Fireworks over Toccoa

Fireworks over Toccoa

by Jeffrey Stepakoff
Fireworks over Toccoa

Fireworks over Toccoa

by Jeffrey Stepakoff


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Every so often that story comes along that reminds us of what it's like to experience love for the first time — against the odds, when you least expect it, and with such passion that it completely changes you forever.

An unexpected discovery takes eighty-four-year-old Lily Davis Woodward to 1945, and the five days that forever changed her life. Married for only a week before her husband was sent to fight in WWII, Lily is anxious for his return, and the chance to begin their life together. In honor of the soldiers' homecoming, the small Georgia town of Toccoa plans a big celebration. And Jake Russo, a handsome Italian immigrant, also back from war, is responsible for the elaborate fireworks display the town commissioned. But after a chance encounter in a star-lit field, he steals Lily's heart and soul—and fulfills her in ways her socially-minded, upper-class family cannot. Now, torn by duty to society and her husband—and the poor, passionate man who might be her only true love—Lily must choose between a commitment she's already made and a love she's never known before.

Fireworks Over Toccoa takes us to a moment in time that will resonate with readers long after the book's unforgettable conclusion. A devastating and poignant story, this debut novel will resonate with anyone who believes in love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312673512
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/15/2011
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

JEFFREY STEPAKOFF has been writing professionally since receiving his MFA in Playwriting from Carnegie Mellon in 1988. His credits include the Emmy-winning The Wonder Years, Sisters, Major Dad, Disney's Tarzan, and Dawson's Creek (as co-executive producer). Fireworks Over Toccoa is his debut novel. He lives with his family north of Atlanta, Georgia.

Read an Excerpt


Jeffrey Stepakoff


There are no ordinary lives.

- Ken Burns

A moment in the sky, forever in the heart.

- Ernesto Russo


Toccoa, Georgia, 2007


 The two boys road their mountain bikes along the soft uncovered lakebed between the Bartam’s Field subdivision and the old Holly Hills property.

 In 1955, the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Savannah River, creating Lake Hartwell and flooding nearly 56,000 acres, pretty much everything for miles along the Georgia-South Carolina border.  There were stories of people refusing to give up their land – some reportedly met work crews with shotguns – but in the end, the government won out.  The low-lying pine forests were cut down and any outbuildings in the floodplains hastily bulldozed.  Where creeks once rambled through quiet woods to the northeast of Toccoa, gated golfing communities now rimmed the wide fingers of the massive artificial reservoir. 

 This history was lost on the two boys.  To them the lake was simply a backyard, a place for waterskiing and motorboating, a selling point for the area’s multitudinous new developments spiraling out from the waterfront.  But the record drought which had plagued Georgia since mid-2006 now made watersports, and even swimming in some areas, potentially hazardous.  Rotting sorrel stumps jutted through the water.  Mud-covered rocks lay exposed. 

 So on this day, because playing in the water was not an option, the two ten year-olds rode their bikes along the dirt of the lakebed which had just a few months ago been submerged.  It was sludgy and uneven and though their knobby tires were designed for such things, riding was difficult.  The muddy moonscape was peppered with granites and decayed roots and the occasional beer can oxidized through with rust. 

 As they were navigating and trying to maintain enough speed to stay upright, something caught their eyes.  A glint of metal.  A shiny sparkle off glass. 

 They fishtailed their bikes to a stop.  Both looking intently, they saw sunlight reflecting off something wedged under a stack of large smooth riverstones.  The low waterline lapped at the stones, the sort the boys had seen imbedded in chimneys in multimillion dollar faux-rustic cabins.

 They dismounted their bikes, dropped them and headed towards the riverstone pile, following the glistening light which shone off something that looked very much out of place here.  It was something that no one had seen for over six decades – something that, if not for this record drought, may never had been seen again, as the cabin and its bulldozed riverstone chimney had been underwater since the summer of 1955.




Buckhead district of Atlanta, Six Months Later

 “And I think we should get pregnant right away,” Drew Candler said, turning off of Peachtree onto a tree-lined side street.

 “We?”  Colleen turned in the leather bucket passenger seat and playfully raised an eyebrow at him.

 “Well, I’m a participant in this process too.”

 “So you’ll be carrying a bowling ball in your belly?

 “I’ll be rubbing your back.”

 “Will you be changing diapers?”

 “Every chance I get.”

 “Midnight feedings?”

 “Wouldn’t miss ‘em.”

 “And what happens when you’re on call?”


 She couldn’t help but laugh.  He always had the right answer to everything.  “See, this is why my friends’ husbands hate you.”

 “Because I’m the sensitive type.”

 “You’re raising the bar too high for these poor guys.”

 He feigned a worried expression.  “Oh man, you didn’t tell anyone about the little love notes, did you?”


 “I’m gonna get whacked,” he joked.  “They’re gonna invite me out for a beer and beat me.  I can see this coming.”

 Drew drove up to the front gates of an elegant new housing development, punched a code into the callbox, and drove in as the gates opened.

 “Hey I’ve told them about your affinity for lying around all Sunday in your boxers watching football and eating nachos, but I get no sympathy.”

 “I can be more of a jerk.  Really, I know I can.” 

 “I know, my dear.  You can do anything you set your mind to.  That’s one of the things I love about you.  But I’m good with the football and the nachos.” 

 He broke into a broad smile and turned his eyes towards Colleen for a moment, taking her in as he had from the first day he saw her.  She was so beautiful, he thought, as he always thought.  Even with her black hair pulled back in a casual ponytail away from her dark eyes as she had it today.  How could anyone look at her and not think the same thing?  Somehow this notion was reassuring to him.

 They pulled up in front of an expansive new house, a little too big for its lot, but stunning nonetheless.  Where once a single ranch-style home sat on two wooded acres, there were now nine estate homes.  Hundreds of containers of azaleas and dogwoods and Cherokee roses, ubiquitous in these kinds of North Atlanta communities, were lined up along the curb, ready to be planted in the modest yards.

 “What do you think?”

 “Wow.”  She just stared at the residence, at a loss to articulate any kind of detailed response.

 “Wow is right.  Come on.”

 Drew hopped out, jogged over to Colleen’s side of the newly leased luxury sedan, and opened the door for her.  With a boyish glee that belied his tall build, he grabbed her arm, marched her up the front walkway and into the open front door.  They were hit with the intoxicating scent of fresh paint, new appliances and sawdust. 

 He watched as she took in the house. 

 “Five bedrooms up.  One below.  And the master suite is off the main, around that way,” he said, pointing.  “Oh, and just off the kitchen, over there, they call it a family studio.”

 Colleen peered into a large room with washer-dryer hookups, a worktable, a message center desk with cellphone docks, and three built-in childsize lockers with coathangers and space for boots and books.

 “There’s room for more than three lockers.  You know, just in case one ever wanted to expand.”  Drew couldn’t be happier. 

 Colleen continued looking around at the house for a long time.  It was as though Drew had extrapolated everything she had ever mentioned in passing about the future and what he had seen on the dogeared pages of the house and style magazines she’d recently been perusing and what he heard discussed at dinner parties and golf outings and silent auction cocktail events by those who had their names on wings of buildings vital to the community and then put it all together and came up with this house.  Her friends would most likely describe this house in the same terms they talked about Drew.  It was an ideal house.

 However, to stand awake in the middle of such a thing, to hear the wraithlike echoes of children to be born and days to be lived and nights to be pondered among these planked halls was to stand in the future, to see it and know it plainly.  No more hazy morning daydreams about what life might be.  No more giddy talk over lattes or margaritas.  This was it. 

 It was a gorgeously plated meal that was ordered for her, one she was reluctant to disturb with immutable matters rendered by the fork, but even more loath to send back untouched.  What Drew happily took for overwhelming excitement was in fact apprehension over the sudden reality set before her.

 She hadn’t known him for very long, but what she did know seemed very right.  Whatever doubts or questions she might have had about the future and what she wanted out of it were always allayed by his certainty.  He was always so sure about everything, about a life that would be very much like that of the most senior partners in his practice, and about how she fit seamlessly into that.  Along with his other attributes, Drew possessed a kind of confidence that could sweep a girl off her feet.  But there was something about standing here in this house that made her realize how quickly the future was happening, and just how little thought, of her own, she’d really given it.

 His blackberry rang and involuntarily he snapped it off his belt and answered it.  “Yes.  How many centimeters?  Yes, that’s fine, page the anesthesiologist.  I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”  He hung up and snapped the phone back on its belt cradle.

 “I have to get to Northside.  I’ll drop you on the way.”

 “You go ahead.  I’ll call the office and have someone pick me up.  I want to stay here for a little while.”

 “You know, it might be time to give them your notice.

 “We’ll talk about that.”

 “Whatever you want.  I just hate seeing you working at a job you don’t need or love.” 

 He gave her a kiss. 

 “When I saw this place and thought about us here,” he said.  “I felt like all the pieces are just snapping into place.  So what do you think?”

 “What do I think?”

 “About the house!  Do you like it?”

 “It’s amazing.”


 “No but.”

 “Come on, Colleen.  This is your fiancée you’re talking to.  What’s wrong with the house?”

 “Honestly…” she said, looking around, searching for words to describe her complicated feelings.  She settled on simple truth.  “Absolutely nothing.  It’s perfect.  It’s a perfect house.”

 “Good.  Because I put an offer in last night.”  He gave her a broad smile and then walked out, his footsteps echoing as she stood alone in the enormous empty house.

  Watching him hurry down the walkway and hop in his new car, Colleen wondered what was wrong with her.  She never had a problem committing to things.  She made plans weeks in advance, bought multi-year magazine subscriptions, she was someone who turned in term papers early.  She knew how to make choices and act on them.  Then again, this house, she wasn’t really being asked to make much of a choice about it. 

 But how much did that matter?

 Lifting her head, she rotated it around again.  Yes, it was like looking at a model home picked out for a magazine shoot.  So what was the problem?  What else was there beyond perfect?  What was there to think about? 


Toccoa, a Few Days Later

 What could you say to a young woman who thought she was in love when you thought she might be making the biggest mistake of her life?  Lily chewed on this as she waited for her granddaughter. 

Lily sat in a comfortable chair on her wraparound porch, looked out at the Blue Ridge foothills and drank her morning Coke.  It was in the traditional curved glass bottle, upon which the tiny words “Hecho en Mexico” were affixed.  Every month since July of 1988, when the Georgia bottlers started using corn syrup, Lily drove to a small Hispanic-owned shop in Gainesville and bought her stash of Mexican-bottled Coca-Cola which was still made with cane sugar.

 Lily liked living alone.  She missed her husband, of course.  But since his passing four years ago, an odd kind of restfulness had made its way into her days.  She often told herself that this was simply the opportunity provided by more time on her hands.  But deep down, she knew it was something more.  It was as though the seams of her life had been let out just a bit.

 Eighty-four years old, living alone in her big house, Lily was lonely at times.  But this was a feeling, an exquisite bittersweetness, which she didn’t entirely mind.  Simply put, Lily was at peace.

 Her residence, a white Queen Anne-style classical revival, was built in 1901 on a hill just north of town.  It was initially used as a “summer house” for well-to-do boarders escaping the heat in Atlanta.  In July, during the day, they would sit out on this sprawling porch in high-backed white rocking chairs, sipping sweet peach tea and enjoying the cool Appalachian breezes.  And at night they would drink gin and tonic and marvel at the wonder of a billion stars over Toccoa.  Since then, everything had changed, and not much had changed.  The world was such a different place, but there were the same stars, same kinds of yearnings beneath them.

 Lily watched as a large car pulled up the hill and parked in front of her house.  Stretching her legs after the hour and a half drive up from the city, Colleen got out of the shiny new sedan, which Lily thought was way too big and stuffy for her granddaughter.  But these kinds of vehicles were apparently one of the enviable perks of working in sales for a huge pharmaceutical company. 

 “Grandma, the kudzu is nearly up to your front porch!”  Colleen said as she bounded up the walkway in front of the house.

 “It’s fine.  I just trimmed it back this week.”  The broad-leafed vine made its way out of the woods behind the house but was cut before it could invade the lawn.

 “Why don’t you just have the gardeners get rid of it once and for all?”  Colleen scooped up the newspaper resting on one of the stone steps leading to the porch.  “You’ll wake up one morning and you won’t be able to get out your front door.”

 “You leave my kudzu alone.  We have an understanding.”  Lily grabbed her granddaughter hugged her quickly and then held her back for examination. 

 “How’s life in the fast lane?” said Lily.

 “Fast.  In fact, I can’t stay too late.  One of Drew’s partners bought a table at this silent auction blacktie thing at the Grand Hyatt tonight.”

 Lily noticed that Colleen made very little effort to hide her lack of enthusiasm for the event.  A million things rushed through Lily’s mind, but she just smiled. 

 “You ready to see it?”  Lily said.

 Colleen took a deep breath and nodded.   

 Lily had been cooking earlier in the day and the inside of the house smelled of something wonderful, risotto with summer vegetables, Colleen guessed.  Lily was a famously good cook and Colleen always came here hungry, knowing she would be fed something simple but sublime.

 Colleen loved the inside of this house as much as she loved the porches outside.  In fact, with its massive quarter-sawn paneling, heavy oak pocket doors, lacquered walnut flooring, fine dentil molding, grandly carved staircase and the various fireplaces with their immense hardwood mantels, there was something about being surrounded by all this natural wood that made one feel right in the middle of nature, connected to it, even though it was all inside.  They simply didn’t make houses like this anymore and being here always transported Colleen from where she was in her life to a place where she could reflect on it.  Along with the house, its connectedness to nature and history, her grandmother’s steadiness and the smalltown ease of Toccoa all contributed to make this a place of peace and perspective for Colleen.  

 Lily set the long rectangular box down on a knit rug in the center of the living room floor.  Box cutter in hand, she slowly knelt down beside it.  Colleen just sat quietly, letting her grandmother tend to this long-awaited task.  Colleen looked around the room, all the times over the years she had heard reference to the contents of this box rushing over her. 

 Along with framed photographs of a life well-lived, the living room was filled with art.  Colleen had been in this room so often since she was a little girl, but she never ceased being amazed by the fascinating pieces collected by Lily over the years.  These were not the cold “fine art” paintings and objects that wealthy collectors mounted in their homes as evidence of business conquests and participation in the lineage of old money.  Lily’s house was filled with what could best be described as folk art:  vibrantly painted religious-visions by Rev. Howard Finster, colorful wood-relief carvings by Eddie Owens Martin, strange and beautiful pottery by Lanier Meaders.  These self-taught rural artisans who Lily met and befriended were overlooked by the society matrons of high art, until recently.  Today some of the work was just as valuable as the Picassos that hung in Buckhead mansions, not that their financial value mattered much to Lily.  Each piece was a cherished story to her, one which she was always ready to share. 

Except for one piece.  Perhaps the most magnificent of all.  A mosaic made from broken and brightly-colored pieces of glass depicting exploding blue fireworks on a starry sky.  Colleen’s favorite, the piece hung prominently on the wall, but Lily had very little to say about it.

 With the box-cutter blade on its lowest setting, protruding barely a quarter inch from its metal casing, Lily cut the heavy cardboard container open lengthwise.  With the care and certainty of a surgeon opening a rib cage, Lily inserted her weathered fingers into the incision and broke the box open.

 “It’s beautiful,” Colleen said.

 Inside the box was a wedding gown, its satin bodice lifelike and full, bursting with acid-free tissue paper.  Colleen knelt down on the other side of the box and ran her hand down the side of the dress.  She inspected the pale silk lace.  Caressed several pearl beads.  Then, she pulled the dress out of the box, standing to reveal its full length, the soft fabric rising from the cardboard like mist over a creek at dawn.

 For a long moment, Colleen just stood there, dress in hand hanging before her, feeling quite unsettled.  For as stunning as the dress was, there was something ghostly, cadaverous, about it.

  Sensing this, Lily said, “You’re not going to hurt my feelings if you don’t like it.”

 “No, no, the dress is gorgeous.  It’s just… suddenly all so real.  I mean, I’m really doing this.”

 “Yes, dear.  You’re really doing this.”  Lily said.  “Unless you really don’t want to.”

 “Of course I want to.  I’m just a bit nervous about it all.  That’s normal.”

 Offered no rising inflection, but a statement of fact to which retort was not welcome, Lily just looked long and hard at Colleen.  There was something left unspoken between the two women – which both knew, but neither needed to articulate.

 “Drew is perfect, Grandma.  Perfect.”

 Perfect.  That could be the greatest flaw in the choice of a husband.  Lily knew this quite well.  For of course there was no such thing as perfection in marriage.  Only a checklist of certain standards and attributes which, even when found in a man, are all rendered meaningless by the trials of a life together.  No, joy came from somewhere that wasn’t on those premarital checklists.  But this was not an easy thing to explain, particularly to someone who was not asking for an explanation.

 “It’s your decision, dear.  You can try it on.  And we can get it tailored for you.  Or I can take it back to the drycleaners, have it repacked and put it back in the closet.  Whatever you want to do is fine, but it’s your decision, do you understand?  About this, listen only to yourself.”

 Allowing her granddaughter to absorb this, Lily picked up the pieces of the cardboard box and headed for the kitchen where the recycling bins and cases of empty coke bottles were kept.  On her way, she also picked up the newspaper that Colleen had brought in from the porch.

 In the kitchen, Lily dropped the cardboard on top of a green bin near the back door.  Then she dropped the newspaper on top of the pile as well.  But before she turned, something caught her eye.  She picked up the still folded Toccoa Record and started reading.  Without taking her eye off the paper, she opened it and placed it on the table. 

 Resting both hands on either side of the paper, she steadied herself.  Slowly, she leaned over the paper, reading even more intently.  An expression somewhere between disbelief and amazement began to sweep over her face.  Her mouth fell open.  As she finished the article, she looked up, off, as though she were someplace else, and as this information took hold, it set into her knees which could no longer sustain her.

  “Grandma?”  Colleen walked into the kitchen just as Lily stumbled back and slumped into a chair, visibly transfixed by what she had read.

 Concerned, Colleen went to the table, seeing the headline of the story in front of Lily:  Museum Displays New Finds.

 “Grandma, what is it?” Colleen said.

 Lily pointed to a picture in the paper.  “This is mine.”

Reading Group Guide

Letter from author Jeffrey Stepakoff

"I once heard a well-known screenwriting teacher say that the greatest challenge for the writer is not so much what to write, but what not to write. What he means is that writing is part craft and also part way-of-living; every moment in life is filled with possibility to be examined, fleshed out, and fully realized on the page. From people-watching during a trip to the mall to a fascinating article buried in the Sunday paper to a humorous interaction among family during a holiday meal, story possibilities abound.
I've developed a method over the years. Whenever I come across something that strikes me as especially interesting or inherently dramatic, I scribble it down or tear out the article and throw the material into a manila folder which goes into one of several tall stacks on the credenza behind my desk. If I continue to think about that subject or come across new material, it goes into the folder. When a folder gets big and fat and I'm constantly reaching for it, I know that this is a story I need to tell – one that will quite literally become a focal point of my life for months, sometimes longer. Monomania is the best word I know to characterize this process and, I have to say, when you've got a story that you love, it's absolutely exhilarating.

This is how FIREWORKS OVER TOCCOA was born, in what is now a tattered and torn and coffee-stained folder with the title "Fireworks Project" written on what's left of the tab.

In 2001 my family and I lived in a house in Valencia, California (a northern suburb of LA) which sat on top of on a hill overlooking the valley where Six Flags Magic Mountain was located. Every night in the summer, just after sunset, the amusement park would put on a truly magnificent fireworks display, and my wife and young children and I would sit upstairs on our front balcony and watch, captivated. It was such a wonderful time for us, filled with such great feelings, and I found myself thinking a lot about fireworks that summer. This longstanding American tradition and art form is so beautiful and, really, quite romantic. But where does it come from? How are the fireworks made? And who designs them?

These questions went into the folder, and throughout that summer the folder grew. I learned that while fireworks are an American institution, the earliest version was created in ancient China to deter evil spirits. I also learned that fireworks are rooted in the creation of gunpowder and have very much in common with munitions used for war. While the Chinese continued to develop the art and science of pyrotechnics in the eastern world, the Italians were the first Europeans to use begin crafting grand fireworks displays. Several Italian families mastered the art of fireworks, passing down recipes for unique displays from generation to generation. When Italians immigrated to America a hundred years ago, many of the old "fireworks families" brought their recipes with them. Today, several of the most well-known American pyrotechnics companies are still run by families of Italian descent such as the Gruccis, Vitales, and Zambellis.

All of this history fascinated me and in the fall of 2003, I contacted several pyrotechnics companies, two of which were located in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Pittsburgh—a city renowned for their outstanding fireworks displays. Known as the Fireworks Capital of America, Lawrence County is still home to some of the world's biggest pyrotechnics companies, including Zambelli Fireworks Internationale and Pyrotechnico. That fall, I toured the entire Zambelli plant located on a secluded 400 acre hillside just outside New Castle, PA as well as Pyrotechnico, founded and run by the Vitale Family which had an illustrious history making explosives for the US Navy during World War II.

Touring the plants was amazing. There are really still only a handful of family-run companies in this country that make the vast majority of our fireworks. Manufacturing, as you can imagine, is a dangerous business and remarkably low tech. It's basically families, and workers who have been with these families for generations, all sitting together in these low concrete buildings rolling high explosives into paper by hand. Built with grounded corrugated iron roofs, the low buildings, called "magazines," are scattered about 100 feet from each other so that if one explodes the others will be spared. Some of the buildings are entirely packed to the roof with finished fireworks shells of every size and shape imaginable. Others store vats of raw explosives and chemical powders. And others are used for manufacturing. To assemble the fireworks shells, workers mix and bake special chemical batters from which they cut small stars that look just like holiday cookies. They also create colorful compounds from secret substances that are packed into the outer layers of multi-break shells. They produce and pack entire pyrotechnics shows of all sizes that are then shipped to destinations all over the world. This is how it was always done and this is how it is still done; a true art form. There's something simply wonderful about that.

Most memorably on my trip, I had dinner in a local restaurant with George "Boom-Boom" Zambelli, founder of the great Zambelli Fireworks Internationale, his wife, Connie, and his daughters. What I didn't know at the time was that George was very sick. When I read about his passing a few weeks later, I suddenly understood why he had been particularly candid and emotional during my interview with him at dinner and why Connie cried through much of it. During this interview, he talked a great deal about the magic of his work and the "engraving effect" of fireworks. "He always thought fireworks were magic," his son, George Jr., said about him. "He was like a painter who painted the sky."
When I returned to Los Angeles, I began developing a big sweeping TV drama based on this research about a fireworks family. Unfortunately, as often happens, the pilot went in another direction.

But I couldn't let the story go.

A few years later, I decided to focus my writing on fiction. Reflecting on the work that I enjoyed most and what was most important in my life, I knew immediately that for my debut novel I wanted to write a story about fireworks, a love story.

Around this time, I also began visiting Toccoa, Georgia, a city of about 10,000 at the base of the Blue Ridge Foothills. My wife's family is from Toccoa – her grandfather was once the town mayor – and I absolutely fell in love with the community. A small southern town in the classic sense, Toccoa had been home to a major training base for paratroopers during WWII. In fact, the town and the nearby base featured prominently in HBO's BAND OF BROTHERS miniseries. The more I learned about Toccoa and what life was like there during the 1940's, when the second world war tore families apart and amplified the need for love and connection to others, the more I realized how perfect a setting it was for my story.

Much of Toccoa is still exactly as it was sixty years ago. You can walk down Doyle Street, though the center of town, squint your eyes a little, and almost see the soldiers and their fiancées dancing to swing music. It's very romantic. I spent many days walking the streets of old downtown Toccoa, looking at the vintage buildings, dreaming about my fireworks project, and the characters started springing to life. A great deal of the novel was literally dreamed up during those walks… down by the train station, the Currahee Military Museum, the sprawling Holly Hills estate, the historic Simmons-Bond Inn and so many other wonderful places. Moreover, folks there were so nice and helpful, and just like many southerners, they really wanted to talk!

So – fireworks, handsome Italian boy back from the war, beautiful young southern girl, small town in North Georgia, America, Fourth of July, 1945 – I was off!

I wrote a first draft of the book in the winter of 2008, while my wife was pregnant with our third child. Those days and nights were kind of magical. Cold outside, cozy in our home, I sat at our dining room table, often listening to big band and jazz, writing on my laptop, digging deep into true and lasting and all-encompassing love, while Elizabeth, my wife, nine months pregnant, sat in the living room reading and knitting, our other two kids fast asleep upstairs above us.

It's funny. When you write television and movies, tens of millions of people see your work, and I suppose every once in a while you think about them. But when I wrote this novel, I found myself thinking a lot about the reader. It's such a commitment to pick up a book and listen to the thoughts and whispers and heartache and dreams of another person, told through characters and a world that the author has culled from countless notes shoved into a manila folder over the circuitous course of a decade. In so many ways, it's an act of faith, an act of connection. So, thank you for trusting me with your time. Thank you for your faith in what I have to say. Thank you for connecting with me."

1. At eighty-two, Lily lived entirely alone in her big Victorian house. More than lonely, Lily often felt "an exquisite bittersweetness." What do you think the author means by this?

2. When Lily sees the fireworks for the first time, it moves her, stirring deep-seated emotions. Though it was gone from sight, it remained engraved in her memory. Were you surprised that Lily was so affected by these fireworks? Have you ever been emotionally effected by an art form in this kind of way?

3. What was your response to Lily's decision to offer a thirsty African-American soldier a rare ice cold Coca-Cola in the middle of busy downtown 1945 Toccoa, Georgia? Do you think she should have been more direct in her action to help him, or stayed out of it entirely?

4. Married at seventeen only two weeks before her husband left for war, Lily meets and falls for Jake after her husband has been gone for three and a half years. Do you think it was wrong for Lily to accept Jake's invitation to dinner in the field? What was your response to her feelings for Jake and decision to begin an affair with him?

5. After Jake saw Lorena step on a landmine in Italy, he believes that events in life are arbitrary, that "life and death… it's a matter of a breath, a heartbeat… a single footstep." Do you believe that things happen due to "the simple timing of things," as Jake does? Or do you, like Lily, believe that things happen for a reason?

6. Honey speaks the name of her son, Jonathan, only once in the story after he is killed in the war. Do you think the way she deals with his death is understandable? Do you think it's healthy? What effect do you think it has on Lily?

7. Lily was surprised to learn that Mark – who once "drew her in charcoal while she lay drying in the sun in her underwear" – left Toccoa mainly to get away from her? What did you think about Lily's revelation that Mark felt this way about her? Do you think Lily has changed significantly since her days as a Toccoa teenager?

8. Despite his father's words of wisdom, that "war is a dark fever, love its tonic" and despite his promise to his father to always leave his "heart open," Jake is unable to shake from his soul what he saw when he liberated Dachau: "In tattered wool pajamas, faded stripes, they peered out at him. Eyes in black sockets, in sunken bobbling skulls, reflecting the unimaginable unspeakable horrors of the boneyards and furnaces behind them." Do you think a person can ever fully recover after seeing what Jake saw?

9. Lily's father Walter is very clear with her about what he expects her to do when he speaks to her the morning after she has been out all night with Jake. What was your response to how Walter handled this situation? In his place, in what ways would you have reacted similarly or differently?

10. Do you think duty is ever more important than love?

11. Were you surprised by what happened to Paul on his way home? How do you think this event resonates with the theme of arbitrary occurrences vs. destiny?

12. What do you think about Lily not going to Jake before leaving on the train for Washington? What would you have done?

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