Surprise Me: A Novel

Surprise Me: A Novel

by Deena Goldstone
Surprise Me: A Novel

Surprise Me: A Novel

by Deena Goldstone



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Surprise Me, a debut novel, is an unconventional love story about two writers who see more in each other than they see in themselves, and how that faith transforms them.

The fragile dream of becoming a writer takes hold during Isabelle Rothman’s senior year of college. Against all advice, she begins a one-on-one tutorial with a once highly praised novelist, Daniel Jablonski, who is known on campus for being eccentric, difficult, and disengaged. Despite his reputation, Isabelle loves his early novels and harbors a secret hope that Daniel might teach her how to write such luminous prose. But their first meeting is a disaster: Daniel is unprepared, never having read the chapters she submitted, and does not apologize. Isabelle is furious and feels dismissed.
     But over the semester, they gingerly form a bond that begins to anchor both of them. And over the next twenty years, as they live very separate lives—Isabelle in Northern California and Daniel finally settled in a tiny New Hampshire town—they reach out through e-mails, phone calls, and occasional visits. Their continual connection helps Isabelle find the courage to take risks and enables Daniel to work through layers of regret and begin to write again. They are the single constant and the most profound influence in each other’s life.
     Daniel and Isabelle recognize they are among the blessed few who met at the exact moment they needed each other the most. In a final collaboration, the boundaries between teacher and student give way to a work that heals something in both of them. Each truly sees the other as extraordinary—as people do when they love—and that belief makes all the difference.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385541244
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/21/2016
Sold by: Random House
Format: eBook
Pages: 336
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

DEENA GOLDSTONE is the author of the short story collection Tell Me One Thing and a screenwriter who has worked in feature films and television movies. She lives in Pasadena, California, with her family. This is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Isabelle strides across the beautifully manicured Chandler campus lost in her own internal, and achingly familiar, monologue of indecision. The subject matter varies according to the problem at hand, but the need to mull over, argue with, and second guess herself remains the constant. How many hours of her life has she wasted this way, she wonders. More like days, months, even years. Does she ever make a decision without this particular form of agony, she asks herself. Does she ever make a decision at all is probably a better question, or does she simply throw up her hands and slip into change?

The dilemma for today is whether she’s done the right thing by signing up for a tutorial with Daniel Jablonski. The campus wisdom on him, given freely by everyone she consulted, was unanimously some version of - Jablonski, he hates doing these one-on-ones so mostly the guy doesn’t show up for meetings. Or even more ominously - The guy’s been known to sit there the entire hour and never say a word.  Not one word! He’ll stare at you, that’s it. What will she do if there’s nothing but an hour of staring ahead of her? She has no idea.

And yet… and yet… there are his two early novels, published more than twenty years before, which Isabelle has read and reread and reread again, and they are luminous. If only she could learn how to write like that. That’s her secret hope, told to no one and barely acknowledged even to herself, that Daniel Jablonski might lead her to that rarified place.

Even that wish feels like a sort of heresy to Isabelle. Nothing in her background or the very clear expectations given to her by her parents have pointed her towards a career as a writer. Her father would be horrified – there’s no stability there. And her mother would be incredulous – Isabelle a writer?  Not remotely possible.

Teaching – that’s the profession they had all agreed upon. And it had seemed, when she started college, to be the exact right choice. In love with literature, Isabelle envisioned a life of losing herself in the endless pages of very long and distinguished novels and communicating the wonders of other people’s minds to young, hopefully eager students.

Then, on a whim, she took a class entitled “The Psychodrama of Drama,” taught by a visiting professor who was both a psychiatrist and a published novelist and who required all her students to keep a journal. They were to write for twenty uninterrupted minutes per day, every day, without correction or rereading. For Isabelle, it was as if the gates of Hoover Dam had been blown open. To her astonishment, torrents of words and memories and then, finally, exaltation cascaded out. Until that moment, she had never known she had anything to say.

Head down now on this bright and brisk January morning, gesturing to herself from time to time as each new thought occurs, Isabelle passes the Student Union and the bookstore, built around an outside quad in a style which mimics the historic California missions - thick white walls and red tile roofs.  All the buildings at Chandler owe a debt to the Spanish architecture of the early days of the state.

And along every path, California native plants have been arranged in complimentary combinations. Within a few short weeks, because February brings spring to Los Angeles, the California poppies, which are just beginning to sport tight little nuggets of buds, will bloom a buttery, golden yellow and all the salvia will send up thin wands of pink or red or purple bells held high above their gray-green rosettes of leaves. But Isabelle notices none of it.

Is it possible for her to learn something from a man everyone describes as a recluse? Who will show up this morning in his office, the Jablonski who wrote those two stunning, emotionally raw books or the taciturn eccentric everyone describes? Or maybe… oh, my god, a new thought… maybe they are one and the same!

As Isabelle climbs the stone stairway which leads to the upper campus, she joins the tide of students rushing to their ten o’clock classes. Through the heavy wooden door of Lathrop Hall and into the classroom building they go, en masse.

It is at the second floor landing that Isabelle pauses. Here are the professors’ offices. Here it is quieter. She reminds herself to take a few deep breaths as she contemplates what’s in front of her. The hallway is long with the many tightly closed doors on each side. The wooden floor is worn from a hundred years of students’ feet shuffling along its narrow length. The old fashioned ceiling globes, positioned every fifteen feet, are impossibly dirty and give off a weak light. She hears a muffled male voice loudly imploring someone to “Hold on a minute… Now hold on!” and as she nears the fourth door on the right, the door she needs to knock on, the raised voice gets louder. That must be him. He must be yelling at someone. Not a good start. She wants to turn around and leave.
Daniel Jablonski is on the phone with his second ex-wife and they have reached the point in their habitual conversation that they are shouting over each other. Why is it that his divorce from Cheryl seems to fill up more of his life than their short, misguided, marriage ever did? Why can’t she be more like his first wife, Stephanie, who seemed glad to be rid of him and quickly transferred another man into the slot labeled “husband.” Simon Bannister is a man better suited to Stephanie, Daniel readily admits, although he isn’t sure his children felt the same way years ago when Simon entered their lives.

Old news,” Daniel manages to interject as Cheryl rants on about how their marriage blew her life off course and how she’s never been able to regain her momentum, which, of course, is all his fault.

“Why are we still having this conversation?” he asks Cheryl, but she doesn’t even miss a beat. Her diatribe continues. She’s crazy, he now believes. And he was crazy to marry her. Desperate is more like it, fevered to believe that love or something like it would jumpstart the engine of his writing career which, after the early success of his first two novels, had rapidly descended into oblivion.

Daniel has a great fondness for his third and fourth novels but, apparently, no one else does, neither the critics nor the book buying public. He has no idea why. Writing for him is a mysterious process and he has no explanation for the fact that it yielded first two books of wondrous reviews and respectable sales and then the next two books which fell off the face of the earth.
Isabelle stands outside his office door and contemplates the etiquette of knocking. On the one hand, the man inside seems entirely preoccupied by a very personal conversation and it would be embarrassing to interrupt. On the other, she doesn’t want him to think she’s late for their ten o’clock meeting. After several minutes of debating and realizing that the argument inside isn’t subsiding, Isabelle knocks loudly. Should she now call out his name?

But she doesn’t have to. Daniel, pacing as Cheryl’s list of grievances continues to grow, hears Isabelle’s knock. Seizing on it, grateful for an excuse to end the conversation, he tells Cheryl, “I’ve got a student here,” and hangs up without waiting for her response.

“All right!” he calls out and Isabelle opens the door.

Of course she’s seen his picture on the back of his two novels, but that picture is hopelessly out of date Isabelle now sees. It has done nothing to prepare her for the man who stands across the room from her.

It’s his physical presence that stuns her. He’s so much bigger than she imagined, maybe six feet three or four, and fleshier. Unlike most of her male professors who seem suddenly, now that she’s standing in Daniel’s office, smaller and more cerebral, as if their bodies were an afterthought, this man takes up space.

“We have a ten o’clock,” Isabelle says, “Isabelle Rothman.”

“Yep. Sit down.”

There’s only a worn couch against one wall and a club chair of dubious color and condition in the corner. It probably was yellow once but now hovers somewhere between gray and beige and holds the imprint of a large man’s body in its cushions. She quickly chooses the sofa. The armchair seems too intimate. As she moves the books and papers from one small corner of the couch, piling them up on the middle pillow, he doesn’t attempt to help her.

She puts her hands in her lap, draws her long legs up, knees touching, the toes of her shoes on the floor, not the soles. Neither one of them says anything. She’s waiting for him to speak. He’s too busy watching her.

There are two large windows behind Daniel as he stands by his desk and the bright morning light coming in behind him makes it difficult for Isabelle to read his face. Why isn’t he saying anything? Is he annoyed that she’s here? He agreed, didn’t he? He read the first three chapters of her novel in progress and agreed to take her on, didn’t he? Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he doesn’t remember what she wrote.

“I sent you the first three chapters of my book. About the girl who commits crimes.” She can’t bring herself to ask, “Did you like them?” so she waits again.

“Right,” he says as he rummages through the papers on his desk and on top of the table behind it which runs underneath the windows. “Here they are!” he says triumphantly, as if he were totally surprised the pages exist.

“’Outlaw’,” he reads the name on the first page. “Pretty bold title,” he says almost to himself as he scans the pages.

“She robs houses and steals things.”

Daniel looks up at her in surprise and Isabelle knows, in that instant, he hasn’t read her pages. And then she doesn’t know what to do. Should she call him on it? He’s had all winter break to read them. She dropped the pages off in his campus mailbox weeks ago. Oh, why didn’t she listen to everyone and choose someone more dependable?

Daniel unclutters the other end of the couch and sits down, her pages in his hand. They look at each other and Isabelle has the uncanny feeling that the weight of his body has tipped the sofa on an angle and she’s having to work very hard not to slide down its length into his lap.

Up close, Isabelle has redeeming features, Daniel sees. Her skin is beautiful even as it flushes now in embarrassment at their predicament, or maybe in anger. She wears no makeup, he can tell, and hides her eyes behind bangs which her long fingers flick away from her forehead from time to time. There’s nothing about her which says, “Look at me,” but he finds himself looking anyway.

“Why this particular girl who takes this particular action?”

Isabelle has no idea. “She came to me,” is what she says and Daniel knows immediately what she means. He can only write when something comes to him.

“Ah….” And then there’s silence as he quickly turns the pages, hoping for some clue.

“You didn’t read them, did you?” Isabelle can’t believe she’s confronting him but she’s angry. Furious, really - an untamed emotion she rarely feels. But how long does it take to read forty seven pages? Isn’t the six weeks of winter break long enough?!

“I left them here, in the office,” is what he says as if that’s an explanation. “By mistake.”

She wants to say – And you couldn’t come get them? – but she doesn’t. Instead she gets up and so does he. Now they’re facing each other and he sees that she’s tall for a girl. Isabelle, standing less than three feet from him, suddenly, gratefully,  doesn’t feel too tall at all.

“I’ll come back next week. Maybe you’ll have had a chance to read them by then.”

He nods once, rakes his fingers through his hair the color of beach sand. Doesn’t apologize. Doesn’t promise.  And she walks out of the office with his eyes following her.
Daniel collapses into his armchair as the door closes, overcome with regret. But there was no way, simply no way, that he could tell this girl that the thought of the walk from his house to his campus office was something too difficult for him to navigate. It’s a miracle that he made it today. Well, that’s how he feels every time he makes it – that it is only through the grace of God that he manages the ten minute walk.

He knows what his condition is called – agoraphobia. When the thought of walking outside his front door began to give him sweats and heart palpitations, he went to the doctor. And after all the requisite tests for heart disease and endocrine problems and whatever else the doctor had to rule out, the proper diagnosis was given to him. The problem is – the cure is iffy and involves therapy which he refuses to consider and medication which he’s afraid will interfere with his work.  It’s a humiliating problem and he keeps it to himself.
“I’m not going back,” Isabelle spouts suddenly into the muffled air of Brighton Library. It’s late afternoon, the library is crowded but very quiet – the scrape of chair legs being pulled out, the soft plop of a book dropped onto a wooden table, even the slight snoring of a boy at the next table whose head is pillowed by a well used backpack.

Her boyfriend, Nate, sitting next to her, highlighting his criminology textbook, shrugs and whispers back, “Okay,” and returns to his book.

“He made me ask him if he’d read the pages!”

“Right, then find someone else to work with.” He’s really not interested.

“It was degrading. The whole thing.” Isabelle is fairly hissing her opinion.  An older man across the table wearing half glasses and a pained expression shushes her.

Nate points to the textbook, the man watching them, “Work to do. This is a library. We’ve talked about this already.”

“Okay….”  She’s quiet for ten seconds, fifteen, then… “But I mean it.”

Nate pretends she hasn’t spoken.
At the end of the day, as twilight creeps into his office, Daniel stands at one of the large, square windows and watches the campus empty out. He knows that if he were outside and the day were clear enough, he might be able to see the Pacific Ocean in the far distance as it absorbs the last rays of the lowering sun, but those days appear to be over – the days when he feels comfortable outside.

Once the old fashioned lamp posts lining the major campus walkways have switched on and the foot traffic of students has diminished to a trickle, Daniel begins to argue with himself about walking home. He knows he has to do it. He can’t sleep here. It’s ridiculous, but he’s broken out in a cold sweat and no matter what he tells himself, he can’t seem to make his large body move towards the door.  If his son, Stefan, were coming today, that would help but he isn’t. He has a job interview and if the planets are aligned just right, he might get hired to do something.

Then his eye falls on Isabelle’s pages and he sees them as a reprieve. He has to read them, doesn’t he? He owes it to her. He’ll read them first and then he’ll walk home.

The armchair beckons, just waiting to embrace his outsized body, and he sinks into it gratefully, puts “Outlaw” on his lap and begins reading. After the first page he sighs – he was so hoping he’d find even a modicum of talent. The second page doesn’t change his mind, but on page thirteen there’s a scene between the girl and a hitchhiker she picks up that brings him a surprise. Something unexpected. Thank God – there’s something to work with here. He settles in, stretches his long legs out in front of him, crossed at the ankles, and reads on.
A week later on a Tuesday morning, eight minutes before their ten o’clock meeting, Isabelle is crossing the hilly Chandler campus, rehearsing the speech she will give Daniel Jablonski, preparing to do something that will be hard for her.

“It would be better,” she’s going to say, “if I worked with another professor.” She will make no mention of the fact that he never read her pages, that he lived up to his reputation of being unprepared, of not caring about his students, of being just plain weird. No, she won’t say any of those things. She’ll simply say with as much poise as she can muster, “It would be better,” so that there’s no room for discussion.

She carefully chose boots to wear today so that she’s even taller - her beautiful, handcrafted caramel colored boots with a singular, lyrical vine etched along the outer edge. She loves these boots and they give her confidence and she’s at least six feet tall when she’s wearing them, and maybe Daniel Jablonski’s height, his just plain mass, won’t seem as intimidating.

Isabelle takes the stairs to the second floor of Lathrop Hall, the staccato sound of her boot heels on the wooden floor announces her approach and her rapid knock punctuates her arrival. She opens the door without waiting for an answer.

Daniel is sitting behind his desk as she enters. He doesn’t stand up.

“Professor Jablonski,” she begins, “I think it would be better if ---”

“I like the black birds,” he says, watching that simple sentence drain all the starch out of her stance.

“You do?” she says and sinks down into the corner of the couch.

“I wasn’t expecting them, “he says. “It’s always a gift to read something you’re not expecting.”

He thinks her writing is a gift?

 “Here’s what I learn about Melanie---“ He rummages for her pages, somewhere on the mess of his desk, and pulls them up, scans the page in his hand, “It is Melanie, right?”

She nods.

“When she won’t let that boy, that wreck of a boy that she picks up hitchhiking, throw those stones at the birds, I see something in her worth paying attention to.”

He gets up and takes his place on the couch, the opposite corner, “I want you to surprise me some more.”


“Good. Rewrite the pages up to that scene and bring them next week.”

He stands up. Her comprehension lags a moment. Oh, the meeting is over. That’s all? It must be because he’s walking back to his desk and she understands she’s supposed to leave. She does.
Isabelle stands outside Daniel’s closed office door, motionless. She’s trying to figure out what just transpired. Was she given the brush off? Was he truly complimenting her work? Is that all he’s supposed to do – tell her to rewrite and leave her to it? She’s mystified. He didn’t exactly teach her anything but still, she feels like she was given something. In less than five minutes. How is that possible? What is it? Maybe his expectation that she can do it. Is that it? She almost turns around to go back into that office to ask him, “What just happened here?” but she doesn’t. She walks away down that long hall much more slowly than she arrived.
Daniel Jablonski is pleased with himself. He feels the meeting with Isabelle went well. He could honestly compliment her work. He gave her direction. Now let’s see what she comes up with. He has no idea how mystified Isabelle is by their interaction. Being a self-taught writer with nothing but junior college classes, which he rarely attended, in his background, he has no idea what a writing mentor does. He thinks the whole idea of teaching someone to write is a fool’s errand. Writing is mysterious and mercurial and maddening and he certainly has no idea how to help someone do it better.

He can’t even help himself. He settles his large body into his desk chair, turns on his computer, brings up his working file and stares with dismay at what he wrote yesterday. And he groans. It’s bad. It’s awful. It’s irredeemable. He deletes two and a half pages with ruthless abandon, feeding his secret terror that he will never finish another book. Each day as he turns on his computer and faces the words he wrote the day before, he wants to weep. Sometimes he does.

His last novel was published over eight years ago. When it sank like a stone on water, the depression and anxiety that he had been trying to hold at bay for almost a decade, washed over him, sweeping away his marriage to Cheryl (a good thing) and rendering him agoraphobic (a bad thing) and hopeless about his work (a devastating thing).

This novel in embryo, his fifth book, refuses to gain viability. He prods it each day nonetheless. He doesn’t know what else to do.
In the ramshackle wooden house she rents on the edge of campus with Nate and her other roommates - Jilly, who barely makes it out of bed each day, and Deepti, who rarely lifts her head from her books - Isabelle also stares at her computer screen. Rewrite the first twelve pages so that they surprise Daniel Jablonski. What the hell does that mean? No answer comes to her. Nothing. And then, gratefully, a distraction. She hears the front door slam shut and she knows Nate is home. Neither of the girls announces her presence with a preemptive slamming of the front door.


And he’s there, leaning against the door frame of the dining room which they’ve designated the communal study area, his long, somber face almost as familiar to her as her own. They’ve been together since high school, nearly six years, primarily because, even though Isabelle didn’t want him to, Nate followed her out to California for college. She never found a way to tell him not to come.

“What surprises you?”

He hates these open ended questions, she knows, and she can see it on his face – the furrowed brow, the exasperation, the indecision.

What he’d like to do is sidestep the question, the conversation Isabelle wants to have is guaranteed to waste precious minutes.

He tries for diplomacy, “I’ll think about it and get back to you.”

“No, I need a jumpstart here. I have to write something that surprises Daniel Jablonski.”

“Then ask him.”

Isabelle is exasperated. “I can’t. It doesn’t work like that.”

“How does it work, then?”

“He tells me to surprise him and I have to come up with something by next week that does.”

“That’s fucked,” Nate says as he pushes himself into motion and out of the room. “You want lunch? I’m heating up the leftover soup."

“No,” Isabelle says, staring at the empty computer screen, hopelessly. “I’ve got to manufacture something startling and don’t roll your eyes,” Isabelle says even though Nate is in the kitchen now, banging pots around, and Isabelle can’t see him. It doesn’t matter. She knows that rolling his eyes is exactly what he’s doing.

And then she hears him walk into the living room and turn on the TV, even though she’s trying to work in the next room. He likes to catch up on the noon news while he eats and calls out every few minutes a bit of random information he thinks is noteworthy.

“Izzy, Tonya Harding’s husband, Jeff something or other, took a plea for whacking Nancy Kerrigan leg.”

“Really…” is all she needs to say to satisfy him.

“Whoa, that Tonya’s in trouble now.”

“Nate, I’m trying to work here.”

Thankfully, he’s quiet and after forty five minutes of staring at her computer screen, she hears Nate leave the house. He has an afternoon seminar, she knows, on drug policy and criminal intent. “Later,” she hears him yell as the back door slams shut. Always so noisy, as if every action has to be punctuated by an aggravated sound.  And then the house is quiet. Perhaps she is the only one home but she doesn’t think so.

The kitchen is empty, the dented tin pot he used to heat up the soup is still on the stove. They rented this old shingled house knowing there was no microwave or dishwasher but somehow that hasn’t translated for Nate into the idea he has to wash his own dishes.

She turns to the living room – where Nate’s soup bowl rests on the floor next to the couch - and paces from the fireplace they’ve never used to the large windows that look out on the front porch which they do once the weather turns warm. She’s totally lost. She knows it. How can she come up with something that surprises Daniel Jablonski when she has no frame of reference? What would he consider startling? She has no idea.

Down the hall she goes, to the back of the house and stops outside Jilly’s room, ear to the door. She’s trying to figure out whether her roommate is home and sleeping. Jilly has opinions about everything. Maybe Isabelle can borrow some surprising data from her. Quietly she turns the doorknob and peeks in. There Jilly is. Well, there is the top of her very messy, curly hair above the mass of sheets and comforter. How can one person sleep so much? She closes the door softly.

Deepti, Isabelle thinks, maybe Deepti is home. It’s hard to know because when Deepti studies, it’s always in her room and she’s quiet as a mouse. There must be many surprising things she could say, coming from another culture to go to college. She knocks gently on the last door at the end of the hall.


“Yes, Isabelle? Come in.”

And Isabelle does. It’s like taking a step into another country. Immediately the vibrant, hot colors of Indian prints assault her eye. There are the patterned silk curtains at the windows, a batik bedspread, and Deepti sitting cross legged on her bed in a green and pink sari, her chemistry books spread out around her in one circle and her class notes spread out in another.

“I have a question.”

“Okay.” Deepti puts her highlighter aside.

“What surprises you?”

“I am surprised that I ended up in Los Angeles.”

“Yes…  but what surprises you about life in general?”

“Ahhh…. a deeper question.” Deepti looks out the window to the side yard where a star jasmine vine is in the midst of winding its way around a chain link fence, obliterating the ugly and replacing it with beauty. Soon the jasmine flowers will perfume her room and Deepti can hardly wait. Now, she takes a quiet moment to contemplate Isabelle’s question.

“That people sometimes act kindly,” Deepti says finally.

“I used that already. Unfortunately.”

“What is this for?”

“Daniel Jablonski.”

“You have to give him the gift of surprise?”

“Yes! Exactly!”

“Then it has to be from you.”

Isabelle groans, “I’m the least surprising person alive.”

And Deepti laughs, a soft, rounded series of chuckles that always make Isabelle smile, too. “Maybe not.”

By four o’clock Isabelle has managed to write not one word. She thinks it’s safe to call home now. It will be seven o’clock in Merrick, Long Island and her father should be there, back from the train which takes him to the city each day and brings him home. If she called his law office in Manhattan, he wouldn’t have had the time to hash out her question. And if she called home before he got there, her mother would be no help at all.

It is Ruth Rothman’s opinion, communicated to Isabelle in ways both subtle and overt, that her daughter is far too dependable to be original - she lacks the temperament. It is Ruth who is the creative spirit, albeit still searching for her particular métier, the years of Isabelle’s childhood littered with the debris of her mother’s painting, photography, ceramics, fiber arts, and jewelry making.

Through each of Ruth’s infatuations, Isabelle stepped in to care for her three younger brothers, as well as on the more frequent occasions when her mother had simply had enough of life - her latest passion sputtering out - and retreated to her bedroom, drawn the curtains, and taken to bed. Ruth’s migraines are legendary.

“Dad…” Isabelle says when her father, thankfully, answers the phone.

“There’s been another earthquake?!”

“No, Dad, but I have a question.”

“Shoot.” She can hear the relief in his voice.  He can deal with a question but not another natural disaster.

“What surprises you?”

“Give me the context.” Her father, always the lawyer.

“I’m taking this writing tutorial –“

“You are? What for? You write fine.”

“It’s creative writing.”

“Same question.”

“There’s a man here on campus,” Isabelle is wary, trying to explain something to her very practical father whom, she fears, won’t be able to understand it, “a published novelist, a wonderful writer actually, and every semester he takes on a student or two to mentor.”


“And this semester it’s me.”

“You’ve finished all your other courses? You don’t have any requirements to take so you can fool around with ‘creative writing’?”

“Actually, yes.”

“Hmmmm.”  And then there’s silence while her father digests this.

Isabelle figures she’ll try once more. She’s desperate. “So, Dad, I have to come up with something that surprises him when I hand in my work next week and I’m drawing a blank.”

“Well, of course, that’s a stupid assignment.”

Now it’s Isabelle’s turn to be silent. Her father sounds too much like Nate for her to continue this conversation.

“Here,” her father says, “say hello to your mother.” And Ruth gets on the line.

“Hi, Mom.”

“What’s wrong?” are her mother’s first words.

Isabelle sighs, “Nothing.”

“Then why are you calling?”

“I thought Dad might be able to help me with an assignment.”

“And did he?”


“I could have told you that.”

“Okay, Mom, how are you? How’re your headaches?”

“They’re there. It’s what I live with.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Wait a minute, your father wants to say something.”

And Isabelle waits while her mother hands over the receiver. She hears Ruth questioning her father – “Didn’t you just speak with her?” when they all know he just did. Then her father has to explain why he needs to talk to Isabelle again. Through it all, Isabelle waits. She’s used to the constant dissension between them. Finally she hears her father’s voice.

“Use your imagination,” he presents to her.

“Okay, Dad, thanks, I’ll try that.”

And her father is pleased, she can tell. He thinks he’s come up with an idea to help his daughter.
But, of course, Isabelle has been trying to use her imagination all day with no success.

Reading Group Guide

1. This novel begins with an earthquake. Isabelle’s takeaway is that “life is unpredictable, have some courage.” Daniel sees it as a sign “that all is unstable and there is no safety.” Whose viewpoint do you most closely relate to? 

2. It’s apparent to Isabelle that Daniel hasn’t read her pages before their first meeting, so she decides to leave. What would you have done if you were in her place? 

3. Discuss the role mentorship plays in the novel, both between Isabelle and Daniel and between others. Have you had a mentor in your life? Have you been a mentor? 

4. Isabelle’s parents expect her to go along with their plan for her life, but instead she rebels, moves to Oakland, and falls in love with Casey. In what ways do you think Isabelle’s parents influenced her relationship with Casey, even though they weren’t present for it?

5. Daniel said that “self-loathing” causes writer’s block. Do you agree or disagree?

6. Daniel teaches throughout the course of the novel, but his attitude toward the profession is conflicted at best. Why do you think this is? Do you believe he’s a good teacher?

7. When Daniel moves to New Hampshire, his agoraphobia rapidly lessens in severity and he is able to write again. What you do see as the most healing aspect of this move?

8. At first Isabelle was very upset about Daniel’s book Out of the Blue, but eventually she is happy about it and proud of him for writing it. How does her reaction compare to what your reaction would be?

9. At one point, Daniel tells Isabelle that they fell a little bit in love with each other, but they never pursue a relationship that conforms to any traditional label (i.e. partnership, marriage, or even a real affair). In what ways can these nontraditional relationships shape our lives perhaps just as much, or even more, than traditional ones?

10. This novel takes place over the course of decades. What about this time frame did you enjoy? What about it did you find challenging? Have you read any other books that span that many years?

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