The Fiction Class

( 14 )

Overview

Read Susan Breen's posts on the Penguin Blog.

A witty, honest, and hugely entertaining story for anyone who loves books, or has a difficult mother. And, let’s face it, that’s practically everybody . . .

On paper, Arabella Hicks seems more than qualified to teach her fiction class on the Upper West Side: she’s a writer herself; she’s passionate about books; she’s even named after the heroine in a Georgette ...

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The Fiction Class

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Overview

Read Susan Breen's posts on the Penguin Blog.

A witty, honest, and hugely entertaining story for anyone who loves books, or has a difficult mother. And, let’s face it, that’s practically everybody . . .

On paper, Arabella Hicks seems more than qualified to teach her fiction class on the Upper West Side: she’s a writer herself; she’s passionate about books; she’s even named after the heroine in a Georgette Heyer novel.

On the other hand, she’s thirty-eight, single, and has been writing the same book for the last seven years. And she has been distracted recently: on the same day that Arabella teaches her class she also visits her mother in a nursing home outside the city. And every time they argue. Arabella wants the fighting to stop, but, as her mother puts it, “Just because we’re family, doesn’t mean we have to like each other.” When her class takes a surprising turn and her lessons start to spill over into her weekly visits, she suddenly finds she might be holding the key to her mother’s love and, dare she say it, her own inspiration. After all, as a lifelong lover of books, she knows the power of a good story.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The collision of truth and fiction can result in romance or even redemption-or so say the writing exercises and life lessons that make up Breen's debut novel. For years, Arabella Hicks's love life, like her writing life, has felt flat and fruitless. Still, the 38-year-old copy editor and part-time teacher can summon neither the drive to date nor the wherewithal to finish her novel, Courting Disaster, now seven years in the rewriting. She's anxious about her mother, Vera, whom she visits in a nursing home every Wednesday after teaching her writing class. Worried about Vera's Parkinson's disease-and still grieving her father's death-Arabella discovers her personal fears seeping into classroom discussions of plot, point of view and dialogue. One student, the well-spoken, well-to-do Chuck, begins a relationship with Arabella and thus installs himself into the mother-daughter drama. Breen, a writing instructor, sometimes overplays her hand, but she does inject a dose of originality into an otherwise familiar setup. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Arabella Hicks was named after the main character in a romance novel, and this seems to lead her life in the trajectory of all things fiction. She's seven years into writing her novel, and her day job is teaching a fiction class in Manhattan. The rest of her time is taken up by her difficult mother, who's suffering from Parkinson's and living in a nursing home. Breen, a teacher at Gotham Writers' Workshop, structures her first novel as a treat for any fiction lover. Each chapter starts with Arabella's weekly fiction class and its topic, for example, "character" or "point of view." We get to sit in as she explains the subject matter and closes with an exercise for her students to work on at home. The students in the class are another set of characters, some wacky and some sweet, and one handsome older man, Chuck, flirts endlessly with Arabella. Arabella's class, her novel, a possible relationship with Chuck, and stressful visits to her mother, who might also have an interest in writing fiction, converge into a poignant, lovely read. For most fiction collections.
—Beth Gibbs

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452289109
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/26/2008
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 690,662
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Breen teaches fiction classes for Gotham Writers' Workshop in Manhattan. Her short stories have been published by a number of literary magazines, among them American Literary Review and North Dakota Quarterly. She is also a contributor to The Writer and Writers' Digest. She lives in Irvington, NY with her husband, children, two dogs and one cat.

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Reading Group Guide

NOTE: We recognize that reading is a personal experience, and we hope that the author interview and questions below will provide a springboard to provoke a lively discussion.

INTRODUCTION
Arabella Hicks helps her students focus on their writing, and she encourages them to nurture the distinctive voice that emerges on paper as a result of that focus. For some of them, it’s the first time any of them have ever had their written work taken seriously.

Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly harder for Arabella to practice what she preaches. She’s been writing the same novel for seven years, and lately her time in front of the computer has involved more games of Spider Solitaire than she’d like to admit. Revision consists of considering alternate punctuation. She can’t find an appropriate ending for her novel. Also, she’s distracted. Her mother, ailing from Parkinson’s and living in a nearby nursing home, still has enough energy in her to leave Arabella feeling angry and depleted each time she visits. And these visits, every Wednesday evening after Arabella’s fiction class, are becoming more and more important. As her mother’s health begins to decline rapidly, Arabella must find a way to move their relationship past its previous obstacles and into a place where both women can feel comfortable admitting they need—and love—one another.

Susan Breen’s The Fiction Class is a work of wit and intelligence with a hefty emotional weight, a narrative that teaches us as much about the craft of writing fiction as it does the power of memory, love, and compassion.

ABOUT SUSAN BREEN

Susan Breen teaches fiction classes for Gotham Writers' Workshop in Manhattan. Her short stories have been published by a number of literary magazines, among them American Literary Review and North Dakota Quarterly. She is also a contributor to The Writer and Writers' Digest. She has an M.A. from Columbia University and has worked as a reporter for Fortune magazine and an editor for the Foreign Policy Association. She lives in Irvington, NY with her family, two dogs and one cat.

A CONVERSATION WITH SUSAN BREEN

Q. How many years have you taught at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan? And how similar was the structure of Arabella’s fiction class to the way you run your own writing courses? Did you have any emotional or philosophical difficulty in “lending” Arabella your lecture notes and writing exercises, or did you give her material completely independent of your own?

A. I’ve been teaching beginning and advanced fiction classes for GWW since 2002. One of the most difficult parts of writing the book was trying to capture the rhythm of a fiction class, and of course, each class has a different rhythm because the personalities of the students vary so widely. In the first draft of The Fiction Class, I included my complete lectures, which went on for pages and pages, but I realized, when I read through it, that reading a whole lecture can be incredibly boring. So I chopped and shaped. I think if you were to sit in on one of my classes, you might hear me say some of the same things that Arabella says in The Fiction Class, but I think it’s okay to borrow from yourself. In fact, I think that’s what writing is.

Q. By the end of The Fiction Class, Arabella has formed a resonant, fairly symbiotic relationship with her students. Arabella’s extenuating circumstances aside, how rare (or common) is it for students and instructor to form a bond of mutual respect and admiration? What is the biggest obstacle to the teacher/student relationship, and how often do you run across it?

A. The most important thing I do as a fiction teacher is create an environment of trust so that my students are able to share their work. If a student does not feel comfortable in the class, she cannot take risks, which means she cannot write. So friendship is a very important element of the class and I consider many of my students to be good friends. The only real obstacle I’ve ever encountered is that some people simply do not want to change their work; they want me to read it and hand them the name of an agent. It is often a surprise for students to realize just how much work is involved in writing. But I generally harangue them into it by the end of the class.

Q. Arabella deals with a particularly vicious bout of writers’ block in this novel. How often do you suffer from writers’ block, and how do you manage to begin writing again?

A. I’ve never suffered from writers’ block because I don’t have the time for it. When my children were little, I had only fifteen-minute increments for writing; often I found if I was pretending to wash the dishes, they would ignore me for a bit. Even now, I spend a good part of my day running around with kids and so usually, by the time I sit down to write, the words have been building up inside of me for some time and it’s just a question of getting them on the page. However, there is something about a blank page that makes me very nervous, so when I am starting something new, I will put any words on the page, even ridiculous ones, so that I do not have to see that whiteness.

Q. Is it safe to assume that, like Arabella, you emphasize the importance of writing, and not publishing, to your students? That being said, how do you view the world of publishing these days? What advice would you offer to a writer who—having spent a lot of time crafting his/her work—wants to publish a novel?

A. Occasionally one of my students will tell me he doesn’t care about publication, and I always think he’s lying. I believe every writer wants to see his words in print, and why not? I didn’t deal with the details of publication in the book because the information seemed too specific to get across in one novel; for example, I would have to know about what genre the writer was working in. As to advice, I think my own example is a very encouraging one. I started off with absolutely no connections in the publishing world. I am not related to anyone famous, I am neither tall nor gorgeous nor wealthy and yet, here I am, filling out a reading guide. All you can really do is write and write and not quit.

Q. An important element of the novel is the Arabella’s relationship with her mother. Is that autobiographical?

A. My mother and I did have a strained relationship after she went into a nursing home. I think we both felt like failures, especially me. Every time I visited, we fought, and over ridiculous things. Then I got my job at Gotham and I was surprised to realize that my mother loved hearing about my class. She actually loved to listen to my lectures, loved listening to me sit on her bed and declaim about plot or point of view. My fiction class brought us together. After she died, I realized what a gift it was that she and I were able to connect, so when I began to write The Fiction Class, it was very much on my mind that I wanted to write about a woman who was able to heal her relationship with her mother.

Q. What projects are you working on currently? Are you still writing short stories? What can we hope to see from you in bookstores in the near future?

A. I hope you will see many things from me in the future. At the moment I am working on a new novel about a woman and her son, told from the point of view of the mother. It takes place on tour with a traveling troupe of actors, and it has to do with a reinterpretation of A Christmas Carol.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • In “First Class: Getting Started,” we meet all of the members of Arabella’s ten-week writing course. Who, out of the twelve students, surprised you the most in terms of character development? For those who have taken any kind of community workshop, discuss Breen’s ability to create characters that reflect the types of people who enroll in these classes. How well does she avoid making them stereotypes or clichés?
     
  • Discuss and evaluate the structure of the novel. How do Arabella’s class lectures and writing assignments reflect, highlight, or provide insight into her personal life? How do they work as vehicles for flashback and foreshadowing? What keeps the lecture/classroom scenes from becoming formulaic?
     
  • Similarly, consider the ways in which Breen uses setting to parallel Arabella’s state of mind and/or reveal meaning. How accurately does she portray the atmosphere of a nursing home? How vividly could you picture the nursery school classroom in which the fiction class takes place?
     
  • Arabella isn’t always a sympathetic character. We see her typecasting and criticizing her students rather ruthlessly, and in the beginning of the novel she fails to see how she might be culpable for the rift in her relationship with her mother. What keeps us interested in Arabella as a character? What allows us to keep reading about her until the end of the book?
     
  • Discuss how Breen writes about the effects of diseases like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s. What does her writing reveal to you about the lives of people with these diseases and the lives of their caretakers?
     
  • Is there anything ironic about Chuck’s place as the romantic hero? How does he fit the role, and in what ways does he not? Do you think his relationship with Arabella will last? Does he change much in the novel, or is it simply Arabella’s perspective (of him, and others) that changes?
     
  • How did you feel that Arabella could never answer her mother firmly about her own beliefs about God, fortune-tellers, and miracles?
     
  • Before Arabella reads her mother’s short story, we see parts of the narrative interspersed between chapters. How, in these early stages, did the story about Joan and her hoped-for miracle work as a parable for what was happening in Arabella and Vera’s life? What did Vera’s story reveal—not only about her relationship with Arabella, but about her perspective before and after her husband’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis?
     
  • Arabella says, “Theme is how you interpret the world.” Just as there can be more than one interpretation of the world, there can be more than one theme to a novel. What would you consider to be the central themes of this book? What would Breen have you believe about familial and romantic relationships, the nature of love, and the role of faith and hope in our lives?
     
  • Like all good literature, The Fiction Class contains symbols that reinforce the theme(s) of the novel. Perhaps the most obvious of these symbols is the perfect apple, which Chuck gives to Arabella early in the semester. Arabella considers various possibilities for the apple as a symbol, but how do you think it works to support the novel’s thematic development? What other symbols did you notice, or consider, when reading the book? What or who did these images and items symbolize?
     
  • The Fiction Class is a highly reflexive novel in that it contains or employs many of the devices Arabella talks about in her lectures. Did this make the novel more or less enjoyable to read? Were you conscious of the narrative’s plot development, pacing, character development, dialogue, and thematic development as you read the book? Did you learn anything from Arabella’s lectures? Did her lectures inspire you to try writing on your own?
     
  • Do you think that Vera’s vision of her husband (as described in Marvel’s letter) qualified as a miracle? Does it work as a plot device, connecting Vera’s short story with Arabella’s real life experience more solidly, or does it detract from the novel, and make it seem less realistic and genuine? Why do you think unhappy endings—or, at the very least, endings that are neither happy nor sad—are preferred in literary fiction?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 14 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 15 of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 10, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Great for teachers and writers

    This was a great book to read from a teacher's point of view. It's about growth, change and acceptance. At first I criticized the main character, but then I found myself growing with her as she grew with her adult fiction class.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 31, 2010

    What Are You Thinking, Valtrajay?

    I can't believe you found the writing of The Fiction Class to be "amature"! It is beautifully and sensitively done. I read a lot of books, and I was struck right from the beginning by the style of writing. I also really don't think you should write off a book just because it's done in the present tense.

    The interwoven story lines between the class and the dying mother are inspired. I was immediately drawn into the plot and the well-delineated characters.

    Well, anyway, you readers out there, please give The Fiction Class a try. You'll be happy you did. Good for book clubs, too.

    By the way, I also love Arabella by Georgette Heyers as well as nearly every one of her other books.

    Marian the Librarian

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2008

    Wisdom about writing and wisdom about mothers and daughters.

    'The Fiction Class' is a beautiful book about a troubled mother-daughter relationship. Breen manages to write towards a genuine, wise resolution avoiding cliche. Arabella, the main character, is the teacher of a fiction workshop for adults. Breen introduces us to the members of the class, a series of characters who come together to form a family over the ten weeks the novel covers. The story of the Fiction Class weaves through the story of Arabella's complex and sometimes bitter relationship with her ailing mother. Breen brings the two threads together masterfully and uses them to illuminate each other with quiet wisdom. This is a genuine, beautifully written novel that resonates long after you have finished it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 16, 2014

    I wanted to sign up for her writing class with its interesting a

    I wanted to sign up for her writing class with its interesting and varied students and caring teacher.  A lovely book that I so enjoyed.  

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2011

    Valtrajay's review

    Let me put Valtrajay's review in perspective: would anyone accept a critical literary review from an illeterate reader? Really....."Pass tense" when it should be 'past tense', "Wendeys" when it should have read 'Wendys' ' and please find the word "Okayish" in any dictionary other than the review by Valtrajay. Readers please read this book and decide for yourself rather than make a decision about its worth from someone who is unable to write a literate review. Ingnorance is bliss, but let's hope we, and other authors, are not subjected to this type of reviewer's "bliss" again!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2011

    DULL

    This book moved exceptionally slow and did not hold my attention at all. There was no climax and barely any conflict. A basic storyline with no twists or moments of excitement. So dull I had to force myself to finish it.

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  • Posted May 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Good Story, Bad Writing

    It wasn't just the present-tense layout that made me cringe, but the writing style in general seemed a bit amature. I know this is Breen's first book, and I could totally tell, because it didn't seem as developed as other novels I have read. In the book, she has little exerpts that the students write in her class, and also a short story that her mother writes and you get to read it...and it was even present tense in those stories! Not once was it pass tense or in a different format...The whole entire thing was present tense and it annoyed me like crazy. "Arabella sits down next to her mother as she gives her the Wendey's hamburger." I hated the style. However, the plot was okayish. There was a huge lack of action and it got a bit boring, but the ending was sensual and touching...it's mainly about a relationship between a mother and a daughter. A Great Mother's Day gift perhaps, but not if you're trying to learn from a "great" writer. Not the best work.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2008

    Selected for my reading group!

    It has been awhile since I last read something so profound AND entertaining. The Fiction Class is funny, heartbreaking, suspensful, and informative.

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    Posted January 21, 2011

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    Posted November 23, 2010

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    Posted December 13, 2009

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    Posted June 13, 2011

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    Posted May 20, 2011

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