A Small Indiscretion: A Novel

A Small Indiscretion: A Novel

by Jan Ellison
A Small Indiscretion: A Novel

A Small Indiscretion: A Novel

by Jan Ellison


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NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE • With the emotional complexity of Everything I Never Told You and the psychological suspense of The Girl on the Train, O. Henry Prize winner Jan Ellison delivers a brilliantly paced, beautifully written debut novel about one woman’s reckoning with a youthful mistake.

“Part psychological thriller, part character study . . . I peeled back the pages of this book as fast as I could.”—The Huffington Post

At nineteen, Annie Black trades a bleak future in a washed-out California town for a London winter of drinking and abandon. Twenty years later, she is a San Francisco lighting designer and happily married mother of three who has put her reckless youth behind her. Then a photo from that distant winter in Europe arrives inexplicably in her mailbox, and an old obsession is awakened.

Past and present collide, Annie’s marriage falters, and her son takes a car ride that ends with his life hanging in the balance. Now Annie must confront her own transgressions and fight for her family by untangling the mysteries of the turbulent winter that drew an invisible map of her future. Gripping, insightful, and lyrical, A Small Indiscretion announces the arrival of a major new voice in literary suspense as it unfolds a story of denial, passion, forgiveness—and the redemptive power of love.

Praise for A Small Indiscretion

“Ellison is a tantalizing storyteller . . . moving her story forward with cinematic verve.”USA Today

“Rich with suspense . . . Lovely writing guides us through, driven by a quiet generosity.”San Francisco Chronicle (Book Club pick)

“Delicious, lazy-day reading. Just don’t underestimate the writing.”O: The Oprah Magazine (Editor’s Pick)

“Rich and detailed . . . The plot explodes delightfully, with suspense and a few twists. Using second-person narration and hypnotic prose, Ellison’s debut novel is both juicy and beautifully written. How do I know it’s juicy? A stranger started reading it over my shoulder on the New York City subway, and told me he was sorry that I was turning the pages too quickly.”Flavorwire

“Are those wild college days ever really behind you? Happily married Annie finds out.”Cosmopolitan

“An impressive fiction debut . . . both a psychological mystery and a study of the divide between desire and duty.”San Jose Mercury News

“A novel to tear through on a plane ride or on the beach . . . I was drawn into a web of secrets, a world of unrequited love and youthful mistakes that feel heightened and more romantic on the cold winter streets of London, Paris, and Ireland.”Bustle

“Ellison renders the California landscape with stunning clarity. . . . She writes gracefully, with moments of startling insight. . . . Her first novel is an emotional thriller, skillfully plotted in taut, visual scenes.”The Rumpus

“To read A Small Indiscretion is to eat fudge before dinner: slightly decadent behavior, highly caloric, and extremely satisfying. . . . An emotional detective story that . . . mirrors real life in ways that surprise and inspire.”New York Journal of Books

“If you liked Gone Girl for its suspenseful look inside the psychology of a bad marriage, try A Small Indiscretion. . . . It touches many of the same nerves.”StyleCaster

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812985429
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/09/2016
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 943,009
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.74(d)

About the Author

Jan Ellison is an O. Henry Prize winner and a graduate of Stanford University. She left college for a year at nineteen to travel and work in Europe, taking notes that two decades later became the germ of A Small Indiscretion. Ellison lives in California with her husband of twenty years and their four children.

Read an Excerpt

London, the year I turned twenty.

I wore a winter coat, the first I’d ever owned—a man’s coat purchased at a secondhand store. I wore it every day, along with a silk scarf tied around my neck, imagining I looked arty or sophisticated. Each scarf cost a pound, and I bought them from an Indian woman who kept a stall in the tube station at Victoria, where I caught my train to work. They were thin, crinkled things, not the sort of scarves that ought to be worn to work in an office or that offered any protection against the cold. But I could not resist them, their weightlessness and soft, faint colors. The money I spent on them, and the habit I adopted of wearing a different one each day, seems to me now a haphazard indulgence, an attempt to prove that I was the kind of girl capable of throwing herself headlong into an affair with her boss—a married man twice her age—and escaping without consequence.

“Church,” he said, the morning I arrived at the address the woman at the agency had printed out on a card. “Malcolm Church.”

He extended his hand, and right away I was struck by a certain contradiction in him—the impressive height and mass of him in opposition to his stooped shoulders, his hesitant manner, his unwieldy arms and legs. He had a square face and round brown eyes and brown hair streaked with gray, but his features were mostly overwhelmed by his size, so that all I remembered afterward was the pleasing sensation of feeling small, by comparison, even at five feet eight. He had a strange way of talking, his head tucked into his neck and his eyes fixed in the empty space beyond, as if something were suspended there, ripe fruit or a glimmer of light, as if he were not quite brave enough, or perhaps too polite, to look a person in the eye.

He asked me how long I was available. I told him I planned to be in London three months, but that my work permit was good for six, through March of next year. I’d intended to claim I was available indefinitely, since the position was listed as full-time permanent, and I was entirely out of money and badly needed the job, but something had stopped me. Not a sense of right and wrong or fear of getting caught, but a hard center of self-importance I had not lived long enough to shed, the notion that I would offer myself on my own terms or not at all. And I was buoyed up by my typing speed—eighty words per minute—about which he never even inquired.

“That’ll be fine,” Malcolm said, staring intently over my shoulder as he proceeded to explain that his work was in structural engineering, and that he was currently preparing a bid for the new Docklands Light Rail station at Canary Wharf. The London Docklands, he explained, was an area in east and southeast London whose docks had once been part of the Port of London. The area had fallen into disarray, and in the seventies, the government had put forward plans for commercial and residential redevelopment. Malcolm had been involved in the early phases of the project. Now he was hoping to work on the renovation of the original rail station.

There would be dictation and word processing, he said, a little research and generally helping to set up the office and assemble the bid. The office was a single room upstairs from a sandwich shop near Bond Street, with two desks, industrial gray carpet and two folding metal chairs. On one desk was an unusual photograph of a woman and a baby, a posed black-and-white image with a startling play of silver light and shadow set against a background of trees and sky. A single smudge of pink had been hand-painted over the baby’s lips. It was Malcolm’s family—his wife, Louise, who would feature so prominently in my thoughts, and their infant daughter, Daisy, who was by then ten years old and away at the boarding school in the north that Louise had attended when she was Daisy’s age. I was to learn later that the photograph had been taken by a young man named Patrick Ardghal, the son of an old family friend of Malcolm’s, who was living in the cottage out back of Malcolm and Louise’s house in Richmond. He’d taken the photo a decade earlier, when he was in art school.

In the photo Louise had blond hair and a fine straight nose and a smile with a hint of impatience in it, perhaps not with the baby per se, but with the general condition of motherhood into which Louise had finally plunged. It had taken them seven years to conceive their daughter, Malcolm told me later. By the time they became parents they had already been married a decade, and Louise had not wanted another child. She didn’t have the temperament for it, Malcolm said. It overwhelmed and exhausted her and the delivery had nearly killed her, the baby, Daisy, having inherited from her father a rather large head.

I moved from a youth hostel in Earl’s Court to a boardinghouse in Victoria. The building was five stories high, made of gray stone, on a block not far from the tube station. My room was ten feet square with bright-blue walls, a laminate desk and a hard, narrow bed covered in a thin white spread. There were bathrooms down the hall. There were no showers, only a single tub and a hose you attached to the faucet for washing your hair. There was no lock on the room with the bathtub, so I made a habit of propping a chair in front of the door for privacy. The chair, as I recall, did not stop Patrick Ardghal. Nothing much stopped Patrick when he had an idea in his mind. He simply shoved the door hard, and I welcomed him, I suppose, as I always did, and he undressed and climbed in. Our wet bodies were awkwardly entangled long enough to please him—then he left, as he always did, taking my heart with him.

My rent was sixty pounds a week, including breakfast and dinner. The meals were served buffet-style in the dining room downstairs. There were eggs and toast and stewed tomatoes for breakfast, meat pie or fish and chips or baked ham for dinner. It was a source of solidarity among the other boarders to complain about the food but I could not in good conscience join in. I loved those meals, the bounty and efficiency of them, the thick gravies, the custards and puddings and soft, fat rolls. It seemed a small miracle to me, to have so much available and to be paying for it all with my own wages. It pleased me, too, each time I handed over a pound coin in exchange for a scarf, and when I purchased, at the secondhand shop in Notting Hill, the winter coat, a full-length single-breasted gray tweed with covered buttons and a wide collar that could be turned up against the cold. I wore my coat and scarf and descended the escalator into the bowels of Victoria Station, emerging again into the dense, unyielding energy of city life feeling brisk, and stylish, and superior to the person I’d been when I’d left home. I was taken over by a sense of liberation and possibility. Any false steps I made now would be mine alone. Any foolish moves would be private business that had no bearing on the hopes and dreams of others, and that would not later be a source of remorse or reckoning or pain.


What a shock to discover, some twenty years later, that exactly the opposite was true. To learn, in the aftermath, that I hadn’t known the half of it. To stand in my San Francisco kitchen last June and slip my finger through the flap of a white envelope, and to find a black-and-white photograph of myself in that tweed coat, standing on the chalk down of the White Cliffs of Dover, waiting to board a ferry to Paris.

It was a photograph innocent enough to anyone unacquainted with its history, its treacherous biological imperatives, its call for reparations left unpaid. It had been solarized, just as the photo of Louise and the baby on Malcolm’s desk had been. It had been subjected to a light source in the darkroom, causing a reversal of dark and light. My form, and Malcolm’s, along with the inch of air between us, were bathed in silver light that brightened at the edges like a halo. Louise and Patrick, on the other side of the photo, were deep in shadow. The scarf I was wearing had been hand-colored a blunt red. It was tied around my neck like a choker, like a noose. But it wasn’t me who was about to hang.

Reading Group Guide

A Conversation Between 
Jan Ellison and Ann Packer
Ann Packer is the acclaimed author of two collections of short fiction, Swim Back to Me and Mendocino and Other Stories, and three novels, Songs Without Words, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, and The Children’s Crusade. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and in the O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies, and her novels have been published around the world. Ann Packer interviewed Jan Ellison in January 2015 at Kepler’s Books, in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, which both writers call home. The following is an edited and revised version of their conversation.

Ann Packer: A Small Indiscretion is an insightful literary novel, but it’s also incredibly suspenseful—-a thriller in a way. The surprises come fast and furious, and it’s hard to put down. Tell us how you came to write the book. What were some of the seeds and how did it grow?

Jan Ellison: When I was nineteen, I took a break from college to study French in Paris. I was supposed to be back in school by January, but I wasn’t ready to come home. So I crossed the English Channel with a backpack and fifty dollars, and checked into a youth hostel in London and started looking for a job. This was before cellphones and Internet, of course, and I had this epiphany, and this incredible moment of euphoria, because nobody in the world could track me down. I was free of the care and concern of my loved ones. I was liberated from the demands and expectations of others. I could do anything. I could become anyone. That was really the moment I first felt my future as my own.

I found work in an office. I put in long hours, failed to forge friendships, and was often lonely. I drank in pubs. I took long walks across the city. I filled yellow legal notepads with terrible poems and bits of stories and overwrought descriptions of the city. Twenty years later, I tried to turn the impressions of those months into a coming--of--age novel set in London. I wrote for three or four years, but the novel only really took shape when the point of view shifted from a young Annie to an older one, and from first person to epistolary form. Once I knew that Annie’s son had been in a terrible car accident, that became the other thread running through the novel—-a life dramatically interrupted just as it approaches that moment of liberation I felt when I turned twenty.

AP: Was it immediately clear to you that this was the same character as the young woman you had been writing about all that time, but advanced twenty years?

JE: Yes, I knew it was Annie, but initially I didn’t know enough about her to settle into her voice. I had some sense of where she’d ended up, but I didn’t know what had happened between the weekend in Paris and her present life—-married to Jonathan in San Francisco, a mother of three, a proprietor of a lighting shop. I couldn’t settle into this new voice because I didn’t yet know that story’s arc, but this voice had become the only vehicle I had for finding that arc. It was this awful chicken and egg scenario that had me writing in circles for a long time. There were days—-months—-when I thought I simply was not smart enough to finish this book. I kept writing, though, and eventually I wrote my way out of the circles and got to the end.

AP: Some of the most beautiful passages in the book are when Annie is thinking about the function of memory and the way it’s a mystery for us as we look back—-what really happened and what we’ve constructed in our minds. So alongside this incredible suspense are these very moving and wise meditations on memory and storytelling. How does memory function in your fictional universe? How do the ways your characters perceive the past inform the present?

JE: I suppose in a lot of my work there’s a certain preoccupation with how the past and present operate, how the intoxication of being young, and the memory of that intoxication, bear on a life as it moves toward middle age. When we look back at our own youth, I think we tend to punch up the romance and forget the loneliness, the struggle, the hangovers, the despair. And we don’t remember things with the same emotions with which we experienced them initially. This is something Annie confronts in the book: How reliable is her own memory of her own feelings?

AP: Sometimes we’re in the present with Annie, when she is explaining herself to her son and looking back on the past and trying to understand how she got here. Other times we’re fully in the present, and events are moving forward rapidly, and the past and present stories are unfolding and ultimately intersecting. How much of this was planned and how much came to you as you wrote?

JE: I didn’t plan any of it. The two story lines sort of emerged independently, then they started fitting themselves together, but I wasn’t sure how that would all work until the very end. I was reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin at the time, a novel that deals with time and multiple stories skillfully and beautifully. The material I was working with seemed to be demanding a similar back and forth, and I think Atwood’s book gave me permission to see if it might work. Of course, permission is not the same as ability, and it took me a long time, with a lot of starts and stops and major revisions, to figure it out.

Although I should say that all along I knew Annie was writing to Robbie in absentia, and I knew he would never see what she wrote. The novel takes an epistolary form because if your child is in crisis, you must remain vigilant; you have to keep that child in your mind, you have to keep talking. But Robbie can’t hear Annie, so instead of talking, she puts pen to paper; the act of writing is Annie’s effort to understand and come to terms with her past, but even more than that, it’s her way of keeping a vigil for her son.

AP: It took a decade to write and publish this book. How did you get from draft to draft and what were some of the challenges along the way?

JE: Back in 2005, when my fourth child turned one and I emerged from that fog, I set out to put together a collection of short stories. I’d published a few by then, and I had a bunch more in progress, and I thought that longish short stories might be my calling. I was working with the London material, trying to shape it into a short story, but within a few months, it blew past story length, then it blew past novella length, and I kept writing.

In the fall of 2010, I’d probably amassed four hundred pages or so of material. I was at this moms’ getaway weekend with some friends, and at dinner, a mom I’d just met told me a really moving story about confronting her ex--in--laws many years after her first marriage ended. Her story seemed to have a perfect short--story arc, and I wanted to write it down. When I got back home, I decided I’d take a week’s break from the novel to bang it out. But in a repeat of history, a week of work on that “short story” turned into a month, which turned into a year and a half. Twenty pages grew to eighty, then to four hundred, and I was knee--deep in a brand--new novel. A Small Indiscretion became the boyfriend I pushed aside because I fell in love with someone new.

AP: You committed a small indiscretion.

JE: Yes! Or a large one, depending on your perspective.

But then, a few years later, a friend encouraged me to join her at the 2012 Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. Manuscripts were due in June. In March, my mother and my husband took over my household and sent me to the mountains for ten days to finish a first draft of the new novel. Somewhere around day four, I remembered a paragraph that I wanted to use, from what I had begun to think of as my “novel in the drawer.” I started reading what became A Small Indiscretion—-which I hadn’t touched in a year and half—-not as a writer but as a reader, and I found that the story engaged me. I wanted to know how it ended. I have a clear memory of lying in bed that night in the rented cabin in the mountains, trying to resolve the complex plot I’d un-intentionally laid down. In the morning, I opened the file again and took up where I’d left off. Within ten months, I had finished it and sold it to Random House.

AP: What happened in the writing of four hundred pages of a second novel that enabled you to come back and finish this book? Do you think its content informed your ability to take that step back and bring A Small Indiscretion to closure?

JE: I don’t think it was the content so much as the process. I didn’t question myself with the second book in the same way I had with the first. I trusted a little more. I drove forward and tried to avoid rewriting sentences, paragraphs, chapters before I knew how—-or if—-they serviced the story. It was almost as if I needed to start a second novel to learn how to finish the first. Which is a really backward way of doing things, and one I hope not to repeat.

AP: There’s a lot of conversation out there about likable characters, and whether or not we should try to create characters that are relatable, and what that means. Annie is a complicated character. She makes some choices that are maybe not wise, maybe not even good. What kinds of challenges did you face in creating this char-acter?

JE: This comes up a lot in conversations I’ve been having with book clubs. A reader will take issue with some of Annie’s actions and motives—-but immediately, another reader will jump in and defend her. They’re not talking about whether I’ve succeeded, as a writer, in creating a realistic character; they’re talking about whether she’s sympathetic, whether she’s a good person or not. And readers disagree, sometimes violently. This reinforces what we all already know, but which you sort of forget—-you have to forget—-when you’re writing a book. Reading is subjective. Not everybody connects in the same way with the characters in a novel, just as not everybody connects with the same people in real life.

I felt about Annie as I might feel about a best friend about to do something self--destructive. I’m standing there trying to tell her not to do it, but I already know she can’t help herself, and she knows it, too, though neither of us is really saying that out loud. I felt loyal to Annie the way I would feel toward that friend. I wasn’t going to abandon her in her hour of need; I was going to stand by her and try to help her climb her way out of the hole she’d dug for herself.

AP: It would have made for a pretty short book if she hadn’t made some of those decisions, and dug that hole.

JE: Exactly. It’s hard to write literary realism if your characters are perfect, because perfect people don’t exist in the real world. I think the question readers are asking is the question I was trying to answer in the book, maybe the same question many writers are trying to answer: Why do people do the crazy things they do?

AP: So once you had finished your first draft, gotten your agent, and sold it, what kinds of changes did the book go through before it came to print?

JE: I did go back and forth with my editors at Random House for a few months after we sold the book, and I really loved working with them on those final revisions. But the biggest overhaul was actually after I signed with my agent, PJ Mark. PJ wrote me this beautiful letter about how much he loved the book, then after I signed, he wrote me a much longer letter with his thoughts about the next draft. My mother came to help with the kids again, and I went to the mountains. That was a pivotal week. I had the whole book in my head, and I basically tore apart the second half and put it together again. I was almost afraid to leave my chair, because every change had a tremendous ripple effect, and I had to keep track of all those ripples. When that week was done—-and I was nearly eight years in by then—-I finally felt like I had something.

AP: Have there been any particular literary influences on this book, or on your writing in general?

JE: I already mentioned Margaret Atwood, and there are two other writers, two other Canadian women writers, actually—-Carol Shields and Alice Munro—-who have been tremendously important to me. In The Stone Diaries, Shields takes a lot of liberties with point of view. In the first scene of that novel, the narrator is watching her mother die during her own birth. It’s a really beautiful scene—-it’s a beautiful book—-and I think reading it, studying it, liberated me to consider point of view in a new light.

I’ve read most of what Alice Munro has written, certainly all of her earlier work, much of it more than once. What I love about her writing is her economy, as well as her ruthlessness in describing her character’s emotions and motivations. Her stories are almost novel--like in their scope and impact, and there is a discipline, a precision, in the way she describes how people think and feel. She doesn’t flinch; she doesn’t look away; she doesn’t apologize or moralize. She allows her characters the most outrageous longings and impulses. It all feels very much like real life, even though it’s often quite shocking. She’s a master of that blend of authenticity and surprise.

AP: And with Munro, those thoughts and emotions are sliced so finely. I feel that influence in these pages. Speaking of Alice Munro, you’ve also published prize--winning short stories. What are some of the challenges and differences writing in these forms—-writing stories versus novels?

JE: You’re using the same building blocks—-images and dialog and setting and character. And in a short story, mostly, you still need plot. You’re still telling a story. But it can be a piece of a world, instead of the whole world.

In short stories, I think you can allow yourself to be more lavish with the description and interiority. Stories can be a little denser, I think—-or at least I find that my stories are. If you’re writing a novel with a central mystery, you don’t want language to get in the way of that unfolding—-that plot—-and you want the curiosity you’ve planted in the readers’ minds to build during the reading experience.
It took a long time for the plot of this novel to arrive. I was working for years, and there were things happening—-there were exotic settings and people misbehaving and unlikely foursomes dashing off to Paris—-but all of that doesn’t necessarily add up to plot. The way I think of plot now, which helps keep me honest as I move forward with the second novel, is in terms of a question: What is the urgent reason for telling this story right now? It was not until Robbie’s accident entered the narrative that I had an answer to that question.

AP: How do you think getting this novel published and out into the world has affected you as a writer?

JE: This really hit home when I had to move out of the writing studio I’d rented for three years, because my landlady needed the space back. I was packing up my stuff, my desk, my stapler, my paper clips, my cup full of red pencils, and it was very, very difficult for me to think of leaving that place. I pulled the rug up to vacuum, and I found an old mint in a foil wrapper under a disgusting blanket of dust. It could have been there for years, and I thought, What else was keeping me company here without my knowing it? Cobwebs, spiders under the rug, dozens of dead sow bugs. But, mostly, my own innocence—-the innocence of a first--time novelist. The freedom of imagining that what I wrote would never be read by anyone but me. The bliss of not knowing what it would mean to send a novel, unprotected, into the world.

I once heard Michael Cunningham speak about writing The Hours, and he said when he set out to write that book, he was certain it would be his little academic indulgence, that it would sell five thousand copies and that would be that. But he wrote it anyway, because it wouldn’t leave him alone—-and then there was this incredible, unexpected response to the book. His message was: There’s no way to predict how anything we write will be received, so we may as well write what we want. But that’s hard to remember, especially once you have a book in the world. You start worrying about your agent reading it, and your editor. And you start thinking of all the nice readers who’ve told you they can’t wait for your next book, and you start worrying that they won’t like the second as much as they liked the first. Because that’s what people do—-compare.

I think it helps to be a bit selfish, a bit ruthless in your thinking. Being a mother of four is good training for this. You can do a lot for your kids, you can work really, really hard to try to attend to their needs and wants and keep things balanced and keep everybody happy. But no matter how much you do, you can’t please all of them all the time, so you may as well step back, sometimes, and worry about pleasing yourself.

AP: So what’s next? Are you now going to finish the second novel?

JE: I don’t want to say much because as every writer knows, until the story is fully realized on the page, there’s a chance it will never become the novel we imagine. You wrote beautifully, Ann, in an essay in The New York Times, about how characters are not ideas but “collections of sentences.” How even if you were to “imagine them in certain situations, without the process of finding language for those situations, they—-the characters and situations—-would float away.” That resonated with me.

What I love best in my writing life is to tinker with language, to fine--tune a paragraph or a sentence, or even a phrase, until the words finally live up to the hopes I have for them. But I had this epiphany years ago: You can’t revise something until you’ve written it. So with this second novel, I’m trying very hard to drive forward to the end of the story. It’s different from A Small Indiscretion in that it has several third--person narrators, including two male characters, and it’s mostly set here in Silicon Valley. But it has many of the same preoccupations—-the joyful and the dreadful of marriage and parenting, the divide between desire and duty, the many materials we find in the bucket we call love. I’m hoping it won’t take a decade this time around.

1. In the beginning of the novel, Annie writes: “Between those bookends was a family whose happiness might still be intact if only I’d been able to see the threats to it more clearly.” (page 17) Is Annie reponsible for Robbie’s accident, and for her family’s unraveling? Is it in her power to protect them?

2. There is more than one indiscretion in the novel. Which do you think the title refers to, or might it refer to more than one?

3. On page 302, Annie writes that it is “easier to blame the impul-siveness of youth than the wanton self--indulgence of a grown woman.” How can this statement be assessed in the context of Annie’s story? Why does Annie confess to Jonathan upon her return from London?

4. After Jonathan moves out, Clara and Polly are passed between their parents “like a restaurant dessert.” (page 17) Is Jonathan’s decision to move out defensible? How are the girls’ childhoods altered by the events of the summer? How might they look back on this period in their lives?

5. The novel takes the form of a confessional letter from Annie to Robbie. It also moves back and forth across two decades and spans three continents. How did this structure affect your reading experience? Does the structure remind you of any other novels?

6. Annie’s youthful relationship with Patrick is tortured and unfulfilling, yet she continues to yearn for him for more than twenty years. What causes this obsession? And why does it fade once Annie finally meets Patrick in London as an adult?

7. On page 250, Patrick defines art as “whatever stands in the world with no other purpose than to move us.” Annie in turn suggests that art should at least be beautiful. Do you agree with either of these definitions? What other scenes and situations in the novel speak to the themes of art and beauty?

8. Early in the novel, Annie writes: “The heart is large, and there is more than one material in the bucket we call love.” (page 42) How does the novel address the theme of the nature of love? How do notions or definitions of love evolve as the novel progresses and Annie matures?

9. Alcoholism runs in Annie’s family. When she finds herself abroad at nineteen, she begins to drink heavily. How might Annie’s upbringing have influenced this behavior? What leads to Annie’s “bargain” with herself in the clinic in San Francisco, as described on page 209?

10. The letter Annie receives from Emme’s uncle contains a major revelation. Did this revelation come as a surprise? What previous scenes hint at this revelation? Is Emme justified in holding Annie responsible for the shaping of her own history?

11. Annie posits that a memory is “by its nature a revision.” (page 288) She suggests that a memory is “shaped by the waves of time, and by the history that has rushed against it since.” (page 171) How does the novel interrogate the nature of memory? Is Annie a reliable narrator? How would the story be different if it were told from Jonathan’s point of view? Or Robbie’s? Or Emme’s?

12. On page 273, Annie realizes that if she expects to be forgiven, she must “forgive indiscriminately” from now on. Which characters, besides Annie, seek forgiveness? Which characters are ultimately redeemed, and which, if any, are not?

13. The novel concludes without describing what happens when Annie flies to Paris to reveal to Robbie the truth about his paternity and about Emme’s motivations. How do you imagine events unfolding between Annie and Robbie and, ultimately, between Robbie and Emme?

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