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The story, set on Maryland's Eastern Shore in the years immediately preceding WW II, is filtered through the memories—and imagination—of Harry Mason, whose grandfather Edward had reduced a successful family business to near-disaster and, in the process, all but destroyed such remnants of his family's preeminence and pride as remained intact in his own embattled wife and children. Their mutual ordeal worsens in 1936, when, after 13 years of Edward's failures as factory owner, husband, and father, they return from England—to the Retreat, "a black hulk of a family ruin" that they laboriously transmute into a working farm that can support the disappointed Edith Mason and her boys, Sebastian and Simon, when Edward again "retreats"—this time to prosperity (his firm manufactures airplane parts) created by the looming threat of war. But in Edward's absence—not excluding the absence they had felt when he was present—the others grow apart from him and also distant from one another, and the downturn in this family's fortunes and fates can't help but worsen. Tilghman's powerful story is distinguished by deep and thoughtful characterizations (especially of the lonely Edith and of brooding, watchful Sebastian), and by an incisive understanding of the varieties of family dynamics that extends even to the smallest things parents and children tend to notice about each other. The narrative has a single serious flaw: Recurring hints promise a full revelation of some great wrong in the Mason family past, but, excepting a single act of insane cruelty, none is forthcoming.
Still, echoes of The Great Gatsby, William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, O'Neill, and Faulkner add further resonance to a novel that stands, despite its flaws, as a stunning individual, achievement.
"Powerful...A work of surpassing thematic seriousness and fictive artistry. In all respects, Mason’s Retreat is exemplary."---The Washington Post Book World "Stately, absorbing...Mr. Tilghman writes [with] authoritative elegance….His book, so rooted in the idea of coming home, makes one realize all over again that here on Earth there is no such place."---Thomas Mallon, The New York Times Book Review
"Comes close to pure, exhilarating perfection...Tilghman gives us richly drawn characters, shimmering detail, and an irresistibly moving theme---all presented in a graceful and powerful style."---San Francisco Chronicle
"Rich...bewitching...unforgettably rendered...The pieces in Tilghman’s kaleidoscope [are] sharp, faceted, and gleaming."---Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times
"Beautifully written...fully imagined...Few first novels are narrated with the clarity, economy, and masterful assurance Tilghman brings to this remarkably moving and persuasive tale."---Entertainment Weekly
Copyright © 1996, 2012 by Christopher Tilghman
Excerpted from Mason's Retreat by Christopher Tilghman Copyright © 2012 by Christopher Tilghman. Excerpted by permission.
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1. Harry Mason, son of Simon and grandson of Edward, and a character removed from the action of the novel, leads the first and last sections of Mason’s Retreat. Why do you think Tilghman chose to frame his book in this way? What effect does it have?
2. After Tilghman introduces the book from Harry’s perspective, he shifts to focus on each of the Mason family members in turn and tells their individual sides of the story throughout the novel. What do you gain, as a reader, by hearing from Edward, Edith, Sebastien, and Simon individually? Do you think the novel would have the same effect if told from the perspective of just one Mason? If not, how would it be different?
What if Robert, Loretta, or Valerie told the story?
3. As the Masons first approach the Mansion House, Edward says,
“This is our Babylon. But we shall prosper in spite of it” (p. 43). What do you think he means by this? What does the family have to overcome?
4. What were your first impressions of the Mansion House and the surrounding land? Were you surprised by the description? How did you imagine the Retreat?
5. About a dinner with the Masons and Hazeltons, Tilghman writes,
“[Edith] had realized what was odd about their guests: This was a father and son who enjoyed each other’s company” (p. 93). Why does this strike Edith as odd? Does it strike you as odd?
6. Edward reflects that the only person who “listened to his stories without impatience, who laughed at his jokes,” was Simon. He wonders,
“What did it mean about life if your only real audience was six years old?” (p. 100). What do you make of this statement? Is it true?
Why or why not?
7. In conversation with Edith about the Retreat and the success or failure of the Masons in America, Bitsy Howe remarks, “History is prophecy”
(p. 144). Do you agree with her statement? Discuss how it does or does not apply to the Masons.
8. What do you think of Mr. and Mrs. McCready? Does your opinion of them change over the course of the novel? What are your impressions of the other members of the Retreat community—Robert,
Loretta, and Valerie?
9. Discuss Edith’s affair with Tom. What is the attraction, for both parties? Why do you think Edith takes the risk? What did you make of Edward’s reaction once he learns the news?
10. Sebastien and Simon have very different relationships with their father. Is it just about their ages, or is there more to it than that? Does Edward treat the boys differently, or do the boys treat their father in different ways?
11. What did you make of Edward’s decision to sell the Retreat to Mr.
McCready? What were his motivations? Do you agree or disagree with his choice?
12. Sebastien and Robert appear to be friends throughout the novel,
regardless of their backgrounds. What do you make of their discussion on page 256 about their differences? Why do you think Sebastien reacts the way he does? Do you think Robert has given up on Sebastien?
13. When you first read of Sebastien’s plan to run away, what did you think? Did you support his decision? Discuss how the different charac-
ters react when they realize he is missing, and then when he is found dead.
14. At the end of the novel, Tilghman writes, “We listen to the repetitions of family tragedies because we would like to think that something new will come out for the teller, but there is nothing new to learn. . . . We recapture these lives of our parents and forebears to give us some testimony of the truth as it was once received, and we give honor to pain and forgiveness for mistakes, but the blood begins fresh with each child, and flows only within that child, and dries to dust in that body when all is done” (pp. 289–290). What does this statement mean for the novel? Does it ring true for your own family?
15. How did your perceptions of the main characters change throughout the novel? Discuss your thoughts about each Mason, and what you think now as opposed to what you thought when you started the novel.