Lydia's Party: A Novel [NOOK Book]


An exquisite and profound tale for fans of Anne Tyler and Anna Quindlen

Glowingly reviewed everywhere from O, The Oprah Magazine and Good Housekeeping to sites across the blogosphere, Lydia’s Party sparks “a-ha” moments and heartfelt conversations about friendship, regrets, and ambitions. Margaret Hawkins’s earlier books, all published by small presses, have gained her a ...
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Lydia's Party: A Novel

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An exquisite and profound tale for fans of Anne Tyler and Anna Quindlen

Glowingly reviewed everywhere from O, The Oprah Magazine and Good Housekeeping to sites across the blogosphere, Lydia’s Party sparks “a-ha” moments and heartfelt conversations about friendship, regrets, and ambitions. Margaret Hawkins’s earlier books, all published by small presses, have gained her a devoted following, but this gem of a novel will introduce her to the wider audience she deserves.

Lydia is hosting her “Bleak Midwinter Bash,” a late Christmas party that has become an annual tradition. Her guests—six friends who bonded twenty years ago over art, dogs, and their budding careers and romances—think they know everything about one another, but tonight Lydia prepares to shock them with a devastating announcement.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hawkins (A Year of Cats and Dogs) sets a sumptuous table for a last supper like no other: a repast that’s alternately uncomfortable and soothing, weepy and jubilant, evocative and realistic. Party host and art teacher Lydia is having her annual dinner for her women friends—Elaine, Celia, Maura, Jayne, Betsy. This year she’s also invited Norris, a former teaching colleague who’s become a successful artist. But a howling Chicago blizzard will turn their boozy dinner into a raucous slumber party, where Lydia confesses she’s dying of cancer and reveals her secret fears and nagging regrets. “My life is a heap of remnants,” she laments. Norris is with Lydia in her final moments, and he also witnesses the death of her dog, Maxine, who dies an hour after her adored mistress. With Lydia’s passing, egotistical Norris, best friend Celia, and old friend and spurned lover Ted face their fears and regrets. And in a quirky, impossibly magical and sweetly charming twist, Lydia helps guide them all to forgiveness. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Hawkins (A Year of Cats and Dogs; How To Survive a Natural Disaster) celebrates the bonds of female friendship at the midpoint of life as well as the private sentiments of seven women who come together annually for Lydia's party. This year, however, Lydia has some news that will alter their relationships and change things rather dramatically. Before the guests convene for the evening, each woman is portrayed in the crux of her daily life and is caught reflecting upon moments she has experienced—disappointments, regrets, mistakes, and deeper desires. Although Lydia's friends are dissatisfied with the way their lives have turned out, it doesn't mean that they can't act as agents of change for themselves and set things in a different direction. Maybe with a little guidance from Lydia, they can find a more fulfilling place, if they are willing to listen. VERDICT This is an uncomplicated read that skims the surface of heady topics but doesn't take the full plunge. Although Hawkins's protagonists are well drawn and interesting, more exposure to each of them would have helped readers understand their motives better.—Anne M. Miskewitch, Chicago P.L.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-11-17
Hawkins' third novel is a beautiful evocation of a death at midlife--at once elegant, melancholy and wise. With shades of Mrs. Dalloway, much of the novel takes place in a day, as Lydia prepares for her annual winter party. The same group of women has been coming for years (except Norris, who makes barely plausible excuses), and Lydia worries over the usual: the food, the wine, the weather. But this will be her last party; she's just been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and has but a few weeks to live. She struggles over a letter she plans to give each friend after dinner; a letter she writes and edits and is dissatisfied with because how can you explain all the disappointments of a lifetime in an uplifting farewell? She teaches art at a community college in the suburbs of Chicago, but really she wanted Norris' life. Years ago, Lydia and Norris were colleagues, but thanks to Lydia's mentorship (and, admittedly, Norris' own icy determination), Norris has become a world-renowned painter while Lydia gave up long ago. And Lydia had men, too many of the wrong kind. And she had fears of making the wrong choices and so made too few important ones. And now she knows it is too late for anything; there is no more time to be the person she imagined. As she prepares for the party, her guests get ready as well: Elaine is bitter and alone and spreads acrimony like ruined pixie dust; still beautiful Maura loses herself in reveries of Roy, the married man she devoted her life to for a once-a-week "date"; Celia is married with a teenage son but is perpetually surprised that family life is so tedious. And then there is Norris, whom everybody hates but Lydia, and even Lydia hates her a little bit, too. Hawkins smartly continues the novel after the party, after Lydia's death, after Norris begins a grand portrait series of the women, and the plot takes a number of unexpected, hugely enjoyable turns. It is this kind of book: the kind one buys extra copies of to pass out to friends.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101635445
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/23/2014
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 37,582
  • File size: 991 KB

Meet the Author

Margaret Hawkins is the author of two previous novels, A Year of Cats and Dogs and How to Survive a Natural Disaster, as well as a memoir about her sister, After Schizophrenia: The Story of My Sister’s Reawakening. She has also written for the Chicago Sun-Times and is a Senior Lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Visit A reading guide is available both there and at
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Reading Group Guide

"It's a good time of year for a party" (p. 106).

Chicago winters are notoriously long, but for almost twenty years come January Lydia's friends have gathered for a cherished ritual and blow-out evening. Their host's annual party offers them good food, wine, and a much-needed dose of conviviality on what often "turned out to be the coldest night of the year" (p. 4). Only tonight, Lydia is preoccupied with something other than her famed spicy chicken stew.

Now fifty-four, Lydia was once an aspiring painter who taught art classes to pay the bills. After her position at a suburban community college became permanent, Lydia gradually let teaching replace creating. Two decades pass, and suddenly-or so it seems to Lydia-her artistic dreams are likely on permanent hold, her romantic life is complicated, and she is no longer even "the woman who looks incredibly young for her age" (p. 6).

As Lydia prepares the feast, she contemplates the expensive French cooking pot she'd impulsively purchased. "She felt a little guilty. The cost, including overnight shipping, would have fed a family of four for a week" (p. 12). Yet, having lived frugally all her life, she is now determined to pursue frivolous indulgences. After all, these days she finds herself living with her ailing dog, Maxine, and her ex-husband, Spence, a down-on-his-luck musician who inhabits her basement rent-free.

Later, over a table overflowing with a cornucopia of food and wine, and with the enormous Maxine warming their feet, the women revel in sharing gossip and secrets while also laughing uproariously at past party exploits. Several of the women are artists, and their friendships are complicated by ambition and jealousy. All the women are pondering their lives and wondering "what's next?" now that they are no longer young enough to easily attempt reinvention.

Bound primarily by friendship with Lydia, tonight's partygoers are a potluck mix of personalities and backgrounds. Norris is a wealthy, internationally renowned painter, while Celia struggles to stay financially afloat. Jayne is happy in her stable marriage, but Betsy feels disconnected from her husband. Elaine has lived free of romantic entanglements, whereas Maura is defined by the twenty-one years she spent as her boss's mistress.

Not all of them are looking forward to the night's festivities, however. Norris knows that the others dislike her abrasive personality, and some of them resent her success. "What they didn't know . was that she was nicer to them, or at least to Lydia, than she was to almost anyone else" (p. 52). She drives to Lydia's, certain that this year's party will be her last.

With wisdom, humor, and compassion, Margaret Hawkins chronicles the lives of seven women at midlife and the looming events that will force them to rethink their futures alone and together. A mesmerizing meditation on the vicissitudes of aging, the transformative power of art, and a stirring paean to female friendships, Lydia's Party will resonate long after the final page.


Margaret Hawkins is the author of two previous novels and a memoir. She wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times and is a Senior Lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She lives in Chicago.


What inspired you to write Lydia's Party?

I was thinking about the complications of close-knit groups-families and old friends-and how they relate to one another over time. It's about love, of course, but not only. There are these other currents, privacy versus transparency, the challenges of individual expression versus being a good citizen. I started the book in January, so that's where that came from. Really, surviving winter in Chicago, year after year, is a kind of psychological odyssey, reminding you at every turn that you're going to die. Even in summer, you know what's coming. Perversely, I suppose, I find that kind of invigorating.

Besides being a novelist, you are an art critic and lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How do your "day jobs" inform your fiction?

Everything informs my fiction - doing the laundry, walking my dog. The art part is just what I'm interested in so the themes in the novel and the jobs are both an outgrowth of that. Of course, it's also true that after writing a weekly column about art for years I've seen a lot of inadvertently humorous press releases and couldn't help poking some fun. The teaching part is drawn somewhat from life-that's how you think when you teach: how am I going to get and hold attention without being gratuitously theatrical? -but the details are from my imagination. I've never given a lecture on Ivan Albright. Specifically, in terms of this book, I'm intrigued by how artists relate to the world at large, how they think of themselves and justify the lives they (we) lead. I mean, is it really all right to lock yourself in a room and spend your days painting pictures or writing stories? I hope so, but sometimes I wonder.

Your descriptions of Norris's paintings are incredibly vivid. Are they based on the work of a real-life painter or did they spring wholly from your imagination?

They pretty much spring from my imagination. The figure paintings are what I might like to paint if I could. But it's like teaching; making up ideas for paintings is a lot easier than making actual paintings. I admire good figure painters, especially when they do something new with the genre. It takes a lot of guts to fly in the face of art history.

Did you ever have a List of Fears, as Lydia does?

Not exactly but when I was in seventh grade I had a teacher who started the year by asking us a battery of personal questions. We had to write down the answers and turn them in. One of the questions was: What are you afraid of? We were supposed to make a list. I don't know if he was just indulging his curiosity or if it was school policy and this was some kind of "modern" technique to better understand children's psyches but I remember loving that exercise. It was thrilling to me for some reason, to be invited to contemplate, then name my fears, and for years I went over the list in my mind, adding and subtracting items. I can't remember much of it now but I do recall that the first item was big black dogs. Which is funny because my childhood dog had been medium-sized and black, and when I got to be an adult the dog I got was as big and black as you can get. So I gave that paradox to Lydia. I kind of like that it doesn't make obvious sense. Maybe the power suggested by such a dog is an aspect of herself she feared?

Who are some of your literary influences?

I guess your deepest literary influences are what you read and loved when you were a child up to about fourteen or fifteen so mine would be A Wrinkle in Time, Alice in Wonderland, Oliver Twist, Lolita, the Bobbsey Twins, East of Eden, Edith Hamilton's Mythology. For years I went to a Baptist church with my friend Debbie so I read the Bible. And my father pressed boy books on me-I don't think he thought much of books by or about girls -so I read Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island. Everything I read influences me, though. I love newspapers.

As the novel progresses, the focus seems to shift from Lydia to Norris. Why is that?

I'm intrigued by the way people who are close to one another, especially people who are sometimes adversarial, seem to trade personality traits over time. You see it in couples, sometimes when they break up. And it happens when people die, the surviving friend or partner or offspring will take on traits of the person who's gone, traits they didn't even like, without knowing or intending to. It's a kind of immortality. I thought Lydia was passing the baton to Norris, even though she didn't mean to, like it was Norris's turn to do some of the unsung work in the world now. She's just getting started at the end. I didn't plan that exactly; it just seemed to be what the story needed, a kind of opening out into the ambiguous future. Maybe, also, the book ends with Norris because a life story doesn't end when someone dies. The story gets passed along to other people, to make something more from it. There tends to be a belief that the passing on of a spiritual inheritance is only a family matter-books often end with the next generation picking up where the older one left off-but it happens among friends, too, and that's almost more poignant because the time is shorter and there's less recognition for these relationships. Friendship doesn't hold the same glorious position in the public imagination that family does.

You do a wonderful job of chronicling the varied experiences of each of the women as they maneuver middle age. Are these characters based on real-life women of your acquaintance?

No! But the dog, Maxine, is. She's based on my late dog Max (the big black one). He was wilder, though.

How did writing this novel affect your own feelings about growing older?

I think I was working out some stuff. I feel better now than I did when I was writing it.

What are you working on now?

Another novel, of course. Also, I just finished an essay for Katherine Ace, a painter who revisits Grimm Brothers fairy tales, and I'm starting one for my friend Richard Loving, an amazing painter who is about to celebrate his 90th birthday the same week his new show opens.


  • Early in the novel, Lydia reflects upon her parents' journey into old age, and "here was the ridiculous and shameful part she hated to admit: she'd thought they'd brought it on themselves. . . . Sometimes she even thought they were that way by choice" (p. 7). Is Lydia being too hard on herself? Is it possible for young, healthy people to grasp the realities of aging?
  • How has your own list of fears changed over the years? What is the one fear you would most like to confront?
  • What does Lydia's orange pot represent? Why does it wind up in Norris's portrait of Ted?
  • Lydia and Spence used to have dinner parties with three other couples, but after they divorced, her friendships with the other women dissolved. If you are in a long-term relationship, compare the friendships you've made as a single person versus those you've made as part of a couple.
  • Did Roy just use Maura or did he really love her? What does Elaine's harsh criticism of their relationship-even after Roy's death-say about her?
  • Jayne occasionally smokes cigarettes even though her husband, Douglas, disapproves, and Celia and Peter both cheat on their tight budget and hide their splurges from each other. Are secrets like these normal and harmless, or are they evidence of a marriage's deeper problems?
  • Compare Maura's relationship with Roy with Celia's experiences with marriage and motherhood. Who would you say finds greater happiness?
  • Ted, Spence, and Peter hover around the margins of the party, helping but without being invited inside. In your experience, are men jealous of female friendships? Do women generally feel constrained by the presence of men and children?
  • Why are dogs and other pets such a large part of Lydia's story?
  • How-if at all-does your opinion of Norris change over the course of the novel? Does her creative genius excuse her behavior?
  • Each of the women is transformed by Lydia's announcement. How do Norris's portraits help them to heal?
  • Has reading Lydia's Party inspired you to make changes in your own life?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 18 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 27, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    A slow-grower of a story, the full impact and impression doesn¿t

    A slow-grower of a story, the full impact and impression doesn’t seem to arrive until after the book is closed and you have had time to let the threads of the tale tangle with your own experience to create a tapestry of impressions, guaranteed to be different for all who encounter this novel. 

    I will say that this is a novel that is not geared toward the twenty-somethings of this world, the women are all middle aged, having established their lives both professionally and personally, and many of the lessons and trials shared will be thought-provoking for, yet not relatable to, readers who haven’t achieved a certain polish (or tarnish) from their years.   

    We follow Lydia as she prepares her annual party for her friends: an annual tradition that brings these long-standing friends together to share updates on their lives, their trials and their successes.  And eclectic group of women, married and divorced, happy and not so, career focused or not: they have a striking honesty in their relationships with one another and themselves.  We meet each of the women in the group as we see their preparations for the party, their insights on interactions and relationships, as they delve into their fears, dreams and history.

    Most prominent is Lydia, as she is preparing for the party, and her reflections on both herself and the guests that are coming.  There is a thread of melancholy that winds throughout the story: partly tied to opportunities lost or missed, and partly a delicate longing for different and ‘more’, this tone doesn’t bog the tale down, it merely reinforces Lydia’s ‘everywoman’ status: we all have regrets and wonder what if, yet here she has managed to move past those to find a sense of contentment and connection in her life, or so she (and they all) believe.  

    What emerges is the strength and reliance that these women have on their bond: that place where total honesty is not off-putting or shocking, but simply accepted and supported: where you can draw from the experience of others to help in your own decisions, choices and attitude.  No, the pacing is not perfect and we are distracted by some unnecessary focus on elements that don’t seem to relate to the larger story at hand, but the slower pace allows time for the revelations and lessons to settle and fall into place as you read.  

    Margaret Hawkins has created a novel and characters that will speak to each reader in a different and unique way, giving a different impression as their story unfolds and their interactions are revealed.  Yes, this is a book that many will find engrossing and honest, with moments that will inform their own relationships with their friends of long standing. 

    I received an eArc copy from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility. 

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 10, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    A Bleak Midwinter Bash might make for rather bleak reading, but

    A Bleak Midwinter Bash might make for rather bleak reading, but Margaret Hawkins delivers something simultaneously deeper and lighter in her novel, Lydia’s Party. Surface details entertain as the perfect casserole is prepared in a brand new post, but mystery lies behind why careful Lydia is suddenly investing in something so expensive. Perfect clothes are laid out. A perfect table is laid. Meanwhile the (not quite) perfect guests, who always turn up, every year for the last 13 years, make their own preparations with varying levels of reluctant duty, disappointment, promise and hope.

    This is a women-only party, and these women, held together by having met 20 years ago in a small suburban art class, might be close friends but they’re very different in outlook from each other. Their maybe-tomorrows have all turned into missed-chances with passing years—except for Norris, who surely has it all. As thelist of things to look forward to shrinks, the certain age of these protagonists makes them particularly appealing to readers of a certain age, who will quickly identify with their quirks and regrets. But there’s joy in this bleakness, always lightened by humor and the mysteries of reality—those secrets we barely confess to ourselves and surely not to others. There will be a party. There will be fun. And it might not be the last time.

    Each character brings different strengths and weaknesses to both party and narration. Extrapolating the truths between them is part of the fun of reading this deceptively involving novel. Relationships come into vivid focus with one long-delayed revelation, and a snowstorm of emotions ensues. But there are twists and surprises still in store, beautiful works of art to explore, and curious touches of winter sun breaking through before another Bleak Midwinter Bash. Hauntingly real, evocatively human, deeply perceptive, and intriguingly delivered, Lydia’s Party would be a great book club read. It’s a wonderful tale for women readers, and a marvelous invitation to see into the art inside and outside our heads.

    Disclaimer: A friend loaned me her copy of this book to see what I thought of it, and I loved it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 18, 2014


    Lydia's Party was simply tedious for me. Unlike other reviewers, I was able to follow the back and forth of character development, but it was just tedious for me. Thankfully, another reviewer urged readers to 'power on' to the second part of the story, 'The Party'. The tempo picked up and the reading flowed a little bit better, but I just didn't enjoy the story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2014

    Lydias party

    I relocated with my family and left behind an amazing group of women that made-up a small book-club. It was a group of about 6 regulars and some short-timers, sporatically. This book started as a reminder of my great friends that made up a very important part of my life. Sometimes life puts you in contact with people who will become integral parts of your life, dont miss these opportunities to learn from others lives. We are all so similiar yet so different, through lifes twists turns, grab ahold of the good when it is right in front of you! I think this book is an amazing example of this. Very well written and an exremely diverse group of charactors.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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