Critics and readers alike hailed Swimming, Joanna Hershon’s fiction debut. “Compelling,” said the Washington Post, while Vanity Fair called Swimming a “page-turning premiere.” Now Hershon brings us her anticipated second novel, in which she vividly explores the secrets of an American family. The Outside of August is a mesmerizing, beautifully written story that combs the emotional landscape of its characters with power and precision.
For as long as Alice Green can remember, her elusive mother, Charlotte, has moved in and out of family life—disappearing relentlessly and often without explanation. Despite the exotic clutter of souvenirs that detail Charlotte’s international travels, the Green’s home becomes progressively hollow, as nothing but Charlotte can fill the empty spaces.
With their mother’s tenuous presence, and their tender but distant father working long hours, Alice and her brother, August, react in different ways. While seeking constant affection from other women, August relies on an unspoken bond with Charlotte that allows him a certain freedom. But Alice feels no such security and grows increasingly unmoored, always in search of ways to keep her mother at home.
When, years later, her unfettered brother becomes strangely remote, Alice journeys to find him in an isolated beach town. It is there that a deeply buried secret will have to unravel in order for Alice to come to terms with her fractured family and her place within it—and learn to let go of a mother she perhaps never really knew.
BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Joanna Hershon's A Dual Inheritance.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
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About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
The house was too big. No matter how many Chinese shoe trees or Turkish prayer rugs, embroidered pillows from forgotten Irish counties, Balinese puppets, Deruta pottery, or African dung sculptures happened to rest in surpris-ing corners of the place, the house never felt quite full. Alice watched her mother notice this each time she returned—the house and its emptiness always appeared to register as sheer surprise. The Greens lived in a large house. They lived in a house on the water, in a cove shared with oysters, glass-green seaweed, broken bottles, and bloated prophylactics. Alice lived with her brother and father and mother in a house sea-damaged and in a constant state of not-quite-fashionable disrepair.
Since the day the Greens had moved in nearly seven years ago, Charlotte hadn’t stopped attempting to fill the house with objects. She went away to find more objects, was how it seemed to Alice, who, along with her father and brother, was always waiting for her to come home. That was why it felt so empty to Charlotte each time that she returned. The house . . . it had filled up years ago; they didn’t need another thing—and Charlotte knew they were waiting; she had to have known. It was only her presence that was missing. She must have known every time.
In between the afternoon and evening, it seemed to Alice that the world was running out of energy. The sun seemed like a legend—forcing people to get things done, day after dismal day. It was cold near the window, even under two sweaters, but Alice still couldn’t tear herself away from watching the day fade. The March skies looked like the skin around her mother’s eyes, like the dregs of her mother’s milky Bengali tea. She found herself standing in front of her parents’ bedroom window, watching her breath condense on the windowpane. The sky drained slowly as she anticipated the sight of her father’s car coming home from the lab. Alice’s father was a scientist, a professor of neurobiology, and he spent days at a lab where he acquired the scent of blood and floor wax, and worked sometimes for hours without so much as a cup of coffee, without a single bite to eat. She wanted to give her father an especially warm welcome, to distract him from realizing the heat still wasn’t turned on and that Charlotte hadn’t returned. Alice made twenty-three marks in the window’s fog, one mark for each day her mother had been gone. Today—her father didn’t like to promise—today the chances were good that she’d wrapped everything up and that she would be coming home from the airport, arriving before four. The clock said five-thirty. They’d all been wary anyway. Her mother made schedules but rarely did she adhere to them.
Alice turned from the window and sat at Charlotte’s table. She bypassed the stamped tin box filled with jade beads and silver, overlooked the crackled hand mirror and the 1920s button rings. She sprayed the Must de Cartier in the air, and then ran through it like a sprinkler in the heat of summer. In the third drawer on the left-hand side of the table, she found the black pearl earrings. They sat on an ivory silk cloth with a purple ink stain, as if they were no more than two good seeds, waiting to be scattered. They clipped painfully onto her ears and she sat for moments trying to imagine having the strength to endure that kind of pain for any kind of time. That was how Alice would know she was grown: the black pearls would clip onto her ears and she wouldn’t have a thought in her head.
She took off the earrings when they began to burn and put them back as she had always done. Thin sounds of the baby-sitter talking on the phone floated through the door, like a brighter other day. The baby-sitter was cheerful and put on fake foreign accents, which were wholly unrecognizable. Downstairs in the library, the TV was going and August was laughing. She could picture her brother laughing alone, laughing hard and loud, not noticing how dark the room was, or that their parents weren’t home. He might not even have noticed the cold.
When Alice heard the tires on the gravel, she almost ran out of the room and straight out the front door, but instead she went back to the window. It was possible that her mother was in the car with him. He might have picked her up at the airport. He might have had the time. Everything seemed to slow down as she looked out the window and watched the car, so small from this vantage, so weak next to the thick and massive trees. The shadows were taking over, going from evening to night, and Charlotte was not among them. Her father got out of the car in three distinct movements. He looked up at the roof and Alice waved but he didn’t seem to notice. He went for the front door and Alice ran downstairs when she couldn’t see him anymore.
“Hi, Daddy,” Alice said from the foot of the stairs. It always felt a little funny calling him Daddy; it made her sound like a baby, but she thought it sounded sweet.
“Hey, honey,” he said softly, having hung his big coat on a rusted hook. He wore a turtleneck sweater the color of soil. “How you doin’ over there?”
“It’s freezing,” Alice said. It just came out, the exact last thing she had planned on saying.
Her father didn’t come over and rub her arms. “Well,” her father said, “put on another sweater then. It’s healthier to wear layers than have the heat jacked up indoors. You know that.” He ran his broad hand over his face. All he wanted, Alice could tell, was a drink and some sleep. “Where’s August?” he asked.
“Gus,” Alice yelled.
Her father put his hand on her back. They walked toward the kitchen, her father flicking switches, frowning, whenever there was no light, at how many bulbs needed changing.
The baby-sitter, Melanie, was breathless with urgency, a quality many people acquired when talking to her father. He was often distracted and took an unnaturally long time to explain things. “So I have to go, Dr. Green. I’m glad you’re home,” she said, sticking a slew of papers out for Alice’s father. “Um, listen, here are some messages? You should take a look at these; they’re from Con Ed—kind of important?” Melanie glanced at Alice before deciding to stop right there.
“I’ve gotta go,” she said, and, after thrusting the papers in his hand, gave Alice a pat on the head and ran out the back door.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. Our interviewer thinks that the “beating heart” of The Outside of August is the relationship between Alice and her brother. Do you agree that this is what this novel is essentially about? What overall story element, character relationship, or mood made this work resonate for you?
2. Structurally this novel is composed of three parts. Part One consists of six chapters, and the chapters are named: Heat, 1977; Water, 1979; progressing all the way to Riddles,1985. Why do you think Hershon entitled her chapters thisway? Why do you think she abandoned the titles in Part Two and Part Three? What response was she hoping to elicit from the reader?
3. Readers often talk about characters they love, or characters they love to hate. Hershon’s characters often fall somewhere in the complex, human middle. They are presented “warts and all.” How do you feel about Alice? Do you sympathize with her? Do you understand her journey? What about Charlotte? Surely, she is a failure as a mother and yetthere is something tragic and compelling about her. What is that component of her character? How do her flaws add tension and pathos to the book?
4. The title of this book is The Outside of August, and it is apt, as August remains elusive to both the reader and Alice or much of the narrative. How can the absence of someoneshape another person’s life? Here we have two characters who mesmerize and disappear again and again, Charlotte and her son, August. Do you find them realistic? Maddening? Do you understand their hold on Alice?
5. What motivates Cady? Why does she hang in there for so long? Do you see her as someone who is hobbled by her experiences with this complicated family, or as someone who is set free by them?
6. Alan, the father, is a stalwart yet oddly weak presence in the book. He is reliable and physically available, and yet incapable of either rescuing his wife or cutting her loose and saving his children. What is his role in this human theater? What do you think about Alice’s decision (and Hershon’s) to return home to care for him? Who does she do this for, her father or herself?
7. Alan is a successful neurobiologist, Cady has a good career in design, yet August and Charlotte cannot hold jobs, no matter how creative their explorations of the world tend to be. By the end of this novel, Alice has found happiness working in the local bookstore. What do you think this novel makes of the world of work? What part does it play inthe characters’ lives?
8. So much of this story ends midsentence in the middle of the lives of these characters. What do you think will happen next for them? Has Alice found love? Will Cady leave her life forever? What will happen to August and his newfound family? Do you find yourself imagining other scenarios for these characters? Alternative actions or endings?
9. Take a moment to savor the prose here. How would you characterize Hershon’s style? What are its pleasures? Excesses? How does she go about building a world and inviting the reader to inhabit it? Pick a scene that strikes you and read it out loud. What are the cadences she employs? Is there music behind the language? Does she vary the rhythm and length of her sentences?
10. Hershon is also a playwright. Take a moment to discuss the dialogue in this book. Divide some of it and read it aloud, as if it were a play. Can you see her dramatist’s hand? Does she have a feel for spoken language? How do you think stage dialogue and narrative dialogue differ?
11. There is a subtle sexual tension here between mother and son, and even sister and brother. What is the genesis of this tension? How important a component of the characters’ lives is it? How does it repel them from one another and also keep them inextricably linked?
12. Now that you’ve had a thorough discussion about such elements as story, character, prose, structure, and device, what do you think is the beating heart of the story? Has it changed for you through discussion? Does it read differently when you go back and look over the pages? In what ways does talking about literature open it up for you, and in what ways does it take away from the private activity of reading? What would you like to see Hershon write next?
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