Psychological fiction

The Memory of Running

Author: 
McLarty, Ron

Every decade seems to produce a novel that captures the public's imagination with a story that sweeps readers up and takes them on a thrilling, unforgettable ride.

Ron McLarty's The Memory of Running is this decade's novel. By all accounts, especially his own, Smithson "Smithy" Ide is a loser. An overweight, friendless, chain-smoking, forty-three-year-old drunk, Smithy's life becomes completely unhinged when he loses his parents and long-lost sister within the span of one week.

Rolling down the driveway of his parents' house in Rhode Island on his old Raleigh bicycle to escape his grief, the emotionally bereft Smithy embarks on an epic, hilarious, luminous, and extraordinary journey of discovery and redemption. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Smithy Ide's bicycle odyssey begins on a whim—something he just falls into—but it winds up transforming his life. Do you think that people can change their lives profoundly without initially intending to do so? What does the novel seem to be saying about redemption and second chances?

2. As a youth, Smithy was a "running boy" who "made beelines," first on foot and later on a bike. His sister, Bethany, was always running away. And Smithy's cross-country ride is yet another kind of running. What other significance does "running" have in the book?

3. The novel intersperses chapters describing Smithy's parents' death and his ride with chapters about his youth. The present chapters are all consecutive, but his memories of the past jump around somewhat. How do the chapters about the past reflect or relate to the story of Smithy's present?

4. At the beginning of the book, Smithy is an alcoholic, and throughout the book he encounters others whose lives have been overwhelmed by alcohol or drugs. What do you think the author is saying about addiction and the stress and strain of daily life? 5. Smithy reads a number of novels about the American West while on the road. How do these relate to his own story?

6. In the book, Smithy's schizophrenic sister, Bethany, goes through periods of near normalcy, only to disappear or hurt herself when she begins to hear "the voice." She is treated by a succession of psychiatrists, none of whom seem to recognize the nature of her problems or to do her much good. Yet Bethany is always the one who tells Smithy the truth. What do you think the author is saying about madness?

7. Smithy came out of Vietnam with twenty-one bullet wounds, yet his sister's madness and disappearances seem to have wounded him much more seriously. Why do you think this is? Why is Smithy haunted by his sister's apparition?

8. On the road, Smithy encounters many people—a compassionate priest, an eccentric Greenwich Village artist, a man dying of AIDS, an angry black youth, a Colorado family, a seductive fellow cyclist, a truck driver haunted by the past, and an empathetic Asian mortician, among others. Most of the encounters are marked by kindness, some by violence, and some by both. How is Smithy changed by the people he meets? What do these people tell us about the American character?

9. As a young man, Smithy rejects Norma's schoolgirl crush on him and turns away from her altogether once she's paralyzed. His junior prom is a disaster. The prostitutes he patronizes in Vietnam hate him. And he rebuffs the advances of an attractive young woman he meets on the road. Why does Smithy seem to have so much trouble with women? Do you think his rekindled romance with Norma will work out?

10. Stephen King has called Smithy Ide an "American original" and placed him in the company of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield (of The Catcher in the Rye), and Joseph Heller's Yossarian (of Catch-22). Are there other fictional characters you would also compare him to?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

The Memory Keeper's Daughter

Author: 
Edwards, Kim

On a winter night in 1964, Dr. David Henry is forced by a blizzard to deliver his own twins. His son, born first, is perfectly healthy. Yet when his daughter is born, he sees immediately that she has Down's Syndrome. Rationalizing it as a need to protect Norah, his wife, he makes a split-second decision that will alter all of their lives forever. He asks his nurse to take the baby away to an institution and never to reveal the secret.

But Caroline, the nurse, cannot leave the infant. Instead, she disappears into another city to raise the child herself. So begins this beautifully told story that unfolds over a quarter of a century in which these two families, ignorant of each other, are yet bound by the fateful decision made that long-ago winter night.

A brilliantly crafted, stunning debut, The Memory Keeper's Daughter explores the way life takes unexpected turns, and how the mysterious ties that hold a family together help us survive the heartache that occurs when long-buried secrets burst into the open. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. When David hands his baby girl over to Caroline and tells Norah that she has died, what was your immediate emotional reaction? At this early point, did you understand David’s motivations? Did your understanding grow as the novel progressed?

2. David describes feeling like “an aberration” within his own family (p. 7) and describes himself as feeling like “an imposter” in his professional life as a doctor (p. 8). Discuss David’s psyche, his history, and what led him to make that fateful decision on the night of his children’s birth.

3. When David instructs Caroline to take Phoebe to the institution, Caroline could have flatly refused or she could have gone to the authorities. Why doesn’t she? Was she right to do what she did and raise Phoebe as her own? Was Caroline morally obligated to tell Norah the truth right from the beginning? Or was her moral obligation simply to take care of Phoebe at whatever cost? Why does she come to Norah after David’s death?

4. Though David wanted no part of her, Phoebe goes on to lead a full life, bringing much joy to Caroline and Al. Her story calls into question how we determine what kind of life is worth living. How would you define such a life? In contrast to Phoebe’s, how would you describe the quality of Paul’s life as he grew up?

5. Throughout the novel, the characters often describe themselves as feeling as if they are watching their own lives from the outside. For instance, David describes the moment when his wife is going into labor and says “he felt strangely as if he himself were suspended in the room...watching them both from above” (p. 10). What do you think Edwards is trying to convey here? Have you ever experienced similar feelings in your own life?

6. There is an obvious connection between David and Caroline, most aptly captured by a particular moment described through David’s point of view: “Their eyes met, and it seemed to the doctor that he knew her—that they knew each other—in some profound and certain way” (p. 12). What is the significance of this moment for each of them? How would you describe the connection between them? Why do you think David married Norah and not Caroline?

7. After Norah has successfully destroyed the wasps’ nest, Edwards writes that there was something happening in Norah’s life, “an explosion, some way in which life could never be the same” (p. 139). What does she mean, and what is the significance of Norah’s “fight” with these wasps?

8. When David meets Rosemary (p. 267) it turns out to be a cathartic experience for him. What is it about her that enables David to finally speak the truth? Why does he feel compelled to take care of her?

9. The secret that David keeps is enormous and ultimately terribly destructive to himself and his family. Can you imagine a circumstance when it might be the right choice to shield those closest to you from the truth?

10. What do you think Norah’s reaction would have been if David had been honest with her from the beginning? How might Norah have responded to the news that she had a daughter with Down syndrome? How might each of their lives have been different if David had not handed Phoebe to Caroline that fateful day?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

The Marriage Plot

Author: 
Eugenides, Jeffrey

It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.

As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy—suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus—who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange—resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology Laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. The opening scene features a litany of the books Madeleine loves. What were your first impressions of her, based on her library? How are her beliefs about love transformed throughout the novel?

2. When Phyllida fell in love with Alton, she gave up her dream of becoming an actress in Hollywood. What sustains the Hannas' marriage despite this sacrifice? How are Alwyn and Madeleine influenced by their parents' marriage? Is Alwyn's marriage to Blake a bad one?

3. In Jeffrey Eugenides's depiction of Brown University culture in the 1980s, what does it take for the students to impress one another and their professors? What might Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida have to say about the signs in Dr. Zipperstein's Semiotics 211 class?

4. Why is Madeleine more attracted to Leonard than to Mitchell? As she copes with Leonard's instability and her feelings of guilt, how does mental illness shape the relationship?

5. What does Mitchell hope to discover as a student of religion? What role does religion play in his quest to be loved? Is his ideal—a religion devoid of myth and artificial social structures—attainable?

6. What does sex mean to Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell? Over the course of the novel, what do they discover about fantasy versus reality and the tandem between physical and emotional satisfaction?

7. What recurring themes did you detect in Mitchell's trip overseas as he tries to manage his money, his love life, and Larry? Does he return to America a stronger, changed person or an amplified version of his college self?

8. What does Alwyn try to teach her little sister about being a woman by sending the Bachelorette's Survival Kit? What does the kit help a woman survive?

9. Madeleine's parents are affluent and have enough free time to stay very involved in her life. Does this liberate her, or does it give her less freedom than Leonard, who is often left to fend for himself?

10. In their chosen career paths after college, what are Leonard and Madeleine each trying to uncover about life? Does his work on the yeast-cell experiment have anything in common with her work on Victorian novels?

11. Would you have said yes to Leonard's marriage proposal?

12. How does the novel's 1980s setting shape the plot? Do twenty-first-century college students face more or fewer challenges than Madeleine did?

13. Discuss the novel's meta-ending (an ending about endings). Does it reflect reality? What were your expectations for the characters?

14. Eugenides's previous fiction has given us unique, tragicomic perspectives on oppressive families, gender stereotypes, and the process of trying to discover our true selves. How does The Marriage Plot enhance your reading of Eugenides's other works?

15. Who did you become during your first year after college?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

House Rules

Author: 
Picoult, Jodi

Jacob Hunt is a teenage boy with Asperger's syndrome. He's hopeless at reading social cues or expressing himself well to others, and like many kids with AS, Jacob has a special focus on one subject—in his case, forensic analysis.

He's always showing up at crime scenes, thanks to the police scanner he keeps in his room, and telling the cops what they need to do...and he's usually right.

But then his town is rocked by a terrible murder and, for a change, the police come to Jacob with questions. All of the hallmark behaviors of Asperger's—not looking someone in the eye, stimulatory tics and twitches, flat affect— can look a lot like guilt to law enforcement personnel.

Suddenly, Jacob and his family, who only want to fit in, feel the spotlight shining directly on them. For his mother, Emma, it's a brutal reminder of the intolerance and misunderstanding that always threaten her family. For his brother, Theo, it's another indication of why nothing is normal because of Jacob. And over this small family the soul-searing question looms: Did Jacob commit murder?

Emotionally powerful from beginning to end, House Rules looks at what it means to be different in our society, how autism affects a family, and how our legal system works well for people who communicate a certain way—and fails those who don't.

Good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. It’s the kind of place where parents are involved in their children’s lives–coaching sports. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. "My mother will tell you Jacob’s not violent, but I am living proof that she’s kidding herself" (p.11).
As with many of Jodi Picoult’s previous novels House Rulesis written from the perspective of several different characters, each taking turns to narrate a chapter. Why do you think Picoult favours this narrative device, considering the nature of her stories? Is it a successful technique?

2. Jacob’s meltdown give the reader many clues into what Emma’s like is like taking care of Jacob. What does it tell us about Emma and her personality?

3. (p. 20) Jacob says, “Why would I want to be friends with kids who are nasty to people like me anyway?” What does this tell us about Jacob?

4. (p.20) There are 12 things listed that Jacob can’t stand. Do you see his logic? We all have things we could put into such a list. What would yours be?

5. The rules of the house are listed on page 21. Do they seem appropriate or unusual? Would they be rules that would work in your house? Why should a rule that works in one situation not work in another? (p 75) "If a bully taunts him and I tell him it’s all right to reciprocated….why shouldn’t he do the same with a teacher who humiliates him in public?" Discuss.

6. Theo is the younger brother but he has to take care of Jacob. How does Theo handle the conflict of his position in the family? Do you agree that he has it "worse than Jacob" (p.107)?

7. Asperger’s Syndrome is a relatively new term. Do you know someone who has been diagnosed with AS? Have you read any other books that deal with autism as a theme, or that depict autistic characters? How does House Rules compare? Does autism make good subject material and, if so, why? What challenges does AS pose in the telling of a story? How well does Jodi Picoult deal with those challenges?

8. Theo breaks into houses and Jacob saves the Christmas cards. Both boys are trying to have the same thing—what they consider to be a real home. What makes their home not a “real” home to them? What do they want?

9. (p. 146) Jacob says being on the other side of dead isn’t that different from having Asperger’s. What do you think he means by that?

10. The evidence points to Mark as a suspect. He claims he’s innocent. What does Emma see on the news that changes everything? How would you react? Would you call the police?

11. "I’m new to practicing criminal law, period, but I don’t tell her that" (p.231). Is it fair of Oliver to take on Jacob’s case, considering his inexperience? Does he prove himself a good lawyer? How might he have done things differently?

12. Mark Maguire perceives AS as a "Get Out of Jail Free card" (p.285), whereas a defender general observes that "Vermont’s decidedly crappy when it comes to psychiatric care for inmates" (p.231) and Neurodiversity Nation believes ‘neurotypicals’ are trying to "destroy diversity" for autistic people (p.321). Who is closest to the truth? What kind of social provisions are made for Jacob at home, at school and in the wider community? Are they excessive, inadequate or inappropriate?

13. Who is a better brother, Jacob or Theo?

14. Oliver makes a request for accommodations for Jacob in court. Do they seem fair? The first 5 minutes of the trial show the constant vigilance needed to keep Jacob from having a meltdown and how much Emma does know about her son. Discuss.

15. Emma’s been a single mom for about 15 years. She doesn’t appreciate her ex-husband showing up. Would you? How does she change later?

16. (p. 454) Jacob’s concept: "The concept of Asperger’s is like a flavoring added to a person and although my concentration is higher than those of others, if tested everyone would have traces of this condition too." Discuss.

17. Look again at the novel’s opening passage, and at some chapter endings. What literary devices does Jodi Picoult employ to arrest your attention and keep it engaged? Consider how Picoult has crafted this novel. How might it be different without certain plot elements, such as Jacob’s love of forensics or Emma’s single mother status, or Oliver’s professional inexperience? Does Jodi Picoult deserve her reputation as a "master plotter"?

18. "I can smell my mother…my knees give with relief, with the knowledge that I have not faded away after all" (p.241).
How would you describe Jacob’s ability to feel emotion and relate to people — particularly Emma, Theo and Jess? Is he capable of love, despite his AS?

19. In her acknowledgements, Jodi Picoult reveals that when researching House Rules "I spoke with numerous people who have personal experience with Asperger’s syndrome’ (p.viii). How important is this sort of authentication for a work of fiction?

20. How does Picoult deal with the highly contentious issue of autism and childhood vaccinations? What are her responsibilities, if any, to present a balanced view?

21. How do you think you might have voted if you were on Jacob’s jury? Why do you think Jodi Picoult omits the verdict from the end of the book? Is it a good ending?

22. "I think I might be dead. I make this deduction from the following facts…" (p.216). "Oliver…spoke to me in the language of nature. That’s all I’ve ever wanted: to be as organic as…the spiral of a shell" (p.241) What did you make of Jacob’s narrative? Does his account differ to the others’? Did it help you get to "know" Jacob, and to understand his Asperger’s?

23. "Who…hasn’t felt marginalized at some point? Who hasn’t felt like they don’t belong?’ (p.252).

24. Rich’s empathy for Jacob is based on "the things that, against all odds, we have in common" (p.254). Do you agree that you have to feel a connection with someone to empathise with him/her? How did you engage with this book emotionally, and whom did you empathise with most? Which bits did you find most moving — the domestic back-story, or the dramatic present?

25. House Rules is intersected with real-life criminal case studies. What do they bring to the novel? What did you make of "Case 11: My Brother’s Keeper" and the "I" that appears on the book’s final page? Who is this "I"? Does it change your understanding of what came before? Does it change your view of the "house rules"?

26. Did you ever suspect Jacob? Or Theo? When did you guess what had happened to Jess? Did you enjoy the story’s detective elements?

27. "You’re either a father twenty-four/seven or not at all" (p.448). Is Emma’s admonishment of Henry fair? What does House Rules have to say about parenthood and its responsibilities?

28. Many of Jodi Picoult’s novels pivot on a court case or legal dispute. What does the legal contention in House Rules lend to the book? How might it be different without it?

29. Who are the "baddies" in House Rules? Who are the "goodies" and the victims? Who tells the truth? Whose rules are best? Does the book challenge our idea of right and wrong and of legal justice?

30. "We’ve always said that Asperger’s isn’t a disability…just a different ability" (p.265). What did you know about autism and AS before reading House Rules? Did the novel challenge your views on the subject, or on disability more generally? Is it an educational book?
(Questions from the author's website.

The Girl on the Train

Author: 
Hawkins, Paula

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck.

She’s even started to feel like she knows them. "Jess and Jason," she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

Compulsively readable, The Girl on the Train is an emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller and an electrifying debut. (From the publisher.

Discussion Guide: 

1. We all do it—actively watch life around us. In this way, with her own voyeuristic curiosity, Rachel Watson is not so unusual. What do you think accounts for this nosy, all-too-human impulse? Is it more extreme in Rachel than in the average person? What is so different about her?

2. How would you have reacted if you’d seen what Rachel did from her train window—a pile of clothes—just before the rumored disappearance of Megan Hipwell? What might you or she have done differently?

3. In both Rachel Watson’s and Megan Hipwell’s marriages, deep secrets are kept from the husbands. Are these marriages unusual or even extreme in this way? Consider how many relationships rely on half-truths? Is it ever necessary or justifiable to lie to someone you love? How much is too much to hide from a partner?

4. What about the lies the characters tell to themselves? In what ways is Rachel lying to herself? Do all people tell themselves lies to some degree in order to move on with their lives? Is what Rachel (or any of the other characters) is doing any different from that? How do her lies ultimately affect her and the people around her?

5. A crucial question in The Girl on the Train is how much Rachel Watson can trust her own memory. How reliable are her observations? Yet since the relationship between truth and memory is often a slippery one, how objective or "true" can a memory, by definition, really be? Can memory lie? If so, what factors might influence it? Consider examples from the book.

6. One of Rachel’s deepest disappointments, it turns out, is that she can’t have children. Her ex-husband Tom’s second wife Anna is the mother to a young child, Evie. How does Rachel’s inability to conceive precipitate her breakdown? How does the topic of motherhood drive the plot of the story? What do you think Paula Hawkins was trying to say about the ways motherhood can define women’s lives or what we expect from women’s domestic lives, whether as wives, mothers, or unmarried women in general?

7. Think about trust in The Girl on the Train. Who trusts whom? Who is deserving of trust? Is Rachel Watson a very trustworthy person? Why or why not? Who appears trustworthy and is actually not? What are the skills we use to make the decision about whether to trust someone we don’t know well?

8. Other characters in the novel make different assumptions about Rachel Watson depending on how or even where they see her. To a certain extent, she understands this and often tries to manipulate their assumptions—by appearing to be a commuter, for instance, going to work every day. Is she successful? To what degree did you make assumptions about Rachel early on based on the facts and appearances you were presented? How did those change over time and why? How did your assumptions about her affect your reading of the central mystery in the book? Did your assumptions about her change over its course? What other characters did you make assumptions about? How did your assumptions affect your interpretation of the plot? Having now finished The Girl on the Train, what surprised you the most?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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