Snapshots

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We first meet the Mahoney family in 1997, when the four grown children return to their childhood home on the Jersey Shore for Christmas. Then their story begins to unfold in reverse, going deeper into the past, until we are at the same beach house in the summer of '72. The journey back in time reveals the secrets and lies that shaped who the Mahoneys are, as well as the truth about their individual struggles with alcoholism, mental illness, sexual orientation, and all the temptations and pressures of daily life. ...
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Overview

We first meet the Mahoney family in 1997, when the four grown children return to their childhood home on the Jersey Shore for Christmas. Then their story begins to unfold in reverse, going deeper into the past, until we are at the same beach house in the summer of '72. The journey back in time reveals the secrets and lies that shaped who the Mahoneys are, as well as the truth about their individual struggles with alcoholism, mental illness, sexual orientation, and all the temptations and pressures of daily life. A "promising debut" that "beautifully captures the intimacies of family life" (Kirkus Reviews); Snapshots draws a complex portrait of an ordinary suburban family and the joys, sorrows, and strengths that unite them.

Author Biography: William Norris earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and is now a writing teacher at Hofstra University. He is the curator of the Emerging Voices Reading Series at New York's KGB literary bar, and has also taught for The New School and the Gotham Writer's Workshop.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this well-crafted but ultimately unsurprising debut novel, Norris attempts to put a spin on the conventional family drama by reversing its trajectory. In short vignettes, alternating rapidly like riffled pages in a photograph album, the Mahoney family is seen through a variety of lenses. On Christmas Eve in 1997, the four adult Mahoney siblings join their parents at their home on the New Jersey shore. Flashbacks beginning in 1992 and working back to 1972 illuminate their past lives and reveal the sources of their current, mild estrangement. Through shifting perspectives, an implicit contrast is established between the hopeful early years and the uncertainties of the present. Now the parents are weary and bitter, bemoaning the ravages of time and change. Kate, the eldest of the siblings, has battled mental illness most of her life, finally choosing to medicate her condition at the expense of her blistering artistic vision and once-dynamic personality. Patty, a doctor living in Manhattan, has always been the perfect child, but for years her alcoholism seethed underneath, intensifying as the pressure mounted to present a composed fa?ade. Though he is the Mahoney's only boy, Sean is not the son his father wanted: bored by sports, he lives in London as a chef, having increased the distance between himself and his family. Nora, the youngest, always struggled with being different, but having finally fallen in love and openly revealed her homosexuality, she tests the strength of the familial bonds. Norris renders anecdotes of family conflict and nurturing some trivial, others tragic with energy and compassion, and if, in the end, the narrative remains too fractured to cohere, the collectiveportrait of a changing family unit has complexity and validity. Agent, Lisa Bankoff. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Moving backward over 25 years, a series of verbal snapshots chronicle the history of a middle-class Catholic family from suburban New Jersey: a flawed but promising debut. The Mahoneys are introduced in 1997 as they individually prepare to gather for Christmas at the beach house where their retired parents now live. Pat, who sometimes feels "misplaced" in his own home, and Liz, whose private longings have never quite been realized, are lovingly drawn but seem prematurely aged for a couple barely in their 60s. Thirty-five-year old Kate, the emotionally fragile oldest sister, takes medications that dull her senses but keep her sane and securely married. Second sister Patty, a single Manhattan doctor who's just quit drinking, worries how the family will react when she reveals her alcoholism. Brother Sean flies in from London, where he's a chef. Baby sister Nora is a large-animal vet who also happens to be happily gay. Norris jumps back five or so years at a time to trace how the siblings reached their present state. Kate struggles with recovery, breaks down for the first time, and shows intense sensitivity and artistic promise as a child. Brainy Patty verges on self-destruction as a reckless lush, drinks as a novice pediatrician to escape the trauma of dealing with dying children, juggles her adolescent good-girl facade with a secret life of drugs and sex, wins her father's favor with her bookishness. Nora falls in love with another woman, comes to awareness of her sexuality in adolescence, plays her role as family baby for all its worth. Sean, perhaps acting as the author's stand-in, remains more an observer than a player over the years, defined largely by his reactions to the others.Norris beautifully captures the intimacies of family life, but his self-consciously literary design only highlights the predictability and lack of genuine drama here.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573221832
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/8/2001
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.26 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Meet the Author

William Norris has taught writing for the New School and the Gotham Writer's Workshop, and is currently teaching at Hofstra University. He is the curator of the Emerging Voices Reading Series at New York's KGB literary bar. He lives in Brooklyn.

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Read an Excerpt

Snapshots: A Novel1997

The mother, always an early riser, finds it difficult to sleep much past six as she grows older. This day, Christmas Eve morning, she is up once again with the seabirds; their songs melding with the creaks and moans of this old beach house, winterized, finally, for these retirement years. Careful not to wake her still slumbering husband, she stretches her limbs, eases to a sitting position, slowly gets to her feet. This effort, she thinks, is what it is to be old.

Half a world away, Sean, the only son, hails a black cab in a London already empty for Christmas. "Heathrow Terminal Four," he tells the driver. He settles back to watch the city shrink down into suburbs as the cab shoots out the M1. Molly, the woman he loves, the woman who he still cannot believe loves him, left earlier, bound for her own family in Ireland. She'll join him in a few days, her seventh or eighth trip over now, and he knows he'll find himself marveling at how much he feels like a tourist when he is in New Jersey with her. Because this city is home now, except at Christmas and those days of July and August when the heat creeps to eighty, the BBC weathermen complain of "scorchers," and he longs for the humid Jersey Shore summers leavened by that breeze off the water.

Nora, the baby, the only sibling with her mother's fondness for the morning, wakes alone in her small country house. She reaches across the bed for Eve, then remembers Eve has left to visit her parents for the holiday, parents who won't let Nora into their home. Nora climbs from bed, lets Hound out back, her tail whipping fiercely as she darts towards the woods. She perks coffee, pours a cup, dons thick corduroys, a sweater, a vest. Heads out onto her deck, surveys the small, quietly eroding mountains heading out into Pennsylvania. Her breath circles the steam pouring from her mug, and though she wishes Eve had not flown back to Indiana at this, her favorite time of year, she thinks to herself, this life, my life, is good. Fingers to her lips, she blows a shrill whistle for the dog, then turns towards the house and a shower. Soon she will drive out to Newark Airport and collect Sean before turning south towards the beach for this holiday she loves.

It's 8:30 a.m. when Kate, the eldest, is startled into consciousness by the buzzer on her clock radio. Around the edges of the minor hangover left by her teachers' pre-Christmas break cocktail party, she recalls her dream and lingers for a moment in that color-and-light filled memory. She was a girl again, in a scene lifted from the canvases of one of the impressionists she used to love. The mirage of one too many Tanqueray martinis lingers on the back of her tongue. The shower in the master bath is running, her husband Brian has a half day in the office today. Kate stands with her mother's effort, believes she is too young to feel so old, walks into the steamy bathroom. Last night's med sits on the counter like an accusation. She picks it up, holds it closely in front of her face as if she's trying to search the future out in a saucer full of tea leaves, then wells some spit in her mouth and coats her throat with its chalk.

The father wakes. Checks the digital clock, squints, can't make out the big, red numbers. "Goddamn it," he mumbles as he scratches around the books stacked on the night stand for his glasses. Slipping them on, he sees the steady clear numbers: 8:47. He tries to edge back into unconsciousness, but finds it impossible. In the old days, he would have rolled over, found sleep again, and snored until noon or later. But today, he gives up the struggle. For a moment, he lays still in the bed, hoping against reason for sleep to return. Gradually, he becomes aware of the catalog of his body's complaints. His left elbow burning tautly with tendinitis, a stiff ache in his lower back as he heaves himself into a sitting position, his knees, both surgically reconstructed long ago, throbbing with arthritis, a reliable predictor of a storm on the way. It is only really now, at moments like this one, that he confronts the specter of his aging. What has happened, he thinks, to my body? How have I gotten this brittle, this old?

Patty, second born, wakes last to the first sounds of life on her West Village block. Delivery trucks move through the streets, bringing crates of liquor and cartons of catsup to the trendy bistros and hanging-on dives still lingering on the margins, even here, in the gentrification capital of New York. She hears grates going up, cabs with squealing brakes, the street cleaners. No, there are no street cleaners today, alternate side rules have been suspended for the holiday, but the man at the corner newsstand hawks the News and the Post, letting the Times speak for itself, and the Salvation Army Santa is already out ringing his bell.

Nora sits in her truck, letting it warm up, pops a Country Gentleman tape into the deck, and thrills as she always does to the way a good bluegrass band can send shivers of longing down your back just by wringing a fiddle around a banjo while the guitars hold the melody. She uses her car phone to call her service, leaves the number for a twenty-four-hour large-animal emergency clinic in case any of her regular farms need a vet while she's away. She switches off her beeper and tosses it into the glove box, reaches across to open the passenger door and calls Hound. The dog races from the yard, zigging and zagging, nose to the air, and leaps into her place in the truck. Nora pops the clutch and rolls off down the country roads and towards Interstate 78, keeping time on the steering wheel, eager to be driving. Eager to greet her brother who comes home too little for her taste now that they've found themselves close through letters and transatlantic visits. She hopes they can have a night out here before he wings back, a night where he'll cook stew, the rough peasant food he loves, but doesn't often make because London's fine diners crave the trendy lightness of seared tuna. A night with just him and Eve and Molly, a solid dinner, and the pleasure of their company.

When she'd found Eve, when they'd met near the end of college, Sean had been the first one she'd told. Called him in London, forgetting the time difference and waking him in her exuberance. He'd asked finally, cutting through her chatter, "What's going on Nora?" Before she could weigh her response with the careful words she'd been using since going off to school, she'd blurted it out, "I think I'm in love." And though she was worried then that the discussion would go down a disastrous route, that the bond they'd formed since leaving home, the closeness they'd gained by growing up and away, would suffer, he replied exactly the right way. "What's her name?"

The mother cleans in preparation for the chaos of her children flocking to her hearth. She dusts and vacuums. Mops and shines. She lingers as she goes along the rows of photographs chronicling the passage of what she sees now is her life. Her and the father before the children, carefree on the deck of some sailboat. Drinks in hand, cigarettes held casually before they were truly bad for you. She does not really remember these people. This woman. Her. So thin, hair long and bleached blonde, a face untouched by wrinkles save for deep smile lines around the eyes. And that man she's leaning against, a handsome rake, something almost dangerous in the Black Irish blue eyes and thick, ebony hair. Where is the hint of the round potbelly that comes later, his silences? And these children? The class portraits with gap teeth, bangs and freckles. Group shots from vacations. A shot of all four kids on the end of the jetty, Kate and Sean looking seaward, Nora and Patty crouched over a tide pool. Good moments, these photos. But where, she wonders, is Kate's trouble, or the wandering impulse that's taken Sean, her boy, halfway around the world? Where is the hint that Nora would grow into someone whose life could change her mother's whole value system, where are the clues that Patty would cut them out, exile them to the margins of her life?

Patty lingers in bed, surprised to be alone for a moment, reaching across the duvet to find just space, then recalls leaving that East Village bar early, before closing. She remembers draining her club soda just as the sea glass blue bottle of Bombay Sapphire began to whisper, "Just one won't hurt." Remembers waving good-bye to the old friends from medical school who'd be staying in the City for the holiday, remembers almost turning around and going back in for a quick one. But also the clearheaded walk home, New York sparkling with Christmas lights, the air brittle, her own breath sharp. During that walk, hands jammed into the pocket of her coat, she remembered other walks home from that same bar, stopping in doorways to fumble with whoever she'd picked up that night. Remembers stopping and thinking Christ, I'm too old for that shit.

She gets up, still amazed to find morning bearable when it isn't marred by a thumping head or queasy belly, and grinds the beans for her coffee. Sitting in her sun-drenched eat-in-kitchen, just for a moment, she dreads going home. Dreads it because of the years she has lost with them, the years where they saw her as she wanted them to see her. Dreads it because now, when she turns down a gin and tonic or glass of wine, when she sticks to fruit juice or club soda, they will ask her, "Why?" And with that question hanging in the air, she'll be forced to admit, to them, to that family who has seen her only in the flattering light she herself has cast, that she, Patricia Elizabeth Mahoney, has flaws. That she has made mistakes, caused damage to herself and to them and that, now, she may have need, for the first time in a long time, of their help and support. Now, she may need their forgiveness.

—From Snapshots: A Novel by William Norris. (c) August 2001, G. P. Putnam & Sons, used with permission.

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Reading Group Guide

Q>. The story of the Mahoney family unfolds backwards in time. Why do you think the author chose to portray these six characters' lives in reverse order?

Q>. The novel frequently shifts its point of view from one character to the next. How does this fragmentation enhance or limit your perception of each character? Is it effective? Why or why not?

Q>. On what factors do the complex and changing alliances among the Mahoney children hinge? Do they change over the years or remain constant? Contrast traditional family roles ("the baby," "the eldest," "the only son") to the relationships formed between these siblings. How do they exemplify or challenge our assumptions about "normal" family values?

Q>. What are Pat and Liz Mahoney's defining characteristics? What binds them to each other? How have their own family backgrounds shaped their parenting style? Why do you think the author chose to refer to them as "the mother" and "the father" throughout the book?

Q>. "There are secrets siblings keep for one another, even if they think the parents might know anyway," Sean thinks to himself as he prepares dinner. (p. 87). What secrets is he referring to? Discuss the ways in which these confidences bind-and sever-ties among the members of the family.

Q>. "The patterns they form as their lives unfold link them together," the author states about the Mahoneys (p. 68). "They may be in or out of touch, they may hide things from one another, but if and when it all comes out, they will have the dubious comfort of recognition." What is it they recognize in each other from year to year? Why is the comfort of this recognition "dubious"?

Q>. Compare Kate's reliance on medication to Patty's alcoholism. How does each woman's sense of herself develop as a result of chemical dependence? What does each sacrifice? Is the Mahoney's approach to Kate's illness different from how they handle Patty's? Why?

Q>. Patty wields power through sex; Kate proves unequal to her passion; Nora's decision to hide her sexual identity brings her suffering. In what ways have the sisters' early sexual encounters defined their relationships with their partners later in life? What about their relationships with each other? With themselves?

Q>. As Liz Mahoney readies her house for the arrival of her adult children, she studies "A shot of all four kids on the end of the jetty, Kate and Sean looking seaward, Nora and Parry crouched over a tide pool. Good moments, these photos. But where, she wonders, is Kate's trouble, or the wandering impulse that's taken Sean, her boy, halfway around the world? Where is the hint that Nora would grow into someone whose life could change her mother's whole value system, where are the clues that Patty would cut them out, exile them to the margins of her life?" (p. 5) To what degree does the novel ultimately answer these questions? How much do the characters themselves understand the answers to these questions? Do you think the author intended the novel to answer these questions? Why or why not? Discuss.
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2004

    The Not So Picture Perfect Family

    All families are dysfunctional and the Mahoney family in William Norris' debut book 'Snapshots' is no different. On the outside, the Mahoney's seem like the picture perfect family. Behind closed doors was a different story. The story starts off in 1997 when the Mahoney children Sean, Patti, Kate, and Nora come home to their parents house in New Jersey for Christmas. Norris, takes us back in time through the years as the family struggles with issues like sexual orientation or drugs. The best part about this book, was there were no main characters. Through Norris' mature writing style, you know what each character was going through at difficult times in their lives. This book is recommended for anyone who is going through similiar issues the Mahoney children faced.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2001

    A triumph

    Bill Norris' 'Snapshots' is an outstanding debut effort. His look back at 25 years in the life of the Mahoney family could have easily slipped into melodrama. Instead, by clevely taking the reader through the story backwards, one is entertained by a layered, thoughtful look at the trials and tribulations that a family encounters. This stylistic choice also allows benefits Norris' book because seemingly insignificant details often turn into significant plot points. His characters are well-thought out and the situations they face are engaging. His ability to prevent the story from become a tawdry soap opera. This book is highly recommended. It is a fantastic read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2001

    what a great book

    Everyone should check this book out. It's really a great read, and the ending, rather than a disappointment (which is how I often feel), is just right. Norris writes in beautiful, rhythmic prose. His characters are incredibly life-like and believable. He has a remarkable ability to get inside the head of a wide range of people, from a lesbian college student to a lawyer near retirement, to a chef, to an alcoholic. It's really quite impressive.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2001

    A Family History Unfolds in Reverse

    A mother, father, and four adult children, along with their spouses, gather for Christmas in 1995. There's good food, good talk, warmth, all the things any of us would want for the holiday. But there are also plenty of clues as to what it cost them to get where they are. Plenty. And exactly what it cost them is what the remaining chapters of the book reveals, in reverse order. But this is no gimmick, no trick. It's a beautiful form that brings to bear all the inevitability of being deeply human and alive and perfectly imperfect. William Norris's first novel will open your heart and spread its warmth there, soften you to the foibles of your own beautiful and difficult family life, make you glad to be a member of the family of humanity.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2001

    Achingly Good

    A masterful piece of fiction. The kind of prose that makes you wish you could eat it off the page.

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