Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Dancing on Broken Glass includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Ka Hancock. 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.
In her lyrical debut novel, Ka Hancock has written a story about the enduring power of love and the devastation of loss, a story about fighting for a happiness that’s often shadowed by the cruelties of fate.
Lucy Houston and Mickey Chandler are far from an ideal match. With her destructive family history of cancer and Mickey’s bipolar disorder, it would seem a blissful union is impossible for them. But despite the risks, despite unstable highs and the guaranteed lows, they cannot imagine living without each other.
Geared up for a life of romance and excitement, albeit with some serious pain mixed in, Lucy and Mickey promise to keep each other grounded. Being confident that they can make each other happy is one thing, but with so much stacked against them, they make the most difficult promise of all—not to have children. After eleven years of marriage, they’re very accustomed to their life with just the two of them. But when Lucy gets some unexpected news at a routine check-up everything changes. Everything.
An engrossing story that explores the depths of fear and grief and what it really means to love someone, Dancing on Broken Glass is an emotional journey for both the characters and the reader.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The story opens with Death, a character who continues to visit throughout the novel. Lucy’s father tells her that there are three things she needs to know about death: “It’s not the end. . . . And it doesn’t hurt. And finally, if you’re not afraid of death . . . you can watch for it and be ready.” (p. 3) How does this wisdom affect Lucy throughout her life? How can you relate to it?
2. How does reading Mickey’s perspective at the beginning of each chapter affect the story? What would the ending have been like if that were the first time you got to hear Mickey’s voice?
3. Brinley Township is as much a character in this novel as any of the people. How important do you think the setting is to the story? How does this small town help shape the main characters?
4. How does each of the Houston sisters fulfill her role as oldest, middle, and youngest, respectively? In what ways do they go against those stereotypes?
5. Lucy and Mickey are each damaged in their own way and yet their ability to love each other is limitless. What positive characteristics do they each have that help them overcome the challenges to their relationship, and remain devoted to each other throughout the darkest hours? Do you think you could trust a love so risky?
6. At Celia Nash’s memorial service, Jessica asks Lucy which she thinks is worse, to have lost someone suddenly or after a long illness (p. 68). Do you think one is worse than the other, or are they just equally terrible in different ways?
7. Lucy and Mickey both have people in their lives serving as surrogate parents. How do these characters fill the roles of mom and dad? Who would take on this position in your life?
8. There’s a lot of hardship in these pages, and many of the characters can be called real fighters. What are they each fighting for? Against? Who’s the biggest fighter?
9. How do the flashbacks to earlier moments in Lucy’s life and her relationship with Mickey help move the story forward? What do you think the story would have been like if it had been told completely in chronological order?
10. Lucy has a very different relationship with Lily than she does with Priscilla. Discuss these sisterly bonds—how do each of Lucy’s sisters take care of her? How do they relate to Mickey? How do these relationships change throughout the course of the book?
11. Gleason tells Lucy that every marriage is a dance, and there will be times with Mickey that are like dancing on broken glass (p. 113). Discuss this as a metaphor for their relationship. What kind of meaning does that imagery conjure up for you?
12. Because of their unfortunate medical histories, Mickey and Lucy had written into their contract that they agreed not to have kids. Do you agree with their initial decision? Is it fair to bring a child into the world when you might not be there for them? Or worse, when the child might inherit a life-altering illness?
13. There comes a time when Lucy knows in her bones that she’s not going to survive the cancer this time around. Do you think she was really capable of knowing this? Do you think she should’ve fought for her own life harder, or do you agree with her decision?
14. At the end of the book, Mickey comes to learn that “there areno shortcuts and the only way through grief is through it” (p. 391). Lucy knew he would step up, and just as Gleason predicted, Mickey didn’t know that he could do it on his own until he was forced to. Do you think things worked out the way that they should have for Abby’s sake? Are there people in our lives who know us better than we know ourselves, know what we’re capable of when all we can see is impossibility?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Lucy and Mickey made their own marriage contract consisting of a list of rules that would keep them from hurting each other and their relationship. Come up with your own list of non-negotiables for a healthy relationship.
2. Brinley is full of fabulous small-town traditions, from the big Labor Day softball tournament, to the neighborhood chili and hot cider bonfire, to the Houstons’ Christmas Eve party. Talk about some of your local celebrations and traditions, and then try to create a new one together!
3. As a police chief, Lucy’s father may have seemed an unlikely fairy tale writer, and yet he crafted a beautiful story to leave his three daughters. Try your hand at writing a fairy tale for someone special in your life.
A Conversation with Ka Hancock
Having come from a background in nursing and mental health, what initially inspired you to write a book?
I’ve been writing pretty much my whole life, and have applied that old adage—write what you know—to some degree in everything I’ve written. Dancing on Broken Glass was originally an idea— actually a question—that woke me up one night. What if a woman (Lucy) who became terminally ill in the middle of her unplanned pregnancy wanted to give that child to her sister (Lily) who was never able to have children of her own? The answer became the first version of Dancing on Broken Glass, which was a story that ultimately did not work. But, because I liked my premise, I went back and dug a little deeper, asked myself: Why wouldn’t Lucy want her husband to have the baby? The answer had to be pretty compelling, and because I’m familiar with mental illness and know my way around a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I applied it to Mickey. That was a pretty compelling reason; a stereotypical crazy person has no business raising a child, right? Problem solved. Not! The truth is, Mickey refused to be defined that way, and more importantly, I knew I would be cheating to create him that way. Mental illness affects about 20 percent of the population in the U.S. alone—or roughly 44 million people. The profoundly debilitated comprise but a small portion of this number. Many of the rest struggle with treatment compliance, but there are also many who work hard every day at managing their diagnosis. I admire them tremendously. That’s where I found my inspiration for Mickey—and ultimately the story. Right there beneath the stereotype.
What was the writing process like for you? How did the story come to you and evolve?
As I’ve mentioned, the kernel of the story woke me up one night. I wrote down everything I could remember, including the description of the town, the sisters, and Dr. Barbee. Mickey was an incidental character in my first draft since I’d set out to write a story about two sisters. I was not working at the time, so I spent most days cranking out pages. I polished up the “Mickeyless” version and sent it out into the world where it was returned to me with invaluable feedback: “Interesting premise, but . . .” fill in the blanks. However, one agent told me that if I ever did a major revision, she’d like to see it again. I took the story back to my writers’ group and we tore it apart looking for where I’d gone wrong. In the process I had a “duh” moment. My good friend Dorothy asked me why Mickey wasn’t the one to take over the narrative after Lucy died—originally Lily had done this. I just looked at her. Why indeed! And with that the floodgates opened. It took me a year to give Mickey his voice, and then I sent my revision back to the same agent who’d thrown me the lifeline. This time Mollie Glick liked it, and she later became my agent. I think as soon as I plumbed the depths of Lucy’s relationship with Mickey, the magic took over. I loved every minute of writing their story.
What has been the most exciting part of having your book published?
It’s a little surreal because yesterday I was Ka Hancock: wife, mom, day-shift worker bee, folder of laundry, mopper of floors, and of course, closet writer. Today I’m the very same person only published (and out of said closet). I think the most exciting part of this process has been the process itself: the evolution of an idea from thought, to words, to pages, to book, to recognition. That’s been awesome. Oh, and when complete strangers tell me they like what I’ve written, I like that part, too!
Is there one character in Dancing on Broken Glass that you relate to most? Do you have a favorite character?
The supporting cast always makes the movie for me, and it’s the same with Dancing on Broken Glass. So I’d have to say Lily is the character I probably appreciate most. She’s my unsung hero, and the story could not have been told without her. She was devoted to Lucy from childhood and remained so even after she died. Heartbroken over not having a child of her own, she showed tremendous grit when she looked truthfully at her sister’s dying wish and brought it to pass. It would have been so easy for Lily to keep Abby, but Lucy’s trust in hertrumped everything else. And because Lucy trusted Lily, I think the reader trusts her as well. Because of Lily, we know that Abby will thrive despite Mickey’s mental health challenges. She and Ron were the ideal backup plan.
The grief that Lucy and Mickey endure is palpable. How have your own experiences helped you to understand and create such real emotions for your characters?
I’m not unique; like most, I’ve lost people important to me. But in my life, it’s been almost harder to be the helpless bystander. It’s agonizing to watch the unimaginable happen to someone you love—and to know that you’re completely powerless. You grieve for the grieving as they grapple for answers and peace and beg for a reversal of fortune. That kind of emotion rubs your heart raw. It makes you squirm and you really can’t escape it.
Brinley is the perfect picture of small-town America. Did you grow up in a town like Brinley or do you live in one now? What was your inspiration for the setting?
I wish! I so love small towns, but no, I did not grow up in one. I would have to give credit for Brinley to Gilmore Girls and Runaway Bride. I melded Stars Hollow and Hale, Maryland, to create Brinley Township. But then I visited and fell in love with Essex, Connecticut, and Brinley became its fraternal twin, right down to the cemetery.
From where did you derive Lucy’s father’s soothing words about death? Was this advice that someone once gave to you, or wisdom that you created on your own? Do you believe in it?
I grew up in a home and a faith where I was taught that there was a life before, there’s a life now, and there will be a life after. So having fully accepted that premise, for me the secrets about death are not really secrets. I do believe that death is not the end. I do believe that slipping out of this world will be painless. I want desperately to believe that if I’m paying attention, I might be granted time enough to say good-bye—for now—and I love you and, maybe even, I’m sorry.
How did you decide on the ending for the story? Did you always know how it was going to end?
I actually had Lily reading the fairy tale to Abby as my original ending, but my editor did not want to introduce another voice (Lily’s), so she asked me to write the scene from Mickey’s point of view. But he surprised me and took a completely different direction. I knew I wanted time to have passed, and I also wanted some healing to have occurred. But it was Mickey’s idea to take the long way home and end up in the cemetery. Once there, at the foot of Lucy’s grave, I think the story ended the only way it could. The accumulation of broken glass on Lucy’s headstone serves as a reminder that their story is not over. Lucy’s promise to dance with him through eternity was where Mickey found his peace. I think the end did just what it needed to do.
Lucy and Mickey have a real tearjerker of a story, and a lot can be learned from them and from all your characters. Is there one thing above all that you hope your readers will take away from this story?
I think the overriding message would be that love is serious business. True, down-to-the-crap love is not for the shallow or faint of heart. People are messy. Marriage is messy. You have to bring your best self to the game despite your limitations. I think that’s what I admire most about Lucy and Mickey.
What’s up next for you? Are you working on anything new?
Absolutely! I’m in first-draft territory with a story about three women. Rose Winston is a recent widow, newly liberated from a lovestarved marriage. She’s estranged from her only daughter, Patrice, because the girl defied her and married a mortician, Tanek Duzinski. When a tragic accident kills Tanek and leaves a pregnant Patrice gravely injured, she is not expected to live. Miraculously, she gives birth to a healthy baby girl. Fast-forward sixteen years—January has been raised by her paternal grandparents, Stasio and Diana Duzinski, in a mortuary called the Duzy House of Mourning—my working title. There are two aunts; Tess, who is the chief embalmer, and Cleo, who is said to be severely retarded. It is through Rose’s cruelty that January learns who Cleo actually is and what really happened the night of the accident. At its crux, this is January’s journey into the life of her incredible mother, a woman trapped in a broken body who has loved her daughter from an agonizing distance.