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Lucas and Katya were seniors when they made the impetuous decision to have a baby. Seventeen years later, Lucas is now only a weekend dad, newly involved in his daughter Vera's life after a decade of absence. But when Vera suffers a terrifying psychotic break at a high school party, Lucas makes another impulsive decision: he takes her to Lithuania, his grandmother's homeland.
Here, in the city of Vilnius, Lucas hopes to save Vera from the sorrow of her diagnosis, but while he uncovers a secret about his grandmother's WWII past, Vera searches for answers of her own. Why did Lucas abandon her as a baby? What really happened the night of her breakdown? And who can she trust with the truth?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
If you want to know what kind of girl my daughter, Vera, was, there is a story her mother, Katya, tells over and over. I wasn’t there myself, but it is part of the family lore: little Vera, five years old, her dark hair in braids, attending another little girl’s birthday. It was an overly elaborate party for a five-year- old girl, with candied violets on the cake, a gazebo, tasteful jewel-toned paper streamers, crowns made of real flowers for each little girl to wear, and a chalkboard listing a schedule of party games in cursive script.
But it was a hot day. The children were beginning to melt. No one wanted to play the games, which seemed to be going on forever. Only the girl’s mother, wild-eyed and possessed by the fever of party orchestration, was enthused, and she led them through endless rounds of red rover, musical statues, even an egg-and-spoon race. By the time a game ominously titled “Doggy, Doggy, Where’s Your Bone?” was about to start, the birthday girl was crouched under a picnic table crying.
Vera, ever the ambassador, ventured under there to pow- wow. The girl was hot and hungry. She could tell the other children weren’t having fun. The party had been going on for three hours and cake and presents were not yet in sight. Why was her mother doing this? Couldn’t they at least do one of the fun party games, like the piñata? Wasn’t the birthday party supposed to be about her? But her mother didn’t even care that she was crying there under the table. Her mother was going to make everyone play “Doggy, Doggy, Where’s Your Bone?” no matter what.
Vera patted the girl’s skinny thigh. “Maybe your mom just doesn’t understand how you feel,” she said. And so Vera crawled out from under the picnic table, and went and found the girl’s mother, tugging at the woman’s dress as she was trying to explain the rules to the new game.
“Excuse me,” she said politely, “Samantha would like to open presents and eat cake now. She doesn’t want to play games anymore.”
“Well, right now we are playing games,” the girl’s mother said, leaning down to Vera’s eye level, her hands on her knees. “We have three more to go before it will be time for cake and presents.” She pointed at the chalkboard that listed the party activities.
“But maybe,” Vera insisted, “you could just skip some. Maybe you could skip to the piñata?”
“Samantha is welcome to join us if she decides she wants to be a big girl. Otherwise, she can stay under the table and cry.” Vera stared at the woman for a moment, and then said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “If you wanted a birthday party so badly, you should have thrown one for yourself.”
Vera was always just like that. Almost brutally clear-sighted. Even as a child, she saw through people. Saw the reasons they did things. Saw the machinery behind the façade.
As she became a teenager, her nose for hypocrisy became even keener and her thirst for justice more merciless. One of her high-school English teachers actually got teary-eyed during a parent-teacher conference out of worry that Vera didn’t like her. “I feel like she can tell that I’m not actually equipped to challenge her,” the poor woman said. “I mean, my degree isn’t even in English, it’s in education, and I feel like there is a real lack of depth to my analyses sometimes that Vera senses, and honestly, I don’t blame her.”
If adults were unable to keep from seeking Vera’s good opinion, her peers didn’t have a chance. They worshipped her in a way that made her disdainful. The fall she was sixteen, she went to the homecoming dance in fleece footie pajamas printed with tropical fish and convinced her boyfriend, Fang, to do the same. They looked like giant, weird, Floridian babies. She also coerced him into memorizing a choreographed break-dance routine with her. I worried the whole thing was deeply misguided, but the dance number was a hit. Everyone thought wearing footie pajamas to homecoming was hilarious and cool.
“You’re a trendsetter,” I said.
“Ugh,” she said. “Gross.”
Because she wasn’t a trendsetter. No one could hope to be like her. She was one of a kind and, because of this, very much alone. About whether she was pleased with this state of affairs or saddened, I was never entirely sure. Maybe she would have liked to belong. Maybe her cruelty to the girls who would have done anything to be her friends was preemptive because she feared they would never accept her as she was. And maybe that’s part of why she and Fang became the way they were.
But all of this is only speculation.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s conversation about Dear Fang, With Love, Rufi Thorpe’s mesmerizing and emotionally potent new novel about a young father who seeks to better his relationship with his troubled teenage daughter while on a trip abroad.
1. Discuss the Milosz poem that prefaces the novel. How does the content of this poem relate to the themes explored in Dear Fang, With Love?
2. In the opening lines of Chapter 1, Vera writes to Fang, “At this moment, we are mental twins.” How did you interpret Vera’s relationship with Fang when you were first introduced to their correspondence? Why is Vera drawn to him? How did the inclusion of Fang’s letters in the latter portion of the narrative destabilize Vera’s narrative authority?
3. Describe Vilnius, as interpreted through the eyes of Lucas and Vera. How does the checkered history between ethnic groups affect the city’s cultural identity?
4. On page 10, Lucas admits, “I had never developed the set of paternal reflexes and instincts I assumed would assert themselves.” Over the course ofDear Fang, With Love, would you argue that these instincts do emerge? If so, when are they most apparent?
5. What are Lucas’s motivations for the trip to Vilnius? What does he seek to learn about himself? His heritage? How do Vera’s motivations for travel differ from her father’s?
6. Throughout Dear Fang, With Love, the reader becomes intimately acquainted with Lucas’s insecurities and anxieties. Discuss his discomfort with fatherhood. How does guilt factor into his relationship with his daughter? Would you say that he is “simple,” as Vera states in her letter to Fang?
7. How did the textual interplay between Lucas’s narration and Vera’s e-mails to Fang affect your reading experience? How did it help to elucidate or complicate the narrative?
8. The story of Grandma Sylvia and her “rape birthday” causes a great deal of tension and reflection throughout the course of Dear Fang, With Love. How does Lucas’s search for truth create anxiety throughout the narrative? How does his discovery that Herkus’s mother was indeed the child of Sylvia’s forest husband, rather than the SS officer, affect him? How does his relationship with Vera change after he reveals the true story of Sylvia’s escape to her?
9. Vera is clearly very intelligent, but, as the narrative often reminds us, she is still a teenager and, as such, prone to bouts of fanciful thought and immaturity. When does her age become most apparent in the narrative? How do Vera’s mental health issues make it difficult for her family to discern when she is being lucid but difficult versus when she is suffering from delusions and mania?
10. The concept of family, and the search for it, is an important aspect of Dear Fang, With Love. Consider Lucas’s past. How does he define family? How do his attitudes about family affect his relationship with Vera? How does the discovery of Herkus and his Lithuanian family undermine or influence his understanding of himself and his identity?
11. The ancillary characters in Dear Fang, With Love provide important context for Lucas and Vera’s trip to Vilinus. What role did Judith serve in the novel? How did Lucas’s fling with Susan affect his sense of self?
12. Throughout Dear Fang, With Love, Vera and Lucas describe Katya’s rejection of her American identity. Why do you think Katya is so hesitant to embrace her American side? How does Vera identify with her cultural heritage? Does her understanding of her cultural identity shift over the course of the novel?
13. Discuss the scene wherein Lucas and Vera argue about how Lucas is the “patriarch.” How is this interaction demonstrative of the power struggle inherent in their relationship? How does Vera’s reaction play into Lucas’s insecurities about fatherhood?
14. How did your understanding of Vera’s mental illness change over the course of the narrative? After she told her father that her breakdown at the party was the result of taking acid, did your perception of her change? Were you surprised by her eventual breakdown at the end of the novel?
15. Describe Vera’s relationship with her mother, particularly focusing on the Word doc created by her in Chapter 15. What does she admire most about her mother? What does she value about their relationship? How does Lucas interpret their mother-daughter relationship?
16. Discuss the final chapter of the book. How did you interpret Vera and Lucas’s conversation in the last scene? Would you say that their relationship is strengthened by their trip to Vilnius?
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