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Somebody Else’s Daughter Reader’s Guide

By Elizabeth Brundage

Somebody Else's Daughter by Elizabeth Brundage


Questions and Topics for Discussion


In the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts a group of families is connected through the prestigious Pioneer prep school. Into this community enters Nate Gallagher, a teacher and struggling writer haunted by the daughter he gave up for adoption years ago. The girl, Willa—now a teenager and one of Nate’s students—lives with her adoptive parents, Joe and Candace Golding, who have nurtured her with their affection and prosperity. When Willa wins a community service internship and begins working at a local women’s shelter, her friendship with a troubled prostitute, Pearl, raises questions about her own biological past. Despite her parent’s love and care, Willa can’t shake her feelings of confusion and abandonment, and Joe and Candace are too preoccupied with their crumbling marriage to realize her unhappiness.

Joe has other secrets, among them his profession—he makes pornographic films—and his affair with Claire Squire, a feminist artist who recently returned to the area. Joe and Claire stand on opposite sides of the issues of feminism, sex, and art, but they gain strength from each other’s differences.

If Joe and Claire are healed by sex, then Pioneer’s headmaster Jack Heath and his wife Maggie are destroyed by it. Jack’s charming exterior hides the twisted mind of a sexual predator who fantasizes about his students. Meanwhile, keeping her husband’s pathological past well hidden takes its toll on Maggie.

Somebody Else’s Daughter is filled with pairs of characters who mirror each other, forcing them to confront the darker side of their psyches and question their own identities. Nate and Joe, Willa’s biological and adoptive fathers, both fall in love with Claire. Joe and Jack are both fathers of teenage girls, each with his own secrets to keep. Willa and Pearl are both orphaned girls, yet one has been given a caring home and the other turns to prostitution. And Candace and Maggie are faithful wives who protect their husbands.

The characters become more entwined as first scandal and then tragedy strikes. As the story draws to its gripping conclusion, each character must make a decision that defines who they are. Somebody Else’s Daughter is a suspenseful tale and a tightly woven psychological drama that examines, as Joe Golding observes, how “in a matter of seconds, based on the fickle inclinations of fate, your life could change forever.”


Elizabeth Brundage is the author of The Doctor’s Wife and holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received a James A. Michener Award. Before attending Iowa, she was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Her short fiction has been published in the Greensboro Review, Witness magazine, and New Letters. She lives with her family in upstate New York.


Q. Your first novel was The Doctor’s Wife, and in this book one of your main characters is the headmaster’s wife. What draws you to the stories of women whose lives are defined by their husband’s careers?

In our society, we are evaluated by several things: how we look, what we do, where we live, who we’re married to, how much money we make, what kind of home we live in, what kind of car we drive, where we went to college (if we did in fact go to college), what our religion is, and what our politics are. All of these considerations go into creating a character. To some degree, women are defined by their husband’s careers. In The Doctor’s Wife, I was interested in taking a critical look at what it meant for Annie Knowles to be married to a physician who began working at an abortion clinic. In this novel, Maggie Heath, the wife of a headmaster of a private day school, is a member of a prominent social echelon in their town. In both books I wanted to explore how the choices we make not only inform our own lives, but the lives of our family members as well. It is not only who we choose to marry that matters, but also what they do, who they come in contact with, the choices that they make that ultimately affect a family’s destiny.

As headmaster, Maggie’s husband, Jack, is revered and admired. In the eyes of the Pioneer community, the Heaths seem to be an ideal couple. They have been granted the ultimate form of admiration, trust with the minds of teenagers. On the surface, the school is a seemingly perfect place: both Jack and Maggie have Ivy League pedigrees; both are outstanding teachers; their daughter, Ada, is an excellent student. The Heaths are tirelessly committed to the school, to promoting what appears to be a seamless ideal. Maggie strains to live within the conventional parameters of traditional family values, placing extraordinary importance on proving to herself that staying married and living by the rules is the right thing to do, no matter how difficult it might be for her to endure. Maggie admits that her life has become “an elaborate fabrication,” and that what people see on the outside is a very different reality from her true life on the inside with Jack. I wanted to explore how this tension fuels her growing sense of loss and defeat. Maggie is the worst kind of victim, not only because her husband abuses her and she cannot bring herself to tell anyone, but because her repression, ultimately, is her own doing. The worst betrayal for Maggie is when she comes to the realization that the house of cards she has so carefully constructed has in turn been dismantled, one card at a time, by her very own husband.

Maggie, to me, is someone who desperately wants to be good—to be a good wife, a good mother, a good teacher—to put these important aspects of her life first, before she even begins to address her own needs, which, in comparison, are far more complicated. Instead, she adapts to a rigid consensus of what and how women should behave. But in the end it only weakens her position, and she ultimately discovers that the trap she finds herself in with Jack is one that she designed herself.

Q. Claire is a sculptor and each section opens with a description of one of her works. Why did you decide to make Claire’s sculptures such a vital part of the book?

For Claire, her sculptures are symbols of how women are perceived in society. Each sculpture represents a metaphorical aspect of the chapters that follow it. As an artist, Claire makes cultural statements with her work that attempt to inspire reflection in the viewer on a variety of complex social issues that concern women: domesticity, sexuality, power, fertility, femininity, loss.

Q. Have you ever sculpted or worked in the visual arts? Did any particular artist inspire your depiction of Claire’s work?

I have studied painting and art history for many years; it is a passionate interest of mine. In my next life I’d like to come back as a painter. The best thing about being a writer is that you can live vicariously through your characters, whether they are painting a canvas, making a sculpture, or driving a foreign sports car in a high-speed chase. The work that the character of Claire produces was inspired by many incredible and daring artists, including Kiki Smith, George Segal, Louise Bourgeois, Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy, and others.

Q. In a discussion about feminism, Joe says “the word’s a relic.” Later, Claire wonders if feminism is passé. Do you think feminism is obsolete?

I’m not sure people understand what feminism means anymore. It may be harder for women who are under forty to fully embrace what their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers went through to ensure the protection of their rights and liberties. And with so many other urgent issues existing in our world, it’s sometimes difficult to think of our rights as taking precedence, but they do, they must. It always amazes me to reflect on our history as a country, the idea that women were granted the right to vote just eighty years ago, and the reality that in countries like Saudi Arabia, women’s lives are completely dictated by men. Although women have achieved a great deal over the course of the last century, it sometimes feels like four steps forward, five steps back, and certain political disruptions undermine our progress. I think it’s useful to look at the facts and numbers when trying to answer questions about equality and human rights, because, in general, the numbers speak for themselves. These are confusing times for women and men. It is always important to evaluate the strength of our rights and to elect people who are as equally determined to protect them.

Q. The novel delves into the psyche of both adult and teens characters. Was it difficult to write from the perspective of a teenager?

As the mother of two teenage girls and a young son, I relive my own anxious youth on a daily basis. When writing the character of Willa, I drew on my own memories of being seventeen and curious about my biological roots. For Willa, the mystery of her roots is her birthmark, as it was mine. The mystery inspires you, in a sense, to open doors, to keep searching for something—the truth. As Nate Gallagher says to Candace Golding, “It’s been my experience, Mrs. Golding, that teenagers seem to yearn for the truth in the same way that adults yearn to ignore it. If nothing else, it’s always liberating.” When you’re a teenager, you are trying to understand the world and your place in it. You are formulating your persona, your identity. I wanted to explore all of those disorienting and often disturbing feelings. With Teddy, I was interested in seeing the world from his perspective, how he thought about things like the war in Iraq, or Luther Grimm’s doomed pit bull. Or how he felt in school, fumbling through his classes without understanding why he wasn’t a good student, or what he could do about it. It interested me to explore how being academically disabled casts a sense of doubt over his entire life. Writing in the voice of a teenager allows a certain freedom to explore a variety of emotions and confusions, and I tried to do that with the teenage characters in this book.

Q. The beautiful but isolated landscape of the Berkshires forms the backdrop to your story. What about the region inspired you?

I’ve lived in and around the Berkshires for many years and it’s my favorite place to be, not only for its spectacular beauty, but because it attracts interesting people. Some of my favorite writers lived and worked here, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, among others. The Berkshires has good energy for writers and artists. It’s a beautiful place, an ideal environment, a culturally sophisticated place. It’s a place where people come to reinvent themselves—people have “Utopian longings,” as Greer Harding says in the book, describing the school’s clientele. This intrigues me, the idea that people imagine they can leave behind one life and begin another one—that kind of freedom is particularly American. In writing about Joe and Candace Golding, I was able to explore this phenomenon, the sense that, with the right amount of money, you can machinate your happiness, even if it’s built on a foundation of lies. For the Goldings, when the truth finally creeps in it disrupts their dream. I’m interested in writing about people who seem to be living ideal lives, who are abruptly faced with certain difficulties that irrevocably change them, for better or worse—this is the meat and potatoes of my work as a writer.

Q. Nearly every character in the book is transformed by sex, either redeemed or corrupted. What were you getting at here?

I like to write about sex because I think it’s an important subject. Sex matters to people, but not always for the reasons that the media suggests. I think if people were more relaxed about the subject, we’d have fewer problems. I think that, to some degree, people worry about sex. Monogamy is challenging for some people. Some can’t seem to commit, others fear that they will be betrayed. The idea of betrayal interests me because it is something people fear desperately and because it happens quite a lot. We are an all-or-nothing culture and the punishment for betrayal is usually divorce, which may not be the best choice, depending on the circumstances. I think that betrayal is about so much more than sex. It’s about longing. Loss. It’s a reflection on both partners, not just the one who does the philandering. When people go outside of a marriage or relationship, it is an independent act, a decision that is, for the moment, free of the obligations to one’s mate, a suspended period of time when one steps out of his or her life and is momentarily removed from its pressures. There is a heady sense of freedom in that, and, like the effects of a drug, it briefly masks the inevitable pain one causes because of it. In Joe’s case, his adultery comes out of a kind of fear that he’s not worthy somehow—because he sees his life as something of a compromise. His work, his marriage. I think his affair with Claire bumps him off track and makes him reevaluate his situation for the better. I wanted to show that, although damage has been done to his marriage and his relationship with his wife, they can still go on, they can still move forward. Marriage, like anything else in life, is a process and all too often we make judgments that cause us to sever the relationships with the people we love most.

Q. Why did you decide to connect Joe to the pornography industry? Aside from the sharp contrast his job makes with Claire’s feminist art, what else drew you to the idea?

Pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry. Many of the people I interviewed who are in the business like to keep it a secret. Although we are comfortable as a society looking at images of pubescent girls in designer clothing, we still like to pretend that we’re not turned on by salacious imagery, and that good and honorable people don’t have roving eyes. In the novel Joe asserts that since porn “exists in our culture,” it must have a meaningful purpose. However, pornography is a means to an end. It is alarmingly superficial. It is not intimate or sensual. Yet, its very existence seems to say something about who we are. Joe argues, “Men need sex more than women.” This is a cultural stereotype that has been ingrained in us from the beginning of time—when poor Adam couldn’t resist Eve’s naughty apple—of course it was all Eve’s fault and women have been paying for it ever since. I wanted to make comparisons in this novel between pornography, teenage sexuality, and Claire’s art. The use of the school uniform, which has long been a source of titillation in porn magazines, was an image that I felt tied all three of these aspects together.

We are accustomed to seeing the female body either in art, or in film, or on the pages of magazines. Seeing a woman naked is routine, yet seeing a man’s penis is still somewhat taboo. Although there have been films and even plays that show men naked, it is still less ubiquitous than seeing women naked. In the novel, Claire’s sculptures represent the ways in which society objectifies women, while Joe, as a manufacturer of pornography, is a promoter of the objectification of women. Meanwhile, their children, Willa and Teddy, are unwittingly indoctrinated into a system of courtship that sends mixed messages, resulting in feelings of confusion and doubt.

Q. The book ends with Claire and Nate’s wedding and the sense that the characters, even Maggie, are moving in a positive direction. Was it important to you to have a happy ending?

It was important to me that each character felt resolved in some way by the end of the novel, and I do think that happens. I felt that Claire had been on her own for a long time, as had Nate, and that, somehow, they belonged together. So it wasn’t that I wanted a “happy” ending—but I felt that their relationship had reached a point where they were each ready, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to make a firm commitment to each other. For some reason, witnessing the union of two fine people makes us all incredibly happy. It fills us with a sense of promise. I think that speaks to our belief in the strength of love and the profound value of loyalty. It seems to assure us that, even in times like this, where daunting statistics claim that fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, there are still couples out there who are willing to take the chance.

Q. What attracts you to the genre of psychological drama? What are you working on next?

I love a fast-paced thriller. Ever since I was about ten years old, when I happened to see Double Indemnity on the late show, I was hooked on thrillers. But I also love good literature, books where language is equally as important as the story they tell. My goal as a writer is to combine the two. In high school, I was obsessed with Russian literature. In college I studied film and became intrigued with film noir. I read everything ever written by James Cain and John Fante and Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet. In graduate school, I read books like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Dickens’s Great Expectations and Steinbeck’s East of Eden—which were really the first great psychological dramas. Even Madame Bovarycan be seen as a psychological drama. I’m not interested in writing stories about people who live blissful, easy lives. Trouble interests me. I like stories about people who get pushed to their limits and are forced to make a decision, for better or worse, that significantly changes their lives.

  • Many of the book’s characters mirror each other—Jack vs. Joe as unfaithful husbands; Joe and Claire, who both use sex as a commodity; Pearl and Willa, the orphaned daughters; Maggie and Candace, the wronged wives. Why does the author choose to use this device? What do we learn about the characters by comparing and contrasting their similarities and differences?
  • Joe defends his work in pornography saying he is simply making a living. How do you feel about pornography? Is his position defensible?
  • Why is Maggie so cowed by Jack? Why does she continue to help him cover up his crimes? Is she a victim of circumstance or of her own actions?
  • A feminist theme runs throughout the book. How do you feel about the author’s depictions of feminism? Do today’s young women need or care about equality of the sexes? Is feminism still relevant in today’s society?
  • The book’s title could refer to any or all of the book’s female characters. Why do you think the author chose this title?
  • During Candace’s meeting with Nate, she refers to Willa’s biological parents as indigents. He responds, “We’re told certain things, information that pushes us into tidy categories, but they’re just words. We’re rarely told the whole story and the story is always changing.” Considering Candace’s checkered past, is it fair of her to stereotype him?
  • Claire is drawn to Nate and Joe, two very different men, who are, respectively, Willa’s biological and adoptive fathers. Why did the author choose to connect the men via both Claire and Willa?
  • Jack is clearly the story’s villain, yet the author attempts to explain his actions by revealing details about his traumatic childhood. Do these passages make you feel sympathetic toward him?
  • How do you feel about the book’s conclusion?
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