Then a well-intentioned birthday gift leads to the discovery that Clarence Lusk, on death row for the murder of Lida's sister, is seeking penpals from the outside. And so, for the first time in her life, Lida crosses a line: she begins to write to him, pretending to be naive, twenty-three, and just the slightest bit flirtatious. As letters pass steadily between Lida and Clarence, her preoccupation with his crime and its echoes intensifies, and she finds that crossing one line makes the ones that follow all the more tempting to cross.
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The Done Thing
The State of Arizona conducted its executions at dawn and had for the past several years, a policy change from midnight for which no explanation had been offered. I liked to keep abreast of such things. I had the Daily Star delivered to my St. Louis home, days late and at no small cost. For nearly two decades I’d collected clippings and taken notes on legal pads. I ran calculations and so I knew: forty-eight percent of inmates took breakfast as their final meals. Maybe they sought grounding, one last moment in step with the breakfasting rest of the world. The eggs, though, threw me. Thirty-four percent of prisoners—even some slated for electrocution—demanded fried eggs. Breakfast any mother might serve: the buttery stuff of hurried kitchens, pan to plate in under ten minutes. Kiddie food, and cheap. I’d read the studies. Few inmates in Intensive Supervision Unit-Stemble came from privilege. Maybe they ate and thought of their first eggs and the hands that brought them. Mothering of some persuasion, over- or under-, it was all just rhetoric. I read those articles, too. Every execution had its editorializing. Never mind justice. He grew up hard. Blame the mothers. The mothers will do.
Or, worse, the alternative: maternal address to camera and court. Rote permutations: I know what my son did, please don’t take my son, my son knows what it is to take, please, my son knows what is to be taken. While inside and over the wall he chewed his eggs, the fear and grease shunting them down to loose bowels. I hoped the cooks couldn’t get an egg right. I hoped shells snuck in and startled, crunching like bones.
I wanted to see him.
I wanted to hear him complain about the grub.
He would, too, if it was nasty stuff. Or he’d explain the eggs. “See here. The food’s so foul a fried egg’s the only thing they can’t screw up.” He used to have this way of speaking, leaning forward, pitch lilting like he was letting the world in on a private joke. “Maybe we just like eggs. It doesn’t have to mean a thing.”
It didn’t have to be nostalgia. Eggs fry up quick. They’re easy to spice. Fodder for the self-sufficient. Bachelor food.
I knew my statistics. Clarence Lusk was lucky to be white. Lucky Clarence, to have his mother out there funneling her retirement into his defense. A little darker, a little poorer, and he’d be long buried.
For eighteen years and four appeals I’d waited. I tried to visit. Each April I petitioned, miserable annual paperwork, right on the heel of taxes. He invariably denied me. “Understand this,” my lawyer said, “few things remain that he has the power to refuse.”
I wanted to see his face. He’d be older now, too. Everybody was, with certain, notable exceptions. When we put my sister in the ground, her hair had haloed around her face, a cropped, unruly mess of curls. Layered. The fashion of the day, archaic now. She looked like a dandelion gone to seed. Hair grew postmortem. Nails too. In the bitter months between funeral and verdict I remember finding comfort in this. My underground sister continued to change. She grew wild out of sight.
Clarence appeared at trial with his hair shorn close. This was no longer mandatory—some prisoners’ rights lawsuit—so it had to be strategy. Before, he’d let it go shaggy. Maybe he thought the cut would make him respectable.
It wouldn’t. Nothing would again. And I hoped it wasn’t strategy. I hoped it was lice.
My husband Frank, God bless, used to stop me from running away with myself. Lida, he’d say, what good can thinking like that do? Frank was a gentleman, in the sense that the word is the sum of gentle and of man. He knew there was no peace to be had from a certain vein of thought. How I loved him. As he did me, even when I was frayed, even when I loosed the shrill, full honesty: it wasn’t actually peace I wanted. I wanted to be sure Clarence Lusk wouldn’t find any. I could say that sort of thing to Frank, and that was a measure of the soundness of our marriage. And this was as well: I did not often say such things to Frank. I saw how it made him feel helpless.
Our Pamela had grown up measured and very sweet, like Frank. A confident, lovely girl, except when I mentioned Clarence. Her father, locked far away. Her father, who had put her mother underground. She said I looked absolutely hawkish when I spoke of him. And so I didn’t do it much. The way it knit her face together. Three times a year we let him write Pam. When she was just a little thing and young enough to forget.
Clarence didn’t have the right to deny me anything.
And so I had no one, really, to talk to about the eggs. Thirty-four percent. I’d triple checked. I used a calculator. Why eggs, why fried, I couldn’t figure. Eggs were bizarrely optimistic. Eggs were a beginning. Yellow. Cheerful. Though fried, of course, they’d never grow.
Someone should conduct a study. Shattered Eggshells: A Comprehensive Analysis of Proteins, Lipids and the Murdering Mind. The data could make a difference. Waitresses could phone a hotline after taking orders. Barbra would have appreciated that line of thought. She always got this impish look when she guessed I was thinking something terrible. Barbra would’ve had her own theory. Everyone knows breakfast’s the most important meal of the day. The condemned have high pressure mornings ahead. Better load up on protein. But my sister never said anything of the sort. She had no reason to. I only learned my statistics after. Almost twenty years gone now. Frank dead, Pammie out of the nest and married. But Clarence. Clarence lingered, unshakable as the phantom weight a watch leaves on a naked wrist. Once he died I could find new thoughts. I wanted that. I wanted it desperately. I wanted to fly to Arizona. I wanted to fry him an egg.
Reading Group Guide
This readers group guide for The Done Thing 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.
Lida Stearl is a recently widowed sixty-three-year-old hiding her vulnerability and loneliness behind a perfectly ordinary life. Then a well-intentioned birthday gift leads her to the discovery that Clarence Lusk, on death row for the murder of her sister, is seeking penpals from the outside. She begins to write to him, pretending to be naïve, twenty-three, and just the slightest bit flirtatious. As letters pass steadily between Lida and Clarence, her peace of mind is consumed by his crime, and she finds that crossing one line makes the ones that follow all the more tempting.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the relevance of the title, The Done Thing. What is the “thing” that is done and who do you think did it? What does the title mean to you?
2. Discuss the relationship between Lida and Pamela. Give examples of how their relationship is strained and might be considered unhealthy.
3. How does the author use dreams to advance the story? Why do you think Pamela’s dreams forced her to confront her past? Why did she wait until she was away at college to contact her father and then keep it a secret from Lida?
4. Think about the importance of Clarence and what his role is to the story. Consider his lack of repentance and remorse: “Some things stay between a man and his wife” (p. 206). What do the letters reveal about Clarence’s inner thoughts about his heinous crime? Discuss the change in tone of Clarence’s last letter to Lida. How was Clarence able to figure out who was writing to him? Why does he decide to keep Lida’s secret? Do you think we are given a glimpse of the real Clarence? Explain your answer.
5. Examine what Manaster is trying to say about the many different ways a person can be imprisoned. Which other characters, besides Clarence, are imprisoned? How do they escape their prison?
6. How does Marjorie serve as a foil for Lida? What is Marjorie’s role in the story? What is her power? What do you make of Marjorie and her actions?
7. Take a closer look at what Manaster is attempting to say about the complex relationship between a parent and a child. Discuss how the characters define family. How do other characters in The Done Thing, such as Blue and Kath, establish their identities? How does the Claverie family compare and contrast with Lida and Pamela’s?
8. Why do you think Manaster chose to have the murders take place twenty years in the past? Examine how the characters’ lives are changed by the act of murder.
9. What can you surmise from the novel about Pamela’s connection with her father? How does her relationship with Clarence influence her relationship with Lida? What do you think Pam told her father about Lida? Why do you think she waited to share her good news with Lida?
10. Discuss how the author differentiates between Lida’s voice and that of Maisie Keller. Compare and contrast the similarities and differences. Lida spends most of the novel manipulating the other characters. Consider how Manaster manipulates the reader as well.
11. Analyze the ways in which teeth function as a symbol throughout the novel. How does Lida’s fascination with teeth help to reveal more about her character? Provide examples found in the story.
12. Discuss how Manaster tackles the subject of crime and punishment. Consider what Lida would have been like had her sister not been murdered. What effect does vengeance have on love? How would you have behaved under the same circumstances?
13. On page 59, Barbra says to Lida, “It’s simple enough. All it means is that if you live long enough there’s no line that you won’t cross.” What are your thoughts about this? What is the significance that Barbra is the one to say this? What does this reveal about her character? Think about a time in your life when you came close to crossing the line and how you handled the situation.
14. On page 267, Lida reveals that she wasn’t very close to her sister, Barbra: “I knew maybe ten real things about her.” Examine how death can shape the memories of those left behind.
15. Evaluate why Manaster chose to end the novel the way she did. What are your thoughts about what is happening in the final chapters? Were you satisfied with what happened to the characters and how their stories concluded? Explain your answers.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Kath confides to Lida that their shared hairstylist calls her “Good Queen Hedgehog” because she is “[i]mperious and prickly but . . . there’s a soft underbelly beneath” (p. 189). If you had to choose an animal that best describes you, what would it be and why?
2. Lida’s mother has a quaint saying for all of life’s situations: “[P]ity’s a coin that earns no interest” (p. 137). Think about someone in your family who has an adage for every occasion and select your favorite one. Why did you choose that particular one? How does it apply to your life now? Is there any truth to the saying? Explain your answer.
3. On page 282, Clarence says, “To everyone else who thinks I deserve this, just know that I’m a person here you’re killing, a person same as anybody, so think hard about what that means you deserve.” Discuss whether you think the death penalty should be allowed. List some of the pros and cons of capital punishment. Examine the ways in which capital punishment can offer closure to the victim’s family.
4. Letter writing is a personal way of self-expression that allows the reader time to gather their thoughts before responding. When was the last time you wrote and mailed a letter to someone? Who did you send it to? Did the person write back or respond in another way? Think about other ways to correspond. Which one(s) do you like best, and why?
5. Discuss whether it is possible to read a novel with flawed and unlikeable characters and still enjoy the story. What is your favorite book(s) with an unsympathetic protagonist?