Since the loss of her seventeen-year-old daughter less than a year ago, Joan Jacobs has struggled to keep her tight-knit family from coming apart. But Joan and Anders, her husband, are unable to snap back into the familiarity and warmth they so desperately need, both for themselves and for their surviving daughters, Eve and Eloise. The family flees to their summer home in search of peace and renewal, only to encounter an eerily similar tragedy when a pickup truck drives into the quarry in their backyard killing a young local named James Favazza.
As the Jacobs family learns more about the inexplicable events that preceded that fateful evening, each of them becomes increasingly tangled in the emotional threads of James’s story: fifteen-year-old Eve is determined to solve, on her own, the mystery of his death; Anders finds himself facing his own deepest fears; and seven-year-old Eloise unwittingly adopts James’s orphaned dog. For her part, Joan becomes increasingly fixated on James’s mother, a stranger whose sudden loss so closely mirrors her own.
With an urgent, beautiful intimacy that her fans have come to expect from this “bitingly intelligent writer” (The New York Times), Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop delivers here a powerful, buoyant novel that explores the complexities of family relationships and the small triumphs that can bring unexpected healing. The Why of Things is a wise, empathetic, and exquisitely heartfelt story about the strength of family bonds. It is an unforgettable and searing tour de force.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)|
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The Why of Things
They stand at the quarry’s edge: Joan, Anders, and their youngest girls, Eve and Eloise, who will not go to bed. The water below them is black and looks thick as tar; reflections of light from the house are wavering rectangles on its surface: window, window, door. Now and then, debris will bob through the light. An empty beer can. A flip-flop. A plastic bag.
“A bubble,” Eve says suddenly, and Joan has seen it, too, a single bubble breaking through the surface. “A bubble!” Eve says again, louder this time. She looks at her parents, demanding, expectant.
Joan touches her daughter’s arm. “Shhh.”
Behind them, in shadow, a handful of policemen lean against an ambulance and mutter, not about the tire marks that lead right to the quarry’s edge, not about the gasoline slowly spreading across the surface of the water, not about flip-flops or beer cans. Joan hears the words cheese steak, and cold one, and then a snuffle of muted laughter. She grits her teeth and digs her elbow into Anders’ side. “This is taking forever,” she whispers.
“Shhh,” Anders hushes her.
“But no one is doing anything.”
“What can they do, Joan? All anyone can do at this point is wait for the divers.”
“It’s been an hour and a half.”
“And it’s nine o’clock, and the dive team is coming from Beverly.” Anders looks at his watch. “Give them time.”
“Time,” Joan murmurs. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other. The day as it had passed seemed nothing but a blur of last-minute packing, of traffic jams and drive-throughs and tollbooths and endless highways that in her mind as the day of departure neared had come to symbolize escape. Now, though, looking back, Joan remembers the day as a detailed series of moments that at the time she hadn’t known she was aware of, and this sudden clarity both surprises and unnerves her, as if these details were presenting themselves now for a reason, for examination.
There is an image in her mind of Eloise standing inside their house in Maryland, silhouetted by the stark sky outside, her little face pressed against the screen door as she watches Anders load the car. Their summer things had been piled on the porch above the driveway, and Anders had carried them down to the car, box by box, bag by bag, one load at a time. All that is left to be carried to the car, in this image, is a dry-cleaned suit, hanging against a column of the porch.
There is an image of Eve sitting sullen on the steps with headphones on, her hair with a hot pink streak that last week was red, the bangs she’s growing out hanging in her face.
There is an image of the Sherpa cat bag by the door. Two bright green eyes blink slowly in its darkness.
There is an image of mist rising from wet pavement.
There is an image of traffic shimmering on the highway, Anders’ hand draped over the steering wheel, and her daughters in the backseat of the car, side by side despite Anders’ attempt to separate them with a duffel bag, which Eve had pushed into the window seat. That was still Sophie’s seat, the girls had said, and both refused to sit there.
Thinking back on the day like this, this morning and Maryland seem like a lifetime ago. Today, as Eve has reminded them several times, is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year; truly, to Joan, it has felt like it.
“Bubble!” Eve says, pointing. “If someone’s down there, time is running out!”
“Evie,” Joan says. “Hush!” though the same has occurred to her, too.
“You hush,” Eve says, and she swivels on her toe. Joan watches her go: she stalks toward the policemen leaning against the ambulance. The doors of their cruisers, which they have driven onto the grass, are open, and radio voices crackle from within. Eve passes through the beam of the headlights and then pauses before the policemen, as if considering whether to speak to them. But she continues past, around the quarry toward the house, which is a large, dark shape among the trees, only a few of the downstairs windows aglow. They hadn’t yet even made it upstairs. Their car is parked beside the house, its tailgate open and the inside lights still on. She imagines she can hear the chirpy ding ding ding of the open door starting to whine as the battery slowly dies, but she is too tired to really care. Anders had been just about to start unloading an hour or two ago, after they’d finally arrived here for the summer, when Eve had called out from over here, where Joan is standing now. Someone drove into the quarry! she called, and of course it had seemed unlikely, impossible, even, but then Eve pointed out the tire tracks that ran over the lawn, and the bubbles, and the things slowly surfacing even as they watched from the shore: a gas can, beer cans, a piece of Styrofoam.
Eve disappears into the shadows by the house, and Joan returns her gaze to the quarry. Another bubble surfaces.
* * *
THE tire tracks that lead directly to the quarry’s edge run between two trees so closely spaced together that Eve would never think a car could fit between them, but the tracks are there, and recent; the flattened grass seems to have lifted itself a bit in the short time since she first noticed them. Eve squats before the larger of the trees, where each summer she and her sisters have upon arriving at the quarry carved their initials and the year. After they arrived tonight, as her father began unloading the car, Eve had gone directly to the tree, as if she thought that perhaps she would find this year’s date already carved, Sophie’s initials fresh in the bark. As if she thought that somehow Sophie would be waiting there inside the house for them.
But of course Eve had found on the tree no new markings other than a nick where she now imagines the side-view mirror bumped against the tree as it passed, and then she had noticed the tire tracks, and followed them to where they ended at the quarry’s edge. No one believed her until they saw the tracks for themselves, of course, probably because they didn’t want to. She wasn’t surprised.
She traces their initials from last year with her finger now. It had been raining when they carved them, she remembers, and the bark had been slick. Sophie had gone first, and then she’d guided Eloise’s small hand with her own. Eve, when it was her turn with the knife, had managed to cut her finger, which though it didn’t hurt her began to bleed so heavily and immediately that Sophie had ripped a strip of material from her frayed cutoffs to wrap around it. Eve can see her sister clearly in her mind’s eye, her thin shoulders hunched as she tied the denim as tightly as she could, her inqusitive expression when she was finished, asking Eve with her eyes, is this all right? Sophie hated pain, her own or anyone else’s.
Eve examines her finger now, the pale indentation of the resulting scar, then stands up. Across the water, her parents and Eloise stand staring into the water, backlit by the headlights of the cruisers. The policemen behind them are vaguely familiar to Eve from encounters in past summers: the breakers-up of beach parties, the dispersers of crowds of kids gathered in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven. Those are the kinds of things they are good at, Eve thinks bitterly; when it comes to anything serious, like cars in quarries, they stand around uselessly waiting for someone else to do the dirty work. She casts an anxious glance in the direction of the driveway, wishing the divers would hurry up and get here.
Eve sighs, returning her attention to the tire tracks beneath her. She follows them back from the trees away from the water to where they disappear on the driveway, which leads out to one of the many dirt roads meandering around the various quarries on Cape Ann, theirs only one of the many silent scars of the granite days, filled with the rain of years, sometimes hundreds of feet in depth. She and her sisters have spent many summer hours on the sunbaked slabs along the quarry’s edge, hazarding gruesome guesses as to what over the years may have accumulated in the deep. Now, their worst imagining has come true, and Sophie isn’t even here to witness it.
Eve wanders down the driveway away from the house, and turns onto the road. She is barefoot, as she makes a point to be in summer, and though the grass of the lawn had felt cool and smooth beneath her feet, she walks gingerly on the road, wary of the pebbles and sticks that have not yet toughened up her soles. Only yards from the house, she finds herself in total darkness. It is not that there are no moon or stars, tonight; as she’d stood at the quarry’s edge moments ago she had noticed Cassiopeia reclining on the horizon, and above it, the moon, and she’d wondered whether it was on the wax or the wane—and she should know this, she thinks now, widening her eyes against the darkness, blinking as if to blink it away. Sophie knew this. But it is one of those things that Eve herself can never remember. When the moon is facing left, is it growing, or has it already been full? She looks up; she can see nothing through the canopy of trees.
Tonight is the shortest night of the year, today the summer solstice. It is Eve’s favorite day, because it’s the longest, and it marks the start of summer, but it carries with it also just a tinge of sadness, because from here on out the days are only going to get shorter, start their slip-sliding decline into winter. This year, the actual solstice, the very moment the sun climbed to its farthest point north of the equator, and, for just a minute, stood still, was at 7:09 p.m. Eve had been anticipating the moment all day, urging her father to drive just a little faster so they’d get here in time to see it, but then, amid the excitement over the tire tracks and the stuff in the quarry and calling the police, she’d entirely forgotten. And now she’s going to have to wait a whole year to have the chance to see it again. She sighs now with frustration, annoyed with herself for being so easily distracted.
It is dark, but she knows this road by heart; she doesn’t need light to walk it. She imagines to her right the boulder that years ago someone painted as a frog, to her left the rusted chain that marks the entrance to a path through the woods. Soon, she knows the road will curve to the right and begin to slope downhill, past the Bakers’ driveway and the edge of the Carvers’ lawn. Eve pauses in the darkness when she hears the growing sound of an engine. The divers, she thinks, pleased at the thought of intercepting them and immensely relieved that they are finally here, but the headlights growing out of the darkness are accompanied by the sound of thudding music, and Eve steps out of the road, into a safe nook between a triangle of trees. Teenagers, she thinks nervously, as if the carload of kids had earned the title through something other than age. She herself will be fifteen this summer, but would never consider herself a teenager in that way.
She stands in the shadow of the front-most tree so as to remain unseen as the car passes, its headlights bright and blinding, illuminating things in flashes as the car lurches over ruts: an overhanging vine, a roadside rock, a cracked and dried-out puddle.
Things are soft in the red glow of fading taillights, and Eve steps out from between her trees. She squints at that rock across the road in the dimming light and steps closer. Three cigarettes lie side by side on the rock, unsmoked. Though not a frequent smoker, she gathers them greedily—they are a rare find—and she has just put them carefully into the front pocket of her shirt when again headlights loom in the darkness.
* * *
“THEY’RE here,” Anders says, both he and Joan hearing the sound of the divers’ truck before its beams come up the driveway. He offers Joan Eloise’s hand and all the sleepy weight attached, and she leads their daughter around the quarry to the house, blinded for a brief moment by the divers’ high beams as they pass. She gestures into the light with her free hand, a vague salute, and for some reason, the image of herself squinting and waving, Eloise in tow, now lines itself up with the other images of the day, the only one in which she is a subject.
She puts Eloise to bed; thankfully despite her adamance earlier in the evening that she not miss out on anything, she’s too tired to put up a fight. Probably the mere possibilities of what might be dredged from the quarry’s depths are terrifying enough; though she acts tough, Eloise is easily frightened, and has sense enough to know when to shut her eyes to things. Don’t leave the house, she implores her mother from beneath her sheets, and Joan promises that she won’t, and the fact of it is that she is glad not to go back, not to have to stand there wondering if Eve is right and there is some poor soul who died down there tonight. Though of course she’s wondering anyway. She watches the scene unfolding across the quarry from afar, in brief glimpses as she unloads the car, bringing in their summer things and piling them in the house, where the furniture is still covered with sheets. The policemen across the water are faceless figures from this distance, the divers bizarre, black, rubber-limbed creatures lowering themselves into the dark water. She doesn’t need to be any closer; Anders and her imagination will fill in the details, both wanted and unwanted, she is sure of that.
Despite the strangeness of this situation, the potential horror, Joan feels oddly detached from it all, even resigned. As they drove the final miles of their journey late this afternoon she had laid out the evening in her mind, the quarry still the refuge at the end of those symbolic highways, a place of normalcy. They would unload the car first. They would strip the sheets from the furniture and open all the windows to air out the house. While she unpacked their clothing, Anders would go into town and pick up a pizza for dinner, and he’d go to the grocery store for the basic things: milk, juice, water, something to eat for breakfast tomorrow. Eve, perhaps, would take Eloise down to the beach.
But then, only moments after they’d arrived, her plans had derailed; somehow, she was unsurprised. Nothing surprises her much, anymore. There is a car at the bottom of their quarry, possibly—likely—with a body inside. And perhaps this happens often—maybe there are cars in quarries all around the cape. They have had no dinner, aside from the saltines and peanut butter she gave to Eloise before putting her to bed, which were leftovers from the car ride. The bags are still packed, and the kitchen is empty. Nothing has gone as planned or imagined, which has only served to reaffirm her sense that it is better never to plan or imagine anything, better never to count on the future.
Sophie died on a Tuesday. The following weekend was Columbus Day weekend, a long one; she and Joan were meant to fly to Boston, rent a car, and drive a loop through New England, touring colleges. Instead, they held her funeral. For Thanksgiving, they had had plans to go to Joan’s cousin’s house in Delaware for a family reunion, which under the circumstances they abandoned, and for Christmas they were going to drive to Anders’ sister’s house in Vermont and ski, which they also failed to do. Joan had vaguely counted on going shopping with Sophie for a prom dress sometime in the spring, had counted on going to her soccer games, and taking her to see the World Cup in June, had counted on watching as graduation caps filled the air, so many black shapes against the sky. There are many things that she hadn’t realized she was vaguely counting on; she has gone through the months since with the sense that she took a wrong turn somewhere, or that in some parallel universe another version of herself is leading the life she had expected.
She brings the last load in from the car: her computer and notes, though she hasn’t written much of late. She had always considered herself lucky to be a novelist, to make a living writing books, but lately she has not been able to find much sense in it. It seems there is enough in the real world to worry about without creating a second one to fret over as well. She doesn’t have the energy left to care about that second world, into which she has come to think she invested too much of herself over the years. Indeed, she’d been neck deep in the final edits of her last book when Sophie died, and up at night thinking about her characters and their problems rather than her own living children.
There is a scratching at the door; Joan looks up at the noise and sees through the screen on the dark porch two green eyes: Seymour. She opens the door; the cat darts inside as if chased. Joan steps out just as a neighborhood dog disappears into the shadows behind the house, the jingle of its collar fading into the distance. She leans in the darkness against a column of the porch, slips off a sandal, and scratches at her ankle with her toe; there are mosquitoes. She hears a shout from across the water. A dark, rubber-clad head surfaces, a bright headlamp attached, and then another and another, and then something else: a body, Joan is sure, though she had hoped and hoped that the car in their quarry was empty, a piece of junk abandoned like so much other junk, put into neutral and pushed. If there is a God, Joan thinks, he treats the world with the same irony as a writer treats her world; it is awful, she thinks, to find herself a character.
* * *
ANDERS watches as the divers leave the dead man on a sloping slab of granite, head side down, while the paramedics get the stretcher. The cops have mounted a powerful light to the roof of one of the cruisers, lighting the whole scene like a movie set. Anders stands near the ambulance, at the edge of the light, his hand on the back of Eve’s neck. Nearby, he can hear two of the divers talking about the stuck seat belt, and how they’d had to cut through it with a knife. Apparently it’s a pickup truck down there, nose down between some rocks. The third diver is sitting on a rock off to the side, his head in his hands.
Eve had escorted the divers in. When their truck finally pulled up the drive, Anders was surprised, when a door opened, to see his daughter emerge. He’d thought she was still beside him at the quarry’s edge; he hadn’t realized after Joan and Eloise had gone inside that aside from the policemen a few yards back he’d been standing there alone. The divers followed Eve up the grass to the quarry’s edge. Anders was also surprised at the sight of them. They were wearing cargo shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops; they were just regular guys, not one of them more than thirty, and they looked almost as if they’d been interrupted from a baseball game or a night at the bar. Anders thought there must be some mistake. He realized he’d half expected them to show up in wet suits and flippers, their air tanks already strapped to their backs. He’d expected divers, not people. They stripped down to the bathing suits they wore beneath their shorts and then pulled on their wet suits wordlessly; they looked afraid, and Anders didn’t blame them. He didn’t envy them their task.
Now two paramedics wheel a stretcher across the grass and collapse it beside the dead man. Silently, they slide a board beneath him, and they seem to Anders as careful with him as they would be if he were alive. They fasten him to the board with straps and hoist it onto the stretcher. When the ambulance had arrived with the policemen earlier tonight, Anders had wondered what the point was, since if anyone was in the quarry, surely they were dead, even as Eve kept pointing urgently to bubbles gurgling to the surface, signs of life! It had already been two hours, at the least. Anders gazes at the dead man now. He is young, like the divers, certainly no more than thirty. He is wearing khaki pants and a white T-shirt that is ripped in the armpit, no shoes. He has been maybe three days without a shave. Or he had been three days without a shave until he died, whenever that was. Anders rubs his chin vigorously; his own stubble is about three days old.
The dead man does not look asleep, as Anders imagined he might have, as other dead people he has seen have looked—his mother, and his father, who had passed out of this world as Anders watched, both of them softly overcome by a quiet stillness. What Sophie looked like he does not know, and it is not something he and Joan have talked about. Joan had had to go identify their daughter’s body alone, while Anders was stuck in the airport in Rome, waiting. He had stared up at the armed guards patrolling on the balcony above him, the melodies of his students’ songs repeating in his head as even at that moment they sang in St. Peter’s Basilica without his direction.
No, this man does not look asleep, but decidedly dead. His skin is a faint blue, and his lips are very dark. His left eye is open just a bit. There is a leaf in his hair. Anders had watched as the divers swam the dead man to the quarry’s edge, had seen that floating leaf catch in the dead man’s hair. This is a detail he will have to remember to tell Joan. He studies the dead man carefully, wondering if he might be familiar in some way from summers past, trying to place him in the land of the living: in the aisle of the grocery store, or pumping gas at the Shell station downtown, or pouring a beer at their favorite local bar. It’s surprising how easy it is to do, animating this lifeless form before him, and he is struck by the familiar bewilderment he feels of late whenever he considers the line between life and death, how permanent, yet how fine.
It is so much harder, he thinks regretfully, to imagine where the living go on the far side of that line—into the nothing where Sophie has forever disappeared.
He looks up from the dead man across the quarry toward their house. The windows are all lit now; the porch is dark but for the glowing tip of a cigarette: Joan, who smokes only when she’s anxious. After the divers arrived and Anders wordlessly handed over Eloise, Joan had tapped her chin nervously, a superstitious tick that annoys Anders only because it makes him nervous, too, even when of his own accord he wouldn’t otherwise be. He had thought that certainly whatever car was at the bottom of the quarry was an empty one, an old one; it is as if Joan worried this young man into it.
* * *
ELOISE has been in bed for as long as it has taken to count to 4,873 before she hears a series of car doors slam and the light that has been casting looming shadows across her wall is finally shut off. Her jaw aches from clenching, and she knows that her fingernails will have left little moon-shaped marks where she has had them dug into her palm. It’s hard to stop herself from counting now, as hard as it had been earlier to get herself to start, afraid that if she did not the fear that had left her voiceless might also force her mind to freeze and forget to tell her heart to beat.
The porch light outside turns on, and just as quickly off; she hears the screen door downstairs open. She waits for the usual sound of the springs slamming it shut, but it doesn’t come. Her father must have caught the door behind him, and shut it quietly. Though he was probably trying not to wake her, the slam that never comes makes her feel even more unsettled, the way she feels when she cannot find an itch. She hopes that at least he has locked the door, locked all of the doors, even though they never lock anything in summer. But someone has driven into their quarry. Someone may have died in their quarry. There could be killers in the woods. Kidnappers. Thieves. Ghosts. Sophie’s ghost, of which Eloise is ashamed to be afraid. There could be anything out in the woods. Anything, it seems, is possible.
What People are Saying About This
“With insight, respect and luminous clarity, Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop plumbs the afterlife of grief: the futile attempts to reconcile old habits and perceptions to the relentless questions that trail behind any unspeakable loss. This haunting, shimmering novel reminds us how all of us know our families: with unimaginable intimacy, and hardly at all.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Why of Things includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop. 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.
Since her seventeen-year-old daughter’s suicide less than a year ago, Joan Jacobs has been working to keep her once tight-knit family from coming apart. Now, arriving one June evening at their summer home in Massachusetts, she and her husband, Anders, and their two younger daughters stumble across another tragedy: a pickup truck has, inexplicably, driven straight into a quarry in their backyard. Within hours, divers drag up body of a young local man, James Favazza. As the Jacobs family learns more about the events that led up to that fateful evening, each member becomes increasingly tangled in the emotional threads of James’ life and death: fifteen-year-old Eve grows obsessed with proving that James’ death wasn’t an accident, though the police refuse to consider this; Anders finds himself forced to face his own deepest fears; and little Eloise unwittingly adopts James’ orphaned dog, all while Joan herself becomes increasingly fixated on James’ mother, a stranger whose loss so closely mirrors her own.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What are some of the ways in which the author uses the prologue to set the mood? Discuss specific examples to which you were able to relate.
2. On page 9, the author writes, “If there is a God, Joan thinks, he treats the world with the same irony as a writer treats her world; it is awful, she thinks, to find herself a character.” In what way does Joan feel she has been reduced to a character?
3. The novel is written in the present tense. Do you think your reading experience would have been different if it had been written in the past tense? Why or why not?
4. What are some of the objects that trigger painful memories for the members of the Jacobs family? What do you find yourself remembering when you encounter certain items, places, or songs? Give some examples from the book, and from your own life.
5. Why does Eve feel it is important to prove that James P. Favazza’s plunge into the quarry was not a suicide? What does his death represent to Eve?
6. Even when not dealing directly with the deaths of James Favazza and Sophie Jacobs, the book deals frequently with different kinds of death, such as the seagull burial, the chipmunk from camp, and the diseased roses. Can you think of other examples? How do each of these details contribute to the development of the characters and the overall themes of the book?
7. On page 118, why does Eve feel betrayed by Saul? Do you think she is justified in her feelings? Why or why not?
8. What is Joan’s fixation with Elizabeth Favazza? Do you think her obsession is healthy, or harmful? Use examples from the novel to support your opinion.
9. What prompts Anders to encourage Eve to get a summer job? Was there something in their conversation that may have motivated him to do so? If so, what was it? If not, what else do you think may have motivated him?
10. On page 162, when talking about James Favazza, Anders says to Joan, “Whatever it was, I’m not sure that it matters. The outcome is the same.” What might Anders be referring to other than James’ death?
11. Anders describes breaking through the surface during a SCUBA dive as “like waking from a pleasant dream; the real world seems vaguely disappointing by comparison.” Are there moments like this you can identify in your own life?
12. Why do you think Joan decides not to tell Elizabeth that her son died in Joan’s backyard? Or that she’s had the same experience? Would you have shared this with Elizabeth, or chosen to remain anonymous? Explain your opinion.
13. In the final chapter, Eve’s employer, Nestor, reveals two secrets: one about him and one about Eve. Did his revelations surprise you? Do you think sharing them with Eve was the right thing for him to do? Why or why not?
14. What do you think really happened to James?
15. Each of the characters in the book goes through an individual journey toward acceptance and renewed hope, though they take very different, isolated routes to get there. How would you describe each of their journeys? How do they compare to one another? Was it inevitable that they would have to go through what they did before achieving a level of peace by the end of the summer?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop is the author of two other books: December and Fireworks. Read one of them and see how it compares to The Why of Things. How are they similar? How are they different? Do you see her approaching certain topics in a similar way across her novels? Share your findings with your book club.
2. This novel is told from multiple points of view, so we get to see the thoughts and motivations of each of the main characters. Choose a secondary character in the novel and imagine a scene from that character’s perspective. How does point of view allow you to manipulate the reader’s experience? Is there a character whose point of view you would have liked to see more or less of throughout the novel?
3. Each of the characters in the Jacobs family deals with Sophie’s suicide in a different way. Which character do you think you relate to the most? Using examples from the novel to illustrate your opinion, share with your group which character you chose and why. Then try using that character as a lens through which you describe how you feel regarding the events in the novel, and the events in the character’s life.
4. When Eve discovers Vic’s, a bar in the middle of town, she is surprised at how central it is and how she’s passed it so many times, yet never noticed it before. Once noticed, it’s hard to miss. Can you think of such a “white noise” place in your own area? If not, search for one—notice a café or store or park that you pass every day and never really see, then visit it. Talk about this experience at your next book club meeting, or better yet, hold your next meeting at your newly discovered venue.
A Conversation with Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop 1. What drew you to this particular story? Are there any parallels to your own life in the Jacobs’ experiences?
About ten years before I began writing this novel, an incident similar to what happened at the Jacobs’ quarry did in fact happen at one of the many private quarries on the Cape Ann, where I was living at the time. I don’t know who the person was, nor do I have any other information surrounding the circumstances of his death. I remember reading in the paper simply that a car, with the body of a young man inside, had been found at the bottom of a quarry, and I remember waiting with interest for a follow up article explaining what had happened to appear. None ever did, nor through any internet searching was I able to discover anything further. I certainly didn’t obsess over the incident the way Eve does, but it did remain in my mind as one of those seeds that I knew had the potential to someday grow into a story of some kind.
2. On pages 9, you reveal that Joan is a novelist. Why did you assign her that role? Can you relate to some of the writing issues she has, like thinking about your characters at night as much as the real people in your life? Do you think this is an issue many writers struggle with?
I chose for both Joan and Anders professions that would allow them to exist, for the time of the novel, at a home away from home; Anders, as a teacher, has the summer off; and writing is a portable occupation. But beyond that, the role of novelist, as opposed to painter or some other largely portable profession, is something that I could easily relate to. It didn’t require any research to imagine how Joan might feel about her work, and the time that I do think most writers put into simply thinking about their writing added a layer of complexity to the regret and sense of responsibility Joan feels about Sophie’s death. She must ask herself not only what she could have done differently as a mother, but how things might have been had she been focused exclusively on the real world and her own children, as opposed to a fictional world and her made-up characters. Not all the time, but when I am in the thick of writing a book, I do constantly have my characters and their situations on my mind as well.
3. Why did you decide to set the novel at a vacation home, or second residence? Was it important to the story to put the family in a routine state of transition as they worked out the larger issues of transition?
It was important for me to set the novel at a second residence mostly for matters of timing. I wanted enough time to have passed for the initial pain of Sophie’s death to have begun to subside, or at least, as Joan thinks in the book, to have “woven itself into the fabric of reality,” so that the characters have, by the time the novel begins, resumed their normal lives and are no longer subsumed by grief when the incident of the truck in the quarry occurs, allowing that incident, and not Sophie’s death, to be the central focus of their attention. At the same time, I wanted their grief to be central, and it seemed that a good way to bring this to forefront—to revisit the freshness of the pain they surely felt without relying exclusively on flashbacks—would be to put them in a physical place where they would be confronted anew by the fact of Sophie’s absence; it is the first time they have been to this residence without her there. Setting the book at their summer home also seemed to further highlight the irony of the incident given the “escape” from reality—at least for Joan and Eve—Cape Ann represents.
4. You write the novel from different points of view: male and female, adult and child. How did you manage to get inside the minds of others, like that of a depressed man or an upset teenager? Did you find this more or less challenging than writing from points of view that might be more similar to yours in age, sex, or experience?
I enjoy writing from different and multiple points of view, whether male, female, adult, or child. When I think about each character, I don’t necessarily think about their age or sex as much as I think about some fundamental sense of who that person is despite such defining factors. When I think about Anders, I don’t think first and foremost about how he would react as a middle-aged adult or a male as much as I think about how the person I imagine him to be would react, which might be very different to how another middle-aged male might react. Same for Joan, and Eve. Of course, age and sex are important to consider, but to me, they are just people, and once they have been imagined—and they seem almost to write themselves—it is easy to get inside their minds. It would be harder for me to write from the point of view of a thirty-something female with similar experiences to mine if I didn’t know who she was than it would be to write from the point of view of a dying old man whom I have intimately imagined.
5. This is your third novel. How was the writing of this novel different from the first two? How was it the same? Are there themes or ideas you feel you are constantly returning to?
Each of my three novels has been an entirely different writing experience. Fireworks began as a short story, and December began as the exploration of a single idea. I came to this novel quite accidentally. I had written the opening scene some years before (probably shortly after the actual quarry incident occurred), and during a case of writer’s block after I had finished December I was poring over old files, stumbled across the scene by the quarry at night, and decided to continue on—to write around in the setting and explore these characters—and to see if anything came of it all. More than either of the other two novels, which I wrote from essentially from start to finish before doing any major revisions, this one was all about writing and rewriting and rewriting again as I went along. I came to many dead ends and road blocks along the way, and again and again I’d have to back up and find a different way forward; again and again I’d have rip things apart and rearrange. Each chapter had at least ten incarnations. Interestingly, this process was not any more time consuming than writing the other two was, though sometimes I felt as if it required reading my own material so often I grew too close to it to make sense of things. When this happened, I’d have to take a week off.
As far as themes that recur throughout the novels, I would say I tend to return again and again to ideas of family, and how various family members relate to, rely on, and affect each other. Families are a curious web that I never seem to tire of exploring.
6. On page 272, you show readers Joan’s manuscript, followed by notes on future chapters and insights on how she works. Would a spy find the same type of notes on your writing desk? How do you tend to work? Do you prefer to submerge yourself and write long days in short spurts, or does slow and steady win the race for you with a few pages every day?
As I wrote this novel, yes, my desk appeared much in the same way that Joan’s does. I kept a notebook beside my computer in which I jotted down ideas for future chapters, asked myself questions, and left little reminders of things I needed to address. I also scrawled out little outlines, delineating a chapter’s scenes to see where there were holes, or else sketching an alternate order in which the scenes might be rearranged to work better. As far as the creation of each chapter, I tended to write scene by scene, and within that, paragraph by paragraph, first writing notes to self about what that scene would achieve, then writing it loosely, then tweaking the language to get it just how I wanted it. Of course, the process of tweaking is never ending. . . . And slow and steady wins the race, for me. I would take myself to my desk each morning and work until I couldn’t anymore. Generally this was about four or five hours, at the end of which I might have several pages, I might have a few sentences, or I may have decided that everything I had written the day before was awful, and sent it to the slush pile.
7. Hobbster is an interesting concept: an imaginary friend for a child who needs one but who hasn’t imagined one for themselves. Where did this idea come from? Was there a Hobbster in your own childhood?
Many ideas in fiction are strictly fictional, but some are shamelessly ripped from life, and Hobbster was one of these. Though my imaginary creation had a different name, I was a form of Hobbster for my middle sister one summer when we were about the same ages as Sophie and Eve, when Sophie created Hobbster for her sister.
8. On page 245, Joan somewhat disagrees with Elizabeth’s claim that she knows who she is. There are obvious reasons—Elizabeth may know about where Joan lives but not about their shared loss—but beyond that, do you think this is a claim that can be made for most characters of one another? Or people in the real world for that matter? Do you believe people who think they know each other don’t always really know each other as well as they think?
In a way, yes, I do think that people often don’t know each other as well as they think they do, or at least what the other is thinking or feeling. It’s one of the reasons why writing from multiple characters’ points of view so fascinates me; I can explore what each one thinks of the same situation, and of each other, and show the idiosyncrasies of inner experience and the contrasting world of other people. 9. In one scene from the book, Anders passes the railroad track where his daughter died and muses over how insignificant the spot is to daily commuters who simply pass it by. Yet it is a sacred spot to him. In a sense, are all spots sacred, if we are made aware of what has transpired there?
I do think so, and it is an overwhelming thought—things that are important to somebody, maybe even life-changing, take place in mundane spots every day, and so yes, in a way, all spots have an element of the sacred. Joan also grapples with that question, though in a different way; it occurs to her in an early chapter to reassure Eloise that people die all over the place every day, and yet she doesn’t consider these places “haunted,” so why then should their quarry be?
10. When visiting the junkyard, Eve is taken by the idea of car parts being reused—the idea that cars have histories that will live on in other cars. She considers the thought “creepy and cool” at the same time. Can that also be said of writing a novel: Will these thoughts, whether prompted by real life or imagination, become a kind of living history?
I’d love to think so—that my novels will withstand the test of time and live on in perpetuity, my words alive on the page forever—but in truth that doesn’t cross my mind as I write a novel. It might sound simplistic, but when I write a novel I’m just doing what I do, hoping, of course, that people will care to read my thoughts, but counting on nothing. I don’t think of my novels as my legacy, or anything like that.
11. As Anders prepares to go SCUBA diving at Norman’s Woe, he makes reference to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” Can you talk a little about the poem and how it relates to this story and the characters in this novel?
Norman’s Woe is an actual reef off of Cape Ann, one where there have indeed been several wrecks over the years, including that of the Favorite, which is the inspiration for Longefellow’s poem, “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” The poem is about a ship captain who brings his daughter along on a winter voyage, ignoring warnings of a potential hurricane and tying her to her mast when the storm does indeed materialize. The ship crashes into the rocks at Norman’s Woe and sinks, and the next morning a fisherman finds the body of the daughter still lashed to the mast and drifting in nearby surf.
As I researched various diving spots around Cape Ann, looking for a setting that might work for Anders’ last dive, once I stumbled upon the reef at Norman’s Woe—which I’d always known existed, but never as a spot for diving—I knew, being familiar with Longfellow’s poem, that there was no way his last dive could take place anywhere else. It was too perfect on too many levels: on one level it is simply a beautiful and harrowing dive; on another, it is what Anders would consider one of those “sacred spots” where people have died; and finally, that the famous poem written about it features the death of a daughter made it an utter boon. Though I played with the idea of expounding on the specific content of the poem (having Anders consider the captain’s daughter specifically, or discuss with Joan the captain’s guilt v. their guilt etc.), in the end this all seemed to heavy-handed, and I chose to simply mention the poem in passing. Enough, it seemed when it came to Norman’s Woe, was enough.
12. You have a knack for finding deep emotion in the simple moments: a tucked-away funeral program, a discarded grocery store address, a seashell found in a pocket, holding hands under a night sky. These are the sorts of things people experience every day but sometimes fail to notice. What is it about such moments that you find interesting?
It sounds clichéd, maybe, but life today is so fast-paced I think that many of us do often gloss over these sorts of moments, which, if we stopped and considered them, might really give us pause. Perhaps it’s that we’re so busy searching for some larger thing in life, scanning the horizon for the “big thing” that will make us go “Aha! That’s what I’ve been looking for!” that we look right over the seashells and funeral programs as incidental when really, I think, it is those small things that a real life is made of. If people stopped and took of stock of all the small instances of magic or sadness, those gestures of humanity that happen around us daily—and these things do happen, if you look, whether it’s as small as watching a father lift his child closer to a flower, or noticing a woman stumble in the street—I think (it may be bold to say) they’d find their lives that much richer.
13. In the last chapter of the book, Joan follows the stranger who has pulled into their drive and he leads her to Elizabeth’s house. Joan realizes this must be James Favazza’s brother. She imagines what she’d like to do, what the characters in her book would do, but realizes that it is not what she will do in real life. “Perhaps in her book, things will turn out differently.” (page 292) Are some of those scenarios things you considered having happen in the novel? On the flip side, do you sometimes find yourself doing things in a novel that you wish had been done in real life?
I envisioned all sorts of scenarios for Joan, as she followed the stranger in the maroon car, but in the end, I wrote none of them out, because what does happen (nothing, aside from the realization that the man is James’ brother) seemed right, and true to life. That said, it was hard for me to imagine that the scenarios that had occurred to me (her accosting him, etc.) wouldn’t have occurred to either Joan or the reader, and it seemed fitting at least to acknowledge them. I don’t know if I would have done this if Joan hadn’t been a writer—I don’t, for instance, have Eve consider alternate courses of action from the ones the takes, even though I, as the writer, did consider them, but for Joan, since she already thinks of herself as a “character,” I felt I could get away with it.
14. What’s next? What are you working on right now?
That’s a good question. As I answer these questions, I’m working on a seven-month-old daughter, who three months ago decided she didn’t much care for naps. Before that happened, I had started work on a somewhat sprawling novel, about nine members of a family brought together by an accident that has left the matriarch in a coma. Of course, they all come to the book with their own issues and stories, so it’s almost like writing several books in one. And I’ve had on the back burner for years and years a series of interrelated short stories, which take place, as does The Why of Things, on Cape Ann. I’m not sure which project I’ll return to when I get back to writing, or if I’ll find myself writing something entirely different. . . maybe to do with napping.