Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The History of Us includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Leah Stewart. 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.
Nearly two decades have passed since Eloise Hempel gave up her dream job teaching at Harvard University to return to her hometown of Cincinnati to care for her orphaned nieces and nephew. Now, with Theo, Josh, and Claire grown, she dreams of selling the family house, perhaps even returning to the life she left behind. But when her mother decides not to let Eloise sell the house—and instead promises it to the family member “who needs it most”—unforeseen consequences and revelations threaten to unravel their makeshift family.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why did Eloise return to Cincinnati rather than have Theo, Josh, and Claire move to Boston? Do you think she made the right decision? Why or why not? What would you have done if you were in Eloise’s position?
2. Describe Eloise’s individual relationships with Theo, Josh, and Claire. What makes each relationship unique? What are the specific strains on each relationship? Do you think Eloise treats her adopted nieces and nephew differently? Did any of these relationships remind you of relationships in your own life?
3. Eloise “tried without success to break Theo of her fondness for their hometown.” (pg. 24) Why is Eloise adamant that Theo leave Cincinnati? Why does Theo believe that Josh, but not she herself, “should be in a bigger city” and “leading a bigger life” (pg. 57)?
4. What were Josh’s motivations for quitting his band and returning to Cincinnati? In what ways did Josh’s tempestuous situation with Sabrina affect his relationship with Theo? Did you understand his reasons for not telling Adelaide about Blind Robots?
5. How is Claire’s departure a turning point for Eloise, Theo, and Josh? Why does Claire not tell her family about her change of plans? Do you think Theo, Josh, and Eloise were more upset by her decision to quit ballet or by her deception?
6. What does the house “on Clifton Avenue near the intersection with Lafayette” (pg. 15) symbolize to each character? Do you think Eloise’s desire to be “unburdened” (pg. 76) by it due more to financial or emotional considerations? Have you ever felt a similar, conflicted connection to a certain place or city?
7. “It’s like she wants to sell our childhood” (pg 93), Theo says about Eloise’s desire to sell the house. Did you empathize more with Eloise or with Theo? Was Eloise justified in kicking Theo and Josh out of the house? Why or why not?
8. Discuss Francine’s character. What were your initial reactions to her? How did she change over the course of the novel? What were her motivations for creating a “competition” for the house? Why does Eloise ultimately come to sympathize her mother?
9. Why does Eloise insist on keeping her relationship with Heather a secret from her family and her colleagues? Is she ashamed of being in a romantic relationship with a woman, as Heather claims?
10. “These children are not mine, she thought. This fact, which at times had come with a pang of sorrow, now brought her comfort. She was just their aunt. If the world had turned as it should, she’d be nothing but a voice on the phone.” (pg. 225) Discuss your reactions to this passage. Do you understand Eloise’s resentment? What is your perception of Eloise as a parent, especially considering the circumstances of how she came into the role?
11. In what ways is Eloise’s trip to Chicago a pivotal moment for her? Why does she ultimately decide to stay in Cincinnati? Do you think she makes this choice for Heather, for her family, or for herself?
12. In what ways are each of the characters at a crossroads in their lives—both regarding their careers and romantic relationships? How does the loss of their parents continue to affect Theo, Josh, and Claire in adulthood and influence the decisions they make?
13. On pg 346 Theo wonders: “Why was it so hard to tell the difference between what you thought you wanted, and what you wanted?” What do you think she actually wants in life? Does she figure it out in the end? Have you ever been in a similar situation?
14. What kind of responsibility, if any, do parents have for their adult children? Are Eloise’s responsibilities for her grown-up nieces and nephew less since, as she says, she “inherited” them? What are your thoughts about Eloise’s assertion that Theo feels entitled to the house “because, these days in America, not until children have children of their own do they feel any gratitude to the people who raised them”? (pg. 130)
15. Discuss the way Cincinnati is described and portrayed in the novel. Have you ever visited or lived in Cincinnati? Did you think the descriptions were accurate? Discuss the connection between identity and place. How does the place where you live define you as a person? How has your setting affected your life?
16. The History of Us concludes with some significant issues in the characters’ lives left unresolved. What do you think the future holds for Eloise, Theo, Josh, and Claire? Do you think The History of Us is an accurate portrayal of family relationships?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Theo meets up with Noah at the Cincinnati History Museum, where they explore a model of the city. To take a virtual tour through the nation’s largest full-motion urban layout, visit www.cincymuseum.org/history/motion.
2. Bake some brown sugar cookies, like Heather does for Eloise and her family, to bring to your book club meeting. For a recipe, visit www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Brown-Sugar-Cookies-367569.
3. Watch video, browse through rehearsal pictures, and learn more about the Cincinnati Ballet company by visiting http://www.cballet.org/explore/watch. Consider going to a performance by your city’s local ballet or dance company with your book club members. To find performances in your area, visit http://www.seedance.com/listing/. 4. Pair your reading of The History of Us with one of Leah Stewart’s other novels, such as Husband and Wife or The Myth of You and Me. Visit www.leahstewart.com to learn more about the author.
A Conversation with Leah Stewart
What initially inspired you to write The History of Us?
I was interested in the ways in which identity and place overlap—in other words, how and to what degree we define ourselves by where we live. At first I had in mind a really complicated structure, modeled on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, that followed about ten different points of view. But that was unwieldy. After I decided to focus on one family, the relationships between adult siblings and between adult children and their parental figure became important.
The city of Cincinnati and the Hempels’ house are important to both the narrative and to the characters. Why did you choose Cincinnati as the backdrop for this novel? What kind of research did you do on 19th century houses in order to include such intricate details like the following: “the wrought-iron grille on the front door, the leaded-glass windows…the chandelier in the entryway, the elaborately carved woodwork, the tiles around the fireplace with their raised seashells, the walls of the living room, upholstered in a faded pink damask with a pattern in gold”? (pg. 16)
I moved to Cincinnati in 2007, and I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the city’s history—the abandoned tunnels of the never-finished subway, and the road that used to be a canal, and the neighborhood that used to be home to 300 saloons. I think that’s in part because the heyday of the city was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and there hasn’t been the money since to tear down and replace buildings that there has in other cities. So daily life here involves a number of buildings that are around a hundred years old, including my own house, and I love the architecture of that time. There’s also something compelling to me about the city having once been a cultural capital—Queen of the West—and no longer being one, so there’s all this evidence of former glory around. That seemed to go along with the characters’ situations, or maybe it would be more accurate to say it inspired those situations.
I know a lot, now, about living in an old house and the upkeep an old house requires, as I and most of my friends here live in them. The house in the book was inspired by an actual house here, which I’ve been in once, because it belongs to friends of friends.
You write on your website, “I’m a believer in writing from emotional truth but not necessarily literal truth. In other words I have to put my characters in situations where I’ll understand what they feel, and to do that I mix elements of my own life with details from other people’s lives and add a healthy dose of stuff I made up.” What real-life elements of your own life made it into The History of Us?
My observations about Cincinnati, though I don’t feel ambivalent about it like Eloise does. My feelings are closer to Theo’s—I’ve really fallen in love with the place. Otherwise, hmmmm. It’s striking me this has less from my life in it than my other books. I have a younger brother, and my husband has two younger brothers, and I’ve been with him so long they might as well be my brothers, too. So probably some elements of those sibling relationships, plus what I’ve observed watching my children interact.
You write of Josh’s character on pg. 174: “If people could be divided into cats and dogs, he was the latter, pliable and obvious in his affections.” Are you more of a cat person or a dog person?
Oh, cat person, definitely.
Jane Austen is referenced a few times in The History of Us. Which of her books is your favorite?
I sometimes wish I could be more original in answering this question, but it’s Pride and Prejudice, followed by a tie between Sense and Sensibility and Emma.
Your descriptions of what it’s like to be a ballerina and specific details—like how many pairs of shoes a dancer goes through in a year—are fascinating. Is this a topic with which you have firsthand knowledge, or did you research it specifically for the novel?
I got interested in dance about three years ago, after my daughter started taking ballet lessons. The ballet offers a dance/workout class called Rhythm & Motion, and I started taking that. Then I bought season tickets to the ballet, and now I go fairly often to modern dance performances as well. I think it’s partly the discipline that fascinates me, and partly that, being mostly a mind person, I’m fascinated by the idea of being a body person. Especially in the case of making art with just your body. When I started working on this book, I interviewed Sarah Hairston, who is a principal dancer with the Cincinnati Ballet, and a number of the details, like the one about pointe shoes, came from her.
A major part of the story is centered on Eloise’s struggle with a sense of place and her desire to be “elsewhere.” Did you know from the start where she would ultimately decide she wants to live, or did her decision evolve during the writing process? Why was this an important theme to include in The History of Us?
It’s where the book started. For a long time it was called Elsewhere. Because there’s a perception in this country that the big things happen on the coasts, and the rest of us live in a vast, bland space called flyover country, and some people who live here are afflicted with that perception and are made unhappy by it. So I got interested in that. I’m always interested in the ways people make themselves unhappy.
I can’t remember whether I always knew Eloise would stay, although thinking about it now it doesn’t seem like there was another choice.
You reference popular bands and musicians, such as The National, Frightened Rabbit, and Grizzly Bear. What songs would be on The History of Us playlist? Do you listen to music while you write?
I do listen to music. I fixate on certain albums and play them over and over, so that at a certain point putting them on triggers the writing mood. For this book, it was The National’s High Violet, Frightened Rabbit’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks, all three of the albums by Band of Horses, Bon Iver’s first album, and Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone. For the book I’m working on now, so far it’s The Head and the Heart’s self-titled album, and the two albums by Blind Pilot.
I could probably make two playlists—one of the songs I listened to while writing it, and one of the songs I imagine the characters would listen to. I know Eloise, for instance, is a Lucinda Williams fan, and Theo likes Neko Case. Josh I imagine having my husband’s musical tastes—Grizzly Bear, Pavement, the Beach Boys, the Replacements. I also think he’d like Papas Fritas, whose members are friends of ours, and whose experience informs most of what I know about being in an indie rock band.
The History of Us explores both romantic and familial relationships. Which do you find more challenging to write about?
Probably romantic ones, at least new romantic ones. Because you have to convince the reader these two people would fall in love, whereas all you have to do with familial relationships (and I’d put longtime romantic partnerships in this category) is say they exist and then proceed to describe them. Y
ou currently teach in the University of Cincinnati’s creative writing program. What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who wanted to write professionally?
Your novels have explored infidelity, women’s friendship, murder, and motherhood. What do you plan to write about next?
How weird—all of the above. The book I just started is about an elderly woman, living in an isolated place, who befriends a new neighbor and her four-year-old son, then discovers the other woman was suspected of, but not charged with, killing her unfaithful husband. She fixates on finding out the truth, and turns out to have some secrets of her own.