Mystery

The Vanishing Half

Author: 
Bennett, Brit

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical.

But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it's not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it's everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities.

Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape.

The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters' storylines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing.

Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person's decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise. (From the publisher.)

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. Stella and Desiree Vignes grow up identical and, as children, inseparable. Later, they are not only separated, but lost to each other, completely out of contact. What series of events and experiences leads to this division and why? Was it inevitable, after their growing up so indistinct from each other?

2. When did you notice cracks between the twins begin to form? Do you understand why Stella made the choice she did? What did Stella have to give up, in order to live a different kind of life? Was it necessary to leave Desiree behind? Do you think Stella ultimately regrets her choices? What about Desiree?

3. Consider the various forces that shape the twins into the people they become, and the forces that later shape their respective daughters. In the creation of an individual identity or sense of self, how much influence do you think comes from upbringing, geography, race, gender, class, education? Which of these are mutable and why? Have you ever taken on or discarded aspects of your own identity?

4. Kennedy is born with everything handed to her, Jude with comparatively little. What impact do their relative privileges have on the people they become? How does it affect their relationships with their mothers and their understanding of home? How does it influence the dynamic between them?

5. The town of Mallard is small in size but looms large in the personal histories of its residents. How does the history of this town and its values affect the twins and their parents; how does it affect “outsiders” like Early and later Jude? Do you understand why Desiree decides to return there as an adult? What does the depiction of Mallard say about who belongs to what communities, and how those communities are formed and enforced?

6. Many of the characters are engaged in a kind of performance at some point in the story. Kennedy makes a profession of acting, and ultimately her fans blur the line between performance and reality when they confuse her with her soap opera character. Barry performs on stage in theatrical costumes that he then removes for his daytime life. Reese takes on a new wardrobe and role, but it isn’t a costume. One could say that Stella’s whole marriage and neighborhood life is a kind of performance. What is the author saying about the roles we perform in the world? Do you ever feel you are performing a role rather than being yourself? How does that compare to what some of these characters are doing? Consider the distinction between performance, reinvention, and transformation in respect to the different characters in the book.

7. Desiree’s job as a fingerprint analyst in Washington DC is to use scientific methods to identify people through physical, genetic details. Why do you think the author chose this as a profession for her character? Where else do you see this theme of identity and identification in the book?

8. Compare and contrast the love relationships in the novel –Desiree and Early, Stella and Blake, and Reese and Jude. What are their separate relationships with the truth? How much does telling the truth or obscuring it play a part in the functionality of a relationship? How much does the past matter in each case?

9. What does Stella feel she has to lose in California, if she reveals her true identity to her family and her community? When Loretta, a black woman, moves in across the street, what does she represent for Stella? What do Stella’s interactions with Loretta tell us about Stella’s commitment to her new identity?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

Where the Crawdads Sing

Author: 
Owens, Delia

For years, rumors of the Marsh Girl have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life--until the unthinkable happens. Through Kya's story, Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

Discussion Guide: 

1. The North Carolina marsh where Kya lives has long been a sanctuary for outsiders. How does this setting shape the novel? How does growing up in this isolation affect Kya? In what ways does her status as an "outsider" change how others see her?

2. Why does Kya choose not to go back to school? Do you think she makes the wrong decision? How does Kya’s lack of formal education shape her vision of the world? Would her character be different if she had gone to school?

3. After Jodie and Pa leave Kya alone, she becomes close to Jumpin’ and Mabel. Why are these two adults drawn to Kya? What do they teach her about the world? Do you agree with Jumpin’s decision to protect Kya from social services (p. 110) and to encourage her to live alone in the marsh? Why or why not?

4. Why do you think Kya’s mother leaves in the beginning? Do you agree with her decision?

5. Kya often watches the other young people from town --- she even nicknames them "Tallskinnyblonde, Ponytailfreckleface, Shortblackhair, Alwayswearspearls, and Roundchubbycheeks" (p. 80). What does Kya learn from observing these girls? Why do you think she keeps her watching secret? Do you agree with Kya’s secrecy?

6. How is womanhood explored throughout the novel? What does being a woman mean to Kya? How does she relate to the other women in Barkley Cove?

7. Discuss Kya’s relationship with Tate. How does Tate’s understanding of Kya change over time? Is Tate a good partner for Kya? Why or why not?

8. Tate’s father tells him that poems are important because "they make ya feel something" (p. 48). What does poetry mean to Tate? What does it mean to Kya? How does poetry help Kya throughout the novel?

9. On page 142, Kya watches the fireflies near her shack, and notices that the females can change their flashes to signal different things. What does this realization mean to Kya? What does it teach her about relationships? How does this lesson influence Kya’s decisions in the second half of the novel?

10. Discuss how Kya’s observations of nature shape her vision of the world. Do you think these lessons adequately prepare her for life in Barkley Cove? Do you think human society follows the same rules as the natural world? Should it? Why or why not?

11. Is Chase a different kind of man than Tate? How are they different? Is one man better? Do you think that their differences are biological or learned? How does Kya see each man?

12. By the end of the novel, Kya thinks, “Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core” (p. 363). What does she mean? Do you agree with her philosophy? What do you think it means to be a good person? Do you think Kya is a good person? Why or why not?

13. Were you surprised by the verdict in the Chase’s murder trial? What about by the ending of the novel? Do you agree with Tate’s final decision? Why or why not?

(from ReadingGroupGuides)

Ordinary Grace

Author: 
Krueger, William Kent

That was it. That was all of it. A grace so ordinary there was no reason at all to remember it. Yet I have never across the forty years since it was spoken forgotten a single word.

New Bremen, Minnesota, 1961. The Twins were playing their debut season, ice-cold root beers were selling out at the soda counter of Halderson’s Drugstore, and Hot Stuff comic books were a mainstay on every barbershop magazine rack. It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.

Frank begins the season preoccupied with the concerns of any teenage boy, but when tragedy unexpectedly strikes his family—which includes his Methodist minister father; his passionate, artistic mother; Juilliard-bound older sister; and wise-beyond-his-years kid brother—he finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal, suddenly called upon to demonstrate a maturity and gumption beyond his years.

Told from Frank’s perspective forty years after that fateful summer, Ordinary Grace is a brilliantly moving account of a boy standing at the door of his young manhood, trying to understand a world that seems to be falling apart around him. It is an unforgettable novel about discovering the terrible price of wisdom and the enduring grace of God. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

SPOILER ALERT
1. Talk about the characters, starting with Ruth and Nathan Drum, the narrator's mother and father. How would you describe them and, especially, their marriage?

2. What do you think of Emil Brandt and his sister?

3. How would you describe Gus? What is the bond between Gus and Nathan based on? What do you think was the event during the war that the two refer to obliquely as they sit together in the darkened church.

4. Discuss, in particular, Nathan's sermon after Ariel's death? What are its theological implications? Does Nathan answer the question of theodicy: if God is loving and all powerful, why do bad things to happen to good people?

5. What prompts Frank, after his father's sermon, to go to Jake and tell him, "You're my best friend in the whole world. You always have been and you always will be"?

6. Why is Ruth so angry with Nathan after Ariel disappears? How would you respond to such a horrific loss: would you respond as Ruth does, in anger? Or would you be more like Nathan?

7. How would you define grace? What, specifically, does "ordinary grace" refer to in the story, and what is the larger religious significance of the term "ordinary grace"? Why is the grace spoken by Jake so extraordinary...and how does it affect members of his family?

8. Whom did you first suspect...and when did you begin to suspect the real killer? What "red herrings" (false clues) does the author put in the way to lead readers down the wrong path?

9. Much of the book has to do with young Frank's attempt to separate what he thinks he knows from what might (or might not) be the ultimate truth. Have you even been in a position of "knowing" something with certainty...and then learning that your judgment was wrong? How can we guard ourselves against false accusations?

10. What does Warren Redstone mean when he says to Frank, "You've just killed me, white boy"? Why does Frank let Redstone escape? Even Jake tells us...

How could I possibly explain my silence, my complicity in his escape, things I didn't really understand myself? My heart had simply directed me in a way my  head couldn't wrap its thinking around....

Was Jake wrong to let Redstone get away? Should he have kept silent?

11. Talk about Karl Brandt and how he dies—an accident...or intentional?

12. What do you think happened to Bobby Cole? Why might the author have left that mystery unresolved?

(Questions by LitLovers.)

Turn of Mind

Author: 
LaPlante, Alice

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is a spellbinding novel about the disintegration of a strong woman’s mind and the unhinging of her family. Dr. Jennifer White, recently widowed and a newly retired orthopedic surgeon, is entering the beginning stages of dementia—where the impossibility of recognizing reality can be both a blessing and a curse.

As the story opens, Jennifer’s life-long friend and neighbor, Amanda, has been killed, and four fingers surgically removed. Dr. White is the prime suspect in the murder and she herself doesn’t know if she did it or not. Narrated in her voice, fractured and eloquent, a picture emerges of the surprisingly intimate, complex alliance between this pair—two proud, forceful women who were at times each other’s most formidable adversaries.

The women’s thirty-year friendship deeply entangled their families, and as the narrative unfolds we see that things were not always as they seemed. Jennifer’s deceased husband, James, is clearly not the scion he was thought to be. Her two grown children—Mark, a lawyer, and Fiona, a professor, who now have power over their mother’s medical and financial decisions respectively—have agendas of their own. And Magdalena, her brusque live-in caretaker, has a past she hides. As the investigation intensifies, a chilling question persists: is Dr. Jennifer White’s shattered memory preventing her from revealing the truth or helping her to hide it?

Told through the voice of a woman with a powerful intellect that is maddeningly slipping away, Turn of Mind is not only a suspenseful psychological thriller that pulses with intensity but also a brilliant portrayal of the fragility of consciousness and memory, and of a mind finally turning on itself. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. What is the time span of the novel? Were you clear about the flashbacks in Jennifer’s memory? Even in her surreal perceptions, is she still working out the past in the stories of James, Mark, Fiona, Amanda, and Peter? What about Dr. Tsu? Is the past really the past in Turn of Mind?

2. Would the story have worked as well if it had been told chronologically? Why, or why not? Consider the overlays of memory of all the characters. Do they provide double or triple exposures? The book is a memoir, a case history, and a mystery. “Something just wasn’t right about this from the beginning, she says, nothing fit.” (p. 278). How does the mystery reflect Jennifer’s condition? Does the ground keep shifting, for the reader, the detective, and, of course, Jennifer? Which characters keep searching for the missing piece of mosaic, lost somewhere in Jennifer? Are there times when we know more than Inspector Luton does? More than Jennifer? Or are we all, characters and readers, held with hints and suspicions until the end?

3. “This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An unanesthesized patient” (p. 8). Jennifer in her notebook describes her life in a fog. The term “coming of age” has a new meaning in Turn of Mind. As people grow up, we expect a loss of innocence. How is the process reversed in Alzheimer’s dementia? When Jennifer is trying to identify faces, she feels less capable than a six-month-old child, trying to “separate the known from the unknown” (p. 145). We think of Shakespeare’s "Ages of Man" when Jennifer compares the unhinged despair of fellow patients to the inconsolable, howling infant Fiona with colic.

4. After his riding catastrophe, Christopher Reeve lay frozen in his own body. He said to his wife, “I’m still here.” The essential Christopher was in there somewhere like the butterfly in the bell jar. Is that true of Jennifer? Which character do you think is able to see that essence the way Reeve’s wife could?

5. “What crime have I committed? How long have I been incarcerated?” Think of Kafka’s The Trial or The Castle or The Metamorphosis. (Gregor, as a giant beetle, hangs on to an internal reality, but his condition is surreal. His disconnect with family and friends is undeniable.)  Kafka’s characters are doomed for unknowable causes. Does Jennifer probe at guilt as a way to make sense of her fate?

6. What draws Jennifer and Amanda together? What locks them in a friendship/competition like a pair of magnets that often get turned around, wrong end to? At one point, Jennifer says, “My best friend. My adversary. An enigma at the best of times. Now gone, leaving me utterly bereft” (p. 53). Asked by police about the relationship, Jennifer says, “Close, but combative. Amanda was in many ways a difficult woman” (p. 41). “You’d have to hold your own or be vanquished” (p. 45). (Does this remind us of Jennifer’s own mother?)

7. What surprised you about the marriage of Jennifer and James? How well do you think you know James? James, described as a creature of darkness, is known for “keeping his own counsel on things of import” (p. 47). What were these things? Why are they important in unraveling the mysteries of the book?

8. “Magdalena would like a clean slate, while I am mourning the involuntary wiping of mine” (p. 81). What is Magdalena trying to erase in her past? Is her name suggestive of her role?  “I swear, sometimes I feel like I’m the one going nuts in this house” (p. 55). Is that surprising for one who is expected to be both advocate and jailer for Jennifer?

9. How does Jennifer refuse to be discounted? Even paranoiac, she has power. (Or is it paranoia when indeed everyone around her is set to restrain her or to humor her—patronize her, as she says.)

10. What is it about Jennifer that makes her so compelling, appealing, even?  She behaves badly, outrageously, but there is a larger-than-life element in her that we admire. Give examples. Her professional competency is widely praised, but when we meet her, judgment and self-control have been suspended. Terrible odds are against her, but her wit and pluck survive. There is vitality in her whether she rails against her cursed predicament or shrewdly cuts through the cant of caretakers or officials. As a character, is Jennifer someone you just want to spend time with—at a safe distance?

11. Even if you have not experienced Alzheimer’s at close hand, what is there in LaPlante’s book that speaks to us all? What is the universality of Jennifer White’s dilemma? How is it a metaphor for the human condition?

12. Did you enjoy the resonance of other works in LaPlante’s book? What authors were you reminded of? Since the perspective is Jennifer’s for the most part, what do the echoes tell us about her turn of mind, her intellectual modus operandi?

13. Sometimes people’s treatment of Jennifer seems to be a touchstone of their own characters. How did various hospital staff treat her? The taxi driver? People in the Italian bar? The homeless? A woman I once knew patted her Alzheimer’s husband as he was dying and said, “This is not the man I married, but I’ve learned to love this one, too.”  Do Mark and Fiona show signs of this reconciliation with their mother’s condition?

14. Reconciliations of all kinds seem to evaporate in Turn of Mind. It is not only Jennifer who is mercurial in the family. Talk about Mark and Jennifer, their family past and their adult lives. In the book there is a longing for order and restored harmony, but is this likely in the mayhem of an Alzheimer family? It is a world that tilts unpredictably, an image that recurs repeatedly.

15. "Do no harm." What are the ironies of the surgical amputation of Amanda’s fingers? How can one both mutilate and do good?

16. What is the Russian icon? How does it, as a symbol, work on multiple levels? Describe it. What is its history to Jennifer and James, Amanda, Mark, and Fiona?

17. Peter, in a prescient moment, says, “It’s those damned cicadas.... They make one think about Old Testament–style wrath-of-God type things” (p. 46). What are the dreadful revelations that grow more apocalyptic as they have to repeated, again and again, to Jennifer?

18. Are there ways in which Jennifer is privileged in her dementia? Think of her visions, her visitations. Once, as she looks into a mirror, she says, “I don’t recognize the face. Gaunt, with too-prominent cheekbones and eyes a little too large, too otherworldly. The pupils dilated. As if used to seeing strange visions. And then, a secret satisfied smile. As if welcoming them” (p. 200). Her fantasy life is a rich one, culminating in a scene like the book of Revelation when she re-enters the hallucinatory world of Amanda’s house, finding comfort in the crowds of old friends and family. “Perhaps this is my revelation? Perhaps this is heaven? To wander among a multitude and have a name for each” (p. 95).

19. Detective Luton is a linchpin for the story. How is she drawn to Jennifer, not only professionally but also personally? She says that her heart had been broken long ago, and it is being broken again with Jennifer. She sees in Jennifer a woman of quality and tries to reason with her. But Jennifer says, “The words make no sense. She is your sister, your long-lost sister. A shape-shifter. Anything is possible.... Who does she remind you of? Someone you can depend on” (pp. 277-278). How does the detective bring both hunches and skill to the case?

20. Fiona recalls “Amanda at her worst, her supercilious morality on full display” (p. 303). What is the confrontation here between “the iconoclast and the devoted godmother” as Fiona has earlier described her?

21. “Too many good-byes lie ahead.... How many times will I have to say good-bye to you, only to have you reappear like some newly risen Christ. Yes, better to burn the bridge and prevent it from being crossed and recrossed until my heart gives out from sheer exhaustion” (p. 114). Do we learn something new about Amanda here? Does the statement relate to her final acts? How directive is she to the end?

22. “Some things shouldn’t be scrutinized too closely. Some mysteries are only rendered, not solved” (p. 198). This is Jennifer to Mark about his father, but does it have relevance to the end of Turn of Mind? Are all the mysteries, in fact, explained at the end? Are there things that still puzzle you?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

The Secret Keeper

Author: 
Morton, Kate

From the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of The Distant Hours, The Forgotten Garden, and The House at Riverton, a spellbinding new novel filled with mystery, thievery, murder, and enduring love.

During a summer party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is happily dreaming of the future. She spies a stranger coming up the long road to the farm and watches as her mother speaks to him. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime. A crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy—her vivacious, loving, nearly perfect mother.

Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress living in London. The family is gathering at Greenacres farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Realizing that this may be her last chance, Laurel searches for answers to the questions that still haunt her from that long-ago day, answers that can only be found in Dorothy’s past.

Dorothy’s story takes the reader from pre–WWII England through the blitz, to the ’60s and beyond. It is the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined. The Secret Keeper explores longings and dreams and the unexpected consequences they sometimes bring. It is an unforgettable story of lovers and friends, deception and passion that is told—in Morton’s signature style—against a backdrop of events that changed the world.. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Each of Kate Morton's four novels are securely anchored in their strong sense of time and place. In The Secret Keeper, World War II is a rich and realistic environment–close enough for memory but a long way from our twenty-first century lives—which allows the author to show both the frailty and courage of human nature. Discuss.

2. The rusted-on loyalties of family members to each other are key in this novel. Do you think Dolly's feelings of unease about her own family contribute to her love of playing make-believe?

3. Laurel had never thought to ask her mother about her life before Dorothy met Stephen Nicolson. And it's impossible for Dolly to imagine Lady Caldicott being young and beautiful wearing those glorious dresses now going musty in the dressing room. And Jimmy's dad loves to tell his stories of the past. How is ageing portrayed in The Secret Keeper?

4. Many readers have commented on how extremely likeable Jimmy is–how has Kate Morton developed his character to make him so?

5. Do you think that The Secret Keeper's characters live the lives they deserve? Were you satisfied and surprised at their various outcomes and their influences on each other?

6. Once you understood Dorothy's reasons for committing that violent action at the end of chapter one, did you find any moral ambiguity in her behaviour? Did she really have a choice?

7. Everyone has their secrets. The Secret Keeper, some more than others! Do you think Laurel is justified in upturning her mother's carefully laid secrets? When is keeping a secret within a family justified?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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