Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for In The Blood includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lisa Unger. 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.
Lana Granger has a lot of secrets. She likes it that way, likes to keep her troubled past out of her new, seemingly normal life at a small college in upstate New York. Approaching graduation, with her trust fund about to run out, she takes a job babysitting for a deeply troubled young boy named Luke. Accustomed to controlling the people in his life, and a player of complex games, Luke may finally have met his match in Lana. But as Luke’s behavior grows increasingly strange and unpredictable, Lana begins to suspect she may be up against more than she bargained for. When Lana’s closest friend Beck goes missing, Lana’s carefully hidden secrets begin bubbling to the surface. Desperate to keep her dark past from intruding on her carefully constructed life, Lana is willing to do almost anything to keep the truth from coming out. But someone else knows all about Lana’s secrets, and confronting the past she’s worked so hard to hide may be the only way Lana can find Beck—and save her own life.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In The Blood opens with an excerpt “The Tiger,” a poem by the British poet William Blake. Why do you think the author chose this poem to open the story? What connections do you see between the subject matter of the poem and that of the novel?
2. One of the primary themes of In The Blood is the debate of “nature vs. nurture” and the relative importance of upbringing and genetics in determining individuals’ personality. Why does this debate have such significance for the characters in the novel? What do you think the author’s point of view is in this debate? What do you think is more important in determining someone’s personality—their genes or their upbringing?
3. On page 25, we discover that the motto of Lana’s college is “Come with a purpose and find your path.” What does this mean for Lana? What significance does the motto have for Lana’s life in general?
4. Lana’s urge to help others springs largely from her mother’s request that she use her intelligence and other gifts to help people. Why do you think this is so important to Lana? What does her mother’s request mean to her? What are some other reasons Lana might be motivated to help others?
5. One of the powerful themes of In The Blood is the thin line between “normal” and “abnormal.” What do you think separates normal from abnormal in terms of psychology? Is this the difference between Lana and Luke? Why is it so difficult to diagnose someone who is “abnormal”?
6. Lana’s character is markedly ambiguous, androgynous, and evolves constantly throughout the book—both in her own person and in our understanding of her. How did your perception of Lana change throughout the novel? Did you like her as a person? How did your trust in her account of things, her reliability as a narrator, shift as certain facts were revealed?
7. Early in Lana’s job as Luke’s babysitter, she says, “In the light, he looked exactly what he was—a little boy, troubled maybe but just a kid. I felt an unwanted tug of empathy (p. 45).” Why doesn’t Lana want to empathize with Luke? How does this desire change throughout the course of the novel? Do you think Lana’s later empathy towards Luke is due to his manipulations, or is it something else?
8. Lana believes that the idea of the “bad seed” is a pervasive “acceptable bigotry (p.55)” in our society. Do you agree with her about this? How are people that are perceived to be “bad seeds” judged, or misjudged?
9. The diary that is woven throughout the story of Lana spends much of its time meditating on the stresses that having a child puts on a relationship. As the diary’s author says, “Maybe parenthood is a crucible; the intensity of its environment breaks you down to your most essential elements as a couple (p.129).” What do you think of this assessment? How does a so-called “problem child” complicate the situation?
10. Lana is immensely competitive with Luke, something he uses to his great advantage. Why do you think Lana is so easily sucked into competing with a young boy? Why is she compelled to keep participating in his games when she knows the dangers?
11. Lana has a unique perspective on forgiveness. As she puts it, “In real life, that doesn’t happen. People don’t forgive things like that. They don’t find peace. It’s pure bullshit. When something unspeakable happens, or when you do something unspeakable, it changes you. It takes you apart and reassembles you (p.122).” Do you agree with this perspective? Are some things unforgivable? Is forgiveness something you do for yourself, or for the person being forgiven?
12. On pages 142-143, Lana meditates on why people are so obsessed with violent, horrible crimes. She says, “People love a mystery, a tragedy, a shooting, a disappearance, a gruesome murder.” Why do you think this is? Do you think Lana is right to condemn people’s interest in these kinds of crimes? What does Lana’s perspective as an insider tell you about this kind of interest or obsession that you may not have known, or known as well, before reading In The Blood?
13. Early in the novel, Lana says, “We count so much on politeness, those of us who are hiding things. We count on people not staring too long, or asking too many questions (p. 26).” Do you think this shows a downside to politeness? Are we are too polite, as a society? How does Lana’s urge to keep her secrets complicate the lives of other people in her life?
14. In The Blood poses a lot of complicated questions about the treatment of mental illness, and the possibility of “redeeming” sociopaths and genuine psychopaths. What do you think the right course of action is with these kinds of individuals? Using Luke as an example, what do you think was the right thing to do with him at the end of the book? Do you think Lana does the right thing in her actions towards Luke?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Many of In The Blood’s chapters take the form of a diary written by one of the characters, giving us insight into a part of the story we couldn’t have known otherwise. Choose one of the other characters in the book, and write a few diary entries as their character—try and provide some insight into their character or part of the story that wasn’t in the book with your entries. Share your ‘diaries’ with your group!
2. Although Luke’s scavenger hunt didn’t end up very well (to say the least!), that doesn’t mean that your group can’t have your own safe, fun, scavenger hunt! Breaking into pairs or teams, prepare a brief series of clues for another team. Be creative with your clues, whether they are poems, rhymes, or something else entirely, and leave a small prize at the end of the hunt!
3. Join the conversation! LisaUnger.com and Facebook.com/AuthorLisaUnger are great resources for more information on Lisa Unger’s novels and a way to meet other fans of In The Blood. Check out the videos on LisaUnger.com with your group, and share your favorite parts of In The Blood with Lisa on Facebook!
A Conversation with Lisa Unger
This is your twelfth book—what unique challenges did In The Blood pose for such a prolific and accomplished author as yourself?
Wow, is it? You’re right! That’s a lot of books, a lot of time spent with the people in my head. One might think I had it all under control at this point. But every time I sit down to write a novel, it feels like the first time. So every book poses its own unique challenges. I guess that’s what keeps it interesting.
It’s always a character voice that draws me into the narrative. But Lana Granger was hiding a lot from me, even as she started telling me her story. I knew she was keeping a big secret, but I didn’t know what it was. And I had a hard time figuring her out, what she wanted, what her dark places were. I heard her voice very clearly, but it took me quite a while to get inside her. When I did, I was more surprised that I have been by any other character.
This is the third book you’ve written that takes place in The Hollows. What interests you so much about this kind of small town? Is it based on a real place? Do you have more novels planned for this setting?
When The Hollows revealed itself as the setting for Fragile, I didn’t think that much of it. It just seemed like Anytown, USA, just the place where the story was set. My stories prior to this had always taken place in iconic locations…New York City, mainly. So The Hollows seemed kind of small time to me. But the story of Fragile, and the story that followed turned out to be intimately connected to the town where they took place. I realized that The Hollows was a place I needed to explore. It had an energy. I wouldn’t call it malicious, exactly. But it’s a place that encourages paths to cross, that doesn’t like secrets, and has a way of pushing up buried bodies.
It’s not based on any real place, though my brother swears it bears a strong resemblance to the town where we grew up, Long Valley, New Jersey. It’s truly not that place, or any place. But it does occupy a huge space in my imagination, and I can’t seem to move on from there… even in the next book. So I guess I’m not done with The Hollows. Or maybe The Hollows is not done with me.
Like many of your earlier novels, In The Blood takes a psychological perspective on crime. What is it that interests you about that take on violent behavior?
I have an insatiable curiosity about human nature. The psyche is the ultimate mystery; there are so many elements at play in the development of each individual, and no two people will be affected in the same way by the same set of circumstances. My fascination for people–what forms us, what drives us, what motivates us–informs my fiction.
Crime and violence act as a kind of crucible. When bad things happen, the truth of character is often revealed. There are no easy answers to questions like: Are we formed by nature or nurture? Why do some people kill, and lie, and steal? Why do others perform great acts of heroism? I spend a lot of time exploring answers to these questions in my fiction.
What kind of research did you have to do for In The Blood ? Do you enjoy the process of researching, or is it more of a means to an end?
In The Blood was inspired by research, which is not always the case. Generally, there’s a character voice first and then the research follows. I read an article in The New York Times Magazine about childhood psychopathy that really got me thinking about troubled children. That curiosity lead me to a great deal more reading: The Sociopath Next Store by Martha Stout, Ph.D., Without Conscience by Robert D. Hare, Ph.D. and Savage Spawn by Jonathon Kellerman.
But these books just built on research that I have been doing for more than a decade. The first and most important book I read on the mystery of the psyche was The Inner World of Trauma by Donald Kalsched. Every since that book, I’ve had a big appetite for information on this topic.
You’ve created such a compelling and memorable lead character in Lana Granger. Where did the seed of Lana’s character begin? Is Lana based on someone from your life?
I started hearing Lana’s voice while I was doing the reading I mentioned above. I think she was a natural manifestation of my curiosity about troubled children–what forms them, how do their problems grow or change or disappear altogether as they grow older. Will a disturbed child necessarily evolve into a dangerous adult? Lana was a meditation on some of these questions.
In The Blood is full of eerie, subtle foreshadowing, and hints of what is to come—how difficult is it to give the reader inklings of later events and revelations, without giving it all away?
It’s not difficult at all, actually—because I am often learning things at the same pace as my readers.
I write without an outline. When I sit down to write, I only have a character voice in my head, or possibly a scene that’s playing and replaying. I have no idea what my book is about, who is going to show up, what they are going to do day-to-day. I write for the same reason that I read, because I want to know what is going to happen. I am usually quite surprised, and hope my readers are, too. I wish I could take credit for the “eerie, subtle foreshadowing” but I don’t feel totally responsible for it. My smarter, cooler subconscious has a lot to do with that.
Lana frequently reflects on the trauma of being involved in murder case that is sensationalized and obsessed over. Why do you think we are so compelled by these kinds of violent acts? Why do they make so much news? What’s the line between interest and obsession?
The line is thin and as a culture, I’d say we’re over it. Sensational, irresponsible news coverage designed to sell advertising and ridiculous “reality” television programming, has turned us all into voyeurs. When we are busy ogling other people’s disasters, it gives us a break from examining our own lives. It’s a lot easier to rubberneck than it is to take a hard look at how we’re living.
One of In The Blood ’s most interesting themes is that of the nature vs. nurture debate. Do you think violent behavior is truly genetic, or is it brought out by environment? Or is it more complicated than that distinction?
There are no easy answers. From what I’ve read and understood the tendency toward violent behavior is a complicated mingling of these two factors. But it’s different for every individual. One might have the genetic code for violence, but environmental factors can either support its evolution into something ugly, or quash it all together. The reverse can also be true–early abuse, as well as physical and psychic trauma can impact an individual who might otherwise have been healthy. Like most questions about human nature, it’s treacherously complicated.
What can we look forward to next in your writing career? Are you currently working on a new novel?
I am at work on a new novel—always. Hopefully, I’ll deliver ever more complex and interesting characters, more twisting, surprising, and engaging plots with every book. My goal as a writer every day, is to be a better writer than I was yesterday. I think you can do that … dig deeper, work harder, delve more intimately into character, and hone your prose. I owe that to my readers.