From the critically acclaimed author of Standing Still comes a psychologically charged novel about the power and failure of family.
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.38(w) x 8.21(h) x 0.79(d)|
About the Author
Kelly Simmons is a former journalist and advertising creative director specializing in marketing to women. She lives with her family outside Philadelphia. Please visit her website at ByKellySimmons.com.
Read an Excerpt
October 22, 2010
Beneath the surface of any problem, if you scrabble a bit, you’ll find a secret.
It may take a while—decades perhaps—not for your excavation, mind you, but for your desire to appear; for that childlike curiosity to float up again. Indeed, you may need an actual child to summon it, as I did.
But this is what drives us—the historians, the trash pickers, the gossips, the shrinks. And yes, the readers of books. We’re all rooting around, teasing out other people’s hidden reasons.
Haven’t we all profited from another’s heartache? Anything antique or inherited comes to you out of pain. And it comes to you, doesn’t it? Why, even the comforting of a sniveling acquaintance carries a sweet center: after they sob on your shoulder, they will tell you why.
Please don’t say I’m drawn to others’ secrets because I have several in my own deep past. That’s a bit tidy, don’t you think? In fact, I’ll come clean with a confession right now. Perhaps that will make you feel better about my motives.
Forty years ago, my young daughter died because of something I did. Notice I stop short of saying I killed her, even though I clearly did. No one knows this. Do you think my daughter-in-law would ever let me near my granddaughter if she knew?
I didn’t bury this pivotal event, or suffocate it in a cloud of good works, as so many venerable Main Line ladies would, yet much of it, the details especially, have sloughed away. By necessity, by neglect, by a need for the widow to soldier on. And yes, by the failure of my own memory. Call it what you will: “senior moments,” old age, dementia. It’s inevitable, that’s what it is. You go right ahead and complete all the crosswords your children press on you; but know they can keep you only so sharp.
Sometimes my memory of that awful day wanders away completely, and when it returns, it jolts me, like falling in dreams. I can’t summon my actions in crystal detail anymore; I see the house, that room, through a haze, in pieces. I can see the maple tree outside the window, and beyond it, the old field on one side and the park with the verdigris Revolutionary War statue on the other. But I’ve forgotten, for instance, what time it was; whether the light sparkled when it hit the water, or cast shadows across it, making it look more gray and deeper than it actually was. I draw a blank on whether the baby cried in the distance, or where Peter was hiding—in the cellar; in the field; or in the small, dark shed. Parts of it are gone, perhaps forever. I miss the details, the small intricacies of many things now, even this. All the more reason to continue to write things down in my diary. All the more reason for me to take my pictures, to hang on to scrapbooks and photo albums in steamer trunks. All the more reason to collect evidence.
This morning, for instance, I completely forgot that I’d been to the lawyer. My newest secret, and I only remembered when I opened my freezer and saw what I’d hidden there. Imagine!
It will all come out in time, the tidbits I’ve learned and swung round to my advantage. But I did not set out to do any of it, and neither did Ellie. It’s important you believe me. The natural order of things merely took over. The drive to dig pulled us like the tides.
All we did, after all, was pay attention. You should try it sometime. Watch a woman’s face as she fingers her antique locket. Hear the jangle of charm bracelets covering up an ancestor’s cries. Feel the ring handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter, how the gold is worn down at the back by everything they’d done while wearing it—all the games they’d played, all the people they’d touched, all the things they’d held and broken.
It’s all there, in every jewelry box and trunk, every photo album and yellowed postcard, every attic and basement. Just look, and you’ll see what I mean. You don’t have to travel to a lost city to find the artifacts of a mysterious society. Just go ask your grandmother.
© Kelly Simmons
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Bird House includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kelly Simmons. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Every family has its secrets. But when you are the last survivor tending to the dark fires of memory, and your own mind is fading, who do you share them with? Your diary or your eight-year-old granddaughter? Or do you simply let them fade away, along with your memory?
The Bird House is a moving story of secrets, lies, and relationships. It is a close look at the hardship and heartbreak that one woman can withstand during a lifetime. As an elderly woman, Ann Biddle is struggling to both remember and come to terms with the life she has led. It is through her young, but wise granddaughter, Ellie, that Ann finds a way to deal with her past and finally reveal the secrets that have come to taint the present.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Ann reveals within the first chapter that her memory is failing. How did this confession affect your reading? Was Ann an unreliable narrator? Explain your answer.
2. Bird houses are a recurring theme throughout the novel—besides the title itself, Ellie chooses bird houses for her “Aspect” school project. Do you think the bird houses hold some sort of symbolism? Why or why not?
3. Throughout the novel, we get bits and pieces of what Ann’s husband, Theo, was like. Do you think Ann is fair with his depiction? If the novel had been narrated by Theo, how do you think he would have described himself? How would his perspective differ from Ann’s?
4. In the beginning, Ann describes her daughter-in-law, Tinsley, as almost perfect. She even attributes her granddaughter’s wonderful demeanor to Tinsley. When do you see Ann’s opinion begin to change? Why do you think it changes so drastically? Do you think they will ever completely resolve their differences?
5. Ann thinks the world of Tom and Ellie. In her mind, they can do no wrong. Do you feel the same? Or do you think she is fiercely loyal to them because they are her flesh and blood?
6. Adultery recurs throughout the novel and is also a shared commonality between Ann, her mother, and Tinsley. How do you think this bonds the women together? Does this shared connection help them relate to one another? Or could it also have an opposite effect on their relationships?
7. Ann, her mother, and Tinsley all have completely different personalities and lead completely different lives. What do you think lead each woman to cheat on her partner?
8. There were multiple instances throughout the novel where Ann’s daughter, Emma, acts in an odd, and even malicious, manner. Do you think this is a result or an effect of the anger and resentment she feels for losing her daughter at such a young age?
9. Do you blame Ann for her daughter’s death? Do you think Ann blames herself? Why do you think she kept this a secret for such a long time?
10. When Ann confronts Tinsley about her affair, she claims to have the best intentions. Do you agree with how Ann handled this discussion? If you were in Ann’s position, what would you have done?
11. Ann never gave her father the chance to give his side of the story, and after his death she discovers he was not her biological father. Do you think she should have given him the chance to explain himself? And do you think this was what he was trying to tell her?
12. Ann reveals a great deal about her past, and even present, to Ellie. Do you think this relationship was inappropriate? Why or why not?
13. On page 272, Ann says to Ellie: “‘If you ever have to choose between a man who’s serious and a man who’s fun, choose the fun one. Promise me.’” Do you agree with Ann? Who do you think was the “fun one” and who was the serious one? Theo or Peter?
14. Did you like that the novel was told from only Ann’s perspective? Or would you have a more objective, third person narrator?’
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Ellie decides to do her school project with the “Aspect” of bird houses. Make your own bird house and share it with the group.
2. Ann and Ellie work very hard to create their family tree for Ellie’s school project. Visit www.ancestry.com or pick up a copy of Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist by Buzzy Jackson, to learn more about how to make a family tree of your own.
3. Not all elderly people have the family and friends that Ann has. Volunteer at a nursing or retirement home with members from your book club. Sit down with someone and ask her to tell you stories of her past.
4. Learn more about Kelly Simmons on her website at www.ByKellySimmons.com and her blog at www.kellyasimmons.blogspot.com.
A CONVERSATION WITH KELLY SIMMONS
What was your inspiration for The Bird House?
My daughter brought home an assignment from school that asked her to do a series of projects based on the family history that required interviewing a grandparent. I thought to myself, hmmmm, this assignment could really backfire, couldn’t it? With a troubled grandparent, an innocent little girl, and a few family secrets, all hell could break loose! The idea rattled around in the back of my mind for a year or so while I started two other novels. Then I decided it was too powerful a story to ignore and focused my attention on it.
As your second novel, was the writing process easier or more difficult? What were the differences and similarities in writing The Bird House compared to Standing Still?
It was a bit easier in the editorial stages because I’d been through the process already. And as with Standing Still, I found the voice of the main character quickly. However, the actual writing was more difficult. The structure of The Bird House, with its twin diaries forty years apart, entwining and untangling, proved challenging. That being said, the most difficult part for me is always choosing material. I guess because of my advertising background, I’m a brainstormer—I generate lots of ideas for novels.
The main character, Ann, is suffering from early onset of Alzheimer’s. Do you personally know anyone suffering from the disease?
Yes, our family has struggled with having a loved one diagnosed, as have several of my friends’ families. It’s a reality for many people, and in the beginning stages, it’s so hard to pinpoint and accept.
How did you research Alzheimer’s to make sure Ann’s symptoms were realistic?
I interviewed siblings, spouses, and children of Alzheimer’s patients, rather than doctors, to hear their stories and to try to get the details right. I wanted the family’s perceptions of the symptoms, not the textbook symptoms, if that makes sense.
Why did you decide to write the novel in the first person? Why did you want readers to get only Ann’s perspective?
Ann’s perspective works best because her faulty memory makes her an unreliable narrator. I wanted readers to feel the tension and the worry of not knowing what she was going to do or say, or if they could trust her version of events. I love ambiguity and subtlety in a story, and so many novels with multiple narrators or an omniscient narrator go overboard and reveal more than is necessary. It’s kind of a TMI situation for me. And I guess I am somewhat obsessed with first-person unreliable narrators, as Standing Still had one too!
You are a former creative director with a specialization in marketing to women. The Bird House is primarily about women, told from a woman’s perspective. Do you think you will ever write a novel from a man’s perspective? Or would you rather stick to what you know best?
Well, I admit I have a righteous feminist streak, almost as if I was born in another era. I just really feel the indignation and the struggle deeply. Writing male characters can be a joy, but overall, there are so many more women’s stories I want to explore.
Your first novel, Standing Still, deals with anxiety disorders and abduction, while characters in The Bird House cope with Alzheimer’s and the death of a child. Why did you choose to pair these dark subject matters in both your novels?
My agent once told me that I was “obsessed with what’s hidden.” I’m also obsessed with the things I’m afraid of—which are fairly numerous! If you combed through the magazine articles and newspapers I read, the movies I see, the TV I watch—you’d see immediately I have a fascination with gritty stuff—crime and police, mysteries. By melding them into my work, I’m shedding some feminine, suburban, maternal light on them.
Ann and Ellie are very close throughout the novel. Were you close to either of your grandmothers?
I was close to both of them—the book is dedicated to them—and have amazing, warm, hilarious memories of them both. Because my mother was ill when I was young, these relationships were especially important to me.
What are you currently reading? Who are your favorite authors?
I just finished Little Bee, which was my choice for my mother-and-daughter book group. A few of my favorite authors are Ann Beattie, John Irving, and Lionel Shriver. But I love so many!
Are you working on a third novel? What is next for Kelly Simmons?
Yes, I’m polishing up a new novel called The Book Addict. Words to live by!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Kelly Simmons writing style pulls you right in from the beginning. The book flows effortlessly and was a joy to read. The last time I read something like this was The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I borrowed this book from the library and I enjoyed it so much I am going to purchase a copy for myself.
This is the story of a mother haunted by a secret she has long kept hidden. Now as she grows old, she finds she must come to terms with an act she committed as a young mother.the secret she kept will come out. As Grandma Ann Biddle assists her 8 year old granddaughter Ellie with a school project, she finds herself questioning her memory of the past. She finds herself wondering what is actually a memory, and what is her impression of the event. Ann is no longer sure what really happened, or the way things really happened. She isn't sure if her recollections are things she created to protect herself from the truth, and the pain of the past. She knows she must face the facts before it is too late. Ann's daughter-in-law Tinsley is Ellie's mother. She feels the need to protect her own daughter from Ann. Unsure of Ann's health and tenuous grip on reality, Tinsley feels responsible for monitoring the bond, as well as past secrets and their effect on the family's future. Time will tell. Secrets always come out, one way or another. Family shares your history. These three generations of women will come together because of heartbreak, but ultimately for healing. Indeed there is strength in numbers, and in love.
In Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, septuagenarian Ann Biddle knows her short term memory is failing her as she suffers from dementia. On the other hand her long term memory works better than ever as recalls in vivid detail her past; especially traumatic events. She knows everything about her daughter's death and her failed marriage, for instance. Her eight years old granddaughter Ellie asks for her help with a school project. Ann is excited, but knows her daughter-in-law Tinsley will interfere as she cocoons her daughter from hurts. As Ann and Tinsley war over Ellie, the child feels unsure what to do as she does not want to hurt either her mom or grandma but struggles with her older loved ones trying to control her relationship with the other. The Bird House is a wonderful family drama that looks deeply at the relationship between three generations of women. The story line in some ways is a parable about the American family as Ann begins to understand nuances re her mom and grandma at war over her. For instance, the little girl concludes "A house divided against itself cannot stand" (Lincoln) and her loved ones created a governance "constitution" built on lies and secrets that led to remorse and regrets, but remains strong and positive. With three real people acting and reacting in genuine ways, Kelly Simmons provides a super relationship feud in which one family represents the national family. Harriet Klausner
Looking for a beautifully written and spellbinding novel? Well, look no further because Kelly Simmon's The Bird House is the novel for you. Startling, eloquent, and immersing, I was hooked from the first page until the very last, and even then I was close to begging for more, more, and more of these richly developed characters and the world they live in. The Bird House tells the story of Ann Biddle, a woman whose dealt with more loss, death, and pain than any good person should, and now after more than seventy years of life, she's beginning to deal with the starting stages of Alzheimer's. Though, when given the chance to create a strong bond and relationship with her precious granddaughter Ellie over Ellie's school project, Ann jumps at the chance. Little do they know that this school project over family histories will lead to not only secrets spilling out from every door and pathway possible, but to Ann's looking over of her life: the choices she made and what they meant for her and her family. Will Ann be able to handle it? And what happens when she and Ellie learns more than they should? Only time will tell in this richly told story intertwining past and present times. Not only because of Ann's early stages of memory loss but the fact that this story is told strictly in her diary entries over the years, Anne is in all ways an unreliable narrator but in the best way possible. For one, it lead to this story to have a compelling and unique voice, one that constantly lead me flipping the pages eager to find out more about Ann's life, such as what happened to her daughter? Or, better yet, what happened between her and her high school sweetheart, as well as much, much more. Plus I was constantly questioning whether or not she was always telling the truth or merrily exaggerating some aspects. More importantly, I loved her granddaughter Ellie. Ellie was a sweetheart. Cautious, honest, and sweet, I could clearly see what Ann loved her so much. Though, what I liked most about both characters was the bond they began to form over the course of the novel, because not only did it play an important part in making this The Bird House an amazing book, but it was admirable and relatable to any girl or boy whose been close to a grandparent, in my opinion. I also really enjoyed the way Kelly Simmons told this story in diary entries of past and current times, because not only did she effortless tie everything together in a picture perfect way that never left me feeling like I wasn't getting a clear image, but she did so in a way that it made The Bird House compelling and full of dirty little secrets I couldn't wait to find out more about. Lastly, as I'm sure you can already guess, I loved Simmons' writing. It's beautiful, poignant, and eloquent and it made this novel flow in a perfect pace. Also, she did such a suburb job of getting the voices of her many characters and setting down in a way that I could easily picture everything and feel like I was right there. In all, The Bird House is most ways a nearly perfect novel, in my opinion. I simply can't wait to read more by Simmons, as I'm sure she has many, many more fabulous novels and ideas up her shelves. Oh, and while this novel is labeled adult fiction, I don't see any reason why older teens wouldn't enjoy it. Grade: A+
Slow start but great finish. A book almost everyone will be able to relate to.
Kelly Simmons "The Bird House" is narrated by Ann - a widow, a mother, a grandmother...a woman of secrets in a family full of women with secrets. Ann's granddaughter Ellie is assigned a school project on "Generations" and through Ann's working with her granddaughter on this, their relationship develops and their family history is gradually revealed. Though Ann's memory is impaired at times, we learn of past events through the journals that she has kept. Ms. Simmons tells a good story and engages us with interesting characters. This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, as well as being a very good discussion book for book clubs."
What is true? What is real? What is forgotten and what can never be erased? In a lifetime of good intentions we all have our share of secrets, regrets, and undiscovered passions. And digging through old letters, connecting the importance of a ring with something said long ago, really looking at what is around you, well, it can change your entire view of your world. The Bird House by Kelly Simmons takes the reader on a mesmerizing journey into one woman's past and beyond in this sparkling and engrossing novel you'll want to recommend to everyone you know. The characters are real, the situations at once startling yet believable. I found myself glad that I couldn't sleep last night, because that meant I could get back to this novel and read it through to the end. How many novels are good enough for that? After finishing the last page I had that "I just read something truly amazing" feeling. The lingering of images and emotions. The sadness, as if parting from a very dear friend.. Simmons writes of a granddaughter who is brutally honest, and who needs to do a family heritage project with her grandmother. She takes us into the head of Ann, a seventy-something woman of high intelligence and so-so memory, who skips us back and forth through time. Her past is a life full of promise, then terrible loss and guilt. In her present, Ann finds her heart being won over by her granddaughter, a child who asks all the wrong questions in just the right way. And Ann finds answers she hadn't even known she was seeking. The story is at once heart-wrenching and hilarious. Ann has a tart tongue and a sharp eye, making her the ideal narrator casting a witty eye on everything from egocentric architects, Main Line Philadelphia elite, the claustrophobic existence of a new mother, the horrors of those tacky birthday party activity joints, and the temptations of a forbidden lover. The author quickly envelops you with sharp imagery, true tension, mystery, passion and deeply-felt love. Her writing reminds me of Anne Tyler's: amazingly brilliant, yet so accessible. So read The Bird House, love it, share it. Your friends will be glad you did! Very highly recommended.