A man stands on the Golden Gate Bridge, poised to jump…if a woman on the other end of the phone tells him to.
Maris’s safe suburban world was shattered the day her daughter was found murdered, presumably at the hands of the young woman’s boyfriend. Her marriage crumbling, her routine shattered, Maris walks away from her pampered life as a Bay Area mom the day she receives a call from Ron, father of her daughter’s killer. Wracked with guilt over his son’s actions (and his own possible contribution to them), he asks Maris a single question: should he jump?
With a man’s life in her hands, Maris must decide, perhaps for the first time, what she truly wants. Retribution? Forgiveness? Or something more? Having lost everything, she’s finally free to recreate herself without the confining labels of “wife,” “mother,” or “mourner.” But will this shocking offer free her, or destroy her?
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Read an Excerpt
The Guilty One
THE NEXT DAY was a Tuesday, the most ordinary of days. The inertia of the night before had dissipated when Maris got up. The packing that had seemed so daunting took no more than a few minutes, the selection of what to take for a stay at her sister’s place seeming perfectly obvious. Clothes, toiletries, a few books and journals. Maris swept the little collection of precious keepsakes she had been collecting into her dresser, nestling the objects among the out-of-season sweaters; she would get them next time she returned, when the future seemed a bit less hazy.
She was out the door by ten, having outwaited the morning commute, and in Oakland forty minutes later. She attended to her errand with brisk detachment. When she came out again into the heat of another ninety-degree July day, blinking in the sun, she was buoyed by a sense of accomplishment.
Until she got back to her car. Standing with her hand in her purse, searching for her keys, her brain tried to make sense of what she was seeing: the jagged hole in the rear window, the sidewalk littered with broken glass. It was pretty, the way the shards sparkled in the sun, and some part of Maris’s mind was having trouble making sense of what she was seeing, processing how this changed her circumstances and what she would have to do about it, even as she marveled at the broken bits sparkling like the pavé diamonds in the anniversary band Jeff gave her on their tenth anniversary.
Shit. The jewelry. She had forgotten to pack her jewelry.
Maris bent down and picked up one of the tiny little pieces. Safety glass—wasn’t that a lovely turn of phrase? It had so many other uses. Like coffee table tops. And sliding glass doors. People were always accidentally crashing through those, weren’t they? Like Jeremy Guttenfelder after the junior class prom. Calla had gotten blood on her dress trying to help clean up.
Maris stood and put the bit of glass into her pocket. Her fingertips touched the little slip of paper, the claim check. She hadn’t even needed it. The man in the shop remembered her. In her other hand she held the package he’d given her, surprisingly heavy and wrapped in white paper over bubble wrap. Well. She couldn’t leave the package in the car now, could she! A manic little laugh burst from Maris’s lips. She peered in the backseat. Of course it was gone, all of it. The large suitcase, the Vera Bradley duffel, the two large Crate & Barrel bags. Ha. Good luck with that.
People who broke into cars in Oakland were likely just looking for things to sell for drug money, for their next high. For a chunky, for a dirty, Jeff would have said. He was embarrassingly proud of the lingo he’d picked up from his crime shows: burners, hoppers, carrying weight. He’d say these things ironically, self-deprecatingly—God, he was good at that fake self-deprecation. You don’t live with someone for more than two decades without knowing what lay beneath the fragile glib exterior. And still, all that time, he never seemed to accept that she heard things too, she knew things. And the things she knew were actually true.
Once the depth of his disinterest in her life became clear, Maris didn’t bother to tell Jeff that the kids didn’t really talk like that, not even the ones in East Oakland. Before Calla’s death, Maris volunteered once a week for a literacy program at Morgandale Elementary School, working with a fourth-grader in one of Oakland’s worst neighborhoods. But maybe Jeff was right to be skeptical. Here in front of her was evidence that do-gooders like her made no difference at all—her possessions sold off for, what, a single afternoon’s relief? Her clothes, toiletries, books, her journal, what kind of money could they possibly bring? A size-twelve wardrobe—expensive, yes, but out of date. Not one thing purchased in the last year. And what would a junkie do with a jar of Estée Lauder face cream?
At least Maris’s laptop was in her purse. She’d go across the street and get some coffee and file a report. She knew damn well that cops didn’t actually come for things like this anymore, not in Oakland. You just went online and filled out a form and the system assigned you a number, and then at least you had something to show the insurance guy.
The package in her hand was uncomfortably heavy. Maris hitched it up under her arm and crossed the street, not bothering to walk back to the crosswalk on the corner.
The diner was staffed by an Asian couple. The woman stood at the register, sorting through a pile of receipts. The man was scraping the grill. There was one other customer in the shop, a mumbling, shuffling black man with a coat whose sleeves came well past his wrists. A coat, in this heat. Maris stepped wide around him but still she could smell him.
“I’d like a large coffee,” Maris said. And then, because she might have to sit there for a while, she scanned the menu for something else to order to justify taking up table space. “And a bacon and egg sandwich.”
“White or wheat?” the woman asked.
The man got to work without looking up, setting down his spatula with a clang and reaching for the package of bread on a shelf above the grill. What a life this must be, working with your husband from early in the morning until closing time at night. This heat, these smells, the grease hanging in the air, and every day, only each other.
“I’ll bring.” The woman handed Maris her change and gestured at the table.
There was only one, a Formica round top on uneven legs. The chairs were the white plastic outdoor type you could buy for fifteen dollars at Home Depot. The table had been wiped, but there was still a greasy smear. Maris rubbed at it with a napkin before she set her laptop down.
She should call Alana. Let her know she was delayed again. God. Dread unspooled in Maris’s gut. Alana had made it plain that she’d cleared her evenings this week, that she’d try to take off early in the afternoons. That the guest room was “move-in ready.” At the thought of what lay ahead, the ease with which Maris had been navigating the day guttered like a candle in the breeze and she shut her eyes and forced herself to take a series of deep breaths. Just the thought of that place—Alana’s condo building with its designated landmark plaque, its turret room and coy little arched windows . . . the way Alana’s heels clicked briskly on the refurbished floors. That was Alana: always so brisk.
The woman set Maris’s sandwich down. It arrived on a paper plate stained with butter, wrapped in waxed paper and cut in half.
“You work?” the woman pointed to Maris’s laptop.
“No,” Maris said, embarrassed. “I mean, yes. I have to . . .”
She didn’t finish the sentence and the woman made a small tsk’ing sound and went back behind the counter with her husband. The shambling man was gone, leaving behind a sense of industry as they all three went about their tasks. Maybe that was what the woman meant, that Maris should work, as if at this hour of the day it was the only reasonable thing to do. Actually, Maris would agree with that. It was a little after eleven. Once, when she had a job, this had been her most productive time of the day. Even this last year, as her leave dragged on and on and everyone tacitly seemed to conclude that she was never going back, morning was when Maris worked the hardest, even if it was just ripping weeds from the cracks between pavers or scrubbing the dust from the baseboards.
She unwrapped the sandwich. Suddenly, she was ravenous. This was the sort of food no one ate anymore: plain square slices of pale soft bread, an egg shiny with butter, the bacon limp and folded back on itself. It was delicious. Maris ate the first half, starting with the triangle corners, and then after wiping her fingers on the paper napkin, she ate the rest.
She got up to refill her cup from the pot on the counter.
“Refill fifty cent.”
“Oh.” Maris dug her wallet from her purse, embarrassed, and then realized she hadn’t tipped when she paid. She laid down a dollar, then two more. The woman stared at the bills with what might have been contempt.
Maris took her cup and sat back down. She should open the laptop. She should get the report over with. She would search “Oakland police report theft.” Or burglary? What was the difference? Maris sighed, staring out the window across the street. Her car, a three-year-old Acura with less than forty thousand miles on it, was wedged between a purplish Ford Taurus and an old blue Corolla.
The shop where she’d had Alana’s fittings replated was around the corner, a long cramped space with a glass counter right out of the 1950s and a proprietor to match, an old bent man with white close-cropped hair and a narrow tie. “Only place in the Bay Area still does the triple plating,” he’d said, like an accusation, when she brought the fittings in. Silver services and brass doorknobs, babies’ cups and old-fashioned hand mirrors lined the shelves, looking as though they’d been awaiting pickup for years. “Been here since 1972,” the man said gloomily when he ran her credit card.
Maris wondered what the neighborhood had been like when he opened his shop. The houses were large and once must have been nice. Take the one across the street. Blue plastic sheeting was nailed over parts of the roof, and the window sashes were peeling and rotting in some places, but the eaves were ornately trimmed and the porch rail sat on turned spindles. Leaded-glass windows in a diamond pattern framed either side of the front door.
While she was watching, the door opened and a young man flew out, barely pausing to slam the door shut. He had a backpack slung over one arm, a plaid short-sleeved shirt whose tails flapped over his shorts. Black socks, the kind Maris’s father had worn, and white converse sneakers. He jogged across the street without bothering to look for traffic and headed for the diner, pushing open the door with a shove of his shoulder.
“I’ll have a pancake sandwich?” Only then did Maris realize that it was a woman, not a man. A girl, really, her fine light brown hair cut short with longer bangs falling in her eyes, and white teeth that were a little too large for her face.
The man at the grill started pouring batter from a metal pitcher without acknowledging her. The girl put a bill down on the counter and helped herself to a coffee cup. After filling it she looked at Maris and frowned. Maris opened the laptop self-consciously and pretended to study the screen.
“Hey, do you mind if I sit here with you?” the girl said, and without waiting for an answer, slid out one of the white plastic chairs with her foot.
“I—no, of course not.”
Maris glanced up, giving the girl a closer look. She had a silver bar in her ear that entered near the top and pierced the shell-like middle before emerging near the lobe. A tattoo peeked out from her shirt, but it was impossible to tell what it was—all Maris could make out was a curving barbed tendril. She dug into her backpack and took out a book, dog-eared and marked in half a dozen places with Post-its.
The book was East of Eden. Calla had read it junior year. It was still sitting on the shelf in her room back in Linden Creek.
A sound came out of Maris, a blunted wail.
“Hey,” the girl said, looking up in alarm. “Hey.”
Maris waved her hand, dabbing at her eyes with her crumpled napkin. Usually she could cover up these dangerous slips, which generally came when she was in CVS or driving past the library, small moments in unremarkable days. She had perfected a cough and swipe of the eyes that masked the upwelling of agony.
But today was different. Today was an ending and it was supposed to be a beginning, but Maris suddenly knew that there was no new beginning for her, that she could not go to Santa Luisa to her sister’s home that smelled of toast and Balenciaga Florabotanica. There was this moment, this girl and her book, sitting much too close, and Maris heaved, the sandwich suddenly roiling in her stomach. “I’m so sorry,” she mumbled. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Hey!” The girl shouted, jumping up from her chair. “The lady’s sick! Give me the key!”
The woman behind the counter looked up from stocking a display of energy bars. Her mouth tightened and she looked directly at Maris, judging, assessing. She reached under the counter and slammed a large metal serving spoon on the counter. A key hung off the end.
“Come on,” the girl said. “It’ll be faster to go around.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Guilty One 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.
Sophie Littlefield’s gripping The Guilty One interweaves the stories of Maris and Ron, the respective parents of a murdered teenage girl and her ex-boyfriend who is convicted of killing her. Both their lives have been shattered since the murder, but when Ron calls Maris offering to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge as recompense for his son’s actions, it sets them both on a path of reflection, self-reinvention, and possible reconciliation with their own pasts.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. In the opening pages describing Ron’s suicide attempt, Maris refers to Ron simply as “her friend” (p. 19). How does her choice of words set up your understanding of their connection throughout the book?
2. Events only gradually reveal themselves as the story progresses. Why do you think the author chose to unveil what happened to the Vacanti and Isherwood families in this way? How did your opinion about what happened between Karl and Calla evolve during your reading of the book?
3. Ron believes “it was a mother's job to defend her offspring, just as it was a father’s job to provide expectations and consequences” (p.63). Do you agree with this point of view? In what way do you think Ron was predisposed to believe Karl’s guilt?
4. Ron believes that his father had a direct impact on his ability to form a relationship with his son, and in many ways this failure to bond contributed to Calla’s death. Is this a reasonable sentiment?
5. Maris takes the axiom of a clean start very literally when she moves into the apartment in Oakland. In what way do reminders of her life before the murder hinder her progress and in what way are they an important bridge? Is this something you can relate to?
6. During Ron’s first visit to Karl in prison he’s more concerned with how others view him than what his son thinks. Is this unexpected from what we know of his life thus far? What does this say about him as a person and a father?
7. We get to know Maris and Ron very well from their interior dialogues and points of view, but we also get the chance to see them through each other’s eyes. What surprised you about how they saw each other? Did this affect your viewpoint in any way?
8. Throughout the book, we catch glimpses of the dynamic between Ron and Deb prior to the murder and how it has changed after Karl’s conviction. In what ways did Karl’s incarceration immediately change their relationship, and what aspects can be interpreted as a natural progression from the events of the school trip?
9. Both Maris and her sister are the products of sperm donors. In what way do you think that shaped their upbringing? Why do you think Sophie Littlefield made that decision?
10. How did the revelation of why Maris and Jeff's marriage disintegrated change the way your understanding of the first half of the book?
11. The “Guilty One” can refer both to the perpetrator and one who feels guilt. How does the author use this dual meaning when exploring the aftermath of a heinous crime? In your mind, who is the Guilty One that the title refers to?
12. At the end of the book Ron contemplates getting to know his son again after five years in jail. In light of what you know happened the night Calla died, do you think Karl deserves to be released so soon? Or is five years too long?
13. Like Ron, Pet has an unstable parent who is emotionally abusive, but she manages to live her life in a relatively well-adjusted manner. Do you think if Ron had a similar support system in his twenties he would be less emotionally closed off? Or are their responses to their respective upbringings a result of their distinct personalities?
14. At the end of the book, Maris is able to redefine who she is, now that the old labels that applied to her life are no longer valid. Do you think this transformation would have been possible had Calla not been murdered?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The events depicted in the book closely mirror those examined in the critically acclaimed and popular podcast Serial. Listen to the first episode of Serial as a group and discuss how the media sensationalizes high school murders and the difficulty of prosecuting these kinds of cases.
2. One of the coping mechanisms Maris is given is to pick a positive thing she did and say it out loud. Go around the room and pick a positive thing that you did this week and review why that enhanced your overall mood.
3. Recent research has shown that many adolescents’ brains continue to develop into their mid-twenties, especially the areas that contribute to reasoning, judgment, and impulse control. Take a look at past cases where teenage brain development was used as part of the courtroom defense and apply them to The Guilty One. Could this defense have been used as part of Karl’s trial?