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From the outside, Mill River looks like any sleepy little Vermont town where everyone knows everyone and people never need to lock their doors. There are newcomers for whom this appeals, from police officer Kyle Hansen and his daughter Rowen, who are starting over after heartache, to Claudia Simon, the schoolteacher who is determined to reinvent herself.
But on closer inspection, there are those in Mill River—including a stealthy arsonist, a covetous nurse, and a pilfering priest—who have things they wish to hide. None more than the widow Mary McAllister, who for the past sixty years has secluded herself in her marble mansion overlooking the town. Most of the residents have never even seen the peculiar woman. Only the priest, Father O’Brien, knows the deep secrets that keep Mary isolated—and that, once revealed, will forever change the community.
Praise for The Mill River Recluse
“A heartwarming story.”—Examiner
“[Darcie] Chan’s sweet novel displays her talent. . . . A comforting book about the random acts of kindness that hold communities together.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A real page-turner.”—IndieReader
“Chan does an amazing job with pacing while maintaining continuity and weaving universal themes such as friendship, love, new beginnings and overcoming adversities into small town life.”—RT Book Reviews
“This debut novel is a genre-breaking thriller with romantic overtones that should appeal to both men and women.”—Huntington News
“Chan’s compassionate novel . . . blends elements of mystery, suspense and romance . . . [and] culminates in a beautifully rendered denouement that rekindles hope for a troubled world.”—Shelf Awareness
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
As she gazed out the bay window in her bedroom, Mary McAllister knew this night would be her last.
Outside, the February darkness was suffused with light from the town. Thick snowflakes floated past the window. Only the Mill River itself, for which the small Vermont village was named, escaped the snow covering. Its center flowed, black and snakelike, along the edge of the sleeping town.
With her left hand, Mary stroked a large Siamese cat curled next to her on the adjustable bed. With her right, she tucked a few strands of fine white hair behind her ear. Mary’s eyes, one clear and blue, the other gray and cloudy, were fixed on the storm outside.
She wondered what they would think of her when they discovered what she had done.
The bedroom was dark, but the few lights from the town shone upward, enough to support a faint reflection of her face on the window glass. Mary looked at the reflection through her good eye. Pale and thin, she was the face of death superimposed on the darkness.
She drifted in and out of sleep, awakened every few minutes by the excruciating pain in her abdomen. Finally, her hand shaking, she reached for the bottle of pills and the cup of water at her bedside.
Mary poured the pills into her hand and then swallowed them all, a few at a time, with the water. She would leave this world in peaceful solitude. She would do so before her pain was so great—before her mental faculties were so diminished—that she couldn’t leave on her own terms.
She thought of Michael. The priest had left, as he had promised, but she wondered if he was still awake in the parish house. He would find her tomorrow. She knew it would be difficult for him, but he was prepared for the inevitable. They both were.
Still, she feared what death might bring.
Would she see her husband again? In her dim bedroom, Mary’s gaze focused on the outline of a figurine that stood on her bureau. It was a horse, carved elegantly from black marble. She thought of Patrick, of the first time she had seen him when he had come to her father’s farm, of the horror that followed.
Mary shuddered and forced her mind to focus on memories of her father instead. She remembered him standing in the round ring, his hat pushed back off his forehead, teaching young horses to be gentle. His belly laugh still rang in her ears.
Even now, having been a widow for more than seventy years, she still feared Patrick, but she longed to see her father again, and Grandpop, too. Perhaps soon she would.
Mary touched Sham’s furry head beside her, and the cat mewed and curled his paws in his sleep. Michael had promised to find a good home for him. She had no doubt that he would, and that fact comforted her. Tears ran down her cheeks as she whispered a loving goodbye to her faithful feline companion. Silently, she wished him the happiest of lives, however many he had left, and waited for the final, heavy sleepiness to surround her.
In Mill River, a handful of others were also awake. Officers Kyle Hansen and Leroy Underwood had been on patrol for more than an hour. The police department’s old Jeep Cherokee churned through the new snow as they made their way along the country roads surrounding the town. They had been looking for stranded motorists, but the roads were deserted. Most folks had been sensible enough to stay at home during the storm. Even with the snowfall, the evening, like most evenings in Mill River, had been uneventful.
Leroy was bored. He fidgeted in the passenger seat, squinting out the window. His hair was sandy brown and straight—and a little too long for a man in uniform, in Kyle’s opinion. His default expression was one of openmouthed confusion, and his shoulders were rounded forward. Hell, anyone unfortunate enough to see Leroy peering out the Jeep’s window might easily mistake him for an orangutan, Kyle thought.
Leroy turned from the window and held up an almost empty box of chocolate doughnuts.
“You care if I eat the last one?”
“Nah,” Kyle replied. “They’re stale, you know.”
This fact was lost on Leroy. “You think we should drive through town again?” he asked, with his mouth full.
Kyle glanced at Leroy and shrugged.
Leroy crammed the last of the doughnut into his mouth and struggled to open the thermos. As they started down the hill back into town, Leroy tried to pour the remaining coffee into the thermos cup, but most of it sloshed into his lap.
“Aw, shit. Take it easy with the potholes, would you?” he complained.
Kyle rolled his eyes. What Leroy lacked in intelligence and compassion, he made up for in appetite.
Their route took them over the covered bridge spanning the river and onto Main Street. Through the snow, Kyle could just make out the faint white glow of the McAllister mansion high on a hill past the other end of town.
“You ever seen her?” Leroy asked, following Kyle’s gaze.
“The Widow McAllister,” Leroy half whispered, as if he were speaking of a ghost.
“No,” Kyle said.
“I have,” Leroy said. “Once. Back when I was in high school, outside the bakery. She was all wrinkled and hunched over, with a patch over one eye, like a pirate.”
Kyle stared straight ahead, trying to focus on driving through the storm.
“I heard that some folks in town’s convinced she’s a witch or something,” Leroy said. “Creeps me out, thinking of her up there watching everybody.” Leroy flashed a taunting grin at Kyle. “Maybe someone should make her walk the plank.”
Kyle clenched his jaw. Leroy was trying to irritate him, he knew, and he wasn’t going to give him any satisfaction.
It was easier for Kyle to tolerate Leroy’s crudeness when he thought of how difficult it must have been for the junior officer growing up. According to the police chief, who knew almost everyone in town, Leroy was the son of an absentee father and an alcoholic mother. He had an older sister who lived in Rutland. That sister, apparently, was unique in the Underwood family, having finished college and taken a job as an accountant with the city government.
Then there was Leroy. Nearly a high school dropout, he had somehow received his diploma and bungled his way through training at the police academy. He had an ego the size of Texas, and Kyle had yet to see him show real kindness toward anyone. Why Leroy had been hired, Kyle didn’t know. Maybe the town had been desperate for another officer, but by Kyle’s standards, Leroy was hardly good officer material.
The old Jeep churned through the snow as they drove back into Mill River. Small, older houses and assorted trailer homes lined this end of Main Street. Most of the residences were dark. One mobile home, though, was brightly lit. In contrast to most of the other trailers, this one was shiny and new. The front yard was filled with ceramic ornaments protruding from the snow—a pair of deer, several rabbits, some gnomes, and a large birdbath.
“I guess Crazy Daisy’s still awake,” Leroy said. “Probably up fixing a new potion.”
At that moment, the front door of the trailer opened and a dumpling of a woman skipped out into the yard. Kyle slowed the Jeep. Daisy was spinning around, face upturned and tongue stuck out.
Leroy hooted with laughter. “Lookit that fat cow!” he shouted, oblivious to Kyle’s frown. “She keeps that up, and she’ll trip over one of them rabbits an’ bite off her tongue!”
“Shut up, Leroy,” Kyle said. He rolled down the driver’s side window.
“Ms. Delaine, you know it’s late, almost one in the morning, and you shouldn’t be outside in this storm,” he called to her.
Flushed and breathless, Daisy stopped her twirling and looked at them. A dark port-wine birthmark curled up from her jaw to her cheek, and her gray curls fell over her eyes. She teetered dizzily and brushed her hair from her face. “You should try the snow, Officer! I’ve been working on a spell for it all evening, and it’s delicious!” she shouted. “It’ll be perfect in my potions too, but I’m in an awful hurry. I’m cooking up a new one tonight!” Smiling, she scooped up a handful of snow, flung it into the air, waved at Officers Hansen and Underwood, and went inside.
Kyle sat shaking his head, but Leroy roared even louder.
“Aw, c’mon, Kyle. You know she’s nuts. What’s the harm in enjoying the entertainment?”
“She can’t help it, Leroy, and you don’t have the good sense to keep your mouth shut when you should,” Kyle snapped. He was watching the door of the trailer, making sure Daisy stayed inside.
“Ooh, touch-y,” Leroy replied. “Hell,” he said, chuckling again, “that show alone makes me sorta happy that she survived that fire. When I heard her trailer’d burned, I thought we’d finally be rid of the old bat.”
Kyle said nothing, despite his disgust, because it would have been useless. He had eight years on Leroy, but given Leroy’s level of maturity, it seemed more like eighty. During his time on the force in Boston, he’d seen more than a few young officers like Leroy. They were all arrogant and stupid and attracted to the position because they liked the power the uniform and the gun gave them. Most of those guys ended up dead or behind bars themselves, victims of their own bad intentions.
In Mill River, there were four police officers—himself, Leroy, Ron Wykowski, and Joe Fitzgerald, the chief. The problem was that in a town where nothing ever happened, three decent cops were more than enough. Leroy, lacking opportunities to jeopardize his career in a town that had trouble finding officers willing to work for what it could offer in salary, had great job security.
They continued down Main Street, through the quaint business district, past the white town hall building, and followed the bend in the road past St. John’s Catholic Church. One window was lit in the parish house.
“Preachie’s up,” Leroy chirped. This was nothing unusual, though, as Father O’Brien’s light was often on late into the night.
At the next house, there was another bright window.
“Teachie’s up, too,” Leroy said in a different tone. “Maybe we should stop by and read her a bedtime story.” He raised his eyebrows and slowly ran his tongue across his upper lip.
“Teachie” was Claudia Simon, the pretty new fourth-grade teacher at Mill River Elementary.
“You can read? That’s news to me,” Kyle said.
Leroy scowled but kept quiet until Kyle pulled up to the police station. As they got out, Leroy stared back down Main Street.
“Damn,” he said. “Snow like this makes even those shitty trailers look good.”
Again, Kyle didn’t respond. All he wanted was a hot shower and a warm bed. It had been a long night.
Claudia Simon was reading bedtime stories of a sort. Each of her students had written a short composition titled, “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.” Of the twenty-three fourth-graders, ten wanted to be President of the United States. Six wanted to be movie stars or singers. Four wanted to be doctors or nurses. One a policeman. One a fireman. And one a counselor.
Rowen Hansen was the little girl who wanted to be a counselor. Her father, Kyle Hansen, was a police officer in town. Claudia had learned from the principal that he was a widower. His little girl had written that she wanted to be a counselor, as her mother had been, because she liked to “listen to people and help fix their problems.” That simple. From a fourth-grader. But, Claudia thought, Rowen is an exceptional kid.
Claudia stood up and stretched. It was after one. But this was Saturday night—no, now Sunday morning—and if she lost herself grading papers, she could sleep late. Dressed in a jogging suit and socks, she padded down the hall to the bathroom to brush her teeth. She examined her reflection in the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. Only a few months ago, her reflection wouldn’t have fit in the mirror.
Single, obese, and lonely, Claudia had resolved, on her thirtieth birthday, to get herself into shape. She had made that resolution many times before. She had been overweight all her life, or as much of it as she could remember. She had never had a boyfriend, a prom date, or even so much as a man with a romantic interest in her. After that long, most people would have resigned themselves to a lifetime of solitary cheesecake. Instead, Claudia threw out the cheesecake, chips, ice cream, and pizza. She purchased a treadmill and Reeboks. Then, over the next year and a half, Claudia literally ran her ass off.
Now, ninety-two pounds lighter, Claudia examined her reflection with approval and headed to bed. She had a new wardrobe in a size ten. She had a teaching job in a school in a new town where people didn’t know her former fat self. She was alive. A single ready to mingle. She would get over her social awkwardness. She wouldn’t get flustered when she saw an attractive man. She wouldn’t avert her eyes. She was no longer ashamed of herself.
That night, Claudia fell asleep smiling.
It was well after midnight, but Jean Wykowski couldn’t sleep. Her husband, Ron, lay snoring beside her. His shift at the police station would begin at seven, and he was oblivious to her tossing and turning. But Ron’s snoring rarely bothered her, and it was not the reason that she experienced insomnia. Finally, she slipped from under the covers and tiptoed out of the bedroom.
On her way to the kitchen, she paused at her sons’ room. Jimmy and Johnny, ages nine and eleven, took after their father where sleep was concerned. Both were out cold, their breathing slow and rhythmic. Jimmy looked just as she had left him at bedtime. He lay on his back with the covers pulled up to his chin. Johnny, though, was turned around with his feet on his pillow and his head very close to falling off one side. How he had managed that Jean didn’t know, but she was able to coax him back under the covers in the proper direction without fully waking him.
Jean continued to the darkened kitchen, wincing every time the floor creaked. She poured a cup of milk and put it in the microwave. While the microwave hummed, she smiled to herself as she remembered how the boys had done the dishes that night, Johnny washing and Jimmy rinsing, each using the pull-out spray nozzle as a microphone to impersonate his favorite singer.
The microwave, too, was special, having been Ron’s Christmas present to her. It wasn’t the most romantic gift, of course, but it was functional and something the whole family could enjoy. She stopped the microwave, before its final loud beep, and removed her cup of milk.
She was lucky to have such great kids. They were stout little buggers and full of life, not like most of the unfortunate people she saw each day. Her husband of thirteen years was loving and loyal. He and the boys were the reasons she continued her emotionally draining work as a home health nurse for Rutland County.
Her patients were paraplegics, people recovering from surgery or major accidents, and the terminally ill. She watched them struggle and suffer, day after day. With her help, and that of doctors and therapists, some got better or at least learned to live with their impairments. But many didn’t, and it was the face of Mary McAllister, the patient to whom she was currently assigned, that kept sleep from her tonight.
She spent most of each shift with the old woman. Mrs. McAllister had only days left, maybe a week. Yesterday, Jean had hardly been able to look at her. The cancer had left Mrs. McAllister withered and jaundiced, and pain medication ensured that she slept most of the time. Jean had given her a sponge bath, changed her garments, and tried her best to make her comfortable. It wasn’t much, but it was all she could do. Today, Sunday, there would be no visit because she had the day off, but she knew the relief nurse who would cover her shift was gentle and caring. Attempting to console herself with those thoughts, Jean set her empty cup in the sink and walked back down the dark hallway to her bedroom.
In the parish house next to his church, Father Michael O’Brien was in his office, packing. Not books or files, only spoons. Father O’Brien was obsessed with spoons. He had accumulated close to seven hundred spoons during his lifetime. No two were alike. Tenderly, he lifted each one from a tattered cardboard box, examining it before placing it in a sturdy shipping box on his desk.
He collected the spoons in violation of his vow of poverty, and for this he felt guilty. When he thought about how he had obtained the spoons, he felt even worse. Still, there was something about a spoon—silver or stainless, elegant, frilly, or plain—that comforted him. He needed them. He had never been able to part with them.
From his top desk drawer, he retrieved one final spoon. He placed it, a shiny silver teaspoon, in the shipping box. For a moment, he looked at it resting on top of its box-mates, and then retrieved it. He would not part with this one. On the back of the spoon an inscription read, “To my dear friend, love, MEHM.”
The one person who knew of his collection, who had been his closest friend for more than seventy years, had given this spoon to him. It would not be a sin to keep just this one.
He eased himself into the chair at his desk. It was late, and his arthritis was acting up. He set the spoon on the desk and put on his reading glasses. There was a small package wrapped in brown paper on his desk, accompanied by a sealed envelope. He didn’t know what was in the package. As for the envelope, he knew that there was a letter inside, written on fine linen stationery. He longed to read the letter, but it was not for him to read . . . yet. With a sigh, he picked up the envelope and pressed it to his chest.
He looked out the window toward Mary’s mansion on the hill. The darkness and the whirling snow prevented him from seeing the big marble home, but he knew it was there, overlooking Mill River as it had for decades. He closed his eyes. He knew the history of that house, the joy and the suffering, especially the suffering, that had taken place—and still took place—within it. He knew Mary was there, and wondered if she was sleeping, as he had left her, or awake looking down upon him. Maybe her soul had already departed.
“Dear girl, may you finally be at peace,” he whispered, and looked once more into the storm covering the mansion on the hill.
Reading Group Guide
A Letter from author, Darcie Chan
The novel that you are holding in your hands—The Mill River Recluse—is my first novel. For most authors, writing a first novel is a learning experience and a labor of love. Trying to get a first novel published is quite another matter. Frustration and disappointment abound. The paths to traditional publication are paved with rejection letters from agents and publishers. Self-publishing these days also presents a host of difficulties. Producing a quality story on one’s own is just the first step; an author must then get that story noticed in an ever-expanding ocean of content. The Mill River Recluse has taken me down both paths, culminating in an amazing, roller-coaster ride that I never expected to experience.
My central story idea for The Mill River Recluse had a real-life origin. The basic concept for the book was inspired by a gentleman named Sol Strauss who lived in Paoli, Indiana, the small town in which I lived during high school and where my mother was born and raised. Mr. Strauss, a Jewish man who fled Nazi Germany, operated a dry goods store in Paoli in the 1940s. Even though Mr. Strauss lived quietly alone above his shop and never seemed to be fully embraced by the town’s predominantly Christian population, he considered Paoli to be his adopted community. When he died, the town was shocked to learn that he had bequeathed to it a substantial sum, which was to be used for charitable purposes to benefit the people of Paoli.
The Sol Strauss Supporting Organization Fund is still in operation today. Among other things, it provides clothing and other necessities for needy children and an annual supply of new books for the high school English department. Residents of Paoli may also apply to the fund for assistance in carrying out a project that would benefit the town. The fund is the legacy of Mr. Strauss, who continues to be remembered for his extreme and unexpected generosity.
I remembered what Mr. Strauss had done when I was brainstorming ideas for a first novel. I thought it would be interesting and challenging to build a story around a character who is misunderstood or different in some way, and to show that even someone who is seemingly far removed from his or her community may in fact be more special and integral than anyone could imagine.
I began writing for a few hours after work most evenings, and it took two and a half years to complete a first draft. I polished the manuscript as best I could, and I was ecstatic when Laurie Liss, an agent with Sterling Lord Literistic in New York, agreed to shop it around for me. Despite Laurie’s valiant efforts, though, my novel didn’t sell. I put the manuscript in a drawer and resolved that someday, I would write a second book and try again. Life went on.
I didn’t write much during the next several years. My job grew increasingly demanding, my husband finished his residency and accepted a position necessitating a move to a different state, and we had a baby. (I’m still trying to catch up on sleep missed for all those reasons!) But, when my son was a toddler, I started reading articles about how e-books had exploded in popularity. Even more interesting was the fact that apparently it had become very easy for an individual writer to self-publish a book in electronic form. I thought of The Mill River Recluse languishing in my drawer. I figured I had nothing to lose and released it as an e-book in May 2011.
Soon, I realized that no one would find my novel among all the other e-books out there unless I did some sort of marketing for it. After all, publishing companies invest in marketing and publicity for their books. As an individual with a modest budget, there was no way I could fund a major marketing campaign, but I arranged for a few inexpensive online ads to get my novel on readers’ radar screens. I kept the price of my book very low, to encourage people to take a chance on a story by a completely unknown writer. I also set up a website, Twitter account, and Facebook author page. And then, I waited.
Sales started to trickle in. During the first month, I sold around a hundred copies. I was so thrilled! To think, a hundred people had bought my book! My husband, Tim, and I grabbed up our little boy and did a happy dance in the kitchen. “Wow, maybe you’ll be able to sell a thousand,” I remember him saying. I doubted that, but I thought perhaps a few hundred more sales might be possible.
In late June, a feature of my novel popped up on a large website that recommends e-books to readers. Within two days, another six hundred copies sold! After the feature ended, the pace of sales accelerated. Reviews from readers started coming in—and most of them were the kind of glowing, positive reviews that authors dream of receiving. I was hearing directly from those readers, too.
One gentleman sent me an email to tell me that he loved the book, but that he had had to wait until his wife had left the house to read the last few pages. The reason? He didn’t want his wife to see him become “a blubbering mess.” Another woman wrote to tell me that she had read my book aloud to her mother in the hospital, and it brought her mother great comfort during her last days of life. Both of those messages, as well as many others I received, left me in tears. And the emails and Facebook messages kept coming from readers of all ages throughout the United States and the rest of the world.
By mid-July, I knew something extraordinary was happening. I kept my agent in the loop, of course, but I was shocked when she called me in mid-August and left a cryptic message on my answering machine.
“Darcie, it’s Laurie. Check your email.”
I scrambled around and got to my computer. She had sent me an advance copy of the latest New York Times bestseller list.
The Mill River Recluse appeared on it at #12.
To this day, there are no words that are adequate to describe everything I felt in that moment.
My novel remained on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists for the next several months, and the wonderful notes from readers kept coming. I thought that surely, finally, things had peaked, but I was wrong.
In late November 2011, I was contacted by Alexandra Alter, a book reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She wanted to interview me for a feature story about my writing journey up to that point. Alexandra was cheerful and pleasant when she came to my home on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I didn’t feel at all nervous or odd about speaking with her until she told me that, during the previous week, she had gone up to Maine to interview Stephen King.
I am still mortified when I envision how far my mouth must have dropped open before I regained control of it.
The Wall Street Journal ran Alexandra’s article on December 9, 2011. It appeared on the front page of the Friday magazine, with a full-color photo spread inside and additional teasers on the front page of the whole paper. By late afternoon, the online version of the story had been picked up by Yahoo! News, and my photo was among those circulating on the Yahoo! homepage. Pandemonium ensued.
My phone began ringing off the hook. Other writers were calling, wanting advice or simply to get together for coffee. Other reporters were calling, wanting interviews. (I changed my number to an unlisted one immediately!) My website email inbox was accumulating emails faster than I could scroll down the page. My colleagues were incredulous, as most of them had no idea I’d written a novel years before and had recently, casually decided to self-publish it. Several of my clients emailed, sending me links to the article and saying things like, “Oh my God, is this you?” Laurie was fielding phone calls from publishing companies and film studios. My family and my closest friends, scattered in a half dozen states across the country, were calling and emailing ecstatic messages of support.
I was a quivering mess. All I could do was sit and hug my son. I knew that things had changed permanently for me at that point.
Within a few weeks, I received an offer from Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, to write two new novels. It was an offer to make my childhood dream a reality. The question was, could I continue to work as an attorney and write books in my spare time? Or, did I have to choose between the two?
I loved my legal career and the many colleagues with whom I’d worked for more than a decade. But I knew that I couldn’t live the rest of my life wondering whether I could have had a successful career as a writer, and there was no way I could give writing my best shot if I was constrained by the restrictions that applied to me as an employee of the federal government. It was a difficult decision, but I resigned my attorney position to write full-time in March 2012.
To date, The Mill River Recluse has sold more than 700,000 electronic copies and has been or will be published in nine foreign languages, in addition to its publication in English. The story of its self-publication as an e-book was featured in a documentary film called Out of Print, which was directed by Vivienne Roumani-Denn and narrated by Meryl Streep. But now, finally, I feel as if the roller coaster has slowed, and my life is returning to normal. A new normal.
In the short time that I’ve been a writer—which is a description of myself that I’m still getting used to—I’ve learned a few things. First, you should always expect the unexpected. And, there is sometimes more than one path that will enable you to achieve a dream. For me, being able to get my first novel in front of readers changed my career and my life. I will always be grateful for every person who reads The Mill River Recluse, especially those first e-book readers who gave it a chance and took the time to review it, mention it to a friend, or send me a note of encouragement. Those readers—my readers—made my dream of being an author come true. I only hope that this first novel and my future books return to them—and to you—the same great happiness and enjoyment I have experienced in writing them.
My very best wishes,
1. The Mill River Recluse is not written in a single timeline, but instead uses alternating timelines that link near the end. What did you think of this structure? Was it effective in driving the story forward, or was it disorienting? Did you prefer one timeline over the other?
2. Of all the characters in The Mill River Recluse, with which one did you most identify, and why? If you could meet one of the characters for coffee, who would it be and why?
3. The opening scene of the book is of Mary McAllister taking her own life to avoid having to suffer further agonizing pain and certain eventual natural death resulting from her metastatic cancer. Do you think Father O’Brien knew Mary planned to take her own life when he left the marble mansion that last night? What do you think about Mary’s decision to take things into her own hands? Did this scene give you pause?
4. How does Mary McAllister evolve from a shy teenager into a woman held prisoner by social anxiety and agoraphobia? Do you agree with the way in which Father O’Brien tried to help her? Would you have done anything differently had you been in his position?
5. Patrick McAllister is shockingly cruel, particularly toward the most vulnerable people and the animals in his life. Do you think that Patrick became the person he did because of his parents and their relationship with him?
6. Unlike Patrick McAllister, Leroy Underwood had a very underprivileged upbringing. During Leroy’s visit with Father O’Brien in the hospital, he sheds tears. Do you think his tears were a sign of remorse? Are he and Patrick McAllister different kinds of “bad people,” or do you think their character defects are of a similar nature?
7. Despite his animosity toward Leroy, Father O’Brien visits him in the hospital to offer him support and comfort. Can you describe a time in your own life when you had to put aside your feelings to do something that you knew was right?
8. Of all the potions Daisy concocts, is there one that you believe you could drink if you had to? How would you react if Daisy showed up at your door peddling her wares?
9. Father O’Brien has been obsessed with spoons his entire life, but the reason for his attraction to those particular objects is never discussed or revealed. Do you have any theories as to why he is so drawn to spoons—so drawn, in fact, that he is willing to break his vows and steal them—as opposed to some other kind of item? Do you believe he has truly kicked his “spoon habit”?
10. Claudia Simon’s struggle to eat healthy food is almost sabotaged by a box of Entenmann’s powdered sugar doughnuts. Is there a food that you have trouble resisting?
11. Jean Wykowski struggles with middle age and a life that seems to have settled into a predictable routine. Instead of “borrowing” Mary’s ring, what advice would you give her to add a little excitement and variety in her life?
12. Near the end of the novel, the people of Mill River learn that they have actually had a kind of relationship with Mary McAllister for years, and that Mary is a very different person than many of them had imagined her to be. Are there other relationships in the novel in which one of the characters learns something new or unexpected about another?
13. Which character do you feel experiences the most personal growth throughout the course of the story, and why?
14. How did you feel upon finishing The Mill River Recluse? Did anything about the story or characters linger in your mind or change the way you view certain people or situations?