Lying with the Dead

Overview

"In this novel, Greek tragedy meets a dysfunctional family from Maryland, revealing how time and place matter little when it comes to the implacable logic of the darkest human emotions." A family matriarch - half Medea, half Clytemnestra - calls home her three children, who take turns narrating the story. Quinn, the wonder boy who has become a successful actor in London, must fly in from England, putting a new love interest and a career-boosting role in a BBC production of the Oresteia on hold. Maury, whose life is defined by his Asperger's and a ...

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Lying with the Dead

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Overview

"In this novel, Greek tragedy meets a dysfunctional family from Maryland, revealing how time and place matter little when it comes to the implacable logic of the darkest human emotions." A family matriarch - half Medea, half Clytemnestra - calls home her three children, who take turns narrating the story. Quinn, the wonder boy who has become a successful actor in London, must fly in from England, putting a new love interest and a career-boosting role in a BBC production of the Oresteia on hold. Maury, whose life is defined by his Asperger's and a terrible crime committed when he was a teenager, rides in on a bus from his quiet, impoverished life out west. Candy, the eldest at fifty-five and the only one still a devout Catholic, is already in Maryland; where she takes care of her mother and dreams of retiring to North Carolina with her boyfriend. Once the family is reassembled in the childhood home, the pieces of a dark puzzle come together over brilliant and witty exchanges. Michael Mewshaw invites us into the heart of a family dynamic, exploding prejudices about love, religion, and murder.\

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Dazzling, suspenseful…The novel depicts in sparse, lyrically beautiful prose the tragedy of a dysfunctional family from Maryland whose formidable matriarch summons home her three children. Each sibling recounts his or her drama in turn during a final bedside reunion... Lying with the Dead is an impressive book by a world-class writer at the height of his powers. Mr. Mewshaw serves up a rich menu of disturbing food for thought not just for Catholics but for anyone concerned with the future of the family and the prospects for the survival of Christian values in the 21st century.”—The Washington Times

"Mewshaw has delivered an impeccable eleventh novel, Lying with the Dead, which plumbs the depths of one dysfunctional Maryland family's misery…[an] unvarnished portrait of a clan whose home is blessed with neither luck nor love."—Texas Monthly

“Even a clergyman would be hard pressed to find a forgiving word for the widow at the center of this flinty black comedy. A pill-popping, racist termagant whose sundry abuses have driven her two sons thousands of miles from their Maryland hometown, she stews in a fetid dwelling that has “that zombie stillness of a ‘silent neighbor,’ one of those pretend houses where the power company stores its meters and equipment.” Only her daughter, a 55-year-old polio survivor, lives close enough to regularly indulge Mom’s bile and guilt. In a sudden fit of fence-mending, this daughter is summoned for a visit along with her brothers: an ex-jailbird who is beset with that popular malady of the moment, Asperger’s syndrome, and a high-rolling actor whose renovated-abattoir home in London serves as a fantasy reproach to his tortured childhood. The three siblings trade off as narrators, with variable results: the actor emerges as a pull-string marionette of theatrical references, while his sister’s recollections of a children’s polio clinic cut like a knife. Mewshaw’s interlacing of viewpoints freshens this over-worked family-reunion terrain…”—The New York Times Book Review
 
"Mewshaw channels Aeschylus by way of Jerry Springer in this tale of three grown children reluctantly reunited to deal with the age-old question, 'What to do about Mom?'… Told through the viewpoints of each sibling, Mewshaw limns a macabre and mordantly satisfying satire of dysfunctional families."—Booklist

"Mewshaw tackles a dysfunctional Irish-American family in an emotional novel narrated by the three adult children: 60-year-old Candy, who reluctantly cares for their manipulative and gravely ill mother; the Asperger's-afflicted former convict, Maury, who went to jail at 13 for killing their father; and the successful, London-based actor Quinn. As they are called to mom's bedside, the nonlinear story travels back to the origins of this 'radioactive' family, dredging up dark secrets....The three jaded yet sympathetic voices of the siblings are darkly expressive, supplying unnerving comic moments and unexpected twists. Mewshaw waxes poetic throughout while keeping the story moving forward to its shocking conclusion."—Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly
Mewshaw (Year of the Gun) tackles a dysfunctional Irish-American family in an emotional novel narrated by the three adult children: 60-year-old Candy, who reluctantly cares for their manipulative and gravely ill mother; the Asperger's-afflicted former convict, Maury, who went to jail at 13 for killing their father; and the successful, London-based actor Quinn. As they are called to mom's bedside, the nonlinear story travels back to the origins of this “radioactive” family, dredging up dark secrets. Candy, who contracted polio as a child and endured her mother's physical and verbal abuse, wants to marry and move to North Carolina. Maury is dealing with Asperger's syndrome, which renders him intolerant of people touching him; and Quinn, despite his success, is haunted by his familial past. The three jaded yet sympathetic voices of the siblings are darkly expressive, supplying unnerving comic moments and unexpected twists. Mewshaw waxes poetic throughout while keeping the story moving forward to its shocking conclusion. (Oct.)
Library Journal
The author of 17 novels (e.g., Island Tempest), Mewshaw finds his latest inspiration in Greek tragedy. An elderly mother gathers together her three children: Quinn, who escaped the family to become a successful actor in London; Maury, who suffers from Asperger's syndrome and who served time in prison for murdering his father; and Candy, who at age 60 resents having to put off a chance for marriage to care for her mother in Maryland. Despite her age and failing health, their mother continues to wield Medea-like power over her offspring, and there are many references to the Oresteia, a story of murder and revenge in which Quinn is preparing to perform. While Candy and especially Quinn seem awfully whiny at first, they become more sympathetic as they roar against their unhappy childhoods. Especially effective is the climax, when we discover their mother's final request. And the multiple first-person points of view are interesting and distinct, especially that of Maury, who accepts his fate and tackles life one small step at a time. VERDICT Recommended for readers who love family dramas.—Evelyn Beck, Piedmont Technical Coll., Greenwood, SC
Kirkus Reviews
A dying matriarch calls her children home to Maryland so she may confess her sins. Multifaceted Mewshaw (Island Tempest, 2004, etc.) diverges from his usual crime-tinged stories for a full-on dysfunctional family drama that aspires to be a Greek tragedy but is in fact an exasperatingly malformed novel. The book's rotating narrators orbit around their dreadful mother, who has forever scarred them. The worst of the lot is preening, self-absorbed Quinn, who has fled the country to adopt a pretentious facade as a popular British character actor. He's happy to send money home but reluctant to respond to Mom's summons and risk losing an upcoming role in a BBC adaptation of the Oresteia, Aeschylus' trilogy about the cycle of violence within the House of Atreus. The family martyr is Candy, the dutiful daughter who stayed behind to take care of her dying mother at the cost of her own happiness. "People insisted I was strong too because I stuck by Mom," Candy says. "But I knew better. I knew I stayed with her out of weakness." The most tragic figure is poetic, sensitive Maury, afflicted by Asperger syndrome, who is also revealed to have spent 12 years in a maximum-security prison for murdering his father with a butcher knife. Now living in California, Maury reluctantly returns home to reunite with his siblings at their mother's deathbed. While Mewshaw demonstrates his usual skill at voicing unusual characters, his cast is so vile and unpleasant, particularly the chain-smoking, hateful (and never-named) Mom who drives the plot, that it's hard to sympathize with any of them. The players are the weakest link in this bleak drama about bad blood, myths and the acrimony caused by truth.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590513187
  • Publisher: Other Press, LLC
  • Publication date: 10/6/2009
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Foreword

1. In speaking of the way he compartmentalizes his thoughts and memories, Maury says, "Only two drawers I've never been able to open. The first has to be the day Dad died. The second I don't have any idea what it holds and I'm afraid to find out." What do you suppose is in that second drawer inside Maury's head?

2. Candy states, "Where another person might find strength in a bottle, I naturally depended on God." How does Candy's faith see her through the many troubles she faces in life?

3. When Candy brings her mother Communion she recites the liturgy for the Communion of the Sick where Christ declares, "If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever." Why does Candy feel compelled to symbolically bring eternal life to a mother who never loved her and whom she has wished dead?

4. In discussing the BBC adaptation of the Oresteia, Mal states, "We want the characters to have the dramatic grandeur of archetypes, and yet at the same time human identities." In what way is this also an apt description of the Mitchell siblings and their mother? Quinn refers to playing Agamemnon and Orestes as "the role of a lifetime, the one I was born to play." What does he mean by this? How can this description also be applied to Quinn's role at home in Maryland?

5. Based on Maury's recollections, how would you characterize his relationship with Cole? What is your interpretation of Cole's illness? Do you think Maury understands the nature and implications of Cole's illness?

6. How does Maury's mother justify letting her son take the fall for a crime she knows he did not commit? How does Maury reconcile the constructed story of what happened that night with reality? DoesMaury believe he is guilty on some level? Discuss whether Quinn or Candy ever suspected that Maury was not the one who killed their father.

7. Quinn's life seems to be an exercise in performance. Consider his initial approach to writing his memoir and his interactions with those close to him-Monsignor Dade, his agent, Dr. Rokoko, Tamzin, his mother and siblings-and discuss ways in which Quinn appears to be acting out a role rather than living honestly and authentically. How does he change by the end of the novel?

8. Quinn recalls the French playwright Jean Genet, who once said, "If everybody were savagely punished in youth, there'd be far more beauty and poetry in the world." Does this theory hold true in the adult lives of the three Mitchell siblings after their tormented childhood? Do you envision a life of greater beauty for Quinn, Maury, and Candy after their mother's death? Why or why not?

9. As Quinn confronts the revelation that he has a different biological father than Candy and Maury, he describes living in the shadow cast by his presumed father's absence and then having to confront an even murkier absence when he learns he had a stranger for a father all along. How much of Quinn's identity was wrapped up in his role as a biological member of the Mitchell family? Does it help him to know the truth at this point in his life? Why does his mother share this information with him?

10. At one point or another, Mom asks all three of her children to kill her. How do you suppose she justifies burdening her children with such a request? Why is it Quinn who ultimately obliges rather than Candy or Maury? In what ways is her death both a burden and a relief to Quinn? To Maury? To Candy?

11. What is the significance of smothering in this novel? Who is smothered by whom, in both a figurative and a literal sense?

12. Discuss the various possible meanings for the book's title.

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Reading Group Guide

1. In speaking of the way he compartmentalizes his thoughts and memories, Maury says, "Only two drawers I've never been able to open. The first has to be the day Dad died. The second I don't have any idea what it holds and I'm afraid to find out." What do you suppose is in that second drawer inside Maury's head?

2. Candy states, "Where another person might find strength in a bottle, I naturally depended on God." How does Candy's faith see her through the many troubles she faces in life?

3. When Candy brings her mother Communion she recites the liturgy for the Communion of the Sick where Christ declares, "If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever." Why does Candy feel compelled to symbolically bring eternal life to a mother who never loved her and whom she has wished dead?

4. In discussing the BBC adaptation of the Oresteia, Mal states, "We want the characters to have the dramatic grandeur of archetypes, and yet at the same time human identities." In what way is this also an apt description of the Mitchell siblings and their mother? Quinn refers to playing Agamemnon and Orestes as "the role of a lifetime, the one I was born to play." What does he mean by this? How can this description also be applied to Quinn's role at home in Maryland?

5. Based on Maury's recollections, how would you characterize his relationship with Cole? What is your interpretation of Cole's illness? Do you think Maury understands the nature and implications of Cole's illness?

6. How does Maury's mother justify letting her son take the fall for a crime she knows he did not commit? How does Maury reconcile the constructed story of what happened that night with reality? Does Maury believe he is guilty on some level? Discuss whether Quinn or Candy ever suspected that Maury was not the one who killed their father.

7. Quinn's life seems to be an exercise in performance. Consider his initial approach to writing his memoir and his interactions with those close to him-Monsignor Dade, his agent, Dr. Rokoko, Tamzin, his mother and siblings-and discuss ways in which Quinn appears to be acting out a role rather than living honestly and authentically. How does he change by the end of the novel?

8. Quinn recalls the French playwright Jean Genet, who once said, "If everybody were savagely punished in youth, there'd be far more beauty and poetry in the world." Does this theory hold true in the adult lives of the three Mitchell siblings after their tormented childhood? Do you envision a life of greater beauty for Quinn, Maury, and Candy after their mother's death? Why or why not?

9. As Quinn confronts the revelation that he has a different biological father than Candy and Maury, he describes living in the shadow cast by his presumed father's absence and then having to confront an even murkier absence when he learns he had a stranger for a father all along. How much of Quinn's identity was wrapped up in his role as a biological member of the Mitchell family? Does it help him to know the truth at this point in his life? Why does his mother share this information with him?

10. At one point or another, Mom asks all three of her children to kill her. How do you suppose she justifies burdening her children with such a request? Why is it Quinn who ultimately obliges rather than Candy or Maury? In what ways is her death both a burden and a relief to Quinn? To Maury? To Candy?

11. What is the significance of smothering in this novel? Who is smothered by whom, in both a figurative and a literal sense?

12. Discuss the various possible meanings for the book's title.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 20, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Worth Reading

    If you like getting into people's heads and seeing a family's dynamics from each person's perspective, then you'll find this to be an interesting read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2010

    Inside Look at a Dysfunctional Family

    I truly enjoyed this novel. It was a quick and engrossing read that deals with three adult children who are called to come together back home to Maryland to make a decision about what to do about their aging, difficult mother. The story is told in alternating chapters written from the point of view of each of the children. Candy, the daughter now in her early fifties, has been playing the role of caretaker for her long abusive mother. Single and always sacrificing for others, she longs to be free to make a life of her own with Lawrence, the man she loves. Maury, the oldest, but with the mind of a child, after serving years in prison for killing their father as a young teen, now lives in Arizona and functions on a very simple level doing chores for room and board. Quinn, several years younger and born after their father's death, is an accomplished character actor residing in London. Although she is no longer physically abusive, their mother is no less manipulative and secretive and her behaviors have deeply affected her children in different ways. It is both a painful and sometimes funny story that reveals a simple truth about families, in that shared experiences are absored internally and manifested in very different ways. I'll be looking for more from this author.

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