Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Gin Closet includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Leslie Jamison. 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.
The Gin Closet recounts the story of a family stricken by grief, loss, and addictions. Told from the perspective of two narrators—Stella, a young cosmopolite searching for meaning, and Tilly, her estranged alcoholic aunt—the story follows what happens when Stella and Tilly meet after decades of separation, and tracks the unlikely friendship that forms between them. Both women struggle with addictions—Tilly abuses alcohol and Stella is a recovering anorexic. In the midst of their hardships they come to understand what it means to love the family you’re given, no matter the cost.
Questions for Discussion
1. The novel opens with the decline and eventual death of Grandma Lucy, as told from Stella’s point of view. Stella describes her Grandmother’s declining quality of life: “You couldn’t yearn like this unless you’d been lonely for years, practicing” (5). Consider how the sickness and death of Lucy illuminates the yearning for love and understanding in Lucy, Stella, Dora, and Tilly. Do you think Tilly is the character most in need of love? How so? If not Tilly, who?
2. Do you forgive Lucy for not taking Tilly back? Why or why not? Turn to pages 65-67 and discuss. Would you have done something differently?
3. Compare Stella and Tilly. How are they alike? How are they different? Do you sympathize with one more than the other? Who needs whom the most: Does Tilly need Stella or does Stella need Tilly?
4. Names play an interesting role in the story. The word “mom” is not often used—Abe calls Tilly by her first name and both Dora and Tilly refer to Lucy as “Lucy.” Why do you think the author chose to have her characters refrain from using the word mother? What does it suggest about the nature of relationships in this family?
5. Tilly says: “People were always hidden behind their faces. I knew I never was” (p. 175). In light of this quote, think about the ways in which the characters in the story hide behind different ‘faces.’ Consider Stella, Tom, Dora, & Abe. Do you agree with Tilly that she could never hide behind her face? Why or why not?
6. Almost every character has an addiction of some sort that they struggle with in the novel. Stella has an eating disorder, Tilly has alcohol and Dora and Abe have work. What role do you think addictions play in the novel? Do you see these addictions as a cause or effect of the problems in the story? Does one character’s addiction lead to the other character’s addictions? Why or why not?
7. How would you describe Abe’s character? Do you see him as sympathetic? Do you like him? Do you hate him? How does Stella see him? How does Tilly? Consider these questions in light of the fact that we never get Abe’s point of view directly, and only come to know him through his relationship with Stella.
8. Tilly describes a bird that got caught in the trailer she shared with Fiona, saying “I felt sorry for it, I couldn’t understand why it was stupid enough to stay” (77). Like the bird, Tilly decides to continue living in a place where she feels trapped—trapped by Fiona and trapped by her addiction and prostitution. Why do you think Tilly stayed? Do you think she had a choice?
9. Consider the structure of the story. What effect do the dual narrators have on the story? Why do you think the author used two narrators? Was it successful? Stella begins and ends the story. To what extent does the story become Stella’s?
10. Discuss Tilly’s relationship with Fiona. Their bond is protective and claustrophobic at once, intertwining elements of sisterly, maternal, and sexual love. Is Fiona filling a void for Tilly? What do you make of their eventual correspondence, once Fiona is in prison?
11. Turn to the epigraph and read aloud the excerpt from the Sylvia Plath poem “Nick and the Candlestick.” In light of this poem, discuss how you think pregnancy acts as a catalyst in the story. Consider Tilly, Stella, and Dora in your response.
12. Revisit the Thanksgiving scene and Tilly’s relapse on pages 190-197. Why do you think Tilly begins to drink again? Were you surprised? Why do you think the dinner party acted as a catalyst for her to binge?
13. Were you surprised by Abe and Stella’s relationship, and their reaction to it? Turn to pages 222-224 and discuss.
14. Stella returns home to her mother after her physical relationship with Abe ends. She crawls into her mother’s bed and falls asleep with her hand on her shoulder, “feeling the rise and fall of her chest” (249). Did this moment give you the feeling that Stella’s journey has been resolved? Has she found what she has been searching for? Why or why not?
15. Discuss the ending of the story. Did it surprise you? Were you surprised at Tilly’s suicide? At the continuation of Abe and Stella’s relationship?
Enhancing Your Book Club
1. The Gin Closet lets readers glimpse into the world of a troubled family struggling with addictions, abandonment, and death. Explore this topic further by having each member of your book club read a copy of The Visibles (Free Press, 2008) by Sara Shepard. Can you find any comparisons between Summer Davis and Stella? Between Summer and Tilly? How does Summer deal with a difficult home life, as compared with Tilly? To Stella? To Dora?
2. “It was one of the moments I loved her most……I wasn’t sure why—because I was safe, because I was home, because I looked like I was doing alright even though I’d been away, or because I didn’t look alright, I looked wrong” (55). The Gin Closet ultimately explores the idea that love is an extremely complicated notion, and that this life and this family is all we really have. Have a show-and-tell with your reading group. Have each member bring in photos, keepsakes, books or any other objects associated with their family. Share a time that your family grew closer in the wake of a difficult situation or tragedy.
3. Have a movie night with your book club and rent “21 Grams” (2003). Discuss how the characters in the movie learn the same harsh lessons as the characters in The Gin Closet. What parallels can you find between the two stories? What are the differences between the book and the film?
4. Abe and Tilly discover a dying baby dolphin washed up on shore. The discovery disturbs them both, and acts as an omen for Tilly’s eventual demise. Reread this section aloud with your group. Then, read the poem “The Wellfleet Whale” by Stanley Kunitz. Compare the two. Do Tilly and Abe feel similar to the speaker of the poem? What effect does a dying dolphin and whale have on the characters in the book and the poem?
A Conversation with Leslie Jamison
1. This is your debut novel. Describe how you came to write this story, and why you think it is important. What inspired you? Were any of the characters based on people you know in real life? On yourself?
When I was a 23-year-old living in New York, trying to temp enough to pay my West Village rent, most of my writing happened in early-morning sessions at mid-town coffee shops. I was plugging away at an ambitiously (misguidedly) conceptual novel about a museum. It was full of intricate ideas about aesthetics and imagination, but I couldn’t have told you what the characters wanted from their lives, or what they ate for breakfast. The novel was going nowhere. And I wasn’t happy writing it in chunks of time scraped from the edges of my cubicle life.
When I finally decided to move back to Los Angeles so I could devote myself more fully to writing, I felt like I had failed at the test of young urbanity. I moved back to the house where I’d grown up and spent my days tutoring students from my former high school and trying to help care for my ailing grandmother and generally feeling lonely. I realized that I couldn’t bring myself to write about anything but the gravity and fear of living with a dying woman I loved.
When my grandmother died, I realized the only novel I wanted to write would be a novel that sprung from her death. I have an aunt, like Tilly, who has been estranged from my family for many years. I wanted to explore what that kind of rupture can do to a family, and to probe my own sense of loss at my aunt’s absence. I abandoned my museum novel and spent several months doing little but writing the first draft of this one.
As for Tilly and Stella, the boundary between myself and these women is a porous one. My life looks more like Stella’s, we’ve both experienced disenchantment with the terms and rules of young urban posturing, but in many ways I identify more with Tilly. Sometimes I think I made her life “exotic,” removed from mine by age and money, in order to shield myself from our psychic common ground. There was a kind of deluded geographic logic in this refuge: she felt too close, so I banished her to a trailer far away.
2. How did you come to be a writer? What is your background and who are your influences?
I started writing before I was literate, which made things tricky in the beginning. I have two older brothers to whom I would tell stories (usually about princesses) that they wrote down. Whenever my brothers got tired of transcribing, my characters usually met with premature deaths—so I learned a sense of tragedy early.
Decapitated princesses aside, I was lucky enough to grow up with a family who supported my writing aspirations from the beginning. I think this is part of why so much of my writing is about family, and why so many of my favorite writers (everybody from Virginia Woolf to Anne Carson) find themselves reckoning, and re-reckoning, with family in their works.
I’ve always felt certain that I wanted to write. It was figuring out how to make money that gave me trouble. Along the way, I’ve worked a pretty wide variety of jobs: juice barista, coffee barista, clothing retail, dyslexia tutoring, SAT tutoring, travel writing, college instruction, temping, and inn-keeping. I currently work in a bakery. The necessity of finding work to support my writing habit has actually served me quite well—kept me in touch with the world beyond my own head, for starters, and given me ample fodder for characters and dramatic mishaps.
3. You were born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in L.A., and have also lived in Boston, Iowa City, and Nicaragua, among other places. Did living in such disparate places help you write this book?
I’ve always felt my youth in Los Angeles as a strong part of my identity, even though, as a teenager, I felt very estranged from many aspects of its culture. I saw myself as bookish and homely in a world of beauty, which was very LA of me, looking back: I found the script synopsis that fit. I think we get attached to the first things we feel alienated from; they help us sculpt ourselves in opposition, thrust us into relief.
My own migrations have certainly given me a sense of the emotional stakes of location—how we construct ourselves around places, how I’ve done this over and over again—and place was certainly a huge part of this book for me. One of the novel’s many abandoned titles was This West, which spoke to my sense of two kinds of geography operating simultaneously for its characters: the geography of desire (the places they mythologize) and the geography of disappointment (the places they find). I wanted to write a modern narrative of disillusioned manifest destiny: Stella flees to the west in an attempt to disavow her old identity and claim a new one; Tilly keeps flunking the test of reinvention and returning to the desolate inland center.
Many of my characters feel torn between living on the margins and putting themselves inside communities. Tilly hides in a trailer in the middle of the desert, Abe finds comfort in the empty nocturnal streets, Stella finds herself taking a train out of the city. In a way, the novel is less about any place in particular and more about the impulse to keep moving between places—and the way in which this between-ness becomes a source of despair as well as refuge.
4. This novel touches on many serious and heavy issues such as eating disorders, alcoholism, prostitution, abandonment, abortion, incest, depression and suicide. Describe how you came to include these topics in the story. Did you set out to write about all of them, or did the characters ‘speak’ to you while you were writing? Was it difficult to talk about some of these topics?
As best I can tell, this novel fails many of the unspoken tests to which debut novels are subjected. It’s ambiguously autobiographical, for starters, and, at least in certain writing communities, there is a sense that writing autobiographical fiction is cowardly, aesthetically unambitious, or at least pretty tedious. So I was a bit horrified to find myself writing a novel about a jaded young woman whose family looked suspiciously like my own. Was I tedious? Was I a coward? I didn’t know. I only knew this was the novel I needed to write.
I’ve always been a bit self-conscious about my recurring themes. I often feel like a DJ mixing various lyrics of female teenage angst, these bald and melodramatic concerns. I write about food. I write about “being a woman.” I write about varieties of sadness that elude our practices of naming and reckoning. I write about the body, always. I can’t get away from it. A woman in one of my workshops suggested I title my first story collection Eating and Body Issues, and I was at a point in my writing—still am, actually—where I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.
I set out to write a novel about two women saving each other’s lives, and ended up writing about how they couldn’t. How could these women make their pain visible? It’s a terrible kind of privacy, despair, and I wanted to look at intimacy as the violation of that privacy—awkward and stuttering and often hurtful. The realm of the body becomes an essential vocabulary for suffering, and this notion—the body as language, as visceral utterance—is what connects many of the novel’s disparate “issues” in my mind: suicide and alcohol and anorexia. These women articulate pain by starving or drinking or selling themselves. I wanted to look at their physical damage as a kind of self-inflicted alchemy—something that could turn unseen despair into visible communication—and one of the biggest emotional challenges for me, as a writer, was to empathize with these self-destructive impulses without glorifying them.
5. Describe the research that went into the making of this novel. What was easier, doing the research or writing the story?
Most of the time I write drafts before I do much research. Perhaps this is a wildly irresponsible practice, but I find that I feel a bit constrained when I’ve done too much research too early, as if I’m simply playing connect-the-dots with useful bits of information I’ve found. I like to feel out my characters in early drafts. I’ll do my most extensive research once my characters exist, then fold it into a novel whose psychology already exists on the page.
The “research” for this novel consisted of two very different veins of exploration. One of the most rewarding parts of this book was investigating mysteries that had lain dormant in my own family for quite some time. The other kind of research was much more traditional: reading first-person accounts of lives quite far-removed from mine. I remember one day I staggered up to the Yale library check-out counter with about twenty-five books about prostitution. These accounts were interesting and often quite surprising: many women were much less inclined to cast themselves in victim roles than I might have imagined. It’s for exactly this reason, the constant unfolding of surprises, that research feels necessary and enlivening; it constantly sends me back to old drafts with a new sense of purpose and possibility.
6. Why did you decide to tell the story from both Stella and Tilly’s points of view? Did you ever consider telling it from only one of their perspectives? From any other character’s points of view?
The first draft of the novel was written entirely in Stella’s voice, in a fever dream of composition that lasted several months. In this version, Tilly had a different name and a slightly different role to play: she was crazier, more fully tragic, less fully human. As I kept writing and re-writing and listening to both women, I realized that I’d turned Tilly (nee Madeline) into a flatter character than I wanted her to be: more extravagant in her gestures, less generous in her affect. I decided I wanted to flesh her out. I kept trying to find ways to fold her voice into the narrative: inserting fragments from her letters or diaries.
Around this time, I was caught in a blizzard while flying across the country. I ended up alone in a hotel in Detroit, sitting down with scraps of paper and napkins that held pieces of the aunt’s perspective—the story of giving birth to Abe, turning her first trick—and I felt like I kept hitting a wall, over and over again, trying to bring her perspective to the page. I finally realized that I needed to give her a full voice. So I did, along with a new name and her own half of the book.
7. Who is your favorite character, and why?
I like Abe. I like his beard and his penchant for dominoes. I like that he often thinks of other people. I like that he is willing to love damaged people without glorifying their damage.
8. The image of the closet appears frequently throughout the novel, first when Stella describes her apartment and later when Tilly is drinking. Describe the importance of the closet, and why you chose to use it as a motif of sorts in the novel.
For me, one of the important themes of this book is the function of addiction as a form of isolation—and, ultimately, an examination of this isolation as its own mythology, how impossibly relational addiction becomes in its impact and its wreckage. The closet is our classic architectural trope of secrecy, and here I imagine it as a symbol of the desire to take our darkest selves and hide them—hide them in cramped urban apartments or gin-soaked closets or the bony cages of starved bodies. The mythology lies in any sense that the closet can grant integrity or autonomy or true seclusion—addiction always leaks under the door, hurts beyond the perimeter, draws other bodies into the darkness.
Someone once told me the story of a very successful businessman whose alcoholism had gotten so bad he resolved to drink himself to death. He found an empty old barn and camped out there with enough whiskey to do the trick. This impulse is exactly what I’m trying to dramatize in the book: a sense of loneliness and self-loathing that runs so deep it seeks absolute isolation from the care or vision of the world. The businessman made it, by the way, and made a full recovery—despite his best intentions. I make myself remember this part too. Not every story has the same ending. There is no inevitable horizon point for trajectories of addiction.
9. What do you consider the major theme(s) of this story?
To put it bluntly, and a bit simply, I tried to write a book about the difficulty of intimacy. People are self-absorbed and self-pitying. They hurt other people in ways they can’t explain or justify. They hurt themselves. They want to heal other peoples’ wounds, or else they want to crawl inside these wounds and taste them. They treat each other with tenderness sometimes, and then recoil from this touch or the aftertaste of its long-fled ghost. People find a thousand ways to injure themselves with closeness, even as they crave it, and my characters are no exception. Stella carries around crucifixes she can’t explain, and Tilly turns other people into crucifixes she can martyr herself upon. They both turn their bodies into walking ledgers of their pain and find visceral vocabularies for their desperation: drinking and binging and starving and sex.
There is a quiet terror in this book, for me, about the persistent gap that exists between any two people, a fundamental state of loneliness that even love and effort can’t dissolve. That said, my characters find moments of reprieve, when they manage to care for each other, to really see each other. And these are the moments that make me love them most—to thrill for how they help each other, and ache for how they can’t.
10. Who are you reading now? Who is your favorite author? What is next for you as a writer?
I just completed oral examinations for my doctoral program, which meant I spent months reading everything from Milton to Melville. I found myself getting particularly attached to dreams: Chaucer’s visions and Berryman’s songs. They spin strangeness into sadness so seamlessly. I like works that leave me aware of my nerve endings, whose beauty and surprises don’t distract me from their ability to break my heart.
Faulkner has been my favorite author for about ten years now. I had major jaw surgery when I was seventeen and spent several months with my teeth wired together. During this month I read Faulkner almost continuously. Because I wasn’t able to talk, I listened; and I lost myself absolutely in the hurt and beautiful landscape of his prose.
What next? I am currently working on a novel about the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua.