Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Necessary Heartbreak includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Michael J. Sullivan. 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.
Necessary Heartbreak tells the story of Michael, a single dad from New York who has lost his faith after his wife’s death and is struggling to raise his feisty fourteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. When Michael and Elizabeth stumble upon a trapdoor in their church basement, they discover a portal leading back to first-century Jerusalem during the tumultuous last week of Christ’s life. There they encounter Leah, a grieving widow; a menacing soldier who is determined to take Elizabeth as his own; Judas on the last night of his life; and a close-up of the man Jesus. Unable to return to the present, Michael comes face-to-face with some of his most limiting beliefs and realizes he must open himself up to the possibility of a deeper faith in people, in himself, and in love if he is to find his way home.
1. Compare Michael and Elizabeth’s relationship with Michael’s relationship with his own father. How are their power struggles and communication difficulties similar and different?
2. Discuss Michael’s relationship with religion. What changed his once-strong faith? How is his belief in God different at the end of the novel? How do Elizabeth’s and Leah’s faith change throughout the novel?
3. Is Michael too overprotective, or just a concerned parent? Does Michael use his fear for Elizabeth to hold himself back from life? Why does he push people away?
4. Why does Michael consistently avoid women and feel almost uncomfortable with them? What is he afraid of? Why does he have so much trouble letting go of Vicki and moving on, going so far as to search for her in Jerusalem?
5. Talk about the different ways Michael and Elizabeth deal with losing Vicki. Throughout the story, they hide their emotions from each other. Why can’t they talk about her with each other? Why do they each blame themselves for her death, when clearly it’s neither one’s fault?
6. How did the narrative format of the novel, incorporating flashbacks throughout, impact your read?
7. Why does Leah take Michael and Elizabeth in so easily? How are they able to accept life together so quickly? What do they learn from each other? What do Michael and Leah see in each other of their missing spouses?
8. Leah and Michael discuss having a “reverence for life,” in both Leah’s time and Michael’s. Michael admits that not much has changed. Reread the passage on pages 157–158 and talk about how the two cultures respect life.
9. Discuss the difference between “kill” and “sacrifice.” Why does Leah ultimately decide not to sacrifice Cassie? What does Elizabeth learn from Cassie? Discuss Cassie’s significance to the story and what she symbolizes.
10. What does Michael make Leah believe?
11. How is the second time Michael denies Christ different from the first?
12. Why do Michael and Elizabeth keep finding excuses to stay in Jerusalem one more day? Is it because they’re drawn to Jesus, or do you see another reason?
13. Why are Michael and Elizabeth so intent on helping Jesus, even though they know how the scene will play out? Why must Michael shoulder his burden? How can Elizabeth lift Michael’s burden?
14. How does Leah break through Michael’s façade? Why doesn’t he ask her to come home with them? Did you like the ending of the book? Why or why not?
15. How does heartbreak shape each character? Do you agree with the title, that heartbreak is sometimes necessary?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. When Michael is a teen, he repeatedly listens to Bruce Springsteen’s album The River and relates especially to the song “Independence Day.” Listen to that song or just look up the lyrics. Is there a song in your own life that has particularly resonated with you or helped you through a difficult situation? Share with your book club.
2. Leah shares a Passover feast with Michael and Liz. Research the history of Passover and try making some dishes for your own feast, such as charoset and matzos.
3. Read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in the New Testament of the Bible. How do the descriptions in Necessary Heartbreak change your impressions of those events?
A Conversation with Michael J. Sullivan
What inspired you to write this story, mixing time travel with ancient times and customs?
I grew up with a romantic, idealistic view of the church. Over the course of many years, this view eroded, especially during the winter of 1983–84. I was without money and a roof over my head, riding the E train in New York City at night. I sought help from many, including a family friend who helped run a church. He turned me back into the cold New Year’s Eve night in 1983. As I sat on the train pondering, I started to write this novel, drawing on some of the key childhood experiences that still touch my soul today. And I wondered whether this was the church I wanted to be part of in the future. I found myself questioning the wrong person—Jesus Christ. So I wanted to send my characters back in time to restore the meaning of life to myself. I wanted my characters to be part of history’s most important moment. I wanted them to experience what the true meanings of love, faith, and sacrifice really are.
Tell us about your research on Roman and Biblical times. How much is real and how much is enhanced by your imagination?
I tried to stay faithful to the actual events, but I wanted to look at those events from the perspectives of the characters. My first editor, Jenn Kujawski, was instrumental in the research. We dedicated many weeks, even months, to this particular part of the process. The great benefit of this experience was that I learned so much about Jesus Christ, the person.
Can you tell us about your personal faith?
It continues to evolve. I’m human. I question certain aspects of it. As I go along in these books, I learn more through the research process. I continue to gather a greater understanding of what an incredible role model Jesus is for me and for anyone else.
Has your faith ever faltered, like Michael’s?
Yes, many times. It was at an all-time low after I watched my mother die from cancer at the age of forty-seven. She suffered so greatly, and I wondered why she had to endure so much pain at such a young age.
Michael and Elizabeth both have rather volatile relationships with their fathers. How were you able to capture teen angst so well?
I have two daughters myself. As they get older, they become more independent emotionally. I utilized some real-life experiences and allowed them to unfold on the page.
How did you create the character of Leah?
I first wanted the character to be of a background different from Michael’s so I could show that people have much more in common than they realize. In addition, I incorporated several personality characteristics of women I’ve met and admired.
Is the story of Leah’s husband based on real events?
No. I wanted to take the emotional temperature of the times, when confrontation between Jews and Roman soldiers erupted daily. I wanted to show the reader some of the normal tragedies a woman would have had to endure.
The novel captures the viewpoints of a middle-aged father, a teenage girl, and a woman from Biblical times. Which character was the hardest to write?
The most difficult character was Leah, because extensive research was involved. Being of Christian background, I needed to pay particular attention to this character. We spent many, many weeks researching every little detail of Leah’s home, how she would make a living, and the relationships she would have.
Which character was easiest?
Michael. Most of the material associated with him comes purely from my heart: my experiences, my emotions, and my feelings regarding past and present relationships.
Which is your favorite?
Leah is no doubt my favorite. She is intriguing, strong, possessed with the ability to understand the reality of any situation. I built this character from many different women I’ve come across in my life. It was fun to revisit those particular experiences.
You have a successful career as a sportswriter. What made you decide to start writing fiction?
I’ve sat on this story idea for a very long time, over two decades. I’ve tried to revisit it on several occasions, but could never find the proper angle. I spent many nights wondering why my mother was dealt such a severe fate, suffering the ravages of cancer. There were days when a feeling of hopelessness engulfed me, and I wouldn’t know where to turn for answers. One hot May night I awoke with my answer. I dreamed I was on that street when Jesus was riding the donkey, Palm Sunday. I was chasing Him, trying to ask Him why we have to suffer.
Do you lay out your plots beforehand or are there surprises in the writing process?
I would say both. The Biblical scenes were prepared in an outline. And then the characters took over: their personalities evolved, their strengths and weaknesses were unveiled. Some of the flashbacks were written a couple of decades ago, refined and polished over the past couple of years.
Was there ever an ending when Michael and Leah ended up together?
Good question. I’m in the process of answering that in the next book.
Which authors and/or books have most impacted your own writing?
The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, is one book I could read or listen to over and over again. His ability to simplify what life can be to us all motivates me to try and make every day a great one.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
When you’re writing, give yourself ample opportunity to absorb yourself in the story. And it’s fine to incorporate the experiences that move you. There’ll be some rejection—all writers have to listen to many different opinions about their work. But remain faithful to yourself and the work.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
I’m currently writing the sequel, called The Greatest Christmas Gift. It picks up with Michael and Elizabeth in Northport seven months later.