Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Before the unthinkable happens, the Lathams are like any other American family. Discuss Mary Beth and Glen, and their relationship, and then talk about Ruby, Max, Alex, and how they all relate to one another.
2. Mary Beth has a successful landscaping business, but she seems more focused on her family than anything else. Talk about Mary Beth as a mother, and discuss the relationships she has with each of her children. How are the relationships similar? Different? What kind of relationship do they have? Has Mary Beth focused on her children to the exclusion of her husband?
3. Female friendships are deeply important to Mary Beth throughout the novel, though her friendships change dramatically as her life changes. Discuss Mary Beth’s relationships with Alice, Nancy, Deborah (Kiernan’s mother), and Olivia.
4. As she thinks back to meeting Glen by chance at a college party decades earlier, Mary Beth reflects: “Our lives, so settled, so specific, are built on happenstance” (72). Do you agree that our lives are built on happenstance? Discuss this quote in the context of the novel.
5. Before the tragic events of New Year’s, Mary Beth spends a lot of her time looking forward. She likes to think about the lives her children will have in the future, and in what ways her family will grow and change. At the Halloween party, she thinks about future Halloween parties, and the jokes her grandchildren and children will make at her expense. Then, almost ominously, she thinks, “It’s only before the realities set in that we can treasure our delusions” (117). What do you make of this notion? Is she right?
6. As we read the novel, we know something awful is coming, but we don’t know quite what it will be. What did you think might happen to the Lathams? Did you, like Mary Beth, think Max might be behind the attacks on New Year’s at first? Talk about the events of that night, and discuss your reactions to the vicious crime.
7. Discuss Ruby’s relationship with Kiernan, and how (and why) it changes. Many people, especially Nancy, seem to think Mary Beth and Glen should have seen the warning signs regarding Kiernan’s increasingly disturbing behavior. Do you think Mary Beth and Glen could have done anything differently?
8. The police discover that Kiernan had been living above the Latham’s garage, and they find a disturbing photo montage of the family, with the words “HAPPY FAMILY” scrawled over the images of the Lathams. Mary Beth gets the reference to Anna Karenina, a novel Ruby and Kiernan studied in AP English. She thinks, “Ruby had been disdainful of Anna for leaving her son behind and choosing Vronsky instead. Kiernan has said she couldn’t help it, it was love that made her do it, love that made her leap in front of that speeding train, it was love that made people do things they wouldn’t do otherwise” (179). Talk about Kiernan’s motivations. Was it love that made him do something so awful? Madness? Drugs and alcohol? A combination of all of these things? Can we really ever know why people do such horrible things?
9. After New Year’s, Mary Beth’s life is clearly divided into the “before” and “after.” How does she change and adapt to her new life? What gives her the strength to pull through? Do you think she would have been able to go on with her life if she had lost Alex, too? Why or why not?
10. Quindlen does a magnificent job portraying Mary Beth’s unimaginable grief at the loss of her family. But she also shows how the loss affects others in the Latham’s circle. Discuss how Alice, Ruby’s friends Sarah and Rachel, Nancy, Mary Beth’s mother, Glen’s family, and others cope with the loss of the Lathams. Did anyone’s reactions surprise you? How and why?
11. Alex decides to go see Dr. Vagelos, the doctor who helped Max with his depression. And Dr. Vagelos reaches out to Mary Beth to help her and Alex deal with the loss of their family. Why do you think Mary Beth and Alex had such trouble talking to each other about what happened on New Year’s? Why is it important for them to have open communication?
12. Mary Beth explains that Alex was never very emotional, and that’s part of the reason she tried to be strong for him. Dr. Vagelos wisely tells her, “Sometimes children can get more attention because they seem to be in more need of attention. And then there are children who seem so self-possessed and competent that they seem to need less” (285). How does this statement relate to Ruby, Max, Alex, and Kiernan? Do you think Dr. Vagelos is right? Why or why not?
13. Mary Beth has always had a complicated relationship with her own mother. But her mother surprises her in many ways after New Year’s. She was the one who identified the bodies of Glen, Ruby, and Max, something Mary Beth doesn’t think she could have done. She tells Mary Beth that they looked like they were sleeping in the morgue. And then Mary Beth thinks, “My mother has done it. She has made me see what she wanted me to see. The one person who understands is the one person I never expected to understand me” (256). Discuss this sentiment.
14. Though it’s impossible to say that anything good can come from such a massive tragedy, Mary Beth forms a deep and satisfying friendship with Olivia after the death of her family. How do Olivia and Mary Beth help each other survive?
15. Similarly, Mary Beth and Alex start a new kind of relationship after losing their family. Discuss how their mother/son relationship changes, and what each learns about the other.
16. At the end of the novel, Mary Beth is settled in her new home, Alex seems to be doing ok, and together they are looking towards the future. When her mother asks how Mary Beth is holding up, she replies that she’s “trying,” and that is all she knows how to do. Discuss how Mary Beth has handled such a horrible tragedy, and what you make of her progress in starting a new life.