On the Divinity of Second Chances: A Novel

On the Divinity of Second Chances: A Novel

by Kaya McLaren


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A broken family finds its way back together in this captivating story from the author of Church of the Dog

A charismatic author with a voice and message all her own, Kaya McLaren has become beloved in the book world as much for her upbeat energy as for her rich storytelling. In On the Divinity of Second Chances, she portrays a family on the brink of dissolution-a mother besieged by middle age, a distant father lost in daily life, and their three teenage children struggling in various ways with the family's disintegration even as they conceal a secret that could send their parents further over the edge. With the help of a group of tap-dancing old ladies, a sensual tango teacher, and a lot of luck, this family is about to learn that everyone gets a second chance which, as McLaren beautifully reminds us in this inspiring novel, is sometimes even better than the first.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143115182
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/28/2009
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Kaya McLaren teaches art and lives on the east slope of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state with her dog, Big Cedar. Her second novel, On the Divinity of Second Chances, will be published by Penguin in winter 2009.

Reading Group Guide


“If the family were a fruit, it would be an orange, a circle of sections, held together but separable—each segment distinct.” —Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Think of the day you married your husband or wife. The day a first child was born. At that moment it was very easy to believe that this newly created family was going to be truly perfect from now on, that the young, idealistic people you were at that moment were matched in body, mind, and soul forever. But as you age, things begin to change. It could be something as simple a wife cultivating a new hobby or volunteer opportunity that keeps her away from home a few nights a week. Or a formerly landscaping-adverse husband has retreated into the garage with an implausible interest in properly maintaining the lawn mower. The children, who once relied on you for their very existence, now spend much of their time out with friends or in their rooms, testing their own boundaries and yours, making decisions that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with. Yet, despite this evolution in your relationship with each of them, you still love this now motley crew fiercely, despite looking at them over the breakfast table and wondering who the heck they are. They are your family, always will be. But what is it that truly binds a family together in spite of their many differences? And how far can we stretch those bonds before they break?

The family we meet in On the Divinity of Second Chances is in a similar position, a group at vastly disparate points in their personal, emotional, or spiritual journeys, blinking at one another and wondering what they’ve become. And though they can’t know where each new path will take them, at the start of the novel it is nearly inconceivable that they will ever converge again. That is, until the slow unraveling is abruptly reversed and the cracks that divide this family begin to heal.

A father’s bagpipe music echoes through the trees and into the ears of his wayward son. A father and daughter join forces to find her lost dog. News of a baby on the way stirs up deep feelings that, ultimately, bring a mother and another daughter to a new understanding. A simple rope swing and the advice of a stranger help rekindle a marriage. And a poorly tended campfire gives a son the last push he needs to finally go home. As the bonds that connect them are restored and made ever stronger, all the members of the family—and a few who’ve been added along the way—find themselves closer together and, most important, grateful they could mend what needed mending before it crumbled forever.

On the Divinity of Second Chances is a story of how every family is linked under the watchful gaze of the full moon. What each of us makes of this connection defines our place in the universe. But ultimately, our lives are measured in forgiveness—not only when we have courage to accept it, but when we are able to offer it freely.


Kaya McLaren teaches art and lives on the east slope of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State with her dog, Big Cedar. Her third novel, How I Came to Sparkle Again, will be published by Viking in summer 2010.


Q. Dancing plays a big role in this book, just as it did in Church of the Dog. What is it about dancing that is so effective in bringing people together?

I think being a massage therapist for a few years made me really conscious of touch in a cultural perspective. A lot of people are touch deprived. Ballroom dancing is a way to touch one another with boundaries, and those boundaries allow us to enjoy that touch. We don't have to constantly prepare to assert a boundary, because it’s already in place. We can relax and just take in the other person’s essence.

I used to go to community dances at the grange hall in Ignacio, Colorado. I loved so many things about it. I loved watching the teenagers two-step with one another and how much pride the teenage boys took in being good dancers. It struck me that people, but perhaps especially men, want to know the rules. They want to know what to do. Dancing provides rules of etiquette and codes of conduct. It’s a relief to everyone. It’s like a fence everyone can see, instead of an invisible electric fence people live in constant apprehension of running into.

I loved watching the older couples who moved with a level of grace it takes a lifetime to achieve. It always struck me as such a metaphor for what was likely going on in other arenas of their relationship. We live in such a verbal society. I think it’s really important to stop talking sometimes and just enjoy being in each other’s presence.

Q. Are you still writing from your bathtub? How was the experience of writing this book different from your previous novel?

I started writing this book in a house that had sliding doors on the bathtub, so I couldn't set my binder down on it anymore. I was lost. At some point, I was living in a moldy tipi. It didn’t have a bathtub. I moved seven times while I wrote this. I had to switch over to writing on a laptop.

At some point in my development of this story, I started reading about screenwriting so I could write a screenplay for Church of the Dog. That really, really made me more conscious of plot and of showing instead of telling, and dramatically changed my writing.

Q. As you’ve toured and met booksellers and fans, what are some of the questions you’re asked most often? What has surprised you most about comments or insights people have about your writing?

Everyone wants to know if I’m Mara or Jade and, while they’re both a part of me, sure, I assure you that truthfully, I’m not as nice as either of them.

Other frequently asked questions are about the sexual orientation of Daniel in Church of the Dog, and of Pearl and Beatrice in On the Divinity of Second Chances. It hadn’t occurred to me that Daniel might be gay, so at first this topic really surprised (and delighted) me. In my rewrite, I’ve tried to suggest that he’s not. Pearl and Beatrice in this book, however. . . . Well, I wanted it to be like in so many small towns where the people who can handle the truth see it, and the people who can’t handle it think they’re just really good friends and housemates. I was at a book club meeting in Kansas City where quite an argument erupted about it. I assured the people for whom it would have ruined the story if they were gay that they were just really good friends, and to the people who were sure they were gay and were fine with that, I said, “Oh yeah, they totally are.” Ultimately though, does it really matter? I mean, they’re old and sleep in separate bedrooms and are celibate as a lot of old heterosexual couples. Maybe there are moments of that spark still, or maybe, just like in heterosexual relationships, the spark is just a glowing ember. What feelings or actions define a relationship anyway?

Mostly, people approach me and share really personal stories, often about grief and loss. I always feel really honored. Something about my writing struck a chord and made them feel like they weren’t alone. And you know, they’re not.

The math teacher at the school where I teach seemed like an unlikely person to read my book, but he did last summer, and when were enjoying the welcome-back breakfast on our first day back, he heard someone say they thought Mara and me were pretty much the same, and he chimed in, “No, she’s all of her characters. That was really clear to me.” That’s when I had no doubt left that Mr. Schef is indeed the smartest person in our building.

Q. On the Divinity of Second Chances delves deeply into how a family relates to one another as they grow and change. How is your relationship with your own family? Were any of the episodes in the book inspired by something that happened to you personally?

I’m lucky that in my family we are very conscious of letting one another change and grow. I was always taught that it’s okay to make mistakes, especially by my mom. I think my family sees life as the vehicle for the evolution of our souls, and not a status quo to be maintained or a status to be achieved. Generally, we’re very forgiving with one another.

Anna and Phil’s marital problems were inspired by one of the men I was engaged to. I felt like every time he opened his mouth, he just picked a scab and made things worse . . . that if he would just shut up, we would have space to re-create the dynamic of us together instead of solidify the pattern of us in disharmony. I felt like if we could just have fun, it would be okay because other things would seem smaller and I would like him enough to want to resolve some of the other issues. Instead, I lost all inspiration to want to be with him. A person can’t re-create a new beginning until they’ve let go of the old story.

The Aretha storyline was based on me losing Tasha Good Dog. I still hope there is dog reincarnation, but who knows how it all works.

Q. Your first book Church of the Dog included some very emotional portraits of animals, one of whom had his own voice in the text. On the Divinity of Second Chances features Aretha. Was it very difficult to write the sadder passages about her? What texture do you think animals add to a story?

It was grueling to write the Aretha storyline. I sobbed and sobbed while I wrote it. I sob every time I read it. In fact, my eyes are brimming right now just thinking about it. I felt like it was important to write about it though, because some people do feel that level of devastation when they lose a pet and need to know they’re not alone. A lot of people will say, “It was just a dog,” or “It was just a cat,” but that’s not everyone’s truth. To some of us, that dog was our world.

When you lose a pet, you realize just how much a part of your landscape they were. In my own life, animals are a huge part of my setting. Naturally, that influences what I write about when I write about setting in a novel. I can’t imagine a place without animals. I sneak my dog, Big Cedar, into my classroom frequently. Kids need dogs. We all need dogs.

Q. Which of the characters in this novel were easiest to craft? Which were more challenging? Did any of the characters end up going in a different direction than you imagined them?

Overall, I found all the characters easy to craft. They’re all parts of me. It was hard to make Anna likable. Anna is the impatient and somewhat intolerant part of me. Olive, too. They’re the parts of me that I don’t always like, but that do give me strength or structure. They’re like my skeleton.

I loved writing the scenes with Jade and Forrest together because their relationship is so much like my brother’s and mine and my uncle’s and mine. My Uncle Doug is six years older than me and grew up just down the street, so he’s like an older brother to me. I have to give him full credit for Peter Lemonjello. He used to call me and say those things when I was a massage therapist. I don’t think either of us ever call one another without using a funny voice at first. We definitely have a humor that’s all our own.

Q. One theme that appears in your books is the urge to start over in a different place. Do you have a wandering streak? In what places have you lived? Are there places you’d still like to venture?

I have a big wandering streak. I’ve got Mars in Sagittarius, so you know I react to everything by moving. In addition, I lived and worked all over the western United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, when I was an archaeologist. I still love to travel, but I hate to leave my dog and my horse. I love my home and hate to leave it, too. I haven’t figured out how to resolve all that. I think it might be to ride my horse on a cross-country trip with my dog in tow. Maybe I could do my book tours that way.

I haven’t traveled abroad much, and want to see all the pleasant parts of the world with safe and delicious food. When I’ve had the time, I haven’t had the money. When I’ve had the money, I haven’t had the time. I’m turning forty this summer. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to wake up in another country on that day. I might. I like the idea that I could. But, you know, it’s really hard to beat my life here. My dog is getting older. There’s no time to waste being apart from one another.

Q. This question appears in the discussion portion of this reader’s guide as well, but it deserves asking: What are some second chances you’ve been given in your own life?

Most of my profound second chances are pretty personal, and sometimes embarrassing.

Q. What are some of your favorite books or authors? How have they influenced your own writing? Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?

Linda Hogan is my favorite author. I love her strong connection to nature. She’s masterfully poetic without ever sounding forced. She’s just a beautiful, beautiful storyteller, and I wish I could say her writing has influenced mine, but truthfully, she’s in such a different league that I can’t begin to come close. If I ever become one quarter of the writer she is, I’ll be profoundly proud of myself. If you haven’t discovered her yet, check out Solar Storms.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver was the first book I read just for fun after graduating from college. She reminded me what a good journey a book can be and I’ve enjoyed all her works since. It’s been inspiring to experience the evolution of her work. I still love her early works, but was in awe of The Poisonwood Bible.

Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley remains one of my favorites for showing different points of view. She captures the perfect balance of heart and quirk as she writes about people (and animals) trying to do their best. I never wanted it to end.

I love fiction from other parts of the country—other little pockets of culture, like Southwest writing and Southern writing. From the Southwest, I enjoyed So Far from God by Anna Castillo. Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek is my favorite collection of short stories. The Death of Bernadette Lefthand by Ron Querry takes place on the Jicarilla Reservation where I taught, so I really enjoyed how he captured the sense of place. From the South, I enjoyed Water from the Well by Myra McLarey, full of quirk and everything else. Rich. And who doesn’t love Bailey White and Fannie Flagg? I went through a time in my early twenties when I only read works from women writers from the South: Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker. I love flavor and a strong sense of place in what I read.

Ursula Hegi is another favorite of mine. Lots of flavor. Lots of quirk.

The funniest book I ever read was Letters to Rollins, a collection of real fan mail to Henry Rollins. It shows that truth is always stranger than fiction.

Surfing the Himalayas and Snowboarding to Nirvana are great books for people who love snow sports and are interested in Buddhism.

Advice for aspiring writers? Trust that you have a story in you that no one else can tell. When it's time to take it to the world, don’t give up and don’t take rejection personally. It’s like dating. Not everyone wants what you have to offer. It doesn’t mean that it’s not good. It might. Or it might just mean what you’ve created doesn’t fit into the niches agents and publishers are looking to work with. There are lots of ways to skin a cat. Read about it. How to Get Happily Published by Judith Appelbaum was my guide. I read it cover to cover and followed all her advice.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’m working on cleaning my house and getting report cards done. I’m also working on maintaining a level of physical fitness where I can maximize my fun in life and avoid back pain.

Writing-wise, I’m still finishing How I Came to Sparkle Again, my third title. I’ve begun to type the whole thing over from start to finish because it’s been through so many revisions that I need to address continuity. It’s good to question whether each word is worth being typed again.

I have two more books that have been dying to get out of my brain. They’re getting intolerably impatient with me. I can’t wait until Sparkle is done and I have all kinds of time to dive in and write them. There's nothing like the first draft. It’s like a honeymoon.

  • Forrest, for the first time, sees his father as vulnerable. When did you realize your parents were just human beings and not, for lack of a better word, superheroes? How did that make you feel?
  • Which of the narrators was your favorite? Why? Is he or she also your favorite character? Why or why not?
  • Phil observes that effort and awareness sometimes work at cross purposes. What are some examples of trying so hard that it almost certainly ensures you won’t perform your best? How do you relax into or prepare your mind for activities where this can be a problem?
  • In what ways do you think Jade was better off at finally having found Aretha? In what ways would her memories of her be different had she not gotten those last few moments? What part does closure play in our lives? In what ways is an emphasis on closure realistic? Is it a healthy emphasis?
  • In what ways might Anna be doing more harm than good in insisting that Phil almost completely cut himself off from the occupation he once loved? Are there ways she could have found a middle ground?
  • Anna, at a rather pivotal moment in her daughter’s life, reflects that she’s not having a very good birthday. In what ways are her thoughts selfish? Put yourself in Anna’s shoes—how do you think you’d react? Now put yourself in Olive’s shoes—how do you think you’d want your mother to react?
  • If your spirit guide were to materialize, what do you think he or she might look like?
  • If you were Jade, would you have kept Forrest’s secret? What would be the benefits of telling Phil and Anna where he was? What about the drawbacks? Do you think his crime merited running away?
  • Discuss the relationship between Pearl and her burn-happy neighbor Dean. In what ways could their feud have been avoided? How do you think their relationship will progress?
  • What people—or animals, for that matter—were granted a second chance during the course of the book? Did anyone who didn’t get a second chance deserve one? Or vice versa?
  • What are some second chances you’ve been given? What are some you’ve granted? Were they successful?

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On the Divinity of Second Chances 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
amberjc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book, told from the perspective of each family member. Very easy to read, a times funny, poignant and sad. Made me laugh and cry. Excellently written!
Maggie-the-Cat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love finding new authors by chance! There was just something about the title "On the Divinity of Second Chances" that caught my eye on the libraries NEW shelf. Kaya McLaren has created a dysfunctional family; that on closer look, isn't really all that different from any other family. The characters are flawed but likable and how they find their way back to each other creates a truly happy ending, though not necessarily happily ever after. Who says there aren't Third Chances?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really liked the characters...all of them. The ideas are fresh and the writing is tight. A great little escape for someone who lives in Colorado with wildfires going on everywhere. God bless Martina!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
TeacherCunningham More than 1 year ago
I admit the characters are quirky - maybe in real life they wouldn't be likely to be at a dinner party at my house - yet McLaren makes me fall in love with each one of them (just like in her first book "Church of the Dog"). Without knowing it I set aside subconscious prejudices and enjoy glimpsing into their lives. McLaren sees life through a spiritual lens, causing her characters to look deep into their own lives and motives, making corrections and learning as they grow, and caring deeply for others. Married couples in mid-life would benefit greatly from the new-age "therapy" Anna and Phil get - I'm considering signing up for dance lessons and I'm looking into where to rent a bagpipe for my husband.
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BookLoverinHouston More than 1 year ago
I read this book for a book club. I am a big mystery reader so this book was quite different from my usual reading, but I fell in love with this book. The characters were so unique and the writing style was entertaining. My book club members all gave it a rating of 8 or 9 on the 10 scale. It made for a great book club discussion as there were so many fascinating characters to discuss-from the bagpipe playing Dad to the tapdancing grandmother! Highly recommend.
dogtoy More than 1 year ago
This is one of those books that captured my heart. I felt everything that the characters felt because their feelings and the delineation were so clearly described. I read this book slowly so I could savor each chapter. At the end, I really slowed down because I didn't want the story to end. I fell in love with each person's story. I love how this author sees life. I love her spiritual elements in the story. I can't wait until her next book comes out. One word to describe her books: WOW!!!
MinnesotaReader More than 1 year ago
Kaya McLaren has magnificently written a captivating story of a family's poignant quest for the miracle of second chances. Jade's family is slowly falling apart. She is keeping complex secrets, while her parent's marriage is collapsing, brother Forrest is living in self-inflicted exile and pregnant sister Olive walks away from her life to live with their grandmother. Brilliantly told in alternating narratives, each family member tells his/her own perspective, enriching our understanding of this broken, suffering family. Ultimately, they learn the potent act of forgiveness can create the healing power that second chances provide. Ms. McLaren is a superior storyteller. She has exquisitely created a marvelous, endearing cast of characters who enthralled me from start to finish. Amusing antics provide many laugh-out-loud moments. This uplifting story serves as a wonderful inspiration for those of us searching for our second chance. I really loved this insightful book as there were many valuable lessons within. I was left reflecting on the importance of forgiveness, especially when offered freely. You must read this engrossing book!
PoshPassy More than 1 year ago
There are a few character in the book I did not care for but one two of them def. left me wanting more. If there was a continuation of this book I would read it. I don't know if I would recommend it unless you are feeling like reading something different than your used to. I would not keep this in my library and I plan to resell it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was excellent! I loved reading it and hope that the author writes more!