Recent transplants to the small town of Chosen, New York, the Clares have not received the warmest welcome; once a thriving dairy farm, their home is haunted by the tragedy that left the former owner’s three sons orphaned and adrift.
Late one winter afternoon, professor George Clare knocks on his neighbor’s door with terrible news: he returned from work to find his wife, Catherine, murdered in their bed. Someone took an ax to her head while their three-year-old daughter, Franny, played alone in her room across the hall.
As one dark secret peels away to reveal others—and as the Clare marriage reveals itself to have a sinister darkness that rivals the farm’s history—Elizabeth Brundage offers a rich and complex portrait of the scars that can haunt a community for generations and the dark longings inside each and every one of us that drive us to do inexplicable things.
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February 23, 1979
Again, it was snowing. Half past five in the afternoon. Almost dark. She had just laid out their plates when the dogs started barking.
Her husband set down his fork and knife, none too pleased to have his supper interrupted. What’s that now?
June Pratt pulled aside the curtain and saw their neighbor. He was standing there in the snow, holding the child, her feet bare, neither of them in coats. From the looks of it, the little girl was in her pajamas. It’s George Clare, she said.
What’s he selling?
I wonder. I don’t see a car. They must’ve come on foot.
Awful cold out. You better see what he wants.
She let them in with the cold. He stood before her, holding the child out like an offering.
It’s my wife. She’s—-
Momma hurt, the child cried.
June didn’t have children of her own, but she had raised dogs her whole life and saw the same dark knowing in the child’s eyes that confirmed what all animals understood, that the world was full of evil and beyond comprehension.
You’d better call the police, she told her husband. Something’s happened to his wife.
Joe pulled off his napkin and went to the phone.
Let’s go find you some socks, she said, and took the child from her father and carried her down the hall to the bedroom where she set her on the bed. Earlier that afternoon, she had laid her freshly laundered socks over the radiator, and she took a pair now and pushed the warm wool over the child’s feet, thinking that if the child were hers she’d love her better.
They were the Clares. They had bought the Hale place that summer, and now winter had come and there were just the two houses on the road and she hadn’t seen them much. Sometimes in the morning she would. Either when he raced past in his little car to the college. Or when the wife took the child out of doors. Sometimes, at night, when June walked the dogs, you could see inside their house. She could see them having supper, the little girl between them at the table, the woman getting up and sitting down and getting up again.
With the snow, it took over a half--hour for the sheriff to arrive. June was vaguely aware, as women often are of men who desire them, that Travis Lawton, who had been her classmate in high school, found her attractive. That was of no consequence now, but you don’t easily forget the people you grew up with, and she made a point of listening carefully to him, and acknowledged his kindness to George, even though there was the possibility, in her own mind at least, that the bad thing that had happened to his wife might have been his own doing.
he was thinking of Emerson, the terrible aristocracy that is in Nature. Because there were things in this world you couldn’t control. And because even now he was thinking of her. Even now, with his wife lying dead in that house.
He could hear Joe Pratt on the phone.
George waited on the green couch, shaking a little. Their house smelled like dogs and he could hear them barking out back in their pens. He wondered how they could stand it. He stared at the wide boards, a funk of mildew coming up from the cellar. He could feel it in the back of his throat. He coughed.
They’re on their way, Pratt said from the kitchen.
Down the hall, June Pratt was talking to his daughter with the sweet tone people use on children and he was grateful for it, so much so that his eyes teared a little. She was known for taking in strays. He’d see her walking the road with the motley pack at her side, a middle--aged woman in a red kerchief, frowning at the ground.
After a while, he couldn’t say how long, a car pulled up.
Here they are now, Pratt said.
It was Travis Lawton who came in. George, he said, but didn’t shake his hand.
Chosen was a small town and they were acquaintances of a sort. He knew Lawton had gone to RPI and had come back out here to be sheriff, and it always struck George that for an educated man he was pretty shallow. But then George wasn’t the best judge of character and, as he was continually reminded by a coterie of concerned individuals, his opinion didn’t amount to much. George and his wife were newcomers. The locals took at least a hundred years to accept the fact that somebody else was living in a house that had, for generations, belonged to a single family whose sob stories were now part of the local mythology. He didn’t know these people and they certainly didn’t know him, but in those few minutes, as he stood there in the Pratts’ living room in his wrinkled khakis and crooked tie, with a distant, watery look in his eyes that could easily be construed as madness, all their suspicions were confirmed.
Let’s go take a look, Lawton said.
They left Franny with the Pratts and went up the road, him and Lawton and Lawton’s undersheriff, Wiley Burke. It was dark now. They walked with grave purpose, a brutal chill under their feet.
The house sat there grinning.
They stood a minute looking up at it and then went in through the screened porch, a clutter of snowshoes and tennis rackets and wayward leaves, to the kitchen door. He showed Lawton the broken glass. They climbed the stairs in their dirty boots. The door to their bedroom was shut; he couldn’t remember shutting it. He guessed that he had.
I can’t go in there, he told the sheriff.
All right. Lawton touched his shoulder in a fatherly way. You stay right here.
Lawton and his partner pushed through the door. Faintly, he heard sirens. Their shrill cries made him weak.
He waited in the hall, trying not to move. Then Lawton came out, bracing himself against the doorjamb. He looked at George warily. That your ax?
George nodded. From the barn.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of All Things Cease to Appear, Elizabeth Brundage’s haunting literary thriller that explores the circumstances surrounding a grisly murder in a quiet rural town in upstate New York.
1. The issue of class differences weighs heavily throughout All Things Cease to Appear. Discuss the faltering farm economy in the area and how that affects morale. Which characters seem to represent the “old guard” of the town? How does distrust of the wealthy Manhattan set factor into the town’s perception of George?
2. Discuss the role of otherworldly influences. How does Brundage use voice and character to create a foreboding, eerie feeling throughout the novel? Discuss George’s hesitance to believe in these spirits. How does this create a gulf between him and Catherine? When, if ever, does Catherine feel validated for believing in the presence of these spirits?
3. Discuss the idea of “lost mothers.” as explored throughout. How do the Hale brothers each cope with the loss of their beloved mother? How does Catherine become a mother figure for the Hales? Which brother does she have the greatest influence on over time?
4. How does Uncle Rainer help to shape Cole’s understanding of the world? Describe Rainer’s emphasis on education. How does Cole take this to heart?
5. Discuss Willis’s trajectory throughout the novel. How would you describe her disposition as a teenager? What has shaped her worldview? How does her relationship with George affect her later choices in lifestyle and career?
6. How is the concept of motherhood explored throughout the novel? How would you define motherhood for Catherine? Mary? How do the obligations of motherhood tie into wifely obligations? Which characters represent a backlash to the established 1970s ideals of womanhood?
7. Discuss the evolution of Catherine’s personality. In the months before she is murdered, how does Catherine begin to defy the expectations of her role as wife? How is her discovery of poetry via Adrienne Rich significant to her development as a character? What other influences shape her?
8. Discuss the scene in which George cuts Willis’s hair during an intimate encounter. Why do you think he chose to do that? Explore the power dynamic in their relationship.
9. Describe the early stages of George’s relationship with Catherine. Do you think they ever shared genuine feelings for each other, or was their relationship borne out of obligation? How do Catherine’s Catholic upbringing and religious beliefs tether her to the confines of their relationship?
10. As the Clare case unfolds, Travis Lawton is determined to bring Catherine’s killer to justice. How does this affect his relationship with his own wife? Do you think that the case contributed to their marital discord?
11. Justine is a defining character in All Things Cease to Appear. How does her perspective offer insight into George and Catherine’s relationship? Discuss the relationship between Justine and her husband, Bram. How do they defy the conventional expectations for marriage and couplehood?
12. Discuss Franny’s reentry into Chosen. At what moment does she become witness to her mother’s happiness? Who gives her the best insight into her mother’s character?
13. The section “Exile” gives significant perspective into Catherine’s attitudes on motherhood, her new home in Chosen, and her relationship with George. How did you interpret her tone over the course of the letters? Do you think she ever sent any true updates to her family members, or did she use these hidden letters as a means of conveying her emotions? Why do you think Brundage chose to include this section at that point in the novel?
14. Consider how George changes over the course of the novel. When were you first convinced of his guilt? Which moments in All Things Cease to Appear did you find to be most disturbing?
15. Discuss the conclusion of the novel. Were you satisfied with how George met his end? Do we actually know that he has died? How did you interpret Franny’s last conversation with her father?