“Taylor Larsen creates a powerful and moving story about the fracturing of a family and its descent into chaos. A brilliant debut of self-delusion, and a perfectly flawed male character spiraling downward.” —Huffington Post
An “emotionally intelligent family drama” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review), in the tradition of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, about a wealthy man who reaches a crossroads after a lifetime of repression, sending his family into a slow spiral towards a breakdown.
When Michael James sees his wife Nancy chatting with a stranger at a party, his intuition tells him that he’s watching her with the man she should have married. He quickly begins a campaign to replace himself within his own family with this other man—who, to him, is worthier, better, and kinder—all so his faithful wife Nancy, his beautiful teenage daughter Ryan, and his young son Max can live the lives they deserve.
While Michael pursues this man’s friendship, Ryan goes through a period of sexual awakening and rebellion and distances herself from her family, and the quiet, weak Nancy becomes increasingly befuddled and frustrated by the behaviors of her husband and daughter. As tension and uncertainty build in their home, the James family slowly unravels.
With the quiet intensity of the film American Beauty and the emotional sensitivity of Lorrie Moore, Taylor Larsen creates a powerful and moving story about the fracturing of a family and its descent into chaos.
|Sold by:||SIMON & SCHUSTER|
|File size:||894 KB|
About the Author
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Stranger, Father, Beloved includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.
Michael James seems to have it all: a successful career, a supportive wife and two kids, a Cape Cod–style home on Rhode Island’s coveted “Peninsula.” Yet he regrets abandoning a promising career in academia, becoming estranged from his best friend, and being incapable of relating to his spouse, Nancy, as an intellectual equal. He struggles with paranoia and insomnia, disorders that feed a low-level but constant sense of inadequacy. Then when Michael notices Nancy talking to one of his party guests, John, with a sense of ease and pleasure he has never seen in her, he realizes his family might be better off without him. Determined to atone for his ambivalence as a husband and father, Michael begins to devise a way to bequeath his marital duties to John, a strong and capable landscaper. Meanwhile, Michael’s daughter, Ryan, is discovering her sexuality as puberty begins to transform her body into something both envied and desired. She learns how to wield cruelty when her relationship with the free-spirited mother of a childhood friend goes a step too far, and finds expression for her erotic yearnings in the arms of a young woman who recently graduated from her high school. Only at a second neighborhood party do decades of shame and sacrifice come to light for the Jameses’, as a long-repressed college memory of thwarted love comes back to Michael—one whose revelation could either break or liberate his family.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Although Michael initially thinks of his unexpected erections as occurrences tied somehow to vitality and youth, he comes to identify them as premonitions of the charge between Nancy and John (page 12). How might you read Michael’s interpretation in these early scenes differently in light of the repressed sexuality he realizes later on?
2. Consider the intricate web of conflicts between Michael, Nancy, and Ryan that develop over the course of Stranger, Father, Beloved. How do you explain Michael’s unwavering faith, despite these deteriorating relationships, that John is the “new presence [needed] to breathe life back into” the family (page 67)?
3. Larsen presents the reader with multiple perspectives to give the richest possible portrait of the James family. How does Ryan’s point of view of her father cast a unique light on Michael’s life that he is unable to perceive? Where else do you see the inner thoughts of characters in disagreement over the facts of their lives?
4. Periodically a fox appears in the James’ yard as a mysterious character just beyond human understanding. Do you interpret him as an ominous presence or a peaceful one? What common themes emerge in the scenes where Ryan or Michael see the fox on their property?
5. Ryan, Carol, and Jill’s personal senses of identity all undergo transformation. What commonalities do they share? How, on the other hand, does puberty distinguish the transformations of Ryan and Carol from that of Jill? Michael disapproves of his daughter dating throughout the novel, but at what point do you think he first identifies Ryan’s sexuality as a possible inheritance from him?
6. Michael’s disgust with Nancy often focuses on why “she [had] never gotten angry at him for withdrawing from her” (page 167). How do you interpret his disapproval of Nancy despite the sacrifices he recognizes she has made for his paranoid condition? Do you feel that the way he assigns blame alternately between Meg, for monopolizing Alex’s time, and Nancy, for her passivity, is contradictory or consistent?
7. Howard sees his son’s disorder as proof that Michael is “damaged in some unalterable way” (page 107), an assertion Michael appears to have assimilated when he refers to his own “faulty wiring” throughout the novel. But does Michael ever apply the same level of scrutiny back onto his father? How might Howard’s affair, chronicled in chapter four, help explain Michael’s sense that “he might like [Nancy] better if she was the type of woman who had it in her to cheat” (page 60)?
8. Nancy’s faith leads her to believe that her promiscuous friend “deserved negative consequences for such reckless actions” when Gwen gives birth to a baby with Down’s syndrome, by turn causing her to wonder “whether God was punishing her for thinking such things” when her own son Max is born severely asthmatic (page 69). How does the shame of her son’s condition relate to the way “watching her daughter was painful—to witness such beauty and then have it retreat from sight” (page 72)?
9. Review Larsen’s detailed description of the Jameses’ home and “the Peninsula” at the beginning of chapter three. How does the house operate as a character in its own right? How do Michael, Nancy, and Ryan relate differently to the prestige it represents and the seclusion it provides?
10. To whom do the “stranger, father, [and] beloved” in the novel’s title refer? Do you think Nancy’s desire to be “the queen bee, the beloved rather than the lover” (page 127) and Michael’s claim that Alex had been “a perfect human being, his beloved” (page 234) indicate that each part of the title could refer to multiple characters?
11. By the end of their first dinner alone together, John admits to Nancy that he admires her breasts (page 135). Besides the inhibition-loosening influence of the wine they drink together, what changes between the two characters over the course of the night? How do Nancy’s insecurities specifically transform during this scene?
12. When Ryan sheds light on Michael’s previously hazy memory of biting his daughter on the neck, she admits that “the moment was utterly obscure and indescribable to her. But the ‘bite’ had plagued her mind for days, her body tensing up” (page 89). How severe of a violation do you find Michael’s behavior? Why does he do this? Does Ryan’s view of her relationship with her father shift fundamentally in the moment she recollects this past event?
13. After sex on page 184, “a strong urge to hit [Nancy] seized Michael, as she lay there pretending to be in a state of rapture. He wanted to slap her for pretending.” What, by contrast, causes the two to have mutually satisfying sex on page 208?
14. When Michael and John get drunk together, Michael “suddenly felt he was a young man, as was John, ageless” (page 202). Yet John’s occasional crassness and the shabbiness of his house shock Michael (page 190). What previously unknown details about John’s character does this scene reveal?
15. Discuss the end of the novel. How is feeling “naked [at his mother’s house] with [his children], a strange man living alone [ . . . ] less horrifying than the idea of ever going back to that house and inserting himself back into that prism of expectations” (page 261)? Why do you think Michael decides to remain at his mother’s house after her death?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Despite the fact that wilderness retreats with his church fail to save his marriage, John “loved those group camping trips” (page 186). Michael, on the other hand, skeptically wonders if the founders of the retreat his family visits have “tailored their speech to fit what they felt was a troubled dysfunctional family” (page 233). Does the family ultimately learn something from the retreat? How does the depiction of retreat centers in the novel compare to your own conception or experience of such religious organizations?
2. Stranger, Father, Beloved explores the challenges of parenting children with physical disabilities, psychiatric disorders, or sexual orientations that make them feel marginalized among or different from their peers. Share with your book group an experience you or someone close to you has had as either a parent or a child of difference, and discuss how the novel grapples with similar issues.
3. Michael is convinced that having John take care of his wife will right the wrongs of their failed marriage, but neither John nor Nancy express this hope in the pages of the novel. Do you think divorce between the Jameses would have the effect Michael intends? Is John the man Nancy should have married and why does she cling to Michael? For which marriages is divorce the best option? Make a list that creates a visual diagram of the differences in opinion among your book club members on the subject of divorce. Where do your views overlap? Where do you disagree most strongly?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is an impressive debut novel, beautifully and sensitively written, coming from an original new voice. Larsen is a writer to be watched. I will look for her next book.
This is an extremely powerful and well written book with terrific reviews by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review (starred), and Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. A must read by anyone who appreciates good literature.
Stranger, Father, Beloved by Taylor Larsen is a recommended debut novel featuring a family falling apart. The James family is wealthy, living in a very nice Cape-style home on the Rhode Island peninsula. Michael James, his wife, Nancy, teenage daughter Ryan and young son Max should be content, but that isn't the case. Michael has a diagnosed mental illness, neurotic paranoia, and has been on medication for it for years. Now it seems that his medication isn't working as well as it should, probably due to Michael's drinking. That combined with his chronic insomnia is affecting his thought processes. When he sees his wife smiling and laughing with a stranger at a party, Michael decides that this man should be the one Nancy is married to and also the father to his children. Michael makes friends with the man, John, and sets his delusional plan into motion. Stranger, Father, Beloved is told in the third person. Each chapter reflects the viewpoints of either Michael or Ryan, occasionally Nancy. It is all introspection, personal experiences, and thoughts. Michael is unlikable and looks at everything as something that could have been better had he made the right choice - the right choice being not his current life. Ryan, their teenage daughter, stays away from their home for days at a time, yet neither parent stops her. She is going through her own struggles with self-identity. Nancy is the long-suffering wife who loves Michael. This is a very well written novel; however, it is unrelentingly sad. While I didn't find it particularly compelling, it does capture the slow demise of a family and Michael's paranoia. Ryan is actually the more interesting character, but the focus is on Michael, who is the most irritating. Michael's constant looking to the past was tiresome for me. I know he has a mental illness, but he also sought out and craved sadness and dissatisfaction. His elevated opinion of his great mental prowess compared to lowly Nancy's lack of any intellectual ability was annoying. Ryan's actions and her freedom to basically do as she pleased because she is unhappy at home were startling. These parents are immersed into self-contemplation and yet so fearful of her reaction that they did not try to talk to her to find out where she has been for the past week? Finally, the big startling revealing insight at the end felt contrived and opportunistic. Yes, Stranger, Father, Beloved is technically very well written and I stayed with it to the end. I just don't buy it. Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.