She knew what he wrote . . .
One little word that made her feel both cheated and beloved.
One word that changed everything.
On a chilly morning in the Northwest Iowa town of Blackhawk, Dr. Lucas Hudson is filling in for the vacationing coroner on a seemingly open-and-shut suicide case. His own life is crumbling around him, but when he unearths the body of a woman buried in the barn floor beneath the hanging corpse, he realizes this terrible discovery could change everything. . . .
Years before Lucas ever set foot in Blackhawk, Meg Painter met Dylan Reid. It was the summer before high school and the two quickly became inseparable. Although Meg’s older neighbor, Jess, was the safe choice, she couldn’t let go of Dylan no matter how hard she tried.
Caught in a web of jealousy and deceit that spiraled out of control, Meg’s choices in the past ultimately collide with Lucas’s discovery in the present, weaving together a taut story of unspoken secrets and the raw, complex passions of innocence lost.
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Sleeping in Eden
On the day the leaves began to fall, Jim Sparks hung himself from a rafter in his condemned barn. The sun was warm but the air was cool; a prophecy of winter in the breeze that shook the first honey-colored leaves from branches that would soon stand naked, all angles and lines, snow-draped modern art adorning the prairies.
Morning dawned sudden and crisp, robed in fog that crowned the fields with ribbons of silver and left geometric patterns of shimmering frost reflecting light like diamonds. But by the time the clock passed twelve, the afternoon had melted into a reluctant autumn warmth. It was the sort of day when you could not help but turn your face toward the sun; a day that could not be duplicated in a year of days.
And he killed himself.
The wind sighed audibly through the barn when Lucas Hudson stepped out of his tiny import, a rusty blue thing that had become a sort of inside joke in a town staunchly dedicated to everything domestic. Gravel crunched beneath his tattered sneakers, and he shielded his eyes with strong, surgeon’s hands as he surveyed the scene before him.
Jim’s property was a graveyard of gutted engines and frozen pizza boxes that seemed incapable of finding their way into the dented, metallic garbage can that lay half buried in the weeds beside his front step. The disarray stretched across five acres of unkempt lawn and sagging buildings bordered by an aging farmhouse against the eastern fence, and a grayish barn with peeling paint along a northwest line of poplars.
Lucas stood on the driveway and looked past it all. He leaned into the slight breeze, absorbing warmth through his sweatshirt, and watched the golden cornfields dance.
Everyone hated Jim Sparks, and the phone call that had summoned Lucas didn’t inspire the quintessential emotions of pity, regret, or even shock. Instead, he felt numb. Cold. It wasn’t surprising that the man who seemed to resent every aspect of his existence in this small town had finally done what many had always expected him to do. Truth be told, most people thought he’d simply leave rather than take the more permanent way out. But suicide accomplished the deed: Jim would never face another insidious rumor.
The sound of his name made Lucas start, but of course it was Alex. His friend had summoned him here, had torn him away from Jenna when they had actually been having a conversation—words exchanged that meant something. But it was impossible to say no to Alex Kennedy. He was a force of nature, a grown man with the soul of a child. It didn’t hurt that he was also the police chief, even if the title seemed a bit presumptuous for a village as small and sleepy as Blackhawk, Iowa. Lucas had often thought the decorous, hardworking citizens of his hometown would likely do just fine regulating themselves.
Alex loped across the sloping lawn, his usually grinning mouth set in a serious half smile to convey the gravity, the tragedy of the situation.
“Hey.” Lucas shortened the distance between them in a few long strides. He tried to return Alex’s wan smile, but it came out lopsided and faded the moment his mouth managed to take shape. Lucas knew he looked like he had tangled with shadows in some rough back alley, and he ran his hands through his thick, dark hair before stuffing them in the pockets of his gray hoodie.
“Thanks for coming,” Alex said, lifting an eyebrow but apparently choosing to ignore Lucas’s uncharacteristic dishevelment. He offered his own brand of sympathy in a quick thump to the back. “I know this is usually your only day off.”
“And I don’t usually act as coroner,” Lucas reminded him. But Alex didn’t bother to respond.
They walked in silence to the barn, a leaning affair with broken windows that snarled at the world through shards of glass clinging fanglike to the rotten frames. The midafternoon sunlight poured through wide cracks between each and every board and sprinkled dust across the shaded east-facing entrance. Though Alex called it a barn, the building in question had once been a stable, and the wide, high doors seemed to frame the past. Lucas could almost imagine the carriages, buggies, and sleighs that had long ago passed through the now sagging arches. It was surprisingly charming in its age and fragility. Never mind the squad cars, the haphazard yellow tape, the sounds of people talking gravely within.
“Why didn’t you call Elliot?” Lucas finally asked, pausing in the shadow of the haymow.
“Out of town. Vacation.”
“So who’s taking care of the morgue?”
“Someone croaks, we gotta send them to Fairfield,” Alex explained.
Lucas sighed. “You know, there are other doctors in town.”
“I think the Townsend brothers got their licenses in Mexico.”
Lucas’s laugh was a soft snort, but at least he laughed. “Oh, you owe me big, Kennedy. This is hardly in my job description.”
“Yeah, well, you know.” Alex lifted the heavy latch and pushed the door open, stooping to secure it with a rock the size of a small melon. The action didn’t necessarily shed light into the barn.
Lucas stepped tentatively into the shadow of the old building and gave his eyes a moment to adjust to the dusty, filtered light. The two town cops called to the scene were talking in hushed tones out of Lucas’s range of vision, but a quick scan of the inside of the slanted barn revealed as much clutter as could be expected from Jim Sparks. There was junk everywhere—piles of old firewood, small farm machinery, moldy hay bales.
And yet, a few reminders of the former glory of the Timmer Ranch clung to the landscape like artifacts from some era beyond memory. There was a brass plate with the name Philadelphia etched in sweeping strokes above a corner stall. And two long, curved bale hooks, covered in rust that could be mistaken for ancient blood in the dying light. Reaching to touch a lone harness that was draped from a nail near the door, Lucas caught a whiff of leather. And then he made out a clearing. Between an old tractor and the first animal stall, a body hung limp and motionless only two feet off the ground.
Lucas maneuvered around an abandoned axle and surveyed the scene before him. Jim had knotted a pretty handy noose; the spine traveled across the front of his throat and tossed his head back at a grotesque angle. His face was a cruel shade of bluish purple, and his tongue lolled thick and offensive out of blood-speckled lips. A rickety wooden chair lay upturned and off to one side of the body that swung almost imperceptibly like a broken, bloated pendulum. And the beam itself, the rafter that held Jim Sparks in death, ran bent but sturdy from one end of the barn to the other, cutting a crooked line that seemed to say, “At least I can do this.” Lucas suddenly felt tired. He was expecting horror of nightmarish proportions. What he got was something altogether pathetic and horribly, wretchedly sad.
“How did they find him?”
Alex made his way past Lucas and stood with his forearms on the half wall of the stall in which Jim dangled. He looked like a spectator at a county fair, examining the qualifications of a late entrant. “He didn’t show up for work last night. You know he works the late shift at the plant in Fairfield? Well, some guy that splits his hours got ticked that he didn’t show and decided to come by and give Jim hell. The barn door was open, swinging in the wind . . .” Alex looked over his shoulder at Lucas. “He called the city office from his cell phone and took off. Can you believe that? Called the city office, not 911.”
Lucas smiled faintly, aware that in spite of his seemingly gruff disposition, Alex was a teddy bear in disguise. Lucas had it on good authority that his best friend got choked up watching Disney movies with his daughters, and he didn’t believe for a second that Alex was as nonchalant about the grisly scene before him as he tried so hard to convey. “You okay?” Lucas asked him, dropping his voice conspiratorially.
“Fine.” Alex shrugged.
“Seems like a bit of a cold thing to say.” Lucas sloped an eyebrow. “There’s a dead man hanging a few feet from your nose.”
“I don’t see you crying,” Alex huffed.
“Fair enough.” Lucas sighed. They obviously weren’t going to have a brotherly heart-to-heart, and since he didn’t know what else to say, the clock ticked off a few seconds of awkward silence. Finally Lucas passed a hand over the five o’clock shadow along his jaw and swallowed a groan. “Let’s get this over with so that I can go home.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Alex muttered.
Lucas still felt hesitant but joined Alex at the stall. “Was there a suicide note?”
“Not that we’ve found. There’s not much in here and we went through the house already. Couldn’t find a thing of value. You know, I think we’re going to have to torch the whole place. Jim Sparks lived like an animal. Honestly, you should see the shit he has in there. Garbage piled high . . .”
“Signs of a struggle? You know, unusual scratches, flesh under his fingernails, extra footprints in the barn?”
Alex snorted and indicated the numbered red tags that littered the barn floor like macabre confetti. “You telling me how to do my job, Hudson?”
Lucas held up his hands in defense. “Never. I’m just saying, I think it’s pretty obvious it was a suicide.”
“Look, it’s my job to treat the entire farm like it’s a crime scene right now. This is a homicide until we can prove otherwise. Do I have to bag the hands for a forensic team? Or are you going to do your job?”
Lucas never got a chance to respond. As if on cue, two cops emerged from the darkened tack room that was half hidden behind a sagging row of whitewashed bee boxes. They held out a camera to Alex. “We took pictures. But only because Kennedy made us,” the younger one said, winking at Lucas. “I think it was a waste of time. Nice to meet you, Dr. Hudson.”
They shook hands, and Lucas smiled even though he could tell Alex was irritated by the cavalier way his cops insisted on handling the situation. Blackhawk was a small town, but Alex took his job very seriously, following the letter of the law with admirable diligence and an almost old-world sense of honor. Well, to a point. It seemed there was sometimes a little wiggle room within the defined code. But it took a veteran to know when to bend and when to stand firm. The two young men who rounded out the police force were nothing but rookies. Kids, really. Two boys who grew up within Blackhawk city limits and knew little more than the character and quirks of the 2,587 people who called their wooded corner of northwest Iowa home. Their world was finely bordered.
Alex’s frustration was understandable, but Lucas didn’t feel like hearing a speech. Before the police chief had a chance to lay into the uniformed boys, Lucas said: “Let’s get this over with. I’m documenting, you guys have to take him down.”
“You might want to take a few moments to investigate the circumstances and, seemingly obvious or not, try to determine cause of death,” Alex prompted with a grunt. “And, of course, you’ll want to confirm that he is, in fact, deceased. I can’t do that, you know. The coroner has to.”
Lucas felt his shoulders stiffen. “Get me something to stand on,” he said, his words sharp and just a little too hard. He had acted as coroner on only a handful of occasions, and they had all been run-of-the-mill, small-town stuff. An elderly lady who died in her sleep. A middle-aged man who died of a withering cancer in hospice care. Lucas was an excellent doctor, arguably wasted on the monotony of rural life, but this was unprecedented. Jim had knocked him a bit off his game.
It took awhile to find something that would work for him to stand on. There were no ladders, no boxes that looked even remotely sturdy. All that was available was the same chair that Jim had used, and after a few moments, with a heavy sigh, Alex righted it beneath the body. He held out his hand before it, palm up, and backed away so Lucas could do his job.
The barn seemed to shift as Lucas climbed onto the chair, but he couldn’t tell if it was because the rotting piece of furniture was old and feeble or because the reenactment was making his head spin. He paused a few seconds to get his balance, and did everything he could to avoid looking directly at the body before him. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned to face Jim head-on.
With deft fingers, Lucas probed the rigid neck. It was cold and still, smooth-firm like molded plastic. No pulse, no breath, no life. Rigor had already begun to set in. Bending a little, Lucas took Jim’s hands in his own and studied the stiff curve of his thick fingers. Nails bitten down to the quick, tobacco stains creating muddy rivers in the whorls of his fingerprints. He was a nail-biter, a smoker, but beyond the obvious, his hands were clean. There were no wounds, no sign of a struggle, in fact, no indicators of anything beyond his bad habits. He wore no wedding ring, no watch on his wrist to mark the bittersweet passage of time.
Lucas sighed. “He’s dead,” he confirmed unnecessarily. “No signs of struggle as far as I can tell.”
“Death by asphyxiation?”
“I’m pretty sure his neck is broken,” Lucas said. “But I’m not entirely sure how. He didn’t have far to fall, and it takes at least a four-foot drop to break the neck.”
“Maybe he jumped,” Alex guessed, pointing to the high platform of the hayloft about them.
“Then what was the chair for? More likely he just really wanted to get the job done. He threw himself with some serious force.”
Alex seemed to consider something for a moment, but apparently it was too implausible to imagine that foul play was involved. “Let’s just get him down,” Alex said. “I think our best bet is to have two men on the ground to hold his body. I’ll cut the rope.” He produced a bone-handled hunting knife, originally ivory-colored but now stained tea brown and anything but police issue. “Let’s do it.”
Lucas and Alex switched places, and the police chief began the slow process of sawing through the thick woven rope.
Progress was slow, and made even more tedious by the utter silence that amplified the dull scratching of the knife. Each piece of rope that spun off the homemade noose made a soft snick that seemed like an echo of the sound Jim’s neck must have made when it broke. Lucas saw each pop as a snapshot of Jim’s sad life: his beat-up, mustard-yellow Chevy truck, the stray mutt that followed him around for a few weeks until it was mangled by a car, the bottles of Black Velvet that he bought on the first Monday of every month. The imaginary scrapbook was so sad, so rife with loneliness, that for an aching moment, Lucas’s arms longed to encircle Jenna. The specters that haunted the shadowed barn drew his attention like a magnet, but Lucas gave his head a hard shake and focused his attention on Alex so that he didn’t have to wrestle unseen demons.
Alex was completely engulfed in the task before him as he adjusted his weight on the chair in order to get at the rope with his other hand. His movement on the worthless piece of furniture tossed the balance to one of the shorter back legs and the flimsy chair began a teetering roll on three legs. Lucas hopped off the stall gate and made a lunge to steady Alex, but he was too far away and past the point of rescue. In an instant, Alex counterbalanced, grabbed for Jim’s body, stopped himself in horror, and went flying backward off the chair. As he hit the ground with a nauseating thud, the three men maneuvered around the now swinging body of Jim Sparks and crouched down to offer help that was too late.
Alex was grimacing and clutching his right elbow, but he assured everyone he was fine, punctuated with a few choice words and “Get the hell away from me.”
“Come on, Alex,” Lucas coaxed, “let me take a quick look at you. Did you hit your head?”
But Alex was already getting up. “I’m fine. It’s just that piece of—” He shrugged off their steadying hands and swung back to kick the toppled-over chair. As his foot made contact with the seat, a sharp crack split the air and was almost immediately joined by Alex’s yelp. The chair hadn’t moved.
Lucas joined Alex and bent down to see what had held the piece of furniture so tightly in place. “Foot okay?” He asked quietly.
The chair was sticking out at a forty-five-degree angle to the ground. The back left leg had dug a deep gash in the hard-packed earthen floor of the barn and was now securely rooted in between the dirt and what looked like a thick tree branch.
“Looks like you’ve got quite a bit of leverage,” one of the young officers quipped from over their shoulders.
Alex didn’t respond to the jab, but leaned in closer to the foot of the chair and carefully dusted dry earth off the branch.
“So there’re roots underneath the barn. Big deal.” The other rookie cop turned away and proved himself gutsy enough to grab Jim’s body and stop its dancelike sway.
“I don’t think it’s a tree branch,” Alex mumbled. “Too far away from anything growing nearby.”
“Sounds ominous,” Lucas quipped.
“Mysteries R Us.” Alex waved him closer. “Take a look at this.”
Lucas crawled down on his hands and knees and studied the object. It was barely peeking out of the ground, a hint of grimy hardness in a parallel line with earth. Only a couple of inches were exposed, but Lucas could tell that it extended far beyond eyesight and deep underground. Dirt worn as smooth as cement banked both sides—if the chair hadn’t disturbed its hard-packed grave, the incongruity beneath the barn floor might have never surfaced at all.
Reaching out a tentative hand, Lucas brushed the dirt away with his fingertips, revealing a grayish white surface that was comparatively smooth despite tiny pockmarks that dug minuscule basins across the exterior. He clawed at the dust with his nails until they began to split, then he turned to Alex with a sigh.
Alex handed it over without a single cynical comment.
Lucas scratched and dug, prying chunks of earth away with each vicious slash. Within minutes, he could tentatively wrap his fingers around it. He pulled gently. It didn’t give an inch. Pulling harder produced the same effect: nothing.
“What do you think it is?” Alex cut in.
In the corner of his mind, a shadowy thought was beginning to materialize in smoky, elusive wisps. Lucas brushed more dust away, touched the object again, and realized with a paralyzing jolt that the doctor in him had always known what it was. His subconscious perceived it even when his mind refused to believe. “Oh, God.” Lucas whispered it—a prayer, an invocation, a heartfelt, aching plea—because he knew . . . he knew what lay beneath the feet of the community’s infamous outcast.
“Lucas, come on, don’t get all melodramatic.”
It was through a fog that Lucas managed to mumble, “I think we’re looking at Angela Sparks.”
A tangible quiet descended on the barn. Disbelief, thick and poisonous, choked each man as they stared at what they now knew to be a bone. A human bone. Moments trudged by before Alex found his voice. “I thought Jenna was helping her get out of town.”
Jenna Hudson was deep water. Mysterious, flowing, dark. She had stormed into Lucas’s life late in his residency and had affixed herself indelibly, ineradicably in his mind before she ever made it to his heart. Jenna, with her baggy jeans, piled hair, bare feet. She wore her own skin as if it was an afterthought, something that she had just tossed on as she swept out the door. She claimed him without meaning to, without really seeming to care if he was hers. But he was, and from the first moment, she knew it.
Jenna was all eyes. Blue so bottomless it was navy, almost black. And it was those eyes, in the face framed by curls that appeared to flow out of everything that was her, shadowy enough to be coal, that demanded all of Lucas. He had never been in love before, and he never bothered to question if he even knew what love truly was. He simply married her.
The first time Lucas told Jenna that he loved her, they were getting groceries. It became a Sunday ritual early in their relationship; the resident and the social worker, too busy during every other imaginable hour even to contemplate something as unnecessary as grocery shopping. And yet they found themselves spending hours as they discovered new delicacies, chased each other down aisles, and intentionally avoided every bargain. Their cart overflowed with chocolate cherry bordeaux ice cream, thin wedges of expensive cheeses, sprouted wheat bread trucked in from the organic bakery downtown.
Jenna was standing over the vine-ripened tomatoes, touching and carefully pressing and easing the chosen few into a clear plastic bag on the day it finally happened. Lucas was leaning over the grocery cart, indulging in his new favorite pastime of simply watching her.
“You know I love you.”
It was a casual statement, and Jenna didn’t even seem to notice. He thought about saying it again, about reaching over the tomatoes to touch her, make her feel his skin pressing against her hand, maybe even pull her close. He didn’t. It wasn’t until she had fastened the bag with a green twist tie and gently laid the crimson treasures in the bottom of the cart that she said, “I know.”
She didn’t say it back. She didn’t have to.
By the time Lucas proposed to her, Jenna still hadn’t managed to utter the words, but it didn’t matter. He knew how she felt, or at least he was convinced enough to believe that his love was enough for them both.
He asked her to marry him the day her grandmother lost her driver’s license. After her mother died, Jenna lived with her grandmother, Caroline, in a tiny flat that was closer to Milwaukee than Chicago. She drove over an hour each way just to get to work at the hospital. But her commitment to Oma dictated that she stay with her as long as she could care for the spunky eighty-five-year-old.
Lucas was with Jenna when she got the call that Caroline had been in an accident. The hospital where she had been taken was a good forty-five-minute drive, but Lucas and Jenna abandoned their date and sped to her side. The accident turned out to be a fender-bender, and Oma suffered no more than a bruised knee where her leg slid into the console inches from her seat.
When Caroline saw her granddaughter, the tears that were threatening to spill trailed one at a time down her wrinkled cheeks.
“Oma, why didn’t you stop at the stop sign?” Jenna asked.
Caroline’s answer solidified what they had known for some time: “I thought I stopped. I mean, I stopped in my mind.”
The officer who arrived at the scene pulled Jenna aside and gave her Caroline’s driver’s license.
It was in the kitchen of the flat, after Caroline had bathed and relaxed enough to fall fitfully asleep, that Lucas got down on one knee. It felt strange, even to him, as the cold of the linoleum floor seeped through his jeans and into his very bones. Jenna was sitting with her legs under her in an uncomfortable wooden chair, warming her hands on a cup of black coffee and looking into its depths as if answers waited for her in the dregs.
He hadn’t planned it this way. They were supposed to be bundled up beneath the lights of Navy Pier overlooking Lake Michigan. Her cheeks would be pink from the wind and a scarf would be knotted at her neck as she said something playful to him. He would have taken out the ring when she wasn’t looking. She would have turned away from the water and found him there. She would have laughed and said, “Yes.”
Instead, she raised tired eyes to look at him almost sadly. She asked, “What are you doing?” And he said it again, “I love you.”
It was the first time he saw her cry. Jenna put out her arms and he shuffled over to her, still on his knees. She wrapped herself around him, legs and all, and held on as if she was afraid of being swept away. “Are you asking me to marry you?” He was shocked to hear the disbelief in her voice.
“Yes,” he said.
She said it back. “Yes.”
When they moved to Iowa to follow Caroline, Lucas left the city with no regrets. She was with him, all five foot two inches of her, and nothing else mattered. They moved into a century home on the outskirts of a town that boasted no more than one grocery store and enough gossip to last at least a hundred lifetimes.
Blackhawk was nestled against the hills that marked the border between Iowa and South Dakota, and the muddy Big Sioux river ran a trembling line between the trees less than a stone’s throw from the invisible marker of the official city limits. The cobbled main street of Blackhawk’s picturesque downtown ambled past pretty houses with Dutch lace curtains and a hodgepodge collection of small-town amenities. There was a crumbling brick bank, an equally dilapidated police station, a café, a tiny library that specialized in interlibrary loans. But Blackhawk’s claim to fame was a trio of antiques stores that boasted sagging shelves of what Lucas considered junk, but which people came from miles around to admire and procure for dusty corners in their own homes.
The streets were cracked, the trees ancient and gnarled, the people reserved. Blackhawk was nothing to write home about, situated in the proverbial middle of nowhere. Sioux Falls was a forty-five-minute drive away. Omaha could be reached in two and a half hours, Minneapolis in four. But the Hudsons weren’t known for doing anything halfway, and they threw themselves into their new life with the same passion they directed at everything else.
Jenna started Safe House, a domestic violence aid center that specialized in helping victims of abuse begin new lives. Lucas was always stunned by the number of women who saw Jenna every week. Bustling metropolis or quiet village, violence seemed to know no boundaries.
And Lucas himself, making what he believed would be a temporary adjustment to small-town life even more easily than his wife, joined Blackhawk’s medical clinic and worked alongside two other doctors diagnosing strep throat and setting broken bones.
For the first few years, Lucas felt like he was camping, on vacation from normal life. Or on an extended mission trip like the three months he had spent just outside of Tegucigalpa, giving wide-eyed orphans their first taste of medical treatment. They had hated the needles. But then two years in Blackhawk turned into four, and four into eight, until a decade had passed and then a momentous dozen years—one-third of his life—and he was officially a small-town resident.
It wasn’t necessarily the life he had always dreamed of, but Jenna was the woman he had always dreamed of.
She was more than enough.
What People are Saying About This
"Nicole Baart writes like a dream, and she gives us a story that is part murder mystery, part sensitive exploration of our human connections: the ties between parent and child, husband and wife; the tug of the past; and the blurry, often baffling border between friendship and love.
“Emotionally gripping and perfectly paced, Sleeping in Eden’s taut storyline and profound characterizations will keep you turning the page until the richly satisfying end.”
“Sleeping in Eden mesmerized me from the first heart-stopping page. Nicole Baart draws her characters beautifully while crafting a plot that kept me up all night. A highly emotional and gripping read.”
"Baart's beautifully layered story of one man's journey to repair his wounded marriage, and the unsolved crime that may be the key to its healing, takes readers on a gripping ride. At turns chillingly suspenseful and achingly tender, Sleeping in Eden is exactly the sort of novel every reader hopes to find when they crack the spine of a new book. Baart's characters are richly drawn and utterly compelling; I was hooked from page one.
“Sleeping in Eden is bittersweet and moving, and it will haunt you from page one. Nicole Baart writes with such passion and heart.”
"Sleeping in Eden is intense and absorbing from the very first page. Written in lovely prose, two seemingly different storylines collide in a shocking conclusion.
“Nicole Baart’s Sleeping in Eden is vivid storytelling with a temporal sweep. In Baart’s cleverly woven mystery, the characters’ intertwined fates prove that passions transcend time—and secrets will always be unearthed.”
“Sleeping in Eden is a bittersweet and masterful story of love and longing and redemption. Nicole Baart has crafted an irresistible mystery, a page-turner of a novel with prose so rich, and characters so beautifully drawn, you’ll be absorbed from the very first sentence. I’m telling everyone I know to put Sleeping in Eden on their to-be-read list—you will not be disappointed!”
“With lyrical prose and a narrative that kept me turning pages at a breakneck speed, Sleeping in Eden delivered everything I yearn for in a novel: evocative plot lines, well-drawn characters, and a heart-stopping conclusion.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Sleeping in Eden includes an introduction, discussion questions, and a Q&A with author Nicole Baart. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Dr. Lucas Hudson is filling in for the town’s vacationing coroner on a seemingly open-and-shut suicide case in Blackhawk, Iowa, when he unearths the skeletal remains of a young woman in a barn. Lucas is certain that they belong to a local girl, Angela Sparks, whom he and his wife, Jenna, had presumed had run away from her neglectful father years ago. Jenna has never recovered from Angela’s disappearance, and Lucas becomes driven to solve the mystery of the victim’s identity, both to bring Jenna some closure and to save his faltering marriage.
Years before Lucas ever set foot in Blackhawk, Meg Painter meets Dylan Reid in nearby Sutton, and the two quickly become inseparable. Their relationship turns turbulent when Jess Langbroek, Meg’s older neighbor, takes an interest in her. Jess is the safe choice for Meg, stable and loving, but Meg can’t let go of Dylan and the history they share no matter how hard she tries. Caught in a web of jealousy and deceit she can’t control, Meg’s choices in the past collide with Lucas’s investigation in the present.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “Blackhawk was nothing to write home about, situated in the proverbial middle of nowhere” (p. 14). Discuss the setting of Sleeping in Eden. What role, if any, does the remote landscape of the novel play in the temperaments of its characters?
2. Discuss Meg Painter’s initial encounter with Dylan Reid on the Fourth of July during a neighborhood game of Bloody Murder. To what extent does their conversation anticipate the nature of their relationship?
3. “Maybe it was [Angela’s] innocence that drew Jenna in. Maybe it was her undeniable beauty or her deep silences or doleful eyes. Whatever it was, it wasn’t long after meeting the small, seemingly parentless, grubby Cinderella that Jenna was beyond smitten” (p. 29). Compare and contrast how Jenna and Lucas Hudson feel about Angela Sparks, the adolescent girl they befriend.
4. The eight-year-long unexplained absence of Angela Sparks contributes significantly to the deterioration of Lucas and Jenna Hudson’s marriage. Why doesn’t her return serve to mend their union?
5. “It was a ring. And if [Lucas’s] assessment was right, it was real gold, though grimy and neglected and discolored. The piece of jewelry looked sad lying there, like a dejected attempt at intimacy, an artifact of love that had long faded” (p. 35). Why does Lucas feel that Jenna is entitled to conceal the crime scene ring from the police? What does his ethically questionable decision suggest about his character and his feelings for his wife?
6. When Lucas examines a newly pregnant patient at the clinic, he has a revelatory experience listening to her unborn baby’s heartbeat. How does his longing for a child compare to that of his wife? How does their grief over losing Audrey affect their relationship?
7. Why does Lucas invade Jenna’s privacy by accessing her computer without her permission? What information does he hope to find? To what extent is his behavior justified?
8. “[Looking] at Jess’s face was like peering into a mirror. The way [Meg] felt for Dylan was the way Jess Langbroek felt for her” (p. 105). Why does Meg stay in a relationship with Jess, despite her reservations, when it is Dylan whom she truly loves? How do Jess’s possessive feelings toward Meg complicate their romance?
9. How does the return of Angela Sparks affect Lucas Hudson? Given the troubled nature of her relationship with her father, why does she feel compelled to clear his name? To what extent do Lucas and Angela have the same motivation in their search for the identity of the woman in the barn?
10. How does the novel resolve the questions around the body in Jim Sparks’s barn? To what extent were you surprised by the explanation for Meg’s death? Discuss some alternative possibilities raised by the events of the novel.
11. What do Lucas Hudson and Meg Painter have in common as protagonists? Your group might want to discuss the way each character is affected by their romantic interests, their willingness to rebel against the status quo, and their individual ethics. Which of the parallel narratives did you find most gripping and why?
12. Meg Painter’s love triangle with Dylan Reid (the handsome stranger from the wrong side of the tracks) and Jess Langbroek (the handsome neighbor who knows she’s the right one for him) captures some of the dynamics of romantic love that characterize adolescence. To what extent did these relationships remind you of others you know, either from personal experience or from other novels? Did you find yourself rooting for one of the male suitors, and, if so, which one?
13. “‘We were sleeping in Eden,’ Linda explained. ‘But we didn’t even know it until it was gone.’ She sighed, her voice breaking. ‘Paradise lost’” (p. 347). What does this exchange between Meg Painter’s mother, Linda, and Lucas Hudson mean to you? In what ways are you sleeping in your own personal Eden?
14. Near the end of the book, Lucas realizes that everyone must be held accountable for the things that they did—and didn’t do. What do you think this means? What sins of omission did the characters in this book commit?
A Conversation with Nicole Baart
1. The narration of Sleeping in Eden alternates between the stories of Lucas Hudson and Meg Painter. Did you write each narrative separately, or did the novel come to you in a linear fashion? What drew you to these characters in particular?
It took me over ten years to write the stories of Lucas and Meg, and it was a very messy process. The novel came together much like a thousand-piece puzzle: one tiny bit at a time, and only with the help of friends, family, agents, and editors who were willing to get down on the floor and search for missing pieces!
The story was sparked in my mind when the body of an unidentified woman was found near my hometown. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. My heart ached for her and for the people who missed her—and who had no idea that she had been found murdered in a ditch in Iowa. She started to come to life in my imagination, and she was very different from who I expected her to be. She was spunky and vivacious and interesting. The sort of girl who tempted fate simply by being her amazing self. And, of course, with a heroine so charming, I had to find someone who would fight for her. Someone who would feel the pull of her story deeply enough to set aside his own common sense and do everything in his power to right the unimaginable wrong that had been done to her. That someone was Lucas, and like Meg, he was a total surprise! These two characters absolutely gripped me. So much so that I was willing to write and rewrite this book over and over again for an entire decade.
2. Dylan Reid’s and Jess Langbroek’s feelings for Meg Painter create the perfect romantic triangle. To what extent did you intend for your readers to support either suitor, as in a “Team Dylan” or “Team Jess” scenario?
I didn’t intend for my readers to pick a suitor for Meg, though I love the idea of “Team Dylan” and “Team Jess” T-shirts! I’d wear them both, depending on my mood.
Honestly, in writing Meg’s love triangle, I was trying to explore the nature of women and why we seem to be perpetually drawn to the “bad boy” when someone strong and stable and perfect is often right there in front of us. I’ve experienced this phenomenon personally, and I know many other women have, too. It’s a common story, but one that bears repeating because it can’t be explained no matter how hard we try. The human heart is simply too complicated to be reduced to something we can dissect and predict. To that end, Meg’s story isn’t so much prescriptive as it is descriptive. I didn’t want my readers to feel a certain way, and I hope that people end up supporting both Dylan and Jess. I’d love for readers to personally explore why they were drawn to one character over the other. Ask yourself the questions: What past experiences shaped my response? What do my reactions indicate about me and how I view relationships? I love taking the opportunity to dig deep and know myself better, and I feel like I learned a lot through my own personal reactions to the characters of Dylan and Jess. I love them both for very different reasons.
One last thought on this issue: Did you notice that Lucas embodies both the male stereotypes? He’s a safe, responsible, levelheaded guy, but he ends up doing something totally questionable and rebellious. I think sometimes we’d like to pigeonhole people, but the truth is, we are incredibly complex—and capable of truly astonishing things.
3. There are a number of “lost” girls in this novel—Angela Sparks, Audrey Hudson, Meg Painter. How did you anticipate this pattern echoing across the overarching narrative of the book?
I actually think Jenna Hudson could be added to the list of lost girls in this novel. She’s lost in a different way, but aren’t we all? I guess that was kind of the point as I continued to develop these characters— to explore the idea that we are all, in a myriad of diverse ways, lost. At least, we often feel that way.
Someone once said that fear and desire keep the world in motion, and though I don’t necessarily agree with that, I do think that most people make decisions based on those emotions. We seem to always be running to something or away from it, and many of us get lost along the way. All of the women in Sleeping in Eden were tangled up in the contradiction of their own fears and desires, and it led them to some very solitary places, both literally and metaphorically speaking. As for Audrey, I think her loss is central to the book. She symbolizes every- thing that Jenna wants and can’t have, and echoes back Meg’s story and the precious young life that is longed for and lost in her narrative.
4. Lucas Hudson’s ethics in Sleeping in Eden are questionable. Given the ready temptations of Angela Sparks, why doesn’t he surrender to more base instincts?
He loves his wife. Period. It bothers me that men are often portrayed as cheating scumbags when most of the men I know are hopelessly devoted to their wives. In fact, in my experience, the stereotype is often flipped on its head: most of the marriages that I’ve seen break up are because the wife no longer cares to make it work. Of course, that’s a gross overgeneralization and I’m sure there are lots of statistics to disprove my sentiments, but just once I wanted to read a story about a man who fought for his woman. Not a fairy-tale, knight-in- shining-armor-saves-the-fairy-princess story, but a gritty, real, heartbreaking story of a bad marriage and a rather bitter, unlovable woman who nevertheless is deeply, truly loved by her faithful husband. Even when he is sorely tempted. As for Lucas’s ethics, he takes the ring because he believes that it will soothe Jenna’s broken heart and offer her some closure and peace. Everything he does, he does for her, and the ethics of it seem minimized to me somehow in the light of how far he is willing to go to do good by her. What would you do to save your marriage? How far would you go for love? Lucas is tested against those questions time and again in Sleeping in Eden, and though he fumbles and struggles at times, I admire him for going so far beyond himself for the woman he loves.
5. The fostering of a girl in need of a family seems like the perfect solution for the Hudson family. Your book doesn’t explain what enabled Lucas and Jenna to overcome their marital problems. Why did you choose to leave this open to interpretation?
I left their struggle open to interpretation because I didn’t think that sort of journey could be summed up in a book—or even in a series of books. Marriage is such a mystery. It’s so personal and intimate and sacred . . . And I felt like a bit of a voyeur poking and prodding Lucas and Jenna in their most vulnerable, emotionally naked moments. We see so much of their journey in the book: their grief over Audrey and the divergent roads they take, the way Lucas continues to seek Jenna and she pushes him away. But they have history on their side, and so many shared experiences that knit them together. By the end of the book, I hope it’s obvious that they both still love each other and that they have the tenacity to fight through the things that threatened to tear them apart. If love is a choice, I believe Lucas and Jenna choose to love—and Mia is a by-product of that love, not the essence of it.
6. You’re a parent of three children. In Sleeping in Eden, you write eloquently of Jenna Hudson’s longing for a child. What led you to incorporate this theme in the novel?
People always ask me how much of myself I put into my novels, and the answer is usually rather vague. But I wrote parts of Sleeping in Eden from a very raw and wounded place, and I believe that’s evident in Jenna’s longing for a baby. Although we never struggled with infertility, my husband and I experienced four miscarriages—two of which took place in the second trimester. Each loss was absolutely crushing, and it destroyed me when people tried to minimize what had happened by saying things like, “Well, at least it was early.” To me, the loss was no less. Each time, I grieved for a child. So it was easy for me to pour my heartache into Jenna’s character—and to understand how that sort of sorrow could tear a marriage apart. By the grace of God, my husband and I only became closer through our shared suffering. But not every story ends as happily as ours, and it wasn’t hard for me to imagine a different scenario. Especially after the birth of our youngest son. My pregnancy with him was high risk, and because I was always steeling myself for bad news, I spent nine months in a state of perpetual stress and numbness. When I finally delivered a beautiful, healthy boy, I wept for days. My mother’s heart breaks for Jenna and for women like her. For myself.
7. You’ve spoken of “the contrived ideal of what it means to be an author.” What do you mean by that? What would most surprise your readers to know about you?
There’s a certain author stereotype. You know the one: We’re all quirky and bookish, erudite and narcissistic. We wear jackets with elbow patches, drink coffee by the potful, love cats and tortoiseshell glasses, and live for solitude. And maybe some of those things are a little true (at least, for some of us). But my life is so far from that writer’s fantasy! Sure, I write, and I love it and I believe that it’s my calling and a profound expression of my soul, but I also do a whole lot of laundry. I change dirty diapers and wipe snotty noses with my sleeve and say astoundingly stupid things. Whenever I get together with other authors, I half expect them to sniff the air and realize that I’m not one of them. That I’m not bright enough or witty enough or deep enough to be an Author with a capital A. Especially since I some- times mix up words when I speak and say some insanely dumb stuff. Before I was published, I once told a group of people that I wanted to copulate Margaret Atwood. Uh, yeah. I meant emulate. I can’t believe I just told you that.
8. Which of the characters in Sleeping in Eden most reminds you of yourself? Were any of your characters modeled on friends or family?
None of the characters really remind me of myself, but Meg is the girl that I wished I was. The truth is, I was a shy little wallflower throughout high school, and I didn’t have an athletic bone in my body! I wanted to be tough and brave and strong, but I was skinny and nerdy and quiet. My nose was usually buried in a book, and if someone (a guy!) ever deigned to talk to me, I usually found myself tongue-tied, or worse: mute. But I love Meg’s character, her breezy personality and verve for life. I feel much more like her now, and I embrace every challenge and opportunity that comes my way. From backpacking to world travel to participating in a triathlon, I’m up for any adventure. I often say that I’ll try anything once. Back then? Not so much.
The only other character that is even remotely based on someone I know is Lucas. This sounds incredibly sappy, but my husband loves me fiercely—and I’m convinced that he’d move heaven and earth for me. When some early readers responded to Lucas’s character, they didn’t understand why he’d continue to fight for such a moody, grieving woman. But Aaron has stuck with me through some pretty tough times, and even at my lowest (after I lost a baby and didn’t get out of bed for a week) he loved me. He called me beautiful and met me in the pit of my deepest need. I am utterly confident in his love.