Good Harbor is the long stretch of Cape Ann beach where two women friends walk and talk, sharing their personal histories and learning life's lessons from each other. Kathleen Levine, a longtime resident of Gloucester, Massachusetts, is maternal and steady, a devoted children's librarian, a convert to Judaism, and mother to two grown sons. When her serene life is thrown into turmoil by a diagnosis of breast cancer at fifty-nine, painful past secrets emerge and she desperately needs a friend. Forty-two-year-old Joyce Tabachnik is a sharp-witted freelance writer who is also at a fragile point in her life. She's come to Gloucester to follow her literary aspirations, but realizes that her husband and young daughter are becoming increasingly distant. Together, Kathleen and Joyce forge a once-in-a-lifetime bond and help each other to confront scars left by old emotional wounds.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 27, 1951
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:M.A. in English, SUNY, Binghamton, NY, 1975; B.A. in Comparative Literature, Washington Univ., St. Louis, MO, 1973.
Read an Excerpt
Kathleen lay on the massage table and looked up at the casement windows high above her. The sashes were fashioned of rough oak, the glass uneven and bottle-thick. Propped open on green sapling sticks, they were windows from an enchanted castle. Having been a children's librarian for twenty-five years, Kathleen Levine considered herself something of an expert on the subject of enchanted castles.
She smiled and closed her eyes. The massage was a birthday present from her coworkers at Edison Elementary. They'd given her the gift certificate at a surprise party for her fifty-ninth birthday, almost five months ago. When Madge Feeney, the school secretary, had learned that Kathleen still hadn't used it, Madge had harrumphed and made the appointment for her.
Kathleen stretched her neck from side to side. "Comfortable?" asked Marla, who stood at the far end of the table, kneading Kathleen's left instep. Marla Fletcher, who was nearly six feet tall, sounded as though she were far, far away. Like the giant wife in the castle of "Jack and the Beanstalk," Kathleen thought, and smiled again.
She sighed, letting go of the tension of driving from school to this odd, out-of-the-way place. Kathleen had thought she knew every last side street on Cape Ann, but Marla's directions had taken her along unfamiliar roads leading, finally, up a rutted, one-way lane that looped around the steep hills overlooking Mill Pond. She nearly turned back once, convinced she'd lost the way. But then she spotted the landmark: a stone gate, half-hidden by overgrown lilac bushes, weeks away from blooming.
It must have been a stunning estate in its day. Much as she hated being late, Kathleen slowed down for a better look. The great lawn had been designed to show off the pond, which shone platinum in the spring sun. Beyond it, Mill River glittered into the distance, silver on mauve.
She turned the car toward the sprawling hewn-granite mansion. Those windows seemed piteously small to be facing such a magnificent scene, she thought. And the four smaller outbuildings, made of the same majestic stones, with the same slate turrets, seemed oddly grand for servants' quarters.
Kathleen drove past two young couples in tennis whites standing by the net on a pristine clay court. They turned to watch as she pulled up beside the round stone tower, where Marla waited by the door. Rapunzel, thought Kathleen, at the sight of her waist-length golden hair.
Lying on the massage table, Kathleen wondered whether she could translate this amazing place into "once upon a time." She had tried to write children's books, she had even taken classes. But that was not her gift. Kathleen was good at matching children to books. She could find just the right story to catch any child's imagination -- even the wildest boys, who were her pet projects, her special successes. It wasn't as grand a gift as writing, but it was a gift. And in her own private way, Kathleen was proud of it.
Yet, here she was, in a castle on a hill in the woods, stroked and kneaded like a happy lump of dough by a kind lady; it seemed like an engraved invitation. Was this the kind of scene that had inspired Charles Dodgson to become Lewis Carroll? Was this the world that Maurice Sendak visited whenever he set out on a new book?
"Time to turn over," Marla said, draping the sheet so Kathleen remained covered. Warm oil trickled over Kathleen's sloping shoulders, velvet drops that soothed and tickled. "Nice," she said, overcome by gratitude to this pleasant stranger who made her feel so well cared for, so...cradled. Curious word, Kathleen thought. Curiouser and curiouser. She closed her eyes.
The next thing she knew, two warm hands cupped her face. "Take your time getting dressed," Marla whispered. "I'm going to get you a glass of water."
But Kathleen was no dawdler. She saw from the clock beside her that nearly two hours had passed since she had lain down. She swung her legs over the edge of the table and reached for her bra, fastening the hooks in front, bottom to top, just as her sister had shown her when Kathleen was twelve years old, before she needed a bra at all. She had no idea she was weeping until Marla raced back up the winding stone staircase, an empty glass in her hand.
Kathleen tried to regain control of her breathing. "I have breast cancer," she said, staring down at her chest.
"Oh my God," Marla said softly. She sat down and took Kathleen's hand. "I wish you'd told me. I would have brought up my amethyst crystal. I could have burned myrrh instead of sage."
Kathleen sniffed and stifled a laugh. "That's okay. It was a wonderful massage."
"Do you want to make an appointment for another one? That might be a good thing to do."
Kathleen wiped her nose on her slippery forearm and turned the bra around, filling it with her breasts -- first the good one, and then the traitor. "I'll call you after I know when...After..." Her throat closed. Marla put an arm around her shoulders.
The only sound was the volley on the tennis court below. The juicy pop of ball hitting racket, court, racket, sounded back and forth for a long time before someone finally missed a shot. The players' laughter filtered up through the windows, like an echo from another day, another story.
Copyright © 2001 by Anita Diamant
Reading Group Guide
In Good Harbor, Anita Diamant, author of phenomenal bestseller and book group favorite The Red Tent, explores the emotional lives of two mothers in present-day Cape Ann, Massachusetts. At the moment Kathleen, a graceful and maternal librarian, meets Joyce, a little younger, restless and funny, each woman has reached a turning point in her life. Kathleen, whose sister died of breast cancer fifteen years earlier, has just been diagnosed herself. Joyce, increasingly distant from her adolescent daughter, is taking stock of her marriage and struggling to write her second novel. When these two women meet for the first time, they recognize an immediate kinship. As they take long walks at Good Harbor beach, they begin to bare their intimate histories and help each other to heal old wounds. As a natural and resonant storyteller, Diamant brings to life the passions, traditions, and turmoil of these two women and their families, exploring the tragedy of loss, the destructive and restorative power of secrets and the tenderness of friendship and love.
1. Joyce and Kathleen become fast friends despite a seventeen-year age difference. What common traits, experiences, and challenges serve as the foundation of their friendship? How do their different perspectives on life help each other as wives, as parents, as friends, as women growing older?
2. Kathleen thinks that talking with men "just isn't the same." Do you agree? Is there an inherent difference in the way men and women communicate? What do Kathleen and Joyce derive from their conversations with each other that they don't get from their husbands?
3. How significant is the setting of this novel? How do Cape Ann and the beach at Good Harbor serve as "characters" or catalysts throughout the book?
4. Religion is an important theme for many characters in Good Harbor. How do Kathleen, Pat, Joyce, Hal, Rabbi Hertz, and Theresa Lupo, for example, approach their religion? How does religion help them define themselves? How does it bring them together?
5. Kathleen learns some surprising things about her son Hal in Good Harbor. How do these revelations affect their relationship? What does Kathleen learn about herself? About Hal?
6. Recall Kathleen's discomfort at friends offering their "cancer stories" when they learn of her diagnosis. Why do these sympathetic gestures make Kathleen feel worse rather than better? How does her sister Pat's death make Kathleen's diagnosis even more difficult to face?
7. What is the cause of Joyce's "funk" in the beginning of the novel? How does her house become both the outlet for her frustrations and a source of satisfaction?
8. Why does Joyce struggle between her desire to write a serious novel and her pleasure in writing about her romance heroine Magnolia? Why is she uncomfortable talking about her literary aspirations and accomplishments? What finally allows Joyce to get over her writer's block?
9. Kathleen says there are "lots of things she never said to Buddy" and believes this is "the secret of their marital happiness." Is she correct in that assessment? For Joyce and Frank, the lack of communication creates a deep rift in their relationship. What are some of the other silences and secrets in Good Harbor? What effect, both positive and negative, do they have on the characters' lives?
10. Kathleen and Buddy and Joyce and Frank experience different kinds of grieving over their children -- the first couple grieves a death, the second grieves the inevitable passage of their children into adulthood. How do these very different kinds of losses, and the couples' inability to talk about them, affect their marriages?
11. At the end of Good Harbor, Kathleen and Joyce have arrived at a new understanding of themselves, their families, and each other. Discuss the journey each woman makes to the new place in her life. What resources did they draw upon to get there? How do you imagine their futures?
12. If you have read Diamant's first bestselling novel, The Red Tent, compare and contrast it with Good Harbor. How does ancient womanhood differ from modern womanhood? What do Diamant's female characters have in common across the centuries?
A Conversation with
Q. Most readers are familiar with your first novel, The Red Tent, a work of historical fiction that retells the biblical story of Dinah. Why did you choose a contemporary story for your next novel?
A. I don't feel that I chose the story so much as the story and setting chose me. Good Harbor was simply the next novel inside me. After years of writing non-fiction, I have discovered that fiction is a far less conscious process. The unconscious or perhaps subconscious has a much bigger part to play in the invention of stories and characters.
Q. On the surface, Good Harbor and The Red Tent seem very different, one set thousands of years ago, one set today. Where do the stories feel similar to you? Where do the concerns of Joyce and Kathleen in Good Harbor echo those of Dinah and her mothers in The Red Tent?
A. The stories are very different. There is a similarity, however, in the importance of women's relationships. I think that both The Red Tent and Good Harbor are about women's connections to one another as a source of solace, information, companionship, and love. In this, I think both books tell "untold" or perhaps "undertold" stories about the heart of women's experience.
Q. You write about Good Harbor as if you've done the "walk" a million times! Your descriptions of the beach and the sensory experience of being there are very evocative. Is there a real Good Harbor or did this wonderful place come out of your imagination?
A. Good Harbor beach is a very real, very beautiful place on Cape Ann, Massachusetts. I have walked that beach a million times and had life-affirming and life-altering conversations there with many dear friends. It's a place that always makes me feel both peaceful and energized. When I'm stressed out or unable to fall asleep, I try to think about walking along Good Harbor beach.
Q. The scenes describing Joyce's affair are pretty steamy. Was it fun to let loose on the page?
A. Fun but challenging. I think writing about sex is pretty difficult. Generally, I subscribe to the "less is more" philosophy in this. Even so, you have to describe at least part of what's going on. Choosing which part is, I admit, fun.
Q. Kathleen's treatment for breast cancer offers quite a lot of detail about what women go through when they receive radiation treatment. Did you do a lot of research on the subject?
A. I did do research about breast cancer and I had great help from medical and social work professionals and also from friends who had undergone treatment. I did climb up on the radiology treatment table to see what it felt like. (It was pretty frightening.) Kathleen's diagnosis of DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) is a relatively common diagnosis, given the widespread use of mammograms and other imaging technology that show this early stage or "pre" cancer. I learned that women who are given this diagnosis sometimes find themselves being told they "only" have DCIS. Although this diagnosis is not as dire as some others, it is still a devastating, life-changing event in a woman's life. On the other hand, I also wanted to explore the way that a serious illness can be a catalyst for self-examination and growth.
Q. In your acknowledgements you thank your writing group. What role did the other members play in the development of Good Harbor?
A. The members of my writing group were a constant source of support and encouragement, which is crucial. Writing is a very lonely occupation, and it's easy to doubt and discredit your own work. My writing group also provided good perspective on my characters ("Would Joyce really say that?") and helped me to pare the story down to its essentials.
Q. Many women reading Good Harbor will recognize themselves in Kathleen and Joyce as they deal with their teenage and adult children, experience the ups and downs of a long marriage, face growing older, cope with painful losses, and examine their relationship with faith. How much did you look to your own life and that of your friends to write Good Harbor?
A. I certainly hope that many women will identify with aspects of Joyce's life and Kathleen's life. Their experiences -- as mothers, wives, and friends -- are universal in some ways. However, Good Harbor is not about me or any one of my friends. Good Harbor is not any more autobiographical than The Red Tent, which is my way of saying that all the fiction I write is of necessity born from my experience. My every conversation, every challenge, every joy, every memory finds its way into what I write, so of course my life is in Good Harbor. I identify with both Joyce and Kathleen, too. But I hope that readers will understand that their stories are not my life story.
Q. Good Harbor is filled with "bookish" people: Kathleen is a children's librarian; her son is an avid reader; Joyce is a writer and book group member. Were you influenced by all the readers and book group members you met on tour for The Red Tent? What did you learn as a writer from those encounters?
A. Reading is an essential part of my life. I start my day with coffee and the printed page. I was raised among readers, and my friends, community, and family are all "bookish." My experience with readers of The Red Tent -- so many of them in book groups -- confirmed my belief in the power of reading as a source of connection among people. Although writing and reading are essentially solitary pursuits, the purpose of reading is to knit us closer together, to create understanding, to convene us as friends, coffee cups or wine glasses in hand, to explore what is most important to each of us.
Q. Will you go back to writing historical fiction again? Are you working on another book now?
A. I have started work on a third novel, set in the early 1800s in the United States. I'm at the very early stages of this book so I can't say too much about it. However, it focuses on a group of strong, unconventional women living on the edge of society.
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