After years of struggling in the Chicago theater scene, ambitious actress Kira Rascher finally lands the role of a lifetime. The catch? The mercurial Malcolm Mercer is the director and he’s known for pushing his performers past their limits—on stage and off.
Kira’s convinced she can handle Malcolm, but the theater’s cofounder, Joanna Cuyler, is another story. Joanna sees Kira as a threat—to her own thwarted artistic ambitions, her twisted relationship with Malcolm, and the shocking secret she’s keeping about the upcoming production. But as opening night draws near, Kira and Joanna both come to the realization that Malcolm’s dangerous extremes are nothing compared to what they’re capable of themselves.
An edgy, addictive, and fiendishly clever tale of ambition, deceit, and power suited for fans of the film Black Swan, Temper “revels in its mind games, delivering twist after twist as it races toward a Shakespearian climax. The final page will leave you gasping” (Amy Gentry, author of Last Woman Standing).
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
THE ACTRESS EXITS THE THEATER in tears.
It takes her a few seconds to realize she has an audience. My audition is the last of the day, so I’m the only one left waiting in the row of mismatched chairs set up against the lobby wall. When our eyes meet, she takes a small, hiccuping breath, choking back her emotions like vomit.
I don’t remember her name, and I’m not sure she ever knew mine, but we did a play together once. Years ago, one of my first jobs in Chicago. She was the heroine, and I was the slut who seduced her boyfriend. (It wasn’t a very good play.) I’ve seen her a few times since then, on posters for shows at Lookingglass, the Goodman, Steppenwolf—the type of theaters I can’t afford to go to unless I know someone who can hook me up with comp tickets.
She was always so poised, one of those classic ingenues with perfect ballerina posture. But right now she’s a wreck: shoulders hunched and shaking, lightning-strike lines of mascara cutting down her face. She didn’t just lose it on the way out, after the audition was over. No, she’s been going for ten minutes, minimum. Which is about the same amount of time she was inside the theater.
What the hell happened in there?
Before I have a chance to ask, she hurries toward the door, ducking her head so her hair sweeps across her cheekbones like closing curtains. Even the sweltering wind blowing in from the street outside can’t stop me from shivering. As if I wasn’t already nervous enough about this damn audition.
The door separating the lobby from the theater swings open again, and a dark-haired young girl wearing crooked cat-eye glasses comes out. She stops on the threshold, holding the door ajar with her hip, and looks down at the clipboard in her hands.
Here we go. Whatever went down in that room, it’s my turn now.
I hand her my stapled-together headshot and résumé, and she stacks them on top of the clipboard. Her fingernails are bitten down to the quick, what’s left of them covered in chipped black nail polish.
“After you,” she says.
The temperature inside the theater is at least a ten-degree drop-off from the lobby. All my exposed skin—arms, shoulders, the sliver of leg bared by the slit in my long skirt—prickles with goose bumps. The lights are on full, but the black paint on the walls swallows up their brightness.
The Indifferent Honest Theater Company is a typical Chicago storefront theater: a former retail property hollowed out and turned into an intimate performance venue. Intimate, of course, meaning claustrophobic. The space holds fewer than fifty seats, and the stage is just a scrap of bare floor in front of them.
Sitting dead center, a few rows up, is Malcolm Mercer—the man I’m here to see.
It’s so surreal to be standing here in front of him, for him to play the role of spectator. We’ve spent hours together in this room, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen him out of character. Last time I saw him perform, he had his hair buzzed short to play a soldier with PTSD. It’s growing back in now, long enough to show the curl in it again, but he used to wear it even longer, skimming his jaw. He’d use it almost as another prop, raking his fingers through it, flipping it out of his eyes, seizing it at the root.
In addition to directing, Malcolm plays the male lead in every Indifferent Honest show—the perks of being artistic director. The play I’m auditioning for is a two-hander, so if I get the part, he’ll be both my boss and my sole costar.
Only his eyes move, tracking me as I take my position at center stage. You’d never guess he’d just witnessed—or maybe caused—an emotional meltdown. He seems entirely at ease, legs crossed at the knee, steepled fingers resting on his thigh.
The clipboard girl tries to hand him my headshot, but he ignores her. The blond woman sitting next to him—Executive Director Joanna Cuyler, the other half of Indifferent Honest—takes it instead. Joanna is intimidating in her own way, with her razor-sharp bob and wide-set feline eyes. She spends a few seconds glancing from the picture to my face and back again, like she’s checking my ID at airport security, before tucking it under the spiral-bound notebook in her lap.
Malcolm’s lips are slightly pursed, as if he’s on the verge of speaking, but Joanna is the one who prompts me to begin. “Whenever you’re ready, Ms. Rascher.”
There’s a certain facial expression I’m used to seeing in audition rooms: a mask of polite detachment, not quite bored, but not too interested, either. That’s the way Joanna looks at me when I start my monologue.
But that’s not how Malcolm looks at me.
I’m being ridiculous. Of course he’s staring at me, I’m standing on a stage doing a monologue. He’s paying close attention to my audition—it’s his job, for fuck’s sake.
But I’ve done hundreds of auditions, far too many of them for creepy assholes who leered at me, asked me to twirl, bend over, take off my top. And none of them ever looked at me the way Malcolm Mercer is looking at me right now.
His gaze is hard. It has weight and heat, and it seems to touch my whole body at once. I’ve known since I was thirteen what it feels like when a man mentally undresses me, and this is something else. It’s like he’s stripping off my skin instead of my clothes, peeling it all away so he can see the blood and bone and sinew underneath. So he can expose every piece of me.
I reverse two words of one line and stutter over another. A drop of sweat traces a jagged path down my back despite the chill. My voice is getting higher, smaller, a tremor under every syllable knocking the words off-balance. The pressure of his stare feels like fingers around my throat.
This fucking bastard. I had him all wrong. When I walked in here, he wasn’t relaxed. He was coiled, lying in wait. He must enjoy this—making people uncomfortable, pinning them down like specimens in a display case and watching them squirm.
Well, if this is how he made the last girl cry, it’s not going to work on me. Crying is easy. Anyone can cry. Hell, I’ve been able to make myself do it on command since my first acting class. The more he stares, the more I want to get through my monologue just to spite him.
So I do the one thing you’re never supposed to do during an audition: I stare back.
At least it’s in character, since my audition piece is a blistering speech given by a woman who just found out her lover has been cheating on her. I look Malcolm dead in the eye and pretend he’s every man who’s ever pissed me off. Soon I’ve lost track of where my simulated rage stops and my actual anger begins. But it doesn’t matter, because with each line I’m gaining strength, shaking off his grip. The air between us seems to crackle.
By the time I reach the end, the words are spilling from my mouth like they’re my own, raw and real rather than rehearsed. I let a beat go by after the last line, then drop character and lift the corners of my lips, the way I practiced in the mirror at home. My natural expression is the kind that inspires passing strangers to tell me to cheer up, so I have to rehearse my smiles almost as much as my lines.
For the next few seconds, the only sound in the theater is the scratch of Joanna’s pen in her notebook. She draws a long line across the page, emphasizing something or striking it out, I don’t know which.
Malcolm doesn’t move, doesn’t speak, doesn’t even blink, so neither do I. I want to look away from him—to look anywhere else, really: the floor, the emergency exit sign, my own feet—but breaking eye contact now would feel like conceding territory, admitting defeat.
It’s Joanna who interrupts the silence. She seems to do all the talking around here.
“Thank you very much, Kira.”
She glances over at Malcolm and raises her eyebrows. He leans back a little in his seat. Not a word spoken, but something has clearly passed between them.
Finally—finally—his eyes move away from mine, and I feel like I’ve won whatever strange game we were playing.
But my triumph is short lived. His gaze slides down my neck and along my collarbone, coming to rest on the swell of my chest, and I can feel my smile decomposing.
He’s not evaluating my talent or weighing whether I’m right for the part. He’s trying to decide if he’s interested in sleeping with me.
Fuck this guy. I should tell him off and storm out. I’ve wanted to do that every time this has happened before. Now is my chance.
When Malcolm lifts his eyes to meet mine again, I’m ready, a whole battery of retorts locked and loaded. But before I can unleash them, he disarms me completely.
“You’re bleeding,” he says.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Temper 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.
Two ambitious women are drawn into the mind games of a manipulative theater director in this feminist psychological suspense novel set against the backdrop of the Chicago indie theater scene.
When struggling actress Kira Rascher finally lands the role of a lifetime—starring in a new play called Temper—the gig comes with a catch: working with Malcolm Mercer, a mercurial director who’s known for pushing his performers past their limits, onstage and off. While Kira’s convinced that she can handle Malcolm, the theater’s cofounder Joanna Cuyler sees Kira as a threat—to her own thwarted artistic ambitions and to her twisted relationship with Malcolm. But as opening night draws near, Kira and Joanna both start to realize that Malcolm’s dangerous extremes are nothing compared to what they're capable of themselves.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Reflect on your first impressions of both Kira and Joanna. How did your understanding of (and feelings about) these two main characters evolve over the course of the novel? Do you recall the key moments at which your impressions of either (or both) character(s) changed?
2. Kira is aware of how often she’s under the male gaze. How does she use this to her advantage, and in what ways does this make her vulnerable?
3. Kira and Joanna often feel mistrust, jealousy, and even hatred toward those whom they see as competition—including each other. Discuss the nature of female competition as it’s portrayed in this novel. In your mind, why do such intense feelings arise from competition among women? Have you experienced this in your own life?
4. When Kira is first warned about Malcolm’s intensity by Jason (whose backstory at this point in the novel is still unknown to the reader), what did you imagine awaited her? How did your initial theories align or conflict with Mal’s behavior throughout the novel?
5. The playwright behind Temper, L. S. Sedgwick, is first introduced as the play’s mysterious writer in Chapter 5, and the reveal of the play’s true authorship comes later, about halfway through the novel. Was there a moment when you suspected that Joanna might be the play’s author, and what was your reaction to this revelation?
6. How would you characterize Joanna and Mal’s relationship? Were you surprised to learn about Joanna’s unrequited feelings for Mal?
7. Which act of violence leading up to the novel’s shocking final scene did you find the most foreboding, and why? Discuss the ways in which acts of violence serve as foreshadowing through the novel.
8. Revisit Kira’s paragraph-long reflection on the Mara-Trent dynamic on pp. 135–136: “Mara could be played as a miserable woman trapped in a toxic relationship standing by silent and passive, capable of fighting back only in her fantasies. But when I read the script, that’s not what I thought of her at all. She’s full of fury, dangerous, a fuse nearly burned down to nothing. She’s been waiting, for years probably, for Trent to do something that will justify her attacking him—and whenever it finally happens, she intends to be ready. The reveries are mental rehearsals for future, inevitable violence. If anyone in Temper is a victim, it’s Trent.” In what ways does this relationship parallel elements of the Joanna-Mal dynamic, or the Kira-Mal dynamic? Do the gender pairings (i.e. Joanna/Kira as Mara, and Mal as Trent) align?
9. On p. 189, Jason warns that Malcolm aims to “dismantle” the actors whom he directs. Which characters are “dismantled” in this novel, and by whom?
10. Consider how sexuality is both presented and deployed in this novel. What is your response to the ways in which sex and sexuality are used by characters to assert power or dominance?
11. Do you consider Kira and Joanna to be feminist characters? In what ways do they combat sexism in their careers, as well as in their relationships?
12. Joanna reveals her imposter syndrome on p. 228, saying: “Maybe he only loves my words when he doesn’t know they’re mine.” Do you think these feelings of insecurity stem from Mal’s treatment of her, or from Jason’s dramatic act of self-harm, or from somewhere else entirely?
13. On pg. 333, Joanna describes Mal as a “hollow man.” Do you read Mal as a manipulative and unfeeling sociopath, or a boundary-pushing genius, or neither? Could Mal be considered a tragic character?
14. Discuss the role of the audience in this novel. How often are these characters performing (whether on or offstage)—even when the audience is just a single person?
15. Consider the story from Malcolm’s perspective; what if his point of view were introduced, or the entire story were told from his first-person perspective, in his own voice? What would you title the novel, and how do you think the female characters would be portrayed?
16. What do you think of the author’s choice to alternate between Kira and Joanna’s perspectives, keeping both in the first person? How would your impression of Kira change if we saw her only through Joanna’s eyes (rather than having access to her thoughts)? How about Joanna?
17. In the play, red lighting indicates that Mara is shifting from the real world into a “reverie.” Do you interpret the final scene of the play to be real, or a reverie? How about the final scene of the novel itself?
18. Author Layne Fargo has a background in theater and used to work as a dramaturg. Which behind-the-scenes revelations of a theatrical production did you find the most interesting, or the most surprising?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Serve a Shakespearean Cocktail: Mal’s performance in Hamlet is referenced throughout the novel as an example of his intensity on stage. Pay homage to the Bard at your book club discussion by serving a Shakespeare-inspired cocktail! Check out Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas by Caroline Bicks and Michelle Ephraim for a wide range of recipes, or go with the Hamlet Cocktail itself: mix 2 parts vodka, 1 part Campari, and 4 parts orange juice.
2. Cast the Movie: Who do you envision taking on each of the main characters in a cinematic adaptation of the novel? Distribute slips of paper and ask each book club member to cast the main players (Mal, Kira, Joanna, and Spence). One everyone has chosen their four lead actors, share your selections and see if any overlap! Now, how about the supporting cast of David, Jason, and Bryn?
3. Explore Other Difficult Women: Author Layne Fargo cohosts a podcast about challenging heroines called Unlikeable Female Characters. Choose an episode (or go right to Episode 1: “Favorite Unlikeable Female Characters”) and circulate it among your book club members to deepen your discussion of Kira and Joanna in the context of a broader literary trend in female characterization.
4. Take an Improv Exercise for a Test Drive: Channel your inner Kira! Head over to http://improvencyclopedia.org and challenge your book group to one of their recommended improv games before diving into your discussion of Temper.