Family Linen

Family Linen

by Lee Smith


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Family Linen by Lee Smith

When Sybill Hess drives over to the hypnotist’s office, she hopes he can cure her of the headaches interrupting her sleep the way her friend Betty once saw a woman on TV cure a woman’s stammer. But what Dr. Diamond uncovers from Sybill’s subconscious goes much deeper than her nervousness over a new tenant who seems to want a date. A shocking memory from Sybill’s past threatens to upend everything she thinks she knows about herself and her family. But is it even real?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425270271
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/04/2014
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 566,684
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Lee Smith was born in Grundy, VA. She is author of many novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Last Girls, and most recently Guests On Earth. She is a recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and a Southern Book Critics Circle Award.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A lively, warmhearted, wickedly perceptive and extremely funny book.”—Newsday

“Immensely difficult to put down.”—The Village Voice

“With great skill, humor, and understanding, Smith gradually reveals the Hess family linen for all to see.”—The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A childhood memory relived through hypnosis, a funeral that brings about a family reunion, and the evacuation of a swimming pool on the site of an old well uncover a family secret in this darkly humorous novel…In the course of the story all the family’s dirty linen is aired and Smith provides a behind-the-scenes look at life in a small Southern town.”—The Christian Science Monitor

Reading Group Guide

"Brilliant, haunting, dark, joyous, remarkably compelling...immensely difficult to put down...a master storyteller."


A childhood memory re-experienced, a funeral that brings about a family reunion, and the excavation of a swimming pool on the site of an old well, uncover family secrets and air the dirty linen in this behind-the-scenes look at life and family, memory and forgetfulness, anger and forgiveness in a small Southern town.

"Falls in line with the best of classical Southern fiction...but Ms. Smith's vision is her own and places her among the best of contemporary Southern writers."


From the Paperback edition.

1. Family Linen is told from the viewpoints of many different people, all from the same family. What does Lee Smith achieve by employing this narrative technique? Is there one narrator who is the guiding force of the novel? If so, who? In your opinion, why does Sybill lead off the story?

2. Sybill's hypnosis brings forth an unexpected vision. What, precisely, does she see, and why would she have suppressed it for many years? What does this vision compel her to do? Why is she so tenacious about speaking to her mother, even when Miss Elizabeth is bedridden and unable to communicate? What do you think Sybill would have discovered had her mother been well enough to speak to her?

3. Elizabeth's children-Sybill, Arthur, Myrtle, Candy and Lacy-are each very different. Do any seem to have a particular love or affinity for one another? What similarities, if any, do they share?

4. Sybill castigates her family for leading "messy lives." How does this attitude distance her from hersiblings? Which of Elizabeth's children embrace order, and who distrusts it? Why?

5. Miss Elizabeth's children are constantly reflecting on her as a mother and on themselves as parents. In which ways have they absorbed her child-rearing techniques as their own? How have they rebelled against them? Why do you think that Sybill has remained unmarried and childless?

6. Sybill believes that she's enduring a "total eclipse of the heart." In your opinion, is this an accurate assessment of her feelings? How is this uncharacteristic of her personality? How do others in the novel cope with the same feelings about love and relationships? Who else in the book undergoes a similar "eclipse"?

7. What does Myrtle prize the most about her life? In which ways do she and her husband, Dr. Don, aspire to be the "perfect couple," and what do they do in order to achieve this goal? How do appearances belie reality, particularly in regard to Myrtle's marriage and the relationships she has with her children?

8. Lacy believes that she has a special link with Elizabeth due to their shared love of language. Why do both women feel that their affinity for the written word is so important? In which ways does this passion shape Lacy's life?

9. Lacy speaks of a "life before Jack." How does returning to Booker Creek represent a return to her past? A new beginning? Does it represent something similar to her siblings, both those who have stayed in the town and those who have left? Why or why not?

10. Most of the book's narration is in third person, with some notable exceptions: the parts related by Sean, Nettie and Fay, as well as Elizabeth's memoirs. Why do you think that these portions of the book are told as first person narrative? What purpose does this technique achieve? What, if anything, do these three individuals have in common?

11. How do Fay's stream-of-consciousness reflections mix fantasy with reality? What impression do you have of Fay based upon them? How do those around her characterize her?

12. In Family Linen, Candy derives much of her pleasure from her work in the beauty parlor. What pleases Candy the most about her vocation? Why doesn't she mind making up her mother's face for her funeral? What is her attitude about beauty, both in terms of herself and others?

13. Arthur learns that Candy was a "love child." How does this revelation affect him? What are Candy's attitudes about love? How would you characterize her relationship with Dr. Don? In which ways is this a betrayal of her sister? Who is more culpable in the affair?

14. In your opinion, why do you think that Elizabeth left the house to Myrtle and Don? Why are the other children shocked by this? How do they cope with it? Who expresses the most remorse for Elizabeth's death? Who feels the most resentment?

15. Arthur believes that he has been a disappointment to his mother. In which ways does he rebel against her? Why does he use the excuse of nerves and a bad heart so often, and why do his siblings and friends accept that? What really is his main difficulty? Why does he skip Elizabeth's funeral?

16. "You couldn't expect much from a boy," remembers Lacy at her mother's funeral. (p. 130) How does this attitude influence Arthur and his sisters? In what ways does Elizabeth glorify the power of women? How, conversely, is she dependent on men?

17. Lacy believes that Myrtle and Don have a "blandness" about them. Why does she use this term? Do you think that their children, particularly Sean, would agree with this assessment? Why or why not? In which ways are Myrtle and Don surprising?

18. How would you characterize Elizabeth's memoirs? What insight do they give about her daily life, particularly her family and romantic relationships? Why don't you think that anyone else besides Lacy is interested in reading Elizabeth's memoirs?

19. In which ways are Elizabeth's memoirs melodramatic, and how are they a realistic depiction of her life? How do courtship, love and rejection constitute a turning point in her young life? What are the lasting repercussions of her aborted romance with Ransom McClain?

20. Elizabeth and Nettie become estranged when Elizabeth disapproves of her sister's behavior. Which aspects of Nettie's personality frustrate Elizabeth? In which ways is Nettie unconventional? Do you believe that Elizabeth is jealous of her?

21. Dr. Don, Myrtle's husband, insists that they move into the house that Elizabeth has left them. Why is he so adamant that they do so? What is his attitude toward Myrtle and her family? How does his status as an orphan affect those feelings?

22. Why is Elizabeth intrigued by Jewell Rife? In your opinion, does it appear that she truly loved him? What were his feelings toward her?

23. Nettie relates the story of Jewell's abuse of Fay in graphic detail. What is Nettie's reaction toward it? In your opinion, did Elizabeth know that the abuse was occurring? If so, why didn't she protect Fay against it?

24. Elizabeth refuses to let Nettie care for Fay's baby. Why does she insist on taking her as her own? How does doing so change her irrevocably? What motivations does Nettie have for wanting the baby? In which ways does her childlessness haunt her?

25. Name some instances where Elizabeth relies upon her siblings. What propels her to cast them aside, and why? How do Fay and Nettie react to their estrangement from her?

26. Verner Hess marries Elizabeth and treats her children as his own. How do they, in turn, feel about him? Based on Elizabeth's past attitude about Verner, why do you think she married him? In which ways is he similar to and different from the other men in Elizabeth's life, including her father, Ransom McClain and Jewell Rife?

27. When bones are found in Miss Elizabeth's well, what is the reaction of the family? Why isn't there a full investigation by the police? Do you believe that anyone might want a sense of closure? Who?

28. "There's no point hanging dirty linen on the line," says Nettie. How does this form a theme that propels Family Linen? How does it inform the book's title?

29. In your opinion, who killed Jewell Rife? Who would have the motivation to have done so, and why? What are the arguments for and against Elizabeth and Fay as the murderers? Do you think that the family will ever know for sure?

30. In your opinion, which of her children truly might be the most similar to Elizabeth? Why? What positive attributes did Elizabeth have, and what negative characteristics did she possess?

31. What does Sean seek the most from his family? How does he attempt to get it? When he shoots himself in the hand, is it an accident or a deliberate act? How does his father react? How does Sean want him to respond?

32. How is the next generation--Elizabeth's grandchildren, including Theresa, Karen, Sean, Kate and Bill--different from the one that came before? Do they subscribe to the same ideas of "dirty family linen" as Nettie? Or do they embrace a more open attitude?

33. In your opinion, why does Smith choose to end Family Linen with Karen's wedding? Does this bring a sense of closure to the novel? If so, how?



Nancy Grisham Anderson: You have spoken about a packet of letters, bought for seventy-five cents at a yard sale, that gave you the idea for Fair and Tender Ladies. How did Family Linen begin? Did you know from the beginning that it would be a murder-mystery?

Lee Smith: Family Linen started with a news story in the Raleigh newspaper. Under hypnosis, a schoolteacher had recounted a terrifying childhood experience: years before, she'd witnessed her mother kill her father, then chop him up and stuff him down an outhouse. The teacher confronted her mother, a pillar of the community, who immediately drove her car out into the middle of a tobacco field and shot herself. (In my memory the car is a white Cadillac, though it probably wasn't, my memory being a little too "creative," in general.) Then they dug up Daddy.

Well! I love this kind of thing. I am a person who has a dresser drawer full of lurid clippings. I cut the article out of the paper and took it with me over to Reynolds Price's house, where we were going for dinner. He met us at the door, waving the very same clipping. "Have you seen this?" he asked in glee.

"Yes," I said, "and I'm going to write about it." The minute I said it, I knew it was true.

"No, I'm going to write about it," Reynolds said. "Tell you what — I'll flip you for it." He took out a quarter. "Heads or tails?" he asked.

"Tails," I said.

He flipped; I won.

"You've got a year," he said.

So I set to work with a vengeance, not researching the actual case, but making it all up. I didn't want to know anything more about the real people involved,because I already had several characters who'd been walking around in my head for months, looking for a novel to inhabit. Candy, Arthur, Miss Elizabeth, Fay, Myrtle — all they needed was a plot. "Okay!" I told them. "We're in business!"

I was delighted. Plot is always my weakest point, and here was one all ready-made, as if I'd walked into a store and bought it off a sale rack. I got right to work.

NGA: Family Linen is such a rich title, from its suggestion of everything from "dirty linen" and family heirloom linens to the weaving of the warp and woof of stories into a tight fabric. At what point did you select the title and why?

LS: Wow, Nancy. I love your generous interpretation of the symbolic meanings in the title of this book! I probably ought to take credit for the richness of my allusions; "thank you," I should say, and just shut up! But honesty forces me to admit that I always have the hardest time in the world coming up with titles.

I wanted to name this one The Lives of the Stars, with its echoes of Fay and her National Enquirer fixation; Sean's video games; and that sense of a flickering, dynamic current of real life deep within us — some kind of real feeling, of authenticity — that my characters are always trying to get in touch with. Well, the publisher hated The Lives of the Stars, as well as all the other titles I could think up. Then I hated all the titles they could come up with! Finally, Family Linen was suggested by my editor's assistant's boyfriend. I am not kidding! When we look at a printed book, it's already an object, and it seems so inevitable, I guess. So permanent. But just remember that it was a creative project, literally in flux, right up until the very moment it went to press.

NGA: Verner Hess's dime store calls to mind your father's store, which was part of your childhood. Are any other details — settings, events, characters — based on personal experience?

LS: Yes, my dad ran his Ben Franklin dime store in Grundy, Virginia —that's the far southwest corner of the state, a remote Appalachian coal mining town — for 47 years, so many of my own fondest memories take place in this dime store, where I literally grew up. When I was a little girl, my job was "taking care of the dolls." Not only did I comb their hair and fluff up their frocks, but I also made up long, complicated life stories for them, things that had happened to them before they came to the dime store, things that would happen to them after they left my care. I helped make the Easter baskets every Easter — this memory found its way into Family Linen. I spent hours and hours upstairs in my father's office, observing the whole floor of the dime store through the one-way glass window and reveling in my own power: nobody can see me, but I can see everybody! I witnessed not only shoplifting, but fights and embraces as well. Thus, I learned the position of the omniscient narrator who sees and records everything, yet is never visible. It was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.

So, the dime store is the most obvious autobiographical detail in Family Linen, though of course there are little bits and pieces of me everywhere. A writer is like a magpie: you pick up shiny, interesting tidbits from every aspect of your life. Fiction has to be made from the stuff of real life if it is to be believable. For instance, my grandmother, Chloe Smith, prided herself on being a "real lady." She wasn't a poet like Miss Elizabeth, but she was genuinely artistic, with a real aesthetic sense. I don't know where she got it from, actually, living in a place where that was a rarity. When she died, I went through her house with my first cousins, choosing things to keep, just like in the book.

Many of the details of Lacy's life came from mine. I was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and teaching at the Carolina Friends School during the time I was writing this novel.

NGA: You have created a fine balance of humor and sadness, or even absurdity and horror, or tragedy, in Family Linen. How do you maintain that balance of contraries?

LS: This is a good question, Nancy, but the answer is that I honestly don't know! What you're talking about is tone, of course, and it just simply never occurred to me that I had to stick to humor, or tragedy, or whatever. In real life, humor and tragedy walk hand in hand, so I think this can be true of fiction, too. I like to mix it up.

NGA: Critics praise your handling of multiple points of view, an approach you returned to in The Last Girls. What prompts your selection of such a challenging approach to storytelling? What is your process for creating these multiple voices?

LS: Having done a lot of real oral history work, I am fascinated by the way you can interview six people, say, who shared the same experience, and you will get six completely different stories. I think we underestimate the extent to which we experience the same events differently, and create very different narratives from them. When you interview different members of the same family, their stories often bear very little resemblance to each other; sometimes it's like these people came from totally different families. We remember things the way we choose to, the way we need to — what did really happen? Often, we never actually know. The best we can do is listen carefully to everybody's account, and come up with our own version of the truth. Since I am interested in various storytellers' versions of the story, I often find myself using multiple characters, each one with his or her own agenda, own fears and desires and beliefs. Then the reader gets to figure out the truth.

NGA: In Family Linen, several voices — in particular, Sean, Fay, and even Arthur — are not crucial to the unraveling of the plot, but they add such intriguing and unusual perspectives. What motivated the inclusion of these characters?

LS: Often the peripheral characters' viewpoints can be the most intriguing. Look at the housekeeper in Wuthering Heights, for instance, or Nick Carraway, who tells the story of The Great Gatsby. I've always loved to tell a story through a minor character's point of view. In this novel, I especially liked Fay. I loved her voice; she was literally whispering in my ear while I was writing her sections. And, of course, I've always been fascinated by publications like the National Enquirer and the Midnight Sun; writing this book legitimized my passion. Whenever I came home from the grocery store with several of these tabloids, I could swear to my husband that I was "doing research" for Fay's sections.

Sean is probably in this book because I was raising two boys during the time I was writing it — so I really did attend Parent Effectiveness Training workshops. I spent a lot of time ferrying the boys to video parlors, which were all the rage then. Also, it was very useful to me, as a parent, to write from Sean's point of view. I think it helped me to understand something of how my own boys might be thinking and feeling. Writing from the point of view of somebody NOT ourselves is always a very useful exercise, you know, in general — it enables us to walk in somebody else's shoes for a while, to empathize with and perhaps understand that person a little better. It expands our imagination and our humanity.

NGA: Even with your concern for female characters, you give males a voice, even a sympathetic voice. In Family Linen, readers hear from Arthur and Sean but not directly from Dr. Don Dotson or Gary Vance or Clinus. Why did you select Arthur and Sean as "storytellers," and not one of the other males?

LS: It's not really a conscious selection process. Before I start, I do a lot of what I call "pre-writing" — jotting down pages and pages of notes about the characters, doing any necessary research, making maps of settings and notes on important events, for instance. I try to plan it all the way through. I even write the last sentence of each novel on a piece of paper and stick it up on the wall in my study, so I'll have something to aim toward. But then once I get going, I just let it rip! I could write from anybody's voice in a multi-voice novel like Family Linen — so I just wait to see who's going to speak up next. Because no matter how carefully you try to plan ahead, writing a novel is always a voyage of discovery. That's the fun of it.

NGA: Throughout your career, critics, scholars, and readers have praised your celebration of ordinary women living ordinary lives. In this novel some of the women are middle-aged, trying to cope with problems in their daily lives while maintaining some sense of their own identity. And there are older women and younger women in the novel with their own struggles. What do you want readers — female and male — to find in the lives and stories of these women?

LS: In my writing I want to explore and celebrate the basic human condition: the courage and grit of ordinary people doing the best they can, which is what most of us do, I believe — the best we can. I think of this novel as a kind of hymn to family, that most fraught, most unlikely, probably most emotionally charged of all groupings on the earth, yet often, the most enduring. The family in this book is clearly one of the most dysfunctional on earth, yet we end with a celebration — an epithalamion, a wedding. Life goes on!

Another of my beliefs is exemplified in Candy. I have long felt that women often function as artists in their families and in their communities — though we don't usually think of it that way because their art is so useful. The hand knit sweater is used until it's worn out; the homemade cake is eaten; the quilt is put on the bed. Candy creates beauty in her shop all day long, giving each woman a better image of herself. In the community, she shapes the aesthetics of whatever necessary and important ritual marks the passage of our time on the earth: weddings, christenings, funerals. In this novel, she's clearly an artist figure.

NGA: In The Last Girls, Harriet, one of the central characters, muses that "it's always the storyteller's story." In stories and interviews, you often stress the importance of storytelling as the way for individuals — real and fictional — to find meaning in their lives. Do the members of Miss Elizabeth's family find the meaning and the resolution they need in Nettie's version of her sister's story?

LS: I believe that the members of Miss Elizabeth's family do find the meaning and resolution they need in Nettie's version of the story — and also through the events surrounding Miss Elizabeth's death and the discovery of Jewell's body. Let's see: Candy's longstanding and very difficult relationship with Miss Elizabeth is finally addressed and eased; Arthur finds new love with Mrs. Palucci; Myrtle gives up her affair with the exterminator and begins to assume her new role as the "matriarch" of the family; Sybill is vindicated; Sean gives up some of his anger; Lacy comes to terms with her history, herself, and her failed marriage, and is enabled to look toward the future. The family, wild and crazy as it is, re-groups and continues.

NGA: Scholars and critics are forever trying to put labels on writers — a New England writer, a Southern writer, a western writer, a romance writer, an Appalachian writer, a feminist writer. If you had to label yourself, what would you choose? Regardless of the one you choose for your general category, how would you classify Family Linen?

LS: If I had to choose, I'd call myself an Appalachian writer. I grew up in the mountains; my first language was the Appalachian speech of my parents and grandparents. The first and some of the best stories I ever heard were told to me in this accent. So I was blessed with a rich legacy. But since the circumstances of my own later life (marriages, jobs, kids) have taken me farther afield, I've written stories set elsewhere, too.

Family Linen is certainly Southern — the themes of family, community, and the past are so strong here — but it's not really Appalachian. So let's call it a Southern mystery novel, albeit an unorthodox one. I've always loved to read books of this genre — Margaret Maron and Michael Malone come to mind as favorite authors.

NGA: As you say, Family Linen is "certainly Southern." However, some of the contemporary characters do not appreciate the importance of past, place and family. Are some of their struggles the result of separation from, or ignorance of, their heritage?

LS: Yes. Lacy, in particular, is struggling with identity issues in this novel; that's why she keeps repeating that old mountain goodbye phrase, "Don't be a stranger" — which means, of course, "Come back." But we do inevitably become strangers, in a way, when we leave our hometowns to "go off" and get an education, for instance, like Lacy did, or when we enter new and different worlds through travel, work, or experience. This is what Thomas Wolfe meant in his famous quote, "You can't go home again." The struggle to move from past to present is very real for us all. This reminds me of William Faulkner's line that in the South, "The past isn't dead–it isn't even past." Nettie is the character in Family Linen who remains most closely in touch with the family's past and heritage; therefore, she's the one who can understand Fay's death and Elizabeth's story.

NGA: In retrospect, is there anything in Family Linen that you wish you had done differently?

LS: There certainly is! I expected the reader to solve the mystery easily. Now I wish I had made the identity of the murderer more clear. I thought it was perfectly understandable, even though many hints come to us through Fay's fractured viewpoint, but some very intelligent readers over the years have failed to "get" it. You know, we fiction writers are always walking a tightrope between "telling too much" and "not telling enough." Here, I apparently didn't tell quite enough!

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Family Linen 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An unusual and extremely interesting novel that twists and winds through the history and 'dirty linen,' of a family. Well written, and thought provoking.