Matters of Chance: A Novel

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Overview

Matters of Chance is a glorious, aptivating novel about Morgan and Maude Shurtliff, who fall in love and marry in the years before World WarII. Unable to have children of their own, Morgan and Maude adopt twin girls. The four go home to their beautiful house in the country outside ofNew York City and begin to settle into what they hope will be a long and happy life. When the twins are still young, Morgan is called to serve inWorld War II, leaving Maude to raise her daughters alone. Jeannette Haien has rendered ...

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Matters of Chance: A Novel

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Overview

Matters of Chance is a glorious, aptivating novel about Morgan and Maude Shurtliff, who fall in love and marry in the years before World WarII. Unable to have children of their own, Morgan and Maude adopt twin girls. The four go home to their beautiful house in the country outside ofNew York City and begin to settle into what they hope will be a long and happy life. When the twins are still young, Morgan is called to serve inWorld War II, leaving Maude to raise her daughters alone. Jeannette Haien has rendered Morgan's war experiences with astonishing detail, just as she has captured the American post-war era with a precision that is unrivaled in recent fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Detroit Free Press
A wonderful, absorbing novel reminiscent of Anthony Trollope.
Elle
Haien's remarkable evocation of war at sea, her nuanced perception of the complexities of a good marriage, and the grand sweep of her tale remind us of the deep pleasures of an old-fashioned read.
Newsday
An engrossing saga...A richly detailed yarn, depicting an old world where along with privilege came honor, tradition, responsibility and duty...Jeannette Haien is a writer of vast compassion, and her characters are rich in something all too rare these days: dignity.
Ruth Coughlin
Haien charmingly takes us through more than three decades of one family's pleasures and sorrows. . .These people are old-fashioned in the best ways — they know that love is what counts and that italong with decency and compassionwill sustain them. —The New York Times Book Review
Chicago Tribune
The ebb and flow of happiness and sadness in this wonderfully drawn portrait of a good man in times of peril and pleasure is...completely satisfying...You feel the bite of real life. You feel the teeth.
Chicago Tribune
The ebb and flow of happiness and sadness in this wonderfully drawn portrait of a good man in times of peril and pleasure is...completely satisfying...You feel the bite of real life. You feel the teeth.
Ft. Worth Star Telegram
'Masterpiece' is an apt description for Matters of Chance — the story of a couple whose family lives through World War II and the decades that follow in much the same way most families did: one day at a time.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Masterpiece is an apt description for Matters of Chance—the story of a couple whose family lives through World War II and the decades that follow in much the same way most families did: one day at a time.
New York Times Book Review
In Matters of Chance, Haien takes us through more than three decades if one family's pleasures and sorrows, detailing its members' enviable ability to accept the vagaries of fate. These people are old-fashioned in the best ways—they know that love is what counts and that it, along with decency and compassion, will sustain them.
Ft. Worth Star Telegram
'Masterpiece' is an apt description for Matters of Chance -- the story of a couple whose family lives through World War II and the decades that follow in much the same way most families did: one day at a time.
Kirkus Reviews
A simplistic though satisfying and pretty much traditional family chronicle. The word 'saga' may be too dramatic to describe this history of the Shurtliff clan, since their lives are happily free of long-term suffering, shocking revelations, or mysterious people. Instead, Haien has crafted an old-fashioned tale in which nothing much happens but ordinary life. Beginning with the courtship and subsequent marriage of Maud and Morgan Shurtliff, two upper-crust Ohioans, the novel paints an attractive picture of the young couple, rich, kind, and deeply in love. The only shadow thrown across their lives is Maud's infertility, which leads the pair to the eccentric Miss Zenobia Sly and her Tilden-Herne Adoption Agency. They bring home happiness in the form of twin infant girls, Caroline and Julia. Soon after, WW II erupts, and the reader follows Morgan's ordeal in the Navy. After the war, a more somber Morgan returns home, picks up his law practice, and prospers; the girls grow; and the family buys a large manor house. All the while, Morgan keeps in contact with Miss Sly (against Maud's wishes: the elderly lady is a reminder of their girls' adoption), and the two form a warm, confidential (and platonic) friendship. Time passes. Not plot but character creates the charm here. Far from groundbreaking fiction, but a gratifying, companionable read nonetheless.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060929527
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 1,446,027
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeannette Haien is the author of the acclaimed novel The All of It , winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In addition to her career as a writer, Jeannette Haien is well known as a concert pianist and teacher. She and her husband, a lawyer, live in New York City and Connemara, Ireland.

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Read an Excerpt


November: 1925
Away from home for the first time at a boarding school he did not (then) much like, Morgan Shurtliff was a shy, lonely, fourteen-year-old dreamer, a bright though erratic student, a passionate reader.
"Shurtliff!"
He was seated in the back row of the classroom, his Latin book open on his desk but his eyes cast down, lower, into the region of his lap, where another book resided. "Sir?" he answered, looking up, forward, toward the lectern where Mr. Scudder, the Latin master, was standing.
"Are you with us, Shurtliff?"
"Yes, sir, I am."
"And just where do you think we are?"
"On page sixty-six, sir."
Mr. Scudder cleared his throat, then: "That was some time ago, Shurtliff. Since then, we, with Caesar and his legions, have trudged on. We are now encamped on page sixty-eight."
"Yes, sir."
"Tell me the name of the book on your lap."
"The Arrow of Gold, by Joseph Conrad, sir."
"Come forward, please, Shurtliff. Bring Mr. Conrad's book with you."
The silence in the room as he walked toward Mr. Scudder was of the weighted kind which precedes great moments.
He put the book in Mr. Scudder's outstretched hand.
"This page, Shurtliff--this one that's been dog-eared: look at it, please."
He did.
"Is it the page you were reading when I intruded upon your covert pleasure?"
"Yes, sir."
"And now, Shurtliff, as there are but a few minutes left in our class hour, and as we, even as you, enjoy a work of fiction, might you be so kind as to read aloud to us a paragraph or two of Mr. Conrad's prose?--starting, please, at the precise place you left off when I recalled you to the real world?"
"Yes, sir." He took The Arrow of Gold fromMr. Scudder.
"The precise place, Shurtliff--"
"Yes, sir."
"Oh . . . I almost forgot . . . When the bell rings, you won't mind staying on for a chat with me, will you?"
"Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir, of course I will."
"Good." Mr. Scudder folded his body into reclining position against his lectern. "Proceed, Shurtliff."
And so he began:
"The upward cast in the eyes of Mills who was facing the staircase made us both, Blunt and I, turn around. The woman of whom I had heard so much, in a sort of way in which I had never heard a woman spoken of before, was coming down the stairs, and my first sensation was that of profound astonishment at this evidence that she really did exist. And even then the visual impression was more of color in a picture than of the forms of actual life. She was wearing a wrapper, a sort of dressing-gown of pale blue silk embroidered with black and gold designs round the neck and down the front, lapped round her and held together by a broad belt of the same material. Her slippers were of the same color, with black bows at the instep. The white stairs, the deep crimson of the carpet, and the light blue of the dress made an effective combination of color to set off the delicate carnation of that face, which, after the first glance given to the whole person, drew irresistibly your gaze to itself by an indefinable quality of charm beyond all analysis and made you think of remote races, of strange generations, of the faces of women sculptured on immemorial monuments and of those lying unsung in their tombs. While she moved downward from step to step with slightly lowered eyes there flashed upon me suddenly the recollection of words heard at night, of Allegre's words about her, of there being in her 'something of the women of all time.'"
His throat being dry, Morgan paused to swallow.
All eyes shifted from him to Mr. Scudder, who, amazingly, was seen to be smiling. Furthermore, zephyr-like, there came forth from between his lips a low, drawn-out "Ahh--" which, as the exhaled breath of it ran out, was followed by the astonishing words: "Helen of Troy . . . Cleopatra . . . Petrarch's Laura . . . fair Beatrix . . . the eternal girl next door . . ." uttered slowly, in a milking, ruminative way. Then, still looking off, out the window, Mr. Scudder lapsed into silence.
The room, along with its transfixed occupants, waited.
The bell rang: a shattering trill.
At the sound, instantly, Mr. Scudder reacted with his usual master-to-dog look in the door's direction and the curt, unleashing words: "Class dismissed."
There ensued the noise and movement of departure.
Only Morgan remained in place. He stood, still as a statue, The Arrow of Gold clasped to his chest, the awful moment of censure upon him.
"Well, Shurtliff," Mr. Scudder began, "here we are, the two of us, left with Allegre's words echoing in our ears."
Morgan managed a weak: "Yes, sir."
"Relax," Mr. Scudder said.
In the circumstance, Morgan, though, could not.
"Let us agree, Shurtliff," Mr. Scudder recommenced, "that in future you will bring only your Latin book to this class."
Morgan nodded. "Yes, sir."
"I have your word on it?"
"Yes, sir."
"That's all then. You may go."
He could go! Had been told that he might. Yet he remained.
"What's your problem, Shurtliff?"
"I don't understand, sir."
"What, that I've let you off the hook?"
"Yes."
"Ah," Mr. Scudder murmured, "I see." Then, with an abstract smile: "Someday you'll understand, Shurtliff. Meanwhile, chalk it up to luck."
"If you say so, sir . . . Thank you."
"My pleasure."
In that seemingly unreal way, for the time being, the episode, as a portent, rested.
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Reading Group Guide

Matters of Chance
Maud and Morgan Shurtliff, young, blissful newlyweds, discover they are unable to have children of their own. By chance, they visit the Tilden-Herne Adoption Agency, where they fall under the spell of the mysterious Miss Zenobia Sly, who offers them not the boy they wanted, but two newly-born twin girls. Before Morgan has a chance to bond with his children, however, their idyllic life is ruptured by World War II. Morgan takes a leave of absence from his promising future as a lawyer and volunteers for the Navy. Just as he reaches the rank of Lieutenant, his ship is torpedoed and, before being rescued, he and the survivors endure a harrowing three days in a life raft off the coast of Africa. When the war ends, Morgan returns home to discover two daughters who no longer remember their father and a wife with whom he must renegotiate a marriage. Old friendships are renewed, and Miss Sly continues to have a hand in Morgan's life, as a correspondence he maintained with her during the war blossoms into a secret, intimate friendship. Morgan settles comfortably into the role of successful lawyer, father and husband, only to have his tranquillity shattered by the sudden death of his beloved wife, Maud. As he picks up the pieces of his old life, he realizes he cannot reconstruct it, but instead must discover life anew.

Topics for Discussion
1. The torpedoing of the Stubbins is a seminal event in Morgan's life. How does the experience help to shape his post-war life? How does it effect his relationship with Maud? With the world at large?

2.The exigencies of war allow the relationship between Morgan and Zenobia to continue beyond the boundaries of theirclient/server identities. What role does their friendship play in each of their lives? What does Morgan mean when he refers to their relationship as his "secret life?" Are their intimacies a betrayal of Maud?

3. What is the significance of the title, Matters of Chance? Sylvia wonders, "what will our penalty be if we buck Fate's 'unknown-to-us decision'?" Do you think Morgan's life is a series of chance events, or fated? What does he think? Does he buck his fate?

4. What kind of a character is Miss Zenobia Sly? Morgan refers to her as the "earthly, overseeing goddess of his luck" and in a fanciful frame of mind, he imagines she has a hand in his destiny. Does she? Does she manipulate his fate? Is she his guardian angel?

5. Upon Morgan's return from the war, his father, Ansel, consoles him by telling him that "in time you'll find a resting place for your sorrows, one you can go to in thought if not in body, and come away from strengthened." Does Morgan find a way to put to rest his sorrows? What might his "resting place" be?

6. Morgan learns that his name means "a dweller on the sea," conjuring up images of "perpetual brine, perpetual drift." He passionately believes it to be a misnomer. Is he right in asserting that he is "a dweller on the land" instead? In what ways might he be a "dweller on the sea?"

7. Haien invokes an all-but-forgotten world of decorum and propriety in Matters of Chance, which she sharply contrasts with the crudeness and carnality of her characters' sexual desires and fulfillment. How do her characters cope with the contradiction between their sexuality and propriety? How does the juxtaposition contribute to your impression of her characters?

8. Why does Morgan recite the poem "Memorabilia" by Robert Browning to his daughters upon their return from college? What might the poem mean to Morgan? How do his memories (of Maud, the Stubbins, his childhood, his daughters) contribute to his understanding of the "matters of chance" that make up his life?

9. The novel spans thirty-five momentous years of the twentieth century. As we learn about the life of Morgan Shurtliff, we also relive the social and political events that surround him. How does the timeline of world events impact your appreciation of Morgan's story? How do they frame his life?


About the Author:
After more than thirty-five years as a professional concert pianist and music teacher, Jeannette Haien, in her 60s, began her second career as a novelist. Her first novel, The All of It, published in 1986, garnered the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters. Haien then took eight years to finish her second novel, Matters of Chance, published in 1997. Born in Dayton, Ohio, to a Dutch immigrant-industrialist father and a violinist mother, she received a bachelor's degree in English and a masters degree in Music from the University of Michigan. Even before Haien graduated, she was already winning renown as a professional pianist and teacher. It was through her understanding of the structure of classical music that she learned how to create her classically constructed stories. According to Haien, "the structure of a work is the essence of it. It's discipline, if you will, which makes great freedom possible. Under the laws of structure, you have the freedom to work in the freest way imaginable." Writing five to eight hours a day, she marries rigor to a highly developed sense of expectation. Says Haien, "my life has been nothing but a dawning exercise every day of expectation. I have been continuously so surprised, that I am childlike to the point of glee sometimes." Haien and her husband have a daughter and grandson and live in New York City and Connemara, Ireland.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2000

    good read

    I found this book very enjoyable--I have told many people about it-It is refreshing and covers much territory without confusing you. I like the characters and I felt like I knew them.The only thing missing was Sylvia's background--I wanted to know about her life before she came into the picture-her love life mostly-the ending was not what I thought it would be-Great Book.

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