Delicious! I was consulting for Gilt Groupe, where I was surrounded by young women who were smart, hard–working, interesting, and completely different from my own generation. I really admired them, and I wanted to explore how it felt to be twenty–one right now. It’s such an important time for a woman, a time when you end up making so many choices that impact the rest of your life.

EG: You have given Billie a perfect palate. She can parse taste like grammarians parse sentences, yet she is phobic about the kitchen. You write so movingly about this situation, almost as if you experienced it yourself. Did you?

RR: In my early twenties I suffered terribly from phobias (although cooking, happily, was not one of them). But I was trying to convey how debilitating they are. You never know where the phobias come from or when they will appear, so you live in a state of constant dread. The fear of the phobia might even be the worst part, and each time you get through it, you feel that you’ve experienced a miracle. There is still no good science on phobias, but my own feeling is that they’re a way to avoid thinking about your real problems, a way you keep yourself from getting on with your life.

EG: Billie’s relationship with her sister, Genie, was a powerful anchor for her, but she was also in her sister’s shadow. How does this loss lead to Billie’s growth as a person?

RR: We all have someone in our lives whom we admire—-and who makes us feel small. Moving out of that shadow is one of the steps in growing up. For Billie, having a big sister as accomplished as Genie was a terrible burden. Although much of the time this was only in her own head, Billie always felt that she was being unflatteringly compared to her wonderful big sister. For Billie to be able to see Genie as she really is, to understand that Genie is not perfect, is extremely liberating. It means that now she can, at last, see her own self clearly too.

EG: What did Billie learn about family (and food!) while working for Sal at Fontanari’s?

RR: Sal Fontanari is one of the first people who really sees Billie in all her wonderful complexity. He understands her talent, is drawn to her passion for food, and wants to pass his own knowledge on to her. And Sal is the opposite of perfectionist Genie; for him the important thing in life is savoring what is right in front of you. Sal teaches Billie to live in the moment, to love your work, your family, and every minute of your life.

EG: New York’s Greenwich Village and Little Italy are like characters in the book. What drew you to these particular neighborhoods?

RR: I grew up in Greenwich Village, and spent my weekends wandering around Little Italy. I love everything about that part of New York, from the old family businesses (like Di Palo’s, the model for Fontanari’s) to the new artists and immigrants who keep this historic neighborhood young.

EG: One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Billie’s discovery of Lulu Swan’s letters to James Beard. Where did this idea originate?

RR: I’ve always been fascinated by the way America ate during World War II; because of rationing, it was the one time in the history of this country that we all ate at the same table, ate the same food. It was also a time when women came into their own power, and America has never been the same. So I’ve been collecting cookbooks from that era for a while.

Then, when Gourmet closed, I went into the magazine’s library and took one last look around. (It was nothing like the wonderful Delicious! library—-it was just a windowless storeroom.) I noticed a file cabinet I’d never seen before, and when I opened it up discovered that it was filled with letters going back sixty years. I thought they’d be interesting, but sadly they were mostly complaints and recipe requests. I was meant to be packing up my office but for some reason—-I can’t really explain it—-I sat down right then and wrote the letters I wished I had found.

It was a gift, really. Lulu came to me fully formed. Having her write to James Beard was natural; in the early years he wrote for Gourmet. I spent an entire happy afternoon channeling Lulu. Then I put her letters away, and didn’t think about them again until I started writing the novel.

EG: How did Lulu’s discovery about her father help Billie come to terms with her own loss?

RR: There’s no “right” way to feel about loss, but there’s almost always an element of anger. And with that anger comes guilt: How can you be angry at the dead? Lulu and Billie had both idealized people, and then learned a terrible truth about them. As Lulu relates her father’s story, she’s able to admit that she is furious at him. It is an important moment for Billie: Lulu’s anger helps her come to terms with her own conflicted feelings about her sister.

EG: I was so touched by Billie’s relationship with Sammy, the travel writer at Delicious! Their developing friendship—-a twentysomething young woman and a seventy–plus gay man—-is one of the novel’s great pleasures. How would you characterize that friendship?

RR: I think of Sammy as Billie’s fairy godfather. He waves a wand, takes her on a magic carpet ride, saves her from herself. But it’s not until she saves him right back that their friendship really flourishes. What’s important about their friendship is that they begin to feel so safe with each other that they can risk being vulnerable. You can’t really be friends with anyone until you’re willing to trust them.

EG: What’s next for you?

RR: I have a cookbook coming out: My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life. I’m working on a memoir about the Gourmet years. And I’ve started my next novel.

Jodi Picoult Discussion Questions: Leaving Time

April 30th, 2015

Leaving Time_Picoult

For more than a decade, Jenna Metcalf has never stopped thinking about her mother, Alice, who mysteriously disappeared in the wake of a tragic accident. Refusing to believe she was abandoned, Jenna searches for her mother regularly online and pores over the pages of Alice’s old journals. Desperate to find the truth, Jenna enlists two unlikely allies in her quest: Serenity Jones, a psychic, and Virgil Stanhope, the jaded private detective who’d originally investigated Alice’s case along with the strange, possibly linked death of one of her colleagues. As the three work together to uncover what happened to Alice, they realize that in asking hard questions, they’ll have to face even harder answers.

Speaking of questions and answers, below are some discussion questions that can guide your book club discussion of Leaving Time.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Despite their different backgrounds, Jenna, Serenity, and Virgil form a sort of unconventional family together. What do you think brings them together? Have you ever had a similar experience of finding support from an unlikely source?

2. Alice says that 98 percent of science is quantifiable, leaving 2 percent “that can’t be measured or explained. And yet that does not mean it doesn’t exist.” (p. 392) Do you agree or disagree? Can you think of examples from the book or from your own experience of something that fits into that 2 percent?

3. Virgil grapples with helping Jenna when he suspects discovering the truth might be more painful to her than never knowing. Have you ever been in a situation where you knew a truth that it might hurt someone to hear? What did you do?

4. Serenity’s fake psychic readings are successful, she says, because people look for sense in the nonsensical. Do you agree or disagree? If a psychic reading brings someone comfort or helps them grieve, do you think it matters if the message is faked?

5. Jenna meets up with another character at the very end of the book. (pp. 394–395) Were you surprised to see who that was? Why or why not?

6. Alice describes some amazing examples of elephants appearing to exhibit grief and empathy, which are drawn from real–life research. Discuss some of the ways elephant grief is depicted. How is it the same as human mourning? How is it different?

7. One of the major themes of Leaving Time is loss and how to cope with it. Discuss some of the ways the characters in this novel deal with their losses. Do you identify with any of these coping mechanisms more than others? How do you approach loss?

8. Do you think Thomas’s erratic and upsetting behavior justifies Alice’s affair with Gideon? What would you have done in Alice’s place?

9. Jenna compares her search for her mother to Captain Ahab’s search for the whale in Moby-Dick, or Javert hunting Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, saying they are all three defined by their search. Do you agree with this assessment? Have you ever felt defined in this way by something you wanted?

10. Why do you think Serenity loses her gift? And why do you think Jenna is able to help bring it back?

11. Do you believe in ghosts? If you could communicate with anyone who has passed away, who would it be?

12. Discuss the significance of the title Leaving Time. What is the literal meaning that Jenna ascribes to the phrase as a baby? What are some other ways the title could be interpreted?

13. “Negative moments get remembered. Traumatic ones get forgotten.” (p. 12) What do you think this means? Do you agree or disagree? Have you ever experienced something and discovered later that someone else remembers it completely differently?

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