Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Courtney Maum. 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.
Richard Haddon’s life seems picture-perfect. He has a beautiful French wife and a healthy daughter; a flourishing artistic career; and, to top it off, an American mistress on the side named Lisa. But when Lisa leaves him to marry another man—and his wife, Anne-Laure, discovers his affair—reality begins to set in for Richard. He must face his decision to cheat on his wife and sell out as an artist simultaneously; he must mourn the loss of his mistress, his marriage, and his sense of self all at once. As if by fate’s hand, the sudden sale of an old painting from early in his career and marriage suddenly spurs Richard out of his slump, and he becomes determined to mend his mistakes and make his wife fall back in love with him, whatever the cost. Poignant and sincere, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You explores what it takes to right a wrong, and how to figure out what’s worth saving.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel begins with the statement, “Moments of great import are often tinged with darkness because perversely we yearn to be let down” (p. 1). Consider this in light of Anne-Laure and Richard’s marriage. In what ways is their marriage “tinged with darkness”? Do you agree that Richard wanted to be let down? Why or why not?
2. Early in the novel, Richard explains their financial situation: Richard, a struggling artist, and Anne-Laure, a law student, accept help from Anne’s parents to buy a house while expecting their daughter. While Anne “never felt guilty about accepting her parents’ cash” (p. 29), Richard did, feeling that he let “the shame of such a handout build inside . . . until it made me feel like less of a man, less of an artist, less than everything I had one day hoped to be” (p. 29). Discuss the theme of shame in the novel. How do Richard’s expectations for himself differ from the reality of his life? In what way(s) does shame drive Richard to do what he does? Do you think shame also drives Anne-Laure?
3. The Blue Bear is continually compared to Richard’s key paintings throughout the novel. While the former was painted during a particularly emotional time in Richard’s life, the latter series “was effortless . . . [m]editative” (p. 31), painted in a “nostalgic fugue state” (p. 31). How do the two paintings act as metaphors for Richard’s life? Do you think there is any meaning in Richard painting himself outside of the room, with a limited point of view, in the key paintings and in The Blue Bear?
4. Discuss the ways in which Richard and Anne-Laure’s marriage is portrayed in the novel. Are their marital problems unusual or ordinary? Can you determine what might have gone wrong in their marriage to cause Richard to stray?
5. So much of the novel centers on the power of the visual to transcend language. And it is Richard, the artist, who struggles the most with finding the words to say what he means. In a casual conversation with Anne, Richard refers to himself as a “traitor” for wanting to leave Julian’s gallery—a word loaded with meaning given Richard’s recent past. Richard laments his inability to express himself, claiming his “words were never right” (p. 66). What are other examples in the novel when words fail Richard? In what ways does he rely on his artwork to do the talking for him? Does Richard ultimately discover a way to express himself?
6. Revisit the scene where Anne-Laure discovers Lisa’s letters in Richard’s bag (pages 95-99). What makes this scene so heart-wrenching? Do you think Anne-Laure did the right thing by asking Richard to leave immediately? Would you have done the same? Imagine Richard had thrown away the letters as he planned—do you think their marriage would have healed sooner?
7. Revisit the scene on page 184 when Anne-Laure reveals to her parents that Richard was unfaithful. How does the their response to infidelity compare with the response from Richard’s parents? How does Lisa’s response differ from the responses of Richard’s and Anne-Laure’s parents? Discuss how these three responses—French, British, and American—might imply cultural differences regarding extramarital affairs.
8. The personal—Richard and Anne-Laure’s relationship—and the political—the increasing conflict in Iraq—intersect greatly in the novel. How do they relate? How do they evoke different kinds of uncertainty?
9. Why do you think Richard decides to move out of the house? Do you think he believes in the saying, If you love something, give it away? Do you? Turn to page 244 and discuss.
10. Do you think that Richard and Anne-Laure feel similarly about infidelity? Does one character seem more flexible about the rules of monogamy? If so, do these responses support or debunk cultural stereotypes?
11. Discuss Richard’s video project. What’s at stake for him in this project? How does it have a similar voice, so to speak, as The Blue Bear? In what ways do both projects explore absence?
12. “Because in the end, that’s why some of us stupid humans get married. Because we know that we can lose each other, and find each other again. Because we’re capable of forgiveness. Or at least, we think we are” (p. 326). Is this a true definition of what marriage means? Does Anne-Laure save the marriage in the end, when Richard could not? How so?
13. Explore the implications of the title. Who is having so much fun alone? Is the title meant to be ironic? What might you cite as the overall message of the novel?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Richard’s new installation, WarWash, is about cleansing oneself from mistakes, bad choices, or moments in life we would like to forget. For his character, WarWash is symbolic of moving past his affair and a war he cannot control—it is the defining, cathartic moment for his character in the novel. Have your own “washing” ceremony with your book club. Have each member contribute one or two items that they would like to have metaphorically cleansed. Submerge those items in water and discuss how you feel after having rid yourself of the “dirt.” Do you feel better? Consider how this moment in the novel acts as a hinge—do you think the door to forgiveness is opened after the installation? Why?
2. “I paused the camera and sat back in a chair. I had no idea what I was doing. But there was something grounding about being with them in the kitchen, filming this place where I’d eaten countless bowls of cereal and not done enough dishes, been bandaged and given biscuits, and had my dirty nails scrubbed with a brush” (p. 149). Here, Richard thinks about being in his childhood home and what it means to be back where you came from—your origin. Use Richard’s meditation on origin to consider your own: Where are you from? What does the space physically look like? Do the memories correspond with the feeling, like Richard’s do? Freewrite for ten minutes about your own childhood home, and then share with the group. How did that home shape you into the person you are today? Do you believe you must reckon with your past before you can solve today’s problems?
3. In the novel, The Blue Bear acts as a vehicle for expressing the ineffable: deep love for one’s new life, fears about losing someone, failing at monogamy, forgiveness, etc. Take a trip with your book club to a local gallery or museum. Enjoy the artwork together, then separate and find a painting or sculpture that speaks to you, that expresses something you feel but haven’t been able to say. Take a picture or write down a few lines in a notebook about how you feel in the presence of the art. Over lunch, share your artwork with your book club. What is it about visual art that speaks so clearly? What drew you to the artwork you chose? Does having your “own” art help make clear the emotions tied to The Blue Bear for Richard and Anne? Why or why not?
A Conversation with Courtney Maum
You split your time among New York City, the Berkshires, and Paris. Describe how the places you have lived helped you write this novel. Why did you decide to set I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You in Paris? How does the culture of Paris impact the story of Richard and Anne-Laure’s marriage?
I set the novel in Paris because that’s where I was living at the time I wrote it. Paris will forever appear in my mind’s eye as a glittering panorama of different monuments and vistas and intimate little scenes: cafés I love, parks I like to sit in with a baguette sandwich, the various places I’ve been shat on by birds—and I wanted to infuse the novel with my visual affection for the city. Lots of French people, Parisians especially, don’t get married. They have children or share property with their partners, and that suffices—emotionally and often legally—to “legitimize” their relationship. In France, more than in America, extramarital affairs aren’t looked upon as a guillotine for marriage. I once knew someone who said that her parents’ marriage was actually ameliorated by the fact that her father had a mistress that her mother knew about. So certainly, the option for forgiveness that hovers between Richard and Anne is there thanks in part to the sexual open-mindedness of French culture. As for the Berkshires, I can tell you that when you live in the middle of the woods thirty minutes away from the nearest cup of coffee, you get a lot of writing done! My relationship to New York City is a professional one: I work as a corporate namer and brand strategist for several agencies there, and that’s where a lot of my contacts are.
Why did you decide to tell the story from Richard’s point of view? As a woman, did you face any particular challenges writing from his perspective?
The novel started off as a short story that I never even thought of writing from a woman’s point of view—I’d have to spend some serious time in psychoanalysis to find out why. I think my internal voice skews somewhat masculine to begin with, and I’ve had a lot of jobs in male-dominated industries. For example, my first job was at Maxim. And then, for many years I worked as a party promoter for Corona Extra in France. I loved writing from Richard’s point of view. I think I would have been far more challenged if I’d tried to write it from Anne’s.
You mention T. S. Eliot in the novel. Is he one of your literary influences? Who else do you read?
Other than “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” being one of the most chillingly beautiful poems of all time, he isn’t, no. I’m always coming across work that inspires me, but in terms of major influences, I’d say: Martin Amis, Michel Houellebecq, Jonathan Franzen, A.M Homes, Jim Shepard, John Kennedy Toole, and Robert Stone. I also take a lot of inspiration from musicians and lyricists who create a mood or sentiment I want to capture. Notables would be the late Dory Previn, Alex Beaupain, James Blake, Arnaud Fleurent-Didier, and Joni Mitchell. Current writers I’m loving are Douglas Watson, Ravi Mangla, Maggie Shipstead, and Laura van den Berg.
Are any of the characters based on people you know, or on yourself? Which character do you relate to most and why?
Didactic (the reverse graffiti artist) exists, although his real street name is Moose. And Azar Sabounjian, the gallerist who accepts the WarWash exhibit, is based on real-life gallerist Kamel Mennour. Richard’s parents and Anne’s parents aren’t based on real people, but they feel very real to me! There is a little bit of me in almost every character, so there isn’t one that I relate to more than another, although I’m probably a messy amalgamation of Richard, Lisa, Julien, Anne, and Anne’s mother. Yikes.
So much of this novel seems to center around problems with language and the possibilities of the visual to say the unsayable. Is the tension between what’s seen and perceived versus what’s said something that interests you?
Oh, definitely. I, for one, am a sayer. Up until several years ago, my default setting was to communicate my emotions through writing, but now I try to be brave enough to have tough conversations with people face-to-face. But like most writers, I’m an incorrigible voyeur: I’m constantly watching the body language of those around me and listening for what isn’t said. It’s pretty odd that the visual is used so heavily to communicate in this novel because I’m not a terribly visual person—for instance, I hate taking photographs, and always have.
What would you name as the major themes of this novel?
Forgiveness. Compassion. Love. Faith.
Describe the research that went into the making of this novel. Which aspect of the book required the most? The least?
I am obsessed with minute details, and I delight in building my fiction on a foundation of fact. The timeline of the book was the hardest part of the research—making sure that the progress toward what would become the Iraq war synched with Richard’s artistic projects and also with Anne’s unfolding lawsuit, which is based on a legal dispute that was actually taking place at the time. I don’t know why I’m so compulsive about weaving in real things: the Nan Goldin exhibit where Richard first met Lisa, for example, is an exhibit that actually did take place on that very day, and I checked to make sure the restaurant where they have their cocktails was open on that day, at that time, and so forth. I took great pains to make sure everything that was eaten, purchased, and so on in the novel could have been done in such-and-such a location in such-and-such a year. Now that I’ve admitted that, dear readers, don’t get in touch if I got something wrong because it will eat away at me forever!
In a post on your Tumblr, you mention the years that went into the making of this book. Can you briefly describe for us the long journey of completing your first novel? Do you have any advice for young writers struggling to be published?
Curiously, I first wrote this book before I was married, when I was twenty-five. I was busy revising it for an editor at a major publishing house when this editor up and left her job, leaving me orphaned, disillusioned, crushed. My then-agent sent it out to eighteen other editors, who sent back eighteen rejections. Fast-forward ten years later, my current all-star agent, Rebecca Gradinger, convinced me to resurrect the project and give it another chance. By that time, I myself had been married almost as long as the couple in the book and was pregnant with our first child. I decided to rewrite the book entirely, using many of the same characters, which allowed me to draw from my personal experience of matrimony, which surely improved the book. In terms of advice, I HAVE SO MUCH! I made a lot of mistakes along the way and wasted time feeling angry, but to respect your request for brevity, I’ll just say: keep your head down, don’t be bitter, get off Facebook, do the work.
Courtney also writes an advice column for Tin House that deals with the writing life. Some articles that might be useful for young writers:
How Not to Hate Your Friends (https://www.tinhouse.com/blog/32875/how-not-to-hate-your-friends.html)
How to Stay Sane While Querying Literary Agents (http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/16373/how-to-stay-sane-while-querying-literary-agents.html)
Super Sad True Habits of Highly Effective Writers: Part I (http://networkedblogs.com/xnVK0),
and Part II (http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/15284/super-sad-true-habits-of-highly-effective-writers-part-two.html)
Six Ways Reading Series Can Improve Your Writing (http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/11406/six-ways-a-reading-series-can-improve-your-writing.html)
Do you think the story of Richard and Anne-Laure’s marriage is a common tale? How do you think Richard and Anne-Laure were able to rectify their broken marriage? Can lost lust—that first attraction—ever really be reclaimed? Ultimately, do you think this novel asserts that a relationship is a continual work in progress?
I think it’s all too common that spouses or life partners fall out of love with each other, start to resent each other, and so forth. And certainly, a lot of people cheat, and do so secretly behind the other’s back. I think Anne and Richard were able to stay married because they took the long view of their relationship and were able to assess that, yes, the initial “flame” had extinguished, but that they really functioned as a couple, that they loved the life they had built, and they were willing to try and forgive each other in order to salvage their relationship. Really, it comes down to being realistic about the fact that most people can’t sleep beside the same partner for the rest of their life without losing some sexual desire for that person. I do think that all relationships are works in progress; they simply can’t not be. Even if you have the most predicable, safe, committed marriage known to mankind, outside forces come into play to change things. Your partner gets hit by a bus and is paralyzed from the waist down. You’re not going to go on ordering sushi and watching Netflix every Friday night once that happens.
Can you share with us some insight into your next writing project?
I’ve been writing a real-time memoir ever since I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, and for her first birthday in September 2014, I’d like to get it into shareable shape. Similarly, I have a novel I wrote before I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You that could stand some revision. I have a satirical nonfiction project I’ve started research for and am really itching to write, and I’ve got a massive novel incubating, but right now, it’s just a feeling, a chord progression, a seed. So there you have my scattered five-year plan.