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The Drowning House Reader’s Guide

By Elizabeth Black

The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black


The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enrich your discussion of Elizabeth Black’s The Drowning House.


A gripping suspense story about a woman who returns to Galveston, Texas after a personal tragedy and is irresistibly drawn into the insular world she’s struggled to leave.

Photographer Clare Porterfield’s once-happy marriage is coming apart, unraveling under the strain of a family tragedy. When she receives an invitation to direct an exhibition in her hometown of Galveston, Texas, she jumps at the chance to escape her grief and reconnect with the island she hasn’t seen for ten years. There Clare will have the time and space to search for answers about her troubled past and her family’s complicated relationship with the wealthy and influential Carraday family. 

Soon she finds herself drawn into a century-old mystery involving Stella Carraday. Local legend has it that Stella drowned in her family’s house during the Great Hurricane of 1900, hanged by her long hair from the drawing room chandelier. Could Stella have been saved? What is the true nature of Clare’s family’s involvement? The questions grow like the wildflower vines that climb up the walls and fences of the island. And the closer Clare gets to the answers, the darker and more disturbing the truth becomes.

Steeped in the rich local history of Galveston, The Drowning House portrays two families, inextricably linked by tragedy and time.

“The Drowning House marks the emergence of an impressive new literary voice. Elizabeth Black’s suspenseful inquiry into dark family secrets is enriched by a remarkable succession of images, often minutely observed, that bring characters, setting, and story sharply into focus.” —John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The Drowning House opens with two quotes, one from The Dallas Times Herald in 1966 and the other from famed American photographer Walker Evans. How does the first quote set the stage for what happens in the novel?  Why do you think Walker Evans meant?  How does Clare follow in his footsteps?

2. In Chapter 27, Clare states, “I had always believed that because I observed the world through the lens of my camera, because I looked at things in ways others didn’t, I saw more. Now I understood that I had failed to perceive what other(s) … registered at once.” What did you make of this realization on Clare’s part? How does Clare use photography to distance herself from other people?  How does she use it to understand her own experience? 

3. Consider the book’s setting of Galveston, Texas, and the author’s description of life on the island.  How important is the setting of Galveston to what happens to Stella in the book?  To Clare?

4. The Drowning House features women in many different roles:  wife, mother, professional, mistress.  How do the women in the novel define themselves in those roles?  How do their roles shift over the course of the novel?

5. When she thinks about her daughter, Clare wonders whether she lived up to her role as a parent.  What do children really need from their parents?  How do the characters in the Drowning House fail to meet their children’s needs?

6. Grief and the different ways in which people deal with grief, is a major thread that runs throughout the novel.  What insights did you gain from the novel about this complicated process?

7. Consider the legend of Stella Carraday and the truth about her life.  Are there parallels to be drawn between Stella and any of the book’s modern-day characters?  If so, how do they enhance the reading experience?

8. What is the difference between history and legend?  How do events become part of history?  Do local/historical attitudes shape what comes down to us as fact? 

9. Did you know much about the Galveston Storm of 1900 before reading The Drowning House? What do you think it means to live in place like Galveston, where storms are a way of life?

10. Many of us have had the experience of returning home as an adult to find that things are not as we remembered.  Why is it so important for Clare to have this near-universal experience?  How does the knowledge she gains change her and prepare her for the rest of her life?

11. Almost every character in the book has a secret. Talk about the role secrets play in The Drowning House.  What are some of the different motives that keep the characters from sharing what they know?

About this Author

Elizabeth Black was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island and now lives in Houston, Texas. The Drowning House is her first novel.

Suggested Reading

Additional reading: For a non-fiction account of the Great Hurricane of 1900, see Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson; for a wide range of wonderful historic photos, see Galveston: A City on Stilts, by Jodi Wright-Gidley and Jennifer Marines.
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