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Reader’s Guide: THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE by Darcie Chan

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Chan_MillRiverRecluse This sensational New York Times bestseller and hot read of the summer keeps getting bigger! We have the questions and topics for discussion for Darcie Chan’s page-turning novel, The Mill River Recluse.

Don’t forget to stay in touch with Darcie on Facebook and Twitter!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The Mill River Recluse is not written in a single timeline, but instead uses alternating timelines that link near the end. What did you think of this structure? Was it effective in driving the story forward, or was it disorienting? Did you prefer one timeline over the other?

2. Of all the characters in The Mill River Recluse, with which one did you most identify, and why? If you could meet one of the characters for coffee, who would it be and why?

3. The opening scene of the book is of Mary McAllister taking her own life to avoid having to suffer further agonizing pain and certain eventual natural death resulting from her metastatic cancer. Do you think Father O’Brien knew Mary planned to take her own life when he left the marble mansion that last night? What do you think about Mary’s decision to take things into her own hands? Did this scene give you pause?

4. How does Mary McAllister evolve from a shy teenager into a woman held prisoner by social anxiety and agoraphobia? Do you agree with the way in which Father O’Brien tried to help her? Would you have done anything differently had you been in his position?

5. Patrick McAllister is shockingly cruel, particularly toward the most vulnerable people and the animals in his life. Do you think that Patrick became the person he did because of his parents and their relationship with him?

6. Unlike Patrick McAllister, Leroy Underwood had a very underprivileged upbringing. During Leroy’s visit with Father O’Brien in the hospital, he sheds tears. Do you think his tears were a sign of remorse? Are he and Patrick McAllister different kinds of “bad people,” or do you think their character defects are of a similar nature?

7. Despite his animosity toward Leroy, Father O’Brien visits him in the hospital to offer him support and comfort. Can you describe a time in your own life when you had to put aside your feelings to do something that you knew was right?

8. Of all the potions Daisy concocts, is there one that you believe you could drink if you had to? How would you react if Daisy showed up at your door peddling her wares?

9. Father O’Brien has been obsessed with spoons his entire life, but the reason for his attraction to those particular objects is never discussed or revealed. Do you have any theories as to why he is so drawn to spoons—so drawn, in fact, that he is willing to break his vows and steal them—as opposed to some other kind of item? Do you believe he has truly kicked his “spoon habit”?

10. Claudia Simon’s struggle to eat healthy food is almost sabotaged by a box of Entenmann’s powdered sugar doughnuts. Is there a food that you have trouble resisting?

11. Jean Wykowski struggles with middle age and a life that seems to have settled into a predictable routine. Instead of “borrowing” Mary’s ring, what advice would you give her to add a little excitement and variety in her life?

12. Near the end of the novel, the people of Mill River learn that they have actually had a kind of relationship with Mary McAllister for years, and that Mary is a very different person than many of them had imagined her to be. Are there other relationships in the novel in which one of the characters learns something new or unexpected about another?

13. Which character do you feel experiences the most personal growth throughout the course of the story, and why?

14. How did you feel upon finishing The Mill River Recluse? Did anything about the story or characters linger in your mind or change the way you view certain people or situations?

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Reader’s Guide: TAPESTRY OF FORTUNES by Elizabeth Berg

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Berg_Tapestry of FortunesAs you and your book club prepare your discussions of Elizabeth Berg’s Tapestry of Fortunes, we’d like to share this special Random House Reader’s Circle material to get the conversation going. Enjoy!


1. Cecelia is a motivational speaker who preaches that “getting lost is the only way to find what you didn’t know you were looking for” (8). Do you think Cecelia is able to take her own advice? How does moving in with Lise, Joni, and Renie help her explore this philosophy?

2. Throughout the novel, Cecelia and the other women often rely on her box of fortunes to help them search for answers to their big questions. How do these answers affect their decision-making? Do their fortunes make a difference, or is it something else that ultimately guides them to these answers?

3. “I, the motivational speaker, have not been able to motivate myself into making a new life without her,” Cecelia says, referring to Penny’s death (10). What eventually changes for Cecelia and enables her to start a new life? Does Penny play a part in this change, even after her death?

4. When Brice, Penny’s husband, tells Cece that he is getting re- married, she is initially surprised, but also happy that he is moving on. “People with people, good. People alone, bad,” Penny always used to say to Cece (35). Is it difficult for Cece to heed this advice? Why might it be easier for Brice?

5. Soon after Cece receives the postcard from Dennis, she decides to go visit him. What makes Cece so certain about seeing him again? Do you ever get over your first love? How might this relate to Lise’s situation?

6. When Cece moves into the house, Renie is initially defensive and skeptical. Her career as a columnist, too, highlights her skeptical and sarcastic tendencies. Why do you think Renie shows only this side of herself for much of the novel? How are the other women eventually able to uncover the more sensitive side of Renie?

7. When Cece volunteers at the Arms and meets Michael, she opens up to him about Penny’s death. She explains that it was “one of the most beautiful experiences” of her life (124). What does Cece mean about Penny’s death being beautiful? How does that beauty continue to influence Cece’s life?

8. Renie asks the women whether they believe in the truth of the saying “Be kind, for everyone is carrying a heavy burden” (174). Wanda, the waitress they meet during the road trip, asserts that although not everyone carries a heavy burden, everyone does carry the burden of fear (175). How is this “burden of fear” a theme throughout the novel?

9. Mother-daughter relationships are central to the story: Renie struggles with meeting her estranged daughter; Lise’s daughter urges her not to reunite with her ex-husband after their divorce; Cece grows annoyed with her mother for acting more like a girlfriend than a parent (110). What makes a mother-daughter relationship so special? What makes it so fraught, and sometimes difficult?

10. After Michael dies, Cece remembers a conversation that she and Penny once had: Cece asked, “What’s the point in loving anything when it will just change or be taken away?,” and Penny replied, “The point in loving is only that. And when you lose something, you have to remember that then there is room for the next thing. And there is always a next thing.” (213) How does this idea relate to the broader theme of the novel? What is the “next thing” that Cece, Phoebe, and the other characters manage to find?

11. Toward the end of the novel, Cece mentions something that Dennis said about photography, which she feels reverberates in her own life: “The greatest understanding of a thing is when you can’t reduce it any further.” (217) How does this statement relate to Cece’s views on love and friendship? How might it relate to your own?

12. Lise, Joni, Renie, and Cecelia are all very different. What do you think makes their relationships with one another thrive, in spite of their differences? Consider how this relates to the quote at the end of the novel: “We are a convergence of fates, a tapestry of fortunes in colors both somber and bright, each contributing equally to the Whole.” (218–19)

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An Essay from Melanie Benjamin, author of THE AVIATOR’S WIFE

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Benjamin_Aviator's Wife In Melanie Benjamin’s Random House Reader’s Circle essay, she discusses what makes a book a “book club” book, Anne Lindbergh, and what drew her to writing about this subject in The Aviator’s Wife. We have an excerpt below for you to enjoy!

THE LAST TO KNOW An Essay by Melanie Benjamin

What makes a book a “ book-club” book? Why are some books read and immediately passed around, so eager are readers to discuss them with someone? What kind of topic or writing style or time period provokes this kind of response more than others?

Those are million-dollar questions, of course. No one knows the real answer; there ’s no formula that can be passed along from author to author. We write what we have to, never imagining what the true response will be to the finished product. And occasionally, we get lucky.
“This is a great book-club book!” “I can’t wait to discuss it at our next meeting!” “I just had to tell all the women in my life to read it!”: These have been some of the heartfelt responses to The Aviator’s Wife, and I confess that every time I hear something like this, I giggle. And then scratch my head, trying to figure out just what I did in this book, what idea or emotion or overriding theme within the pages spoke to so many readers. And I think I’ve come up with a couple of answers.

First of all, Anne. Or Anne’s journey, I think it’s safe to call it. Tragic, brave, wry, sensitive, strong, passive, loyal (to a fault), duplicitous…all these adjectives have been used to describe her. And they all fit, at different times in her story; that ’s one reason why I was drawn to writing about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. There is such a duality to her! One minute she ’s a typical bride of her generation, docile, passive, allowing her husband to speak for her. The next, she’s flying through the air on her own, setting records, achieving firsts. One minute she’s frustratingly loyal to a man who doesn’t deserve it; the next she ’s embarking on a passionate affair. She ’s a tragic figure, suffering through her child ’s death; she ’s a controversial one, championing Hitler prior to World War II. We want to understand her, and we do, at times. Then we don’t. She’s not a one-size-fits-all heroine, not at all, and so we continue to examine her, parse her actions, better understand the time in which she lived, try to walk a mile in her shoes from a different era. Some of us can, others cannot. And so we continue to discuss her.

Then, of course, there is Charles. I’m honestly perplexed when readers tell me what a jerk he was in my book, how my bias against him is so obvious. Well, the truth is, I kind of liked him while I was writing him. Or perhaps the better way to put it is that I had a lot of sympathy for him—at times. I never stopped admiring what he had accomplished so young; I never stopped trying to understand how becoming the world ’s hero at the age of twenty-five—forever living your life pursued and hounded, always being asked to give more, do more, be more—might change a person. I never stopped remembering how his failure to bring his child home to Anne had to have haunted him the rest of his life.
I also never stopped being disappointed by him, however. Frustrated, as well. Just as Anne must have been. So Charles, too, provokes much discussion, particularly among younger women. Women born long after the feminist movement, who take it for granted that they’d never put up with a man like him, who would never stay loyal to him as Anne did. Women who don’t remember that they’ve come a long way, baby.

Then there is the history; there is simply so much of it! So much we didn’t read in our fourth-grade American history books. I came to this suspecting that while we all “knew” the Lindberghs, it was only in bits and pieces, never completely. And from the number of readers who have told me, “I had no idea!” about different parts of Anne and Charles’s story, I now know that I was right.

You can read the rest of the essay in addition to discussion questions for your book club in the back of the trade paperback. Stay connected with Melanie Benjamin on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: THE TRUTH ABOUT YOU by Susan Lewis

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Lewis_The Truth About YouThe Truth About You by international bestselling author Susan Lewis is perfect for readers of Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenkauf, and Elizabeth Flock. This novel of secrets and suspenses challenges the ties that bind—while reigniting the hope of enduring love. Here at Random House Reader’s Circle, we have the exclusive book club questions for you and your friends to enjoy!

If you’ve ready read the book, feel free to share your thoughts with us on Facebook.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. From the beginning of the novel, Stacy and Lainey seem to have a closer relationship than that of Lainey with her own sisters. What do you think draws them together?

2. What do you make of the connection between Peter and his dog, Sherman? What does Sherman symbolize? What do you think Sherman’s steadfast loyalty meant to Peter as his dementia worsened?

3. Tierney and Guy’s relationship was risky from the beginning. When do you think Tierney became uncomfortable with what was happening? Do you think she should have told her mother when matters worsened? What can a mother do to prepare her daughter for situations like this or protect her from them?

4. Despite Tom’s absence, Lainey refused to change her plans to go to Italy. Why? Was it a dedication to discovering the truth? A need to find somewhere to belong? Retaliation? Or something else?

5. How did Skye and Tierney’s friendship transform throughout the novel? What were the most influential moments?

6. Before Tom’s relationship with Kirsten and Julia is revealed, Max is very alienated from the Hollingsworth family, especially Lainey. Yet by the end of the book he is closer than ever. What changed?

7. Do you think that Lainey’s discovery about her father was for the best? What was your reaction when she found out? What would you have done if you were in Lainey’s position?

8. Why did Tom want his family to learn about Julia’s condition on their own? Do you think if he had told them earlier they would have responded differently to the situation?

9. As the novel progresses, similarities between Alessandra, Lainey, and Tierney start to become apparent. What are these? Does this remind you of anything in your own family?

10. Divorce is a common theme throughout the novel. What do you think the author might be saying about divorce and its effects on a family, particularly via Stacy, Skye, and Nadia?

11. There are many life–changing secrets throughout this novel, but only some are disclosed. Why do you think some remain hidden? Is secrecy ever better than honesty? If so, how should you decide which secrets are better left untold?

12. Throughout the novel, Lainey relies on words to express her emotions, while Tom instead chooses action. Is one better than the other? Would things have happened differently if Tom had been more plainspoken or Lainey less effusive with her words?

13. There were many themes throughout the novel—-secrecy, adultery, family, trust, etc. Which theme resonated most strongly with you?

Reader’s Guide: THE TRUTH ABOUT YOU by Susan Lewis

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Lewis_The Truth About YouThe Truth About You is for readers of Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenkauf, and Elizabeth Flock comes a novel of secrets and suspense that challenges the ties that bind—while reigniting the hope of enduring love.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. From the beginning of the novel, Stacy and Lainey seem to have a closer relationship than that of Lainey with her own sisters. What do you think draws them together?

2. What do you make of the connection between Peter and his dog, Sherman? What does Sherman symbolize? What do you think Sherman’s steadfast loyalty meant to Peter as his dementia worsened?

3. Tierney and Guy’s relationship was risky from the beginning. When do you think Tierney became uncomfortable with what was happening? Do you think she should have told her mother when matters worsened? What can a mother do to prepare her daughter for situations like this or protect her from them?

4. Despite Tom’s absence, Lainey refused to change her plans to go to Italy. Why? Was it a dedication to discovering the truth? A need to find somewhere to belong? Retaliation? Or something else?

5. How did Skye and Tierney’s friendship transform throughout the novel? What were the most influential moments?

6. Before Tom’s relationship with Kirsten and Julia is revealed, Max is very alienated from the Hollingsworth family, especially Lainey. Yet by the end of the book he is closer than ever. What changed?

7. Do you think that Lainey’s discovery about her father was for the best? What was your reaction when she found out? What would you have done if you were in Lainey’s position?

8. Why did Tom want his family to learn about Julia’s condition on their own? Do you think if he had told them earlier they would have responded differently to the situation?

9. As the novel progresses, similarities between Alessandra, Lainey, and Tierney start to become apparent. What are these? Does this remind you of anything in your own family?

10. Divorce is a common theme throughout the novel. What do you think the author might be saying about divorce and its effects on a family, particularly via Stacy, Skye, and Nadia?

11. There are many life-changing secrets throughout this novel, but only some are disclosed. Why do you think some remain hidden? Is secrecy ever better than honesty? If so, how should you decide which secrets are better left untold?

12. Throughout the novel, Lainey relies on words to express her emotions, while Tom instead chooses action. Is one better than the other? Would things have happened differently if Tom had been more plainspoken or Lainey less effusive with her words?

13. There were many themes throughout the novel—secrecy, adultery, family, trust, etc. Which theme resonated most strongly with you?

Giveaway Opportunity: THE WISHING THREAD by Lisa Van Allen

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

Allen_The Wishing Thread“Reader to reader, knitter to knitter: You’re going to love this book.”—Debbie Macomber

For fans of Jennifer Chiaverini and Sarah Addison Allen, The Wishing Thread is an enchanting novel about the bonds between sisters, the indelible pull of the past, and the transformational power of love.

The Van Ripper women have been the talk of Tarrytown, New York, for centuries. Some say they’re angels; some say they’re crooks. In their tumbledown “Stitchery,” not far from the stomping grounds of the legendary Headless Horseman, the Van Ripper sisters—Aubrey, Bitty, and Meggie—are said to knit people’s most ardent wishes into beautiful scarves and mittens, granting them health, success, or even a blossoming romance. But for the magic to work, sacrifices must be made—and no one knows that better than the Van Rippers.

When the Stitchery matriarch, Mariah, dies, she leaves the yarn shop to her three nieces. Aubrey, shy and reliable, has dedicated her life to weaving spells for the community, though her sisters have long stayed away. Bitty, pragmatic and persistent, has always been skeptical of magic and wants her children to have a normal, nonmagical life. Meggie, restless and free-spirited, follows her own set of rules. Now, after Mariah’s death forces a reunion, the sisters must reassess the state of their lives even as they decide the fate of the Stitchery. But their relationships with one another—and their beliefs in magic—are put to the test. Will the threads hold?

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Reader’s Guide: THE LIFE LIST by Lori Nelson Spielman

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Spielman_The Life List
A Conversation Between Lori Nelson Spielman and Meg Waite Clayton

Meg Waite Clayton is the nationally bestselling author of The Four Ms. Bradwells, The Wednesday Sisters, and The Language of Light, all national book club picks. Her latest novel, The Wednesday Daughters, is available now from Ballantine Books.

Meg Waite Clayton: Can you tell us a little about what sparked the idea for The Life List?

Lori Nelson Spielman: One day I came across an old cedar box, and tucked inside was the life list I’d written over thirty years ago. Many of the goals could be checked off. I’d made my high school cheerleading squad. I’d graduated from college and learned to ski and traveled to Europe. I had a good marriage . . . I even had a cat. But I didn’t live on a lake. I hadn’t designed my own home. I didn’t have two kids, or a horse, or a dog. As I read the list, I thought about how different my life would be if I’d fulfilled every goal my fourteen-year-old self longed for. I love stories where someone dies and leaves a message to their loved one, like P.S. I Love You by Cecelia Ahern or Message in a Bottle by Nicholas Sparks. So what if someone died, and left an old life list for their loved one to complete?

In the course of several days, my story evolved. First, I came up with riddles from a dying mother, offering her daughter cryptic clues to find her true self. But that was silly. Why the riddles? Why wouldn’t her mother just tell her daughter what she wanted her to accomplish? And it was crucial that the mother didn’t appear heavy-handed or controlling. The story could only work if it was clear that the mother’s intentions came from a loving heart. I also knew the story risked being predictable. I imagined readers rolling their eyes, sure that in the end, Brett would be married to the love of her life and have a baby and a dog and a horse. I didn’t want Brett to accomplish her goals easily, or in a conventional way the reader might expect. I wanted some goals to lead to others, in a circuitous, serendipitous way.

MWC: Was writing a novel on your life list?

LNS: I wish I could say yes. But like Brett’s, my goals were very humble. As a child and teen, the idea of becoming a writer never once occurred to me. In my middle-class neighborhood in my middle-class town, I’d never met a single novelist. Novelists lived in New York City, or in glass-walled houses overlooking the Pacific. As I headed off to college, my mother—who naturally as- sumed that her daughter who loved dolls and babies would eventually have a house full of children—suggested two career choices. “A teacher or a nurse,” she said. “Both are good jobs for a mother.” I got really crazy and chose to become a speech patholo- gist! In my coursework, I opted to get my teaching certification as well. And though I enjoyed the profession of speech and language pathology, it never fully satisfied my creative yen.

MWC: How did your passion for writing develop?

LNS: I’m convinced that my love for storytelling spawned from my early days of playing Barbies. As a child, the only thing I loved more than my Weekly Readers and Encyclopedia Brown books were my Barbie dolls. My sister, Natalie, and our friends—usually Cathy or Michelle—would sit on our bedroom floor with our chosen dolls, creating plot and character and dialogue. Though we weren’t aware of it then, we were storytelling. Each play session was wrought with conflict and drama. We chose different settings—sometimes a beach, other times an amusement park or fancy department store. And when the pace slowed or the plot unraveled, we’d pack up our plastic cases and call it a day, only to return the following day with a fresh story to enact.

Eventually I outgrew Barbies, but I still longed to tell stories. While babysitting, I made up tales about a group of kids and their babysitters from hell. Before long, the stories became known as The Janet, Edgar, and Alice Stories, loosely based on a wacky babysitter I’d had as a child. The kids couldn’t get enough of them. I was forced to make up stories on the spot, which was a terrific exercise.

Throughout my school years, English was my favorite subject. I loved reading, writing, and poetry. It was in Mr. Chapman’s creative writing class that I got my first dose of critical acclaim. It was a short story about a young woman’s devastating breakup with her cheating scum of a fiancé and her budding rebound romance with Mr. Perfect—all of which took place within a span of two days! (What can I say? I liked fast-paced stories, even then.) Across the front of the paper, Mr. Chapman wrote “Adequate handling of dialogue.” That was it. But his lack of enthusiasm didn’t faze me because my girlfriends—the people who really mattered—loved the predictable, clichéd story. Carole read it first, then passed it to Sherri, who passed it to Linda and Cindy. It circulated between classes faster than a chemistry quiz cheat sheet. I was intoxicated.

MWC: Did you have a favorite character in The Life List? Were any of them particularly hard to write?

LNS: I loved Brett, and what surprised me was that I loved writing Brad, too. I’d once written a manuscript with a male protagonist, and never really connected with his voice. Brad was much more accessible to me, and felt completely authentic. But as much as I loved Brett and Brad, I loved writing Elizabeth even more. It seems strange, since Elizabeth has already died when the book begins and we never actually meet her. But I felt such affection for this woman. She came to me so vividly; all I had to do was “listen” to her and type her words. It was tricky writing Garrett because I needed the reader to believe, as Brett did, that he was sixty-something—but still cool enough that Brett could fall for him. I’d say Andrew was the hardest to write because I had a tendency to go overboard with awfulness. During rewrites I made him less of a jerk, believe it or not. I worried that readers would have had a hard time figuring out why Brett would spend four hours with the guy, let alone four years.

MWC: I loved the relationship between Brad and Brett, and found myself longing for them to connect. Can you talk a little about why you took them in a different direction?

LNS: I was tempted! But as I mentioned, the story risked predictability. Though I loved Brad and thought he and Brett would be a great fit, it was just too easy. And as we all know, love is never easy! In the original draft, Brad was gay. Brett didn’t realize it until she showed up on his doorstep New Year’s Eve. In a bold attempt at bravery, she confessed her love to him. He hugged her, in that brotherly way she mistakenly thought might be something more. Then the front door swung open and a man appeared— clearly Brad’s partner. Humiliated, Brett dashed from the house, similar to the scene in the final draft. But my agent thought this was too much of a shock. The two had grown so close over the months, so why wouldn’t Brett have known he was gay? And she was right.

MWC: What other changes did you make along the way?

LNS: While Brad was gay in the first draft, Carrie was straight. Problem was, I never had a truly convincing reason for Brett and Carrie’s falling out. Once I made Brad straight (yes, I actually possess that power!), I decided Carrie would be gay, providing a reason for the teenage Brett to have ended their friendship—and later realize how wrong she’d been. Another difference was that the original manuscript opened with Brett finding her mother’s medical marijuana rather than the champagne. Her mother attached a note to it, just as she did with the champagne. Brett was high rather than tipsy when Catherine found her. But as my brilliant agent pointed out, getting high seemed inconsistent with Brett’s character. The big challenge was to come up with a poignant funeral luncheon scene where Brett still receives a message from her mother and ends up doing something foolish. I really struggled with the champagne. I mean, who hides a bottle of champagne in their bedroom? In the end, I hope it seemed plausible.

MWC: Did you create a detailed outline before beginning your novel, or did you let the story take shape as you wrote?

LNS: I had a whisper of an outline, but the story was mainly in my head. I knew how I wanted it to end, which I think is impor- tant in storytelling, but there were a lot of surprises along the way. And when I arrived at the final pages, I almost changed my mind on the ending. Brett had come so far, and had accomplished almost every goal—except for the gargantuan feat of falling in love. I had always planned that she would find her love in the end, but suddenly it occurred to me that it might not be necessary. In fact, it might be better if she didn’t. I channeled my inner Gloria Steinem, loving the message it would send to women and girls— you can be happy and fulfilled without a man in your life. And I know plenty of single women who are. Brett’s heart-stopping, I’d-die-for-you love was her baby, and she was perfectly content. But then the romantic in me thought, “Nah. Single life is all fine and good for other women, but Brett needs to end up with Garrett.”

MWC: The way you deliver the relationship between Brett and her mother is just wonderful. Is it based on your relationship with your own mom? (And if so, can I borrow her?)

LNS: Thank you, Meg. I’m extremely lucky to have a wonderful relationship with my mother, who is still very much alive and healthy. And yes, the book has glimmers of my mother and our relationship woven throughout the pages. But no, she did not own a multimillion-dollar cosmetics company—unfortunately! And unlike the man who raised Brett, my dad was and continues to be a wonderful, loving father. Because I never had children, Elizabeth is the mother I can pretend I would have been!

MWC: Until I read your book, I’d never heard of a homebound teacher. Please tell us a little more about your job.

LNS: You’re not the only one, Meg. I hear that all the time. Actually my homebound teaching job is very much like I described it in the book. When students are sick—mentally or physically— I gather their work from the school and take it to their home or the hospital. It’s such a privilege being invited into someone’s home, where the teaching is one-on-one and relationships can be formed with the families. Just as it happens in the story, I’m able to glimpse a slice of life I wouldn’t normally be privy to, sometimes heartwarming, sometimes heartbreaking. I’ve had terminally ill students whose joy and enthusiasm for life humble me. Many of my students are new mothers—sometimes as young as seventh grade. I once had a student who wanted me to adopt her new baby. I’ve taught prickly students like Peter, who are homebound for disciplinary reasons. And even though it’s sometimes unnerving arriving at a house for the first time, especially in a neighborhood that seems questionable, the students are almost always wonderful in the comfort of their own home.

MWC: Andrew and Megan turned out to be pretty sketchy characters. Can you provide any insight as to what they’re up to now?

LNS: This is an example of one of those surprises that caught me off guard when writing. I fully expected Megan and Brett to be friends until the end. But then Andrew came home unexpectedly with another woman. Hidden in the dark confines of his kitchen, Brett waited while he grabbed the bottle of scotch and dashed upstairs with the woman. I was as shocked as Brett when I “saw” that the woman was Megan! And it made sense. Megan was on the hunt for another man, and thought Andrew just might fit the bill—and pay the bill!

What they’re up to now . . . well, they’re no longer together. Yup, that’s a real shocker, I know! Megan was appalled at how stingy Andrew was. I mean, what’s the use of dating a rich attorney if he won’t spend an f-ing dime? Now she’s seeing a retired investment banker. Oscar treats her like a queen, and together they share a sumptuous apartment in the Trump Tower. Her only problem is Oscar’s forty-three-year-old daughter, Felicity. Felicity is convinced Megan’s only after her father’s money. Imagine that! And Andrew? He is still alone, quietly lamenting the loss of Brett, though you’ll never hear him admit it. But recently he saw a spread in the Tribune, featuring the opening of Sanquita House. It was then that he realized their breakup might have been for the best. Seriously? The woman spent her inheritance on a homeless shelter? That sure as hell wouldn’t have happened on his watch.

MWC: Elizabeth went to great lengths to ensure Brett’s future. Is there a reason she didn’t do the same for her boys?

LNS: Like many mothers, Elizabeth’s relationship with her daughter was clearly different from her relationship with her sons. Joad and Jay were firmly established. They had spouses and careers. Because Brett was still floundering, Elizabeth took it upon herself to guide her trajectory. And just imagine if she’d left a note to Shelley and Jay saying, “Jay and Shelley, you just inherited enough money to last a lifetime . . . and then some. Jay, I’d suggest you quit your job at the university and stay home with your children. And Shelley, darling, you keep working.” Talk about a meddling mother-in-law! I’m guessing that might not have gone over big with Jay or Shelley. Elizabeth was wise enough to know when to voice her feelings and when to keep quiet. She had complete faith that Jay and Shelley would work things out for themselves through trial and error. And though Joad and Catherine led an untraditional life without children, Elizabeth realized that it worked for them. It was only Brett’s life that troubled Elizabeth, knowing that Brett had drifted so far away from the woman she was capable of being.

MWC: Deceit/infidelity is one of the themes of the book. Elizabeth had an adulteress affair with Johnny that resulted in Brett’s conception. Yet we forgive Elizabeth. How hard was that to manage?

LNS: Infidelity is never easy to justify, so this was tricky. The fact that Charles was so unemotional and remote makes us less sympathetic toward him. And Elizabeth is such a fine woman, not at all promiscuous. She was emotionally estranged from Charles, and Johnny’s love, however wrong it may have been, filled that void. I think her solitary, selfless life makes it easier to forgive her, to be glad that she had one glimpse of real love and happiness during that summer of 1978.

MWC: Brett is thirty-four years old when she finally goes after the goals she wrote at age fourteen. Is there any significance to these ages?

LNS: I chose fourteen in part because that was the age I wrote my life list. I also think fourteen is a pivotal age, that sliver of time between childhood and womanhood. Sadly, what we gain in maturity is often offset by a loss of confidence. I was a high school guidance counselor for eight years, and it was always sad for me to witness the students’ gradual loss of dreams—especially my female students. I’d have girls come see me their freshman year full of hope and confidence. They’d tell me they were going to be doctors, lawyers, astronauts. But for many of them, some- thing shifts in those next four years. They lose their mojo. I hate to say it, but all too often it was a boyfriend who changed them. I saw girls morph into the person he wanted her to be, and forget their own dreams. Now, I’ll see my old students—these same girls who had big dreams—working at a local convenience store, having forgotten all about that young girl with big dreams. At fourteen we dare to dream of things that at thirty-four we have abandoned.

And Brett was no different. As she grew older, she exchanged her dreams for Andrew’s, and convinced herself she was okay with that. Someone once said, “In her thirties, a woman tries to correct all of the mistakes she made in her twenties.” And in addition to the chaos of making those changes, women face the ever-present biological clock, which seems to run faster and faster when we approach our fourth decade. There’s a sense of urgency in our thirties—it’s sort of the last chance to get it right. Brett felt that urgency, along with a crippling fear of being alone for the rest of her life. Sadly, I don’t think these fears are all that uncommon.

MWC: At times it’s difficult to tell whether Brett loves her sister-in-law Catherine, or abhors her. Can you tell us how you developed this complicated relationship?

LNS: Maybe it’s just me, but don’t we all have that one person (or two or three) who intimidates us, intentional or not? Someone who is smart and confident, who never has a chipped nail or a coffee stain down her blouse? Catherine was everything Brett felt she wasn’t—and it didn’t help that Catherine did little to boost Brett’s confidence. In one scene Brett wondered, “Couldn’t Mom see that with time, I could have developed into a Catherine?” Of course Brett could never become the no-nonsense, officious person that Catherine was. And we love her all the more for her flaws and shortcomings.

MWC: What kind of books are you drawn to?

LNS: My taste in books is as variable as my taste in music or food. Sometimes it just depends on what I’m in the mood for. In general, I love dramatic stories involving family conflict and personal struggle. Some of my favorites, in no particular order, are John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, friendship, like your books, Meg, or Maeve Binchy’s novels.

MWC: If Brett could have one last conversation with her mother, how might it go?

LNS: Ah, how Brett would have loved this opportunity! And Elizabeth, too. Clearly, the conversation would vary greatly, depending on the time frame. In the novel, I never got a chance to share the letter Brett received from Elizabeth after achieving goal number 17, fall in love. I think she might have written something like this:

Dearest Brett,

I cannot express how much comfort it gives me to know that your smile is finally genuine, your heart finally full. Yes, you thought you loved Andrew, and perhaps you did, in your own way. But how different that love was from the love you now hold in your heart. Finding a life partner is the single biggest decision one makes in their lifetime, and I simply couldn’t stand idle while you made the wrong decision.
And you wouldn’t be the first to make the mistake. I’m amazed that the cornerstone of our lives is so often treated with frivolity. Perhaps we become impatient or jaded, we feel unable or unworthy. For whatever reason, we decide love isn’t the wellspring of our joy. I’ve witnessed many women— men, too—who rationalize that their jobs, their lifestyle, even their children can provide the fulfillment that is lacking in their relationship. I was guilty of it, too, my dear. You know that now. But how thrilled I am to know that you have found your love at last, that you didn’t compromise.

Treat love as the treasure it is. Never take it for granted; never fail to give thanks. And please know, I had no doubt you’d find your treasure. You have too much love in you, my dear daughter, to be left without.

Wishing you, and your love, love. Mom

Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Have you ever created a life list of your own? Like Lori and Brett, were you lucky enough to come upon it later in life and if so, did you find anything surprising? Have you man- aged to accomplish the majority of your childhood aspirations? How would your life be different if you’d completed your list in its entirety? After reading this book, are you inspired to revisit and even attempt to realize some of those early goals?

2. Frustrated and discouraged by her mother’s final wishes, Brett exclaims, “Life as I know it has just been shredded! And I’m supposed to piece it back together in a way that some— some kid wanted it to be?” Yet Elizabeth was sure all along that Brett would emerge as a happier, more contented woman if she did a major overhaul of her life. Do you think the goals we make as children are still valid into adulthood? Would people generally be better off getting back in touch with the things that mattered most to them as adolescents as opposed to the things they think matter most as adults? Is the shedding of our childhood fancies a necessary aspect of growing up, or might we be forsaking a fundamental piece of ourselves in the process?

3. The meaning of family and heredity is a major theme throughout the novel, especially in terms of how the characters view their relatedness. At one point, Joad refers to Brett as Elizabeth’s “illegitimate daughter,” while he feels disconnected from Austin because she doesn’t look like the rest of the family. Meanwhile, Brett grapples with her own issues of paternity concerning Johnny and Charles, which mirrors their sense of affinity, or lack thereof, for her. How would you say family— real family, as the characters struggle to define it—is distinguished within the context of this novel?

4. Elizabeth implies, and Brett eventually realizes, that she abandoned much of the courage and self-assurance she possessed as a girl to strive for acceptance in the eyes of men. The author herself has said that as a guidance counselor, she has observed this trend manifest in the lives of many girls, who start out with lofty goals only to forsake them in their relationships with the opposite sex. Do you think this is a common occurrence among women? Are there other female characters in the novel who have fallen victim to this unfortunate trap, or if not, how have they managed to avoid making the same mistake?

5. Brett’s relationship with Jean Anderson, the director of the Joshua House, proves to be quite an eye-opener for her, with Jean adding a dose of grim reality to the naïve, wide-eyed way that Brett has of looking at the world. Discuss how Brett’s worldview evolves from the beginning to the end of the novel and the other characters that play a part in this. As Brett asks herself, do you think ending her relationship with Mr. Right in hopes of finding Mr. Absolutely Right was courageous, or merely due to stupidity, immaturity, or arrogance, or perhaps a mix of them all? Do you think the spark that Brett felt was missing with Herbert is absolutely necessary in a relationship?

6. Do you think people commonly resist making difficult changes in their lives unless forced to, as Brett was? How do you tackle the obstacles in your own life that might prevent you from arriving at a positive outcome?

7. Motherhood is a central focus in this story. Interestingly, though, Elizabeth, the foremost maternal figure, is deceased before the novel opens, and in many ways, it’s the “phantom” mothers and children introduced along the way who play such a pivotal role. What are some of the lessons the characters have learned or you think will eventually learn from the absence of their mother or child? Are there any loved ones in your own life who have similarly conveyed an invaluable message after their passing?

8. In her notes to Brett, Elizabeth imparts wisdom that must necessarily last her daughter a lifetime. What was the most significant lesson you took away from her?
9. Brett abandoned her relationship with Carrie Newsome out of embarrassment and fear that she wouldn’t otherwise be accepted by a new clique. Is Brett deserving of Carrie’s unfaltering affection and acceptance? Have you ever experienced a similar situation with a friend, and if so, were you able to re- pair the relationship down the road?

10. For much of the novel, Brett worries she might be incapable of being involved in a “normal” relationship, either because she feels unworthy of love or because she’s grown accustomed to a certain type of man. When and why does this notion begin to deteriorate and what is it about Garrett that changes everything?

11. Looking back on her journey while in the warm familiarity of what was once her mother’s and is now her own home, Brett considers “how places become people, how this house and her old iron bed still pull me in and offer comfort when I need it.” Can you think of any other locales within the novel that take on the persona of a human being? Are there any places in your own life that function in the same manner?

12. What would your life list consist of now?

Reader’s Guide: HE’S GONE by Deb Caletti

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Caletti_He's Gone He’s Gone, A Novel by Deb Caletti

A Reader’s Guide
A Conversation with Deb Caletti

Random House Reader’s Circle: You’ve written many popular teen novels, but He’s Gone is your first novel for adults. What was the inspiration for your adult debut? Did you have the idea long before you began writing it? And how was the writing process different?

Deb Caletti: You never know how—or when—the idea for a book will appear. This one came right when I needed it, shortly after we’d begun discussing the possibility of me writing an adult novel. The inspiration arrived in much the same way that He’s Gone begins. I was lying in bed, trying to determine if my husband was home or not. I was doing that thing you do, where you listen for the sound of footsteps, or the toaster lever being pushed down, or coffee being made. And then, rather handily and helpfully, came the thought: What if you woke up one morning and found that your husband had vanished? The idea of writing the book as a confession came quickly after- ward, as did the decision to explore the subjects of guilt and marriage, wrongdoing, and the way those old, treacherous voices from childhood can continue to haunt us. I began work on the book as soon as I could, just after finishing The Story of Us. Sometimes you have an idea that makes you feel like a kid on Halloween night. Can we just skip dinner, so we can go? I wanted to go. I couldn’t wait to start this one.

The writing process wasn’t all that different from my other books. My previous nine young adult novels are full length and fairly complex and character driven, and my readers are already a mixed bag of ages, falling generally in the older teens to adult range. There is always a teen protagonist, but my books also feature adult characters of varying ages—mothers and daughters both struggling with screwed-up love lives, for example, or generations of women with something to say about relationships, family, and identity. I tend to try to push the boundaries of YA, offering more thought-provoking material than readers of that age might be used to, along with a slower, more literary pace. So writing a book for adults wasn’t a great leap. The only real difference I found was that the boundaries I always try to push didn’t exist anymore. There were no more fences for me to stay in or out of. It was very freeing. I found that, for me, writing within those boundaries is actually in many ways more challenging.

RHRC: He’s Gone takes place in Seattle, where you also live. Do you feel that your life in the city inspired or influenced the novel? If so, how?

D.C.: Setting has always played a huge part in my books, and I have no doubt that’s because I live in such an evocative place. I like to approach setting as if it were character, with a character’s traits and quirks and moods. Seattle—and the San Juan Islands, and the towns of the mountain foothills that I’ve pre- viously written about—all have so much character, it’s hard to cross a street without seeing something to include in a book. We are bombarded with setting here, which is a lucky thing for a writer, I think. It offers itself. He’s Gone primarily takes place in a particularly eccentric and picturesque part of our city—the houseboat community around Lake Union, where I once lived part-time. It seemed an especially fitting setting for the book. First, there is water everywhere, and these characters are, well, literally drowning in guilt. But even more than that, the houseboats and their docks are a little off kilter. Yes, they’re charming and shingled and dripping with gorgeous flowers. Ducks paddle by, and so do friendly kayakers. Sailboats swoop out to the lake on a glorious day. But, too, the houses and boats are rocking and clanging. The old piers sway and creak. On a rainy day, it’s a little spooky. On any day, it’s all slightly deranged.

RHRC: Though the story begins when Ian vanishes, he feels like a fully evolved character by the time we reach the ending. Can you tell us a bit about the challenges of fleshing out a character who is mostly “offscreen”?

D.C.: I like the idea of this, the “off screen” character. I also have one in my book The Story of Us. That character, Janssen Tucker, is totally absent until he appears for his one line at the very end of the book. The idea appeals to me because there are a lot of “offscreen” people in our own lives. You can come to know your partner’s ex or their deceased parent in a very real way, even if you’ve never met them. You can come to have very strong feelings about them, an understanding of them, a full picture, just from what you hear. In writing, the challenge to make a character come alive even when he’s not on the scene is met in the same ways it happens in real life. You hear stories about the person. Your partner tells you about his ex, but so does his best friend, and so does his mother. Maybe you see a photo or hear a rumor. Maybe you hear a voice on an answering machine.
Ian, in He’s Gone, needed to be much closer to the reader than Janssen Tucker did in The Story of Us. Aside from Dani, Ian is the most important character in the book. It’s crucial to feel him right there, even though he’s missing—to feel the press of his control, to even feel his breath on her face during that picnic. He needs to be so well known that we understand both his complicated emotions and the bind those emotions have put Dani in. Dani’s own flashbacks serve this purpose (we actually “see” Ian during those times), but Nathan’s accounts of their relationship flesh out Ian’s character, as do Isabel’s and Abby’s. What we see of his relationship with his children and Mary and especially his father hopefully fill Ian in further. What I also felt helped bring Ian close were the times that Dani heard him speak in her head. That’s about as close in as you can bring someone.

RHRC: Dani has a compelling narrative voice, and it’s easy to take her version of the truth for reality. Ultimately, though, we find out that she’s not a reliable narrator. What made you decide to go this route?

D.C.: I went this route because we are all unreliable narrators, not just in the way we tell our stories to others, but how we tell them to ourselves. Maybe especially how we tell them to ourselves. All of us create our own versions of an event, of our lives, even, not because we’re liars, necessarily, but because we can only see and understand the truth from our own viewpoint, and a shifting viewpoint at that. Facing the truth is a messy business. You’ve got denial, and pride, and the fact that understanding takes time; you’ve got perspective (or lack of it) and the pesky fact that we can only face the truth we can stand to face at any given moment. I didn’t see Dani as being willfully deceitful in the way she tells her story. I saw her as struggling with a hard truth that she hadn’t even entirely admitted to herself yet. It’s one of the toughest human being jobs, I think, being utterly and completely honest with yourself.

RHRC: One aspect of He’s Gone that really stuck with us is the imagery involving butterflies. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration there?

D.C.: My first marriage was an abusive one, and long after I left it, a very good friend, someone who knew me well, reflected on that time. He said, “You were like a butterfly, caught in a net.” I never forgot those words. Butterflies became personally symbolic to me. I knew I wanted to one day use this symbolism in my writing—the fragility, the strength, the capture, the escape. Because, yes, there is the helplessness of being trapped, but there is also what happens when the butterfly manages to get free.

RHRC: Did you know how He’s Gone would end before you began writing it? If not, can you tell us a bit about some of the other endings you considered, and why you ultimately chose this one?

D.C.: I always say that, for me, writing a book is like a wacky Greyhound bus trip—I know where I’m starting and where I’ll end up, but I have no idea what will happen along the way. He’s Gone was different, though. I didn’t know how the book would end. I struggled with it. I wanted to write the novel as a confession, and so this meant considering the obvious possibility that Dani had indeed harmed Ian. I felt this was the wrong route, though. It would have turned the book into a clichéd abused-woman-kills-husband story, and that felt cheap to me. It would have been a dishonest choice, a disservice, even, to anyone who’d actually been in a similar relationship. In reality, we know who usually ends up being harmed in situations like that, and it isn’t the perpetrator. Perhaps more important, though, in terms of my vision for the book, if Dani had been guilty of harming Ian, the story would have become about a violent act and not about what I wanted it to be about—the complexity and impossibility of assigning guilt; the million gray areas of culpability, which can sit right next to our very black-and-white feelings of shame.
After my father read the book, he handed it back to me and said, “I was really glad she didn’t do it.” And maybe that was the biggest reason that I chose the ending I did. I was really glad she didn’t do it, too.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Pollux, Dani’s dog, and Isabel, Dani’s eccentric mother, bring moments of comic relief to He’s Gone, even in the midst of all the dark moments and drama. Do you think this adds to the narrative? Why or why not?

2. Whenever someone in He’s Gone looks for rescue or validation in the form of another person, they end up disappointed— whether it’s Dani having an affair with Ian to escape her abusive marriage or Ian attempting to connect with his father. What do you make of this?

3. “Brief moments of goodness are shockingly persistent. You’re in the dark, darker, darkest, and yet there’s a dog sitting beside you, on his best behavior for a dropped crust, and there’s an industrious line of ducks paddling past, and there’s a grilled- cheese maestro. Life insists.” Discuss how this passage exemplifies the broader themes of the novel.

4. Dani thinks Ian is having an affair with Desiree, but it turns out that Desiree is just jealous of Dani and Ian and covetous of the life they share together. From the outside looking in, their relationship seems ideal to her. Discuss how all of the characters in He’s Gone tend to misconstrue situations due to their imperfect perception. What’s the author trying to tell us?

5. How did you feel about Ian after reading about the dinner that he and Dani shared with Paul Hartley Keller? Did it make you like him more? Less?

6. There’s a ceramic bust of Ian that looks exactly like Paul Hartley Keller—so much so that Dani mistakenly assumes he was the model for it. Why can Dani see the resemblance between the two men only in this one inanimate object? What’s the significance of what ultimately happens to the bust?

7. Dani often seems to feel physically threatened by Ian’s daughters, particularly the taciturn Bethy. Do you think this threat is real or imagined? What does it say about violence as a legacy?

8. Did your feelings about Mary change when you finally met her in the present-day narrative? How do you think your initial impressions of her were colored by the fact that He’s Gone is told from Dani’s point of view?

9. He’s Gone is written as Dani’s confession, and much of the book focuses on how guilt (both warranted and unwarranted) colors our lives. How do our experiences dictate what we feel guilty for and what we don’t? What must we do to be able to forgive ourselves and others? Near the end of the story, Dani holds her confession in her arms “like a baby, like my own child.” Why do you think the author chose these words?

10. For most of the novel, Ian seems like a buttoned-up, perfectly controlled person, whose biggest failing is his desire for perfection in everyone around him. Toward the end of the novel we finally find out that he is just as capable of abusive violence as Dani’s first husband. Do you think this revelation has more impact because it’s withheld for so long? What were your feelings about Ian before you found out the full story of the fateful picnic he took with Dani? What were they like after it?

11. Were you surprised to learn that Ian’s affair with Dani wasn’t his first? Why or why not?

12. Did you ever believe that Dani was responsible for Ian’s disappearance? Discuss.

A Reader’s Guide: THE CLOVER HOUSE by Henriette Lazaridis Power

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Power_The Clover House_TPPatras and Memory: How I Chose the Setting for The Clover House

Patras, Greece, is not the kind of city people choose to go to. Its architecture is dominated by boxy apartment buildings; its streets form a maze of one-way routes seemingly designed to prevent motion; its colonnaded sidewalks are rendered impassable by serried ranks of parked motorcycles. People transit through Patras, catching the ferry that will take them to Brindisi or Ancona or the Ionian Islands, or the train or bus that will take them to Athens. Patras is secondary to these other places, a placeholder, really. Just somewhere you have to sit for a few hours while you wait to leave.

But if you look closely, past the satellite dishes and the antennas and the graceless apartment buildings of rebar and cement, you can see the city it used to be before the war, with its neoclassical homes, its public squares, and its harbor with an embracing jetty. And you can always see the beauty of its geography: the deep violet of the Gulf of Patras, the Ionian Sea to the west and the islands rising from the haze, the mountain of Panachaïko, cypress-clad, sloping up beyond the vineyards that ring the city.

I set The Clover House in Patras because my mother’s childhood stories took place there—by the jetty, up the mountain, in those squares—and her stories tantalized me with their hints of who she had really been, and what had made her who she was. I spent much of my own childhood in the city, often trying to relive and recapture my mother’s experiences. In a sense, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been using Patras as a kind of live-in novel, a three-dimensional, real-life way to live an invented life. I always knew I loved Patras. But it wasn’t until after I had finished writing the actual novel of The Clover House that I realized the deeper role that Patras played for me, as a child and as a writer.

Growing up in a Greek household in the United States but spending summers in Greece with my family, I did a lot of coming and going—-linguistically, geographically, culturally. Like many bilingual and bicultural kids, blending in came naturally to me. In Greece, no one could tell I lived in America; and in America, no one could tell I had learned to speak Greek before English, and that I always spoke it at home. Many times, I felt this shuttling as a constant dislocation. I recall a pervasive sense of nostalgia, no matter where I was at any given time. But one thing was certain. When I was surrounded by my family in Greece, embraced by grand-parents, cousins, and above all aunts, I belonged. Nowhere—-not even in my New England hometown—-was that belonging more emphatic than in Patras.
The Patras of my childhood was a land of women—-women who gave me independence and who smothered me with affection. Though they were my aunts, they served, bless them, as my mothers, filling in where my own mother lacked motivation and desire. I suspect now that my aunts and other maternal stand–ins did this quite deliberately. Seeing my need, they circled around me with a perfect balance of strictness and solicitude.

My Aunt Elli’s husband, Pindaros, had a word for all these women: tsoupoules. Don’t look for the word in any dictionary; it was the product of Pindaros’s delighted imagination. The tsoupoules were my two cousins—one exactly my age and her sister old enough for us to idolize—my Great aunt Eugenia, later on two little nieces, and always my Aunts Zita, Elli, and Alexandra. They weren’t really my aunts, any more than my cousins were really my cousins. In America, you’d call them something once or twice removed. But my mother had grown up with these women in the same house. And in the way they embraced, chided, and encouraged, there was nothing removed about them at all.

Pindaros would giddily proclaim himself to be surrounded by tsoupoules when he came to join us at the beach each day. It wasn’t a fancy beach—just a thin strip of coarse sand and pebbles outside the city, and running in front of a tavern shaded by giant eucalyptus trees. We would come up from the sand, salt standing in crystals on our skin, and find Pindaros at a long table beneath the trees, their trunks whitewashed to thwart insects. He would sit there in his monogrammed shirt and dark-framed glasses, his hands scrubbed clean from his surgeon’s practice, looking like some jovial Onassis. He would order what he knew we liked, and we would sit in our bathing suits to eat plates of fried anchovies, wedges of watermelon, and chunks of fresh bread.

Pindaros wanted to hear what all the tsoupoules had been up to that day, but as soon as he had returned to work, the aunts’ conversation shifted to the past. My cousin Zeni and I crunched our anchovies—each one a single bite—and watched the aunts make one another laugh with reminiscences. The boy who wore trousers perpetually too short, lending his name to the phenomenon of flood pants. Hiking trips up Mt. Panachaïko to glide down on skis. How they flooded the entire basement of their grand house in the heart of the city, just so they could play Slip ’N Slide across the hallway tiles. How they raised silkworms and sold the cocoons to the neighborhood children during the war. The crazy cow that chased the aunts into the hayloft on their farm outside the city.

It’s true that this list hardly seems substantial enough to have provided summer after summer full of lunchtime stories. How much can you say about a boy who wore short pants? But as all storytellers know, and as all listeners come to discover, the telling sustains the tale, gives it new energy and life. It was those repeated tellings, I’m convinced, that taught me the power of stories and that gave me the unshakeable conviction that through stories we shape our lives.

Most summers, my mother returned to Athens before me, sometimes to meet my father for a trip outside of Greece, leaving me in my aunts’ care. When she was there to take part in these storytelling sessions, she revealed herself to be a master of cadence and pacing, an expert of the witty phrase. She often found humor and whimsy that others had missed. When I listened to my mother joining in with the aunts, I saw a side of her that I loved and craved more of, but a side of her, too, that I could never reach. In The Clover House, when Callie remarks on the way her mother’s stories fascinate her but keep her at a distance, it’s my own experience I’m evoking. In fact, I come to stories—not just particular fictions, but fiction in general—with that pervasive sense of nostalgia. My love for the story goes hand in hand with the sadness of not being a part of it—of being shut out, stuck in reality while the imagined world spins on just out of reach.

Zeni and I did our best to relive our mothers’ stories. Like them, we played in Psilalónia, shrieking at the bats that swooped over our heads; we visited the cave in the headland of Dasaki; we ate grilled corn on the cob from street vendors in the colonnades. One summer, we bought silkworm cocoons and kept them in Zeni’s basement, feeding the silkworms leaves from the mulberry trees that lined the sidewalk.

But the one adventure we never could recreate was the building of the clover houses. During their childhoods, my mother and the aunts spent parts of the summer on their family’s farm just outside Patras. The area where it once stood is just a short drive from the harbor now, but in the 1930s and ’40s, it was a good carriage ride from the family’s neoclassical house. On the farm, the overseer used to cut a miniature neighborhood out of the tall forage grass in one of the pastures—a grass called trifîli that translates best as clover, but was probably a combination of clover and rye grass. My mother, her brother, and her four cousins (the three aunts and my one eccentric uncle) all played in this neighborhood of grassy streets and houses made of clover and rye for hours, hidden from the world of adults. If I were to ask them now to tell me about the clover houses, my aunts and my mother would sigh with longing and satisfaction, reveling anew in their remembered idyll.

To me, the clover houses seemed a truly magical idea, a children’s world that was at once safe and exotic, domestic and wild. I was growing up with woods and rocks in New England and with beaches and city streets in Greece; an open space like a clover field was unlike anything I had ever experienced. When I learned, during the early writing of The Clover House, that my best friend had experienced something like this in Massachusetts, I was astonished and a little jealous. How could the clover houses from my mother’s fantastical childhood exist in my own reality and still pass me by?

The idea that someone could fashion a house for you where no dwelling was ever foreseen has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. The creation of a safe and secret place out of almost nothing this concept resonates at the heart of The Clover House. Callie’s dislocation from her relationships, her mother, her heritage is a form of what Greeks know as xenitia: self-imposed exile. It’s that isolation and longing of the self-exiled that the clover houses came to represent for me. In a sense, The Clover House is my clover house. It’s how I created for myself the Patras that I loved, and love, and the Patras that I never knew. It’s a world I shaped from what I already had, just as the farm overseer cut the dwellings and streets from the tall grass. And it’s just as fragile, just as ephemeral.

My last trip to Patras took place in March 2011, during Carnival season. While I was there, I couldn’t help following in Callie’s footsteps quite literally. The currents of Carnival and the pull of my family made the duplication inevitable. Like Callie, I stood in George’s Square and watched the parades, deafened by samba music. Like her, I stepped into the quiet of Aghios Andreas for the services of Forgiveness Sunday. Like her, I went across the Gulf of Patras to Nafpaktos for an afternoon’s Carnival respite.
One day, my cousin Alexandra and I drove just a bit out of the center of Patras to a neighborhood of one story houses and chicken wire fences. She pulled onto the broken curb and put her hazards on so that I could dash across the street with my camera. Through a gate, a dirt road disappeared into an overgrown copse, and a black dog barked over his shoulder at me. That was the farm. That was where my mother and her cousins had sat inside their clover houses, hidden away from the real world, lost in make believe. In all my childhood visits to Patras, no one had ever taken us there. I assumed the place had been built over. Now I think perhaps the aunts had given up on it, as if unwilling to bring the farm and the clover houses into a real world that was so changed. That day during Carnival, I stood at the gate, pointing my lens through the fencing at a world that was no longer there, looking in at a place just out of reach. I took a picture.

I still have the photograph, but only in my computer. Though my study is littered with artifacts and photographs from my family’s past, the photograph of the farm is one I may never print. It’s better left to memory and to my imagination.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Callie grapples with the disassociation of being a Greek American, perceiving herself as an outsider in a land that is both familiar and yet wholly foreign. What steps does she take to reclaim this distinct piece of her identity, and does she always go about it the right way? Has she managed to embrace both cultures by the end of the novel, or does she still feel the need to validate herself in the estimation of others?
2. Clio returns to Greece in the wake of her husband’s death, after having lived in America for more than thirty years. Callie considers that “It must have been hard for her to fit back into the Greek life her sisters had been living. Defiantly not American, she was no longer altogether Greek either.” In what ways does Clio’s experience of attempting to assimilate back into a life she left behind mirror Callie’s, and in what ways do they fundamentally differ?
3. Callie clings to the idyllic stories of her mother’s childhood in Greece—-of the “mischief and delight” she shared with her siblings that eventually gave way to darkness and despondency in her adulthood. What was it like for Callie to realize that her version of events had been based on romanticized memories and utter falsehoods? How did this awareness affect her already tenuous connection to her mother?
4. Callie is struck by how submissive Aliki has become in her marriage, which runs completely at odds with her fierce, unyielding nature as a teenager. Discuss how gender roles and expectations differ between American and Greek cultures, and how this has informed relationships and perceptions within the novel. Is it fair for Callie to judge Aliki’s position based on this, and do you think Callie ever comes to see more nuance in Aliki’s behavior than she had originally thought?
5. In her intimate relationships, Callie tends to assume failure. Why does she deny herself happiness time and again? What finally prompts her to change this pattern?
6. The novel takes place during the Greek celebration of Carnival, a time of wild abandon, extravagance, and self–indulgence. Interestingly, Callie is simultaneously seeking to gain a stronger understanding of herself within the context of her family, her relationship, and her culture. In what ways does this backdrop, and the beginning of the Lenten period that follows it, affect these areas of her life, and either help or hinder her from arriving at a place of greater clarity?
7. At one point, Aliki asks Callie which choice is braver: “to live your life every day or to lug some mysterious past around with you as an excuse not to.” Callie is not the only character to be deeply and immutably affected by the past, but is she, as Aliki insinuates, the only one who seems to be stunted from moving forward? How have the others managed to achieve liberation?
8. Clio engages in a high–stakes relationship during the war that costs her family everything, after which she seemingly spends the rest of her life in a state of penance. She abandons her dreams for the future, enters into a dull and troubled marriage, and flees to America only to hide behind draped windows and cast a pall over her household. Do you think it was right for her to behave this way, considering the combination of her naivety and the extreme circumstances she was forced to grow up in? Does Callie’s understanding, forgiveness, and urging enable Clio to absolve herself, at least to a small degree?
9. What about the second, and perhaps heavier, burden that Clio bears: the shame of the betrayal of Yannis? What, if anything, do you think allows her to cast off that burden?
10. How did the novel’s alternating between Callie’s contemporary visit to Greece and her mother’s WWII–era experience affect your reading? Did you feel a stronger sense of empathy for Clio as her story unfurled alongside Callie’s present–day investigation into her elusive past?
11. The war brought on a series of power shifts that blurred the lines between who could be considered an ally and who a foe. As Giorgio tells Nestor, “It’s a war. Times change. Now, Greeks and Italians, we’re on the same side. It’s official. We even gave you Greeks our guns.” How does this shadowy notion of who can and cannot be trusted impact the characters and play upon their sympathies?
12. Nestor’s note to Callie contains a passage she finds perplexing: “What seems important now was once insignificant and will become so again.” What do you make of the meaning? How does this message apply to the novel as a whole?
13. Do you think Callie and Clio are similar in personality, or not? In what ways do they differ and how are they alike?
14. What do you make of the fact that so many of the stories people tell or remember turn out to be untrue? How does that affect your take on the novel as a whole?

A Reader’s Guide: SUMMER BREEZE by Nancy Thayer

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Nancy Thayer on The Perfect Man

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark,” a flaw is removed from a woman’s face and she dies, because a perfect person can’t live.

But modern-day women still cherish the dream of the perfect man. In some novels, they ride horses, own castles, give diamonds. In real life, we hope they’re employed, have all their teeth, and behave with kindness to dogs, cats, and offspring.

I write about contemporary lives and people like the ones I know, with problems, flaws, hopes and dreams common to us all. I could invent a perfect man—but first, I’d have to figure out what the heck that means.

In Summer Breeze, I had the pleasure of writing about four good men. Even though he is a bad boy, I include Slade in that category. Can I tell you how many of my readers love Slade? My sister called me to protest because Bella chose Aaron when she could have had sexy Slade. But seriously, would you want to marry Slade? Would you really want to get pregnant, blow up like a turnip, give birth and not have sex for a few weeks, all the while worrying that Slade was flirting, or worse, with the delivery room nurse? (Not that I’m picking on nurses for flirting. My sister is a nurse. I worship nurses.)

No, I think we must rule out Slade as a candidate for the perfect man. But wait, maybe not! Maybe the question is: The perfect man for what?

Naturally—and I mean that in a few ways—we want our perfect man to be sexy. We fall in love with men in real life and in fiction because they’ve got serious sensual power that draws us to them. Of course not every woman feels that for every long-lashed man with bedroom eyes, which is, after all, a good thing.

Slade is sexy, but he’s also a player, a charmer, and a bit of a wheeler-dealer. He’s not completely trustworthy. He makes choices we might not approve of. He’s the man our mothers warned us about, which is no doubt part of his appeal.

There’s something inherently delicious, something inherently alive, something basically good in wanting to be bad, just for a moment, a moment out of time. Perhaps there are times when imperfection seems like just what the doctor ordered. We want to leave behind our routine lives with grumpy husbands, unpaid bills, whining children, critical mothers-in-law, dust balls under the sofa. Isn’t that why we read?

But if in real life we want a man for more than a toe-curling fling, we want someone reliable, generous, capable, and well, good. True, we want that zing when we fall in love with a man. Each time we look at him, we want our hormones to light up like fireworks on the Fourth of July. But eventually, we’d really need a man who would lovingly give our kids a bath and put them to bed when we have to work late. And hang up the wet towels. Am I asking too much? Well, a girl can dream . . . or write fiction.

Summer Breeze characters Aaron, Ben, and Josh are sexy, too. They’re also smart, kind, and dependable. But are they perfect?

Josh kept an important secret from his wife, Morgan. He told Natalie the secret—was he a bad husband? Or was Morgan a less than perfect wife?

Ben’s a scientist obsessed with his work, which makes him seem distant and, as he puts it, “mentally underground.” He does his best to express himself with Natalie. But will that be good enough for a long-term relationship like marriage? Will he talk to his children?

In my humble opinion, Aaron is the best of the lot. Not only is he intelligent, handsome, and patient, but he truly wants Bella to find the work that will make her heart sing, and that was the starting point for this book, as it is the foundation of my life. I want the work I love and a good man. I want my women characters to have all that, too.

Perhaps I treasure the work I love and my good man because I once, long ago, knew a Slade and can still pick up a book or pop in a DVD and see a Slade.
My own daughter—my intelligent, feminist daughter, married to a wonderful and handsome man, with three children—surprised me when she told me she would choose Slade over Aaron. Perhaps it had something to do with the passage where Bella and Slade are looking at Mr. Wheeler’s furniture: “Bella wanted to kiss Slade . . . Among all this antique furniture, she felt caught in a dream: She was the maid, he was the master; she was the peasant selling flowers, he was the soldier. He was the pirate. She was his plunder.”

Does this antiquated image thrive in all our feminine dreams?

Let me ask you: if you were Bella, who would you choose: Aaron or Slade? Or how would you describe your perfect man? Email me at nancy@nancythayer.com to let me know, and I’ll post the results on my website.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Bella is so attached to her home that she considers breaking up with Aaron so she can stay at Dragonfly Lake. Why do you think she feels this way?

2. Do you identify with Bella’s fear of change? Why does she finally decide to move to San Francisco? Would you have made the same decision?

3. While Bella finds comfort and nostalgia in the gargoyle cabinet and family antiques, Morgan feels trapped and isolated by the design of her luxurious new house. How can the appearance of a house affect the mood and family relationships within it? What is the difference between a house and a home, and does it have anything to do with furniture?

4. On the day that Natalie and Ben decide to stop talking about science and art, Natalie comments that their work is “the most interesting part of us, or the defining part of us.” Do you agree? What would you identify as the defining part of yourself: the roles you play, your interests, your personality traits, or something else entirely?

5. Why does Natalie and Ben’s relationship work despite their different interests?

6. Slade, the bad-boy, wheeler-dealer antiques aficionado, tells Bella that he would give up his playboy lifestyle to be with her. Why do you think he makes that declaration? Do you believe him?

7. How does Slade’s decision to bring Dina Hannoush to the dinner party at the end of the summer reflect on his character?

8. Although we often don’t see it, Josh struggles with pursuing his dream, supporting his family, and spending enough time with his wife and son. How well does he manage the balancing act?

9. Is Josh right to conceal his novel from Morgan? How would you have handled the situation?

10. While Natalie’s exterior is that of a sleek and sophisticated New Yorker, she often believes that her thoughts and feelings are those of a child. Does the summer represent a growing-up process for Natalie? How do her attitudes towards Marlene, her mother, reflect her maturity?

11. Which of the characters do you identify the most with? Why?

12. The lakeside community seems like such a wonderful place to live. What is your ideal community?

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