Miles Adler-Hart starts eavesdropping to find out what his mother is planning for his life. When he learns instead that his parents are separating, his investigation deepens, and he enlists his best friend, Hector, to help. Both boys are in thrall to Miles’s unsuspecting mother, Irene, who is “pretty for a mathematician.” They rifle through her dresser drawers, bug her telephone lines, and strip-mine her computer, only to find that all clues lead them to her bedroom, and put them on the trail of a mysterious stranger from Washington, D.C.
Their amateur detective work starts innocently but quickly takes them to the far reaches of adult privacy as they acquire knowledge that will affect the family’s well-being, prosperity, and sanity. Burdened with this powerful information, the boys struggle to deal with the existence of evil and concoct modes of revenge on their villains that are both hilarious and naïve. Eventually, haltingly, they learn to offer animal comfort to those harmed and to create an imaginative path to their own salvation.
Casebook brilliantly reveals an American family both coming apart at the seams and, simultaneously, miraculously reconstituting itself to sustain its members through their ultimate trial. Mona Simpson, once again, demonstrates her stunning mastery, giving us a boy hero for our times whose story remains with us long after the novel is over.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
1 • Under the Bed
I was a snoop, but a peculiar kind. I only discovered what I most didn’t want to know.
The first time it happened, I was nine. I’d snaked underneath my parents’ bed when the room was empty to rig up a walkie-talkie. Then they strolled in and flopped down. So I was stuck. Under their bed. Until they got up.
I’d wanted to eavesdrop on her, not them. She decided my life. Just then, the moms were debating weeknight television. I needed, I believed I absolutely needed to understand Survivor. You had to, to talk to people at school. The moms yakked about it for hours in serious voices. The only thing I liked that my mother approved of that year was chess. And every other kid, every single other kid in fourth grade, owned a Game Boy. I thought maybe Charlie’s mom could talk sense to her. She listened to Charlie’s mom.
On top of the bed, my dad was saying that he didn’t think of her that way anymore either. What way? And why either? I could hardly breathe. The box spring made a gauzy opening to gray dust towers, in globular, fantastic formations. The sound of dribbling somewhere came in through open windows. My dad stood and locked the door from inside, shoving a chair up under the knob. Before, when he did that, I’d always been on the other side. Where I belonged. And it hurt not to move.
“Down,” my mother said. “Left.” Which meant he was rubbing her back.
All my life, I’d been aware of him wanting something from her. And of her going sideways in his spotlight, a deer at the sight of a human. The three of us, the originals, were together locked in a room.
My mom was nice enough looking, for a smart woman. “Pretty for a mathematician,” I’d heard her once say about herself, with an air of apology. Small, with glasses, she was the kind of person you didn’t notice. I’d seen pictures, though, of her holding me as a baby. Then, her hair fell over her cheek and she’d been pretty. My dad was always handsome. Simon’s mom, a jealous type, said that my mother had the best husband, the best job, the best everything. I thought she had the best everything, too. We did. But Simon’s mom never said my mother had the best son.
The bed went quiet and it seemed then that both my parents were falling asleep. My dad napped weekends.
NOOO, I begged telepathically, my left leg pinned and needled.
Plus I really had to pee.
But my mother, never one to let something go when she could pick it apart, asked if he was attracted to other people. He said he hadn’t ever been, but lately, for the first time, he felt aware of opportunities. He used that word.
I bit the inside of my cheek. I knew my dad: he was about to blab and I couldn’t stop him. And sure enough, idiotically, he named a name. By second grade everyone I knew had understood never to name a name.
“Holland Emerson,” he said. What kind of name was that? Was she Dutch?
“Oh,” the Mims said. “You’ve always kind of liked her.”
“I guess so,” he said, as if he hadn’t thought of it until she told him.
Then the mattress dipped, like a whale, to squash me, and I scooched over to the other side as the undulation rolled.
“I didn’t do anything, Reen!”
She got up. Then I heard him follow her out of the room.
“I’m not going to do anything! You know me!”
But he’d started it. He’d said opportunities. He’d named a name. I bellied out, skidded to the bathroom, missing the toilet by a blurt. A framed picture of them taken after he’d proposed hung on the wall; her holding the four-inch diamond ring from the party-supply shop. On the silvery photograph, he’d written I promise to always make you unhappy.
I’d grown up with his jokes.
By the time I sluffed to the kitchen he sat eating a bowl of Special K. He lifted the box. “Want some?”
“Don’t fill up.” She stood next to the wall phone. “We’re having the Audreys for dinner.”
“Tonight?” he said. “Can we cancel? I think I’m coming down with something.”
“We canceled them twice already.”
The doorbell rang. It was the dork guy who came to run whenever she called him. He worked for the National Science Foundation and liked to run and talk about pattern formation.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Casebook, a work of fiction by acclaimed author Mona Simpson.
1. In the opening note from Hershel Geschwind of Neverland Comics, Hershel writes that Hector and Miles will continue to go back and forth with this manuscript “until they get their story straight or until they grow up, whichever comes last, or never.” How different do you think the boys’ accounts are of what happened, and what role do Hector’s footnotes play throughout the manuscript? What exactly do you think Herschel means by “grow up”?
2. This book is in many ways a coming-of age -story, but Miles learns many of his life lessons by spying on his mother, not through his own actual experience. Why do you think the author has chosen to focus so extensively on the effects of adult lives—the secret lives of parents—on their children?
3. How the motto of Miles’s and Hector’s school— motto, "is it true, is it kind, is it necessary? Will it improve on the silence?”shape their view of the world? What impact does Eli have on this view?
4. Did Miles’s extensive involvement with his mother’s personal life have a negative impact on his ability to focus on his own experiences, or did he gain greater insight into what it means to love than he might have otherwise?
5. What do we learn about Irene and about her relationships with Carey and Eli—and about adult lives in general—that we might not find out about were the novel not told through Miles’s perspective? What do we gain? Do you think most teenagers are as fascinated by the lives of their parents as Miles and Hector are?
6. Miles mentions that when Eli promises to put up Christmas lights, it was the “first feeling I had for Eli. We could be men who did that shit. I liked the idea of putting up lights ourselves” (page 28). What do the Christmas lights represent to Miles?
7. Why is Hector just as invested in uncovering the truth about Eli as Miles is? Or is he even more invested?
8. What is the significance of the notes on the kitchen blackboard? How do the quotes act as a reflection of what is going on in the story, whether or not Irene is aware of it at the time? For example, on page 41, what is the significance of the quote “benighted: in a state of pitiful or contemptible intellectual or moral ignorance.” Do you think Eli ever found Irene’s lack of awareness of his own deceit contemptible?
9. Several times throughout the novel Eli mentions his love for animals. The only stories he tells that Miles never doubts involve this deep love. Miles says at one point that he saw Eli holding the dead kittens, and he knew how to do it. Do you think the story about the sick cat, Coco, was true? Eli seems to be able to care for animals and not people. What does this say about who he is?
10. Does Eli ever really love Irene, Miles, and the Boops? What were his motives for stringing them along, and, do you think he ever believed the outcome would be different than it was?
11. On page 104 Miles describes romance as seeming like “friendship, but with a fleck of sparkle.” How do Miles’s feelings about romantic and platonic love change over the course of the novel? What does he learn from his parents’ relationship, from Eli and the Mims’ relationship, and from his friendship with Hector? Do you think Miles ever really questions his own sexuality?
12. On page 108, Miles says that when he “thinks of [his] life as a boy, it ended there that night, while the Mims stared out at the Pacific Ocean with its barreling waves, the world indifferent to our losses.” What causes this turning point?
13. What role does Ben Orion play? Why does he help Miles and Hector without asking for payment?
14. How does hearing directly from an older Hector through his comments in footnotes to the text alter or inform your impression of him as a character? What, if anything, does it bring to light about his relationship with Miles? Did it surprise you that he got into drugs when he went off to school? Do you think one of them needed the other more, and if so, why?
15. Why do you think Irene puts up with all of Eli’s broken promises? What is it about him that keeps drawing her back, despite never seeing where he lives, never meeting his child or his brother, and the fact that he never follows through on any of the futures he proposes, even with things as small as the buying of silverware?
16. On page 181, at Irene’s forty-fifth birthday party, Eli makes this speech: “All of you love Reen for many reasons. . . . But I, I love her, I love her because I, I can’t help loving her. No matter what ever happens, I am and I will always be in love with Irene Adler.” What does he mean, and what is it about Irene that makes Eli love her, or at least claim to love her, so much?
17. Who is “C” in Jean’s book dedication? Why do you think she tolerates Eli’s transgressions, and how much do you think she actually knows about them? Do you think she discovered Irene on her own? Do you think that Eli would eventually have told her?
18. What leads Miles to say that “hope for happiness is happiness” (page 229)? Do you think this statement is true?
19. Why do you think Miles lies to Eli about his mother dying in the arms of a man she loved when he runs into him years later?
20. Mona Simpson is known as an author of voice. How do you think the voice of Miles stacks up? Does he feel real?
21. What do you think Irene got out of her relationship with Eli? Does she, and do we, learn anything about her through her sexual experiences with him that give insight into who she is, or into what may have gone wrong with her marriage? Do you think she ultimately found happiness?
22. Bonus question 1: Did you notice parallels to Sherlock Holmes? Which boy is Holmes and which is Watson? Did their identities keep shifting, as they disguise their real details, change their appearances and hair colors?
23. Bonus question 2: Why do you think the heroine is called Irene Adler?
24. Bonus recipe: OLIVE OIL BUNDT CAKE (This is adapted from the pastry chef at Maialino—I imagine Marge barging into Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Park Hotel restaurant and getting the men in aprons to scribble this on a napkin)
• 3 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 3/4 cups sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 cup whole milk
• 3 large eggs
• 2 tablespoons grated orange zest
• 1/4 cup Grand Marnier
1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Spray a 10-inch cake pan with cooking spray and line the bottom with parchment paper. In a bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and powder. In another bowl, whisk the olive oil, milk, eggs, orange zest and Grand Marnier. Add the dry ingredients; whisk until just combined.
2. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, until the top is golden and a cake tester comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a rack and let cool for 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan, invert the cake onto the rack and let cool completely, 2 hours.
A conversation with
Q: What is CASEBOOK about?
A: CASEBOOK is about boy named Miles and his best friend, Hector, who spy on Miles’ mother as the family is falling apart. It’s a mystery and it’s also my attempt at a love story. Maybe love stories are all mysteries.
I’ve tried to give some of the vivid pleasures and discontents of romantic yearning, with its intermittent satisfactions. But at the same time that the book is about love, it’s also about watching love, seeing signs and scraps of it and learning to recognize its force, that it exists and that you can’t control it, that it could hurt you, before it’s even a possibility that you might find it for yourself. Before any of its pleasures are available to you.
Q: What inspired you to write about a family after a divorce?
A: What I want to find, through fiction, are answers to the ancient questions of how to live: What is a good life? What choices do people have? How can they, wherever they happen to find themselves on the economic ladder, find beauty and meaning?
I think the family is the base of everything. When Henry James published What Maisy Knew (his novel about a family coming apart) a little more than a hundred years ago, the divorce rate in the United States was 7%. Now, it’s closer to 50%. Marriage is no longer until death do us part, and fictionally, there’s no way to make that come out right. What we’ve lost is permanence, the forever after of fairytales. If a man sleeps with a young woman in Shakespeare or Cervantes, you know that by the end, he will have been tricked into marrying her. Divorce is sometimes unavoidable, we know, yet for ourselves and our children, we don’t want it. We don’t want even that weird modern almost-oxymoron, a good divorce. For ourselves and our children, we want Jane Austen love. We want permanence. Rightness.
Q: What do we learn from CASEBOOK about how children respond to divorce? Are there ways in which the divorce benefits Miles and his sisters?
A: The central question they face from the divorce and from the mystery in this book and its resolution is what position romantic love should have in their lives. Will they live driven by suspicion? Or will they trust the high notes, the lures?
I don’t think that their parents’ divorce benefits Miles or his sisters; it’s a fact of their life and in understanding the sorrow and confusion it causes them, they eventually gain depth, and an acceptance of different, equally vivid realities. They grow up anyway.
Q: Why did you decide to write from a young boy’s perspective? How did you get inside his head?
A: This book started for me with the boy’s vantage. I thought of it as a door open only one small wedge. I wanted to limit the love story, to set in within a family, within a larger life and among people whose main concern was not the lovers’ happiness.
I have a boy, I love a boy, and though in most of the central parts of this novel, he’s not represented, I’ve used his lingo, his friends’ diction and slang and some of the games they played. The boy I’ve created, is, in some ways, a mother’s fantasy. Only a mother could dream up a boy who is obsessed with...his parents.
Q: What were the challenges of writing about divorce from a child’s perspective, rather than a parent’s? What can we learn from Miles that we wouldn’t learn from an adult narrator?
A: In my life, I’ve been the person watching lovers more than I’ve been one of the lovers myself. Does everyone feel that way? That we watch love? That we aren’t usually the lovers ourselves. (Maybe that’s why love feels like such an absolute mandate when it is finally your turn.)
I needed a filter for the love story and I wanted a fairly naive one. We have all kinds of cultural assumptions about parting that we absorb: People get hurt. It’s no one’s fault. He or she is a grownup. I wanted someone young enough and uncool enough to emit a gigantic roar of WAH when he feels pain.
Q: Miles says, “The annoying thing about wire-taps was that you couldn’t talk back.” How is Miles’ teenage rebellion affected by his tendency to listen to his parents, rather than talk back to them?
A: Miles starts out spying to find something ultimately reassuring—his mother’s rules about television, a limit, a security, but ends up discovering a real and unwinding danger. He doesn’t get to have a rebellion. There are losses in his pursuit of the mystery. That’s one of them.
Q: Miles thinks, “I didn’t doubt that he loved her. But that didn’t seem like enough. All of a sudden, love seemed a flimsy thing.” What does Miles ultimately take away from observing his mother’s relationship with her boyfriend, Eli, aka “The Dork”?
A: Miles loved Eli too. And he comes away from the experience profoundly baffled. “He’d loved us. I’d thought I knew that,” Miles thinks. “It felt like a real thing in my body. Either that was wrong, or love could dissolve.” If he can’t trust those instincts, then where does he look for guidance? Miles has to examine his own capacity to trust love. He absolutely doesn’t want to be too gullible, but he also sees the limitations of suspicion. He’s been suspicious and relentless in pursuing his suspicions, but that skepticism didn’t protect his family either.
I was the child of a single mother who was a dreamer, I watched her look to love for romantic fulfillment, but I had other plans for her suitors. I wanted them to take charge of the bills and make a stable home for us.
CASEBOOK is a story about a divorced family and, as in most divorces, the woman and the kids end up poorer afterwards than they were before. Yet, as Miles works through the layers of his own disappointment and increasing anxiety about money, he also begins to realize how privileged he is. Both within his own world (at his best friend’s house, broken machines don’t get fixed) and at large, he starts to see how much of the world has been rigged in his favor.
Q: Miles and his best friend, Hector, embark on a mission to find out more about Eli. They even hire a Private Investigator. Why does Hector insist on doing this?
A: They want to nail down the truth. They are at an age when they still believe that all the nuances of love can be subjected to a true/false paradigm, one of good/evil. Yet as much as they want that kind of a game, they are shocked to discover actual lies, actual evil in the adult world.
Like many mysteries, this one started out with something external, but was finally driven by a deeper compulsion that even Miles himself doesn’t understand.
Q: Miles joins a school’s LGBT support group with no fear that other students might think he’s gay. What were you saying, if anything, about Miles trying to discover his own motivations (sexual and otherwise)?
A: Miles finds himself in a situation many heterosexuals find themselves in. For most of the time covered in the book, though his sexual desire settles on a female, his closest and most daily relationship is with another boy. It’s an interesting syndrome. In many heterosexual marriages, despite sex, the two parties find themselves most engaged, most juiced, most intricately involved with other people of their own gender who are involved in their central project—for many men, that’s work, for many women, childrearing.
Q: Eli (“The Dork”) and Miles’ little sister (“Boop Two”) share a love for animals, particularly dogs. What inspired you to give animals such an integral role in your novel?
A: Animals are enormously healing. I wanted this book to contain a love story in which something huge goes wrong, but much else around it goes right. The animals are part of what goes right.
Q: CASEBOOK makes readers think about how well we really know our parents. How do parental secrets impact who we become, and the decisions we make as adults?
A: I think very few people understand their parents as much as they’d like to. Often, by the time you know what you want to ask them, it’s too late. I think secrets impact everyone and usually terribly. National secrets, family obfuscations, most secrets.
Q: You tend to be reticent in interviews about the extent to which your fiction borrows from the details of your life. Why is this? Does your fiction borrow from your life? Should writers draw on their own personal lives as fuel for their fiction?
A: My fiction uses life only when life is better than what I can make up. I think writers should draw on everything for their fiction—their lives, the lives they know through reading and from being in the world and the vast realms of the imagined, by which I don’t only mean the fantastic.
Much of what is called realism in fiction is highly imagined. It’s life with a soft deep light inside it.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The story follows Miles from a young boy to a young man. It involves his relationship with his best friend and his family, but especially his Mother. It shows how deep his love is for her, how caring and protective he becomes. It is funny, sad and very moving. I highly recommend.
I wish i could have given a rating of 2 1/2 stars. It wasn't a bad book , but it wasn't a good book. It took many, many pages before I really became interested in this novel, but because it was written by Mona Simpson, I stuck with it. In Casebook, Simpson details the life and observations of Miles, a twelve year old boy who is deeply invested in his mother's romantic life. . The story is told from his viewpoint and Simpson adeptly handles Miles progress and story telling abilities as he matures to a young man. There are a lot of characters to keep track off, some with nicknames that makes identifying them confusing. Often, a character is introduced but disappears for many pages, only to suddenly reappear without any connection to the story. Transitions from situation to situation are often abrupt and without logical progression; I had to reread or go back several pages to understand how the story and characters got to a certain point. Miles' mother was a completely unsympathetic character; a self-pitying, stubborn woman whose tunnel vision put her own romantic needs and desires ahead of her children. Her neglect and lack of concern for her young family was beyond my comprehension. Casebook was disappointing, and at times depressing, but Simpson's story telling prowess did show up often enough to make me hang in there. I am hesitant to recommend Casebook. but if you have the patience, you might want to give it a try........but borrow from the library! (If you want a wonderful book, get Simpson's first book, Anywhere But here. It is brilliant.)
As Mona Simpson's newest novel, Casebook opens, Miles is twelve years old when his parents separate. His mom, Irene (whom he calls the Mims) is a mathematician, not an occupation you find frequently in novels. His father Evan is a lawyer in the entertainment industry and they live in Los Angeles. He has younger twin sisters whom he calls Boop One and Boop Two. His best friend Hector's parents aren't together either. Hector has a bit of a crush on the Mims, and he is more than willing to help Miles figure out why Mims and Evans are separated and whether they are headed towards divorce. Miles has heard rumblings that Mims cheated on his dad, and to find out the truth he rigs up a phone extension so that he can listen to his mother's phone conversations. Mims soon begins dating Eli, who works for the National Service Foundation in Washington. Eli seems like a good guy, but he is in the midst of a divorce from his wife and he misses his young son. His mother recently died, and he has a brother who has mental health issues. Eli promises Mims that he will move out to Los Angeles and they will be a family, she just has to give him time. And more time. And more time. And then he has to take care of his dying cat, who seems to hang on forever. Miles and Hector become suspicious of Eli, so they seek out a private investigator, whose jobs usually consist of background checks on reality show contestants (Big Brother, The Bachelor), but there is something about these boys that gets to him, and he agrees to help them without pay. Casebook puts me in mind of Caroline Leavitt's recent novel Is This Tomorrow?. They both tell the story of a lonely young boy, who loves his mom very much, and takes on her problems. They both tell the story from the boy as an adult looking back on his life. And they both feature strong characterizations and beautiful writing. It took me awhile to get into Casebook, but about halfway in, I fell in love. Miles and Hector are such real, wonderful boys, trying to make sense of an adult world. Mims got to me too; she so wants this relationship with Eli to be the real deal. Simpson creates believable characters that you feel you know. Her description of Sare, one of Mims's friends is a good example."She was way cooler than my parents. Sare was a very smart person who never tried anything too hard for her. She had that confidence and that boredom." My only criticism of the book is that there are many characters, and at first it is difficult to keep track of who belonged to whom. And the fact that Miles had nicknames for his mom and sisters confused me when other characters called them by their given names. Miles and Hector write a comic book based partly on Eli, and I'm glad we get to see the results of their work. Hector also has footnotes in the book, giving his point of view on things that Miles has written about him, which adds a unique perspective. The ending is poignant, much like Is This Tomorrow?, and if you liked that novel, you will love Casebook, as I did. It's a beautiful coming-of-age story, sure to touch your heart.