Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Pam Lewis. 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.
Questions for Discussion
1. The quote by John Steinbeck from the Grapes of Wrath at the beginning of the book reads, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” Much of Perfect Family centers on identity and a deeper understanding of one’s self. Which character’s identity, or perception of identity, shifts the most throughout the course of the book?
2. Although William is one of the more dominant characters in the book the point of view of the story changes from chapter to chapter. Why do you think that the author chose to do this? What does this voice allow her to do as a storyteller? Which voice do you find most compelling? Most trustworthy and believable?
3. Shock, Denial, Bargaining, Guilt, Anger, Depression, Acceptance and Hope make up what many physiatrists call the stages of grief. Discuss if and how William and the other family members go through any or all of these stages? Which lasts the longest? How do the circumstances of loss affect how the family expresses their emotions?
4. The author writes, “Jasper ran the show. He always had and he always would.” (p. 62) Is this true? Who do you think really has the most control in the family? Who has the least? How do the different family members exert control over each other?
5. Keith enters the story when he meets Mira for coffee. She describes, “He had that pull she liked in a guy. Something she never wanted to analyze.” (p. 82). What were your first impressions of Keith? Was he trustworthy? Who the family did you side with when he was introduced? Why does Mira take to him so quickly?
6. Discuss how the author uses pacing throughout the story. When does she speed up her narrative and when does she slow down? What effect does this have on the plot and character development?
7. Each of the siblings of the Carteret family is very different. Who did you identity with the most? Who would you most like to spend time with?
8. William says of Keith, “He’s not family.” (p. 166) Ruth later continues the discussion on family by saying, “You have to participate. You have to be present.” What does it mean to be part of a family? How do you define who is in a family? How strong is the Carteret family? Is it possible to join a family?
9. Minerva says to William, “Your parents believed they could triumph over the past – I’m speaking of your mother and Jasper.” (p. 195) Can someone triumph over their past? What does that mean?
10. William’s mother writes in her note, “Necessity is the mother of invention – Larry’s philosophy about everything. The best way to learn anything is when you have no choice.” (p. 216) Do you agree with Larry’s thinking? What are other ways to learn?
11. Keith and William are true brothers. How are they similar? How are they different? Do they want the same thing?
12. Towards the end of the book William speaks of Andrew. “The shame isn’t his. It was Pony’s, Keith’s. It was Mother’s. He shouldn’t have to suffer for it the way I did. The way we all have.” Whose shame is it? Should the family be ashamed at all?
Enhance Your Reading Group
1. There are many websites where you can learn more about your own family history including: www.genealogy.com/, www.genealogy.org/, www.familysearch.org/, www.ancestry.com/, www.archives.gov/genealogy/
2. To visit or learn more about vacations in Vermont visit: http://www.vermontvacation.com/
3. Memory retrieval and the passing along of family history is central to the book. What is your earliest memory? Is it accurate? How did your family pass down family history?
A Conversation with Pam Lewis
1. Authors often remark that they put parts of themselves into their characters. How strongly do you identify with each of your main characters? How are you different?
I identify with all of them although I'm told I'm a combination of Pony and Mira. Pony is more of the ideal me. I would love to have had her athletic skill and daredevil adolescence, but I'm more cautious. Like all the Carteret children, I'm an ace swimmer, I know my lifesaving moves would have done exactly as Pony did in trying to save herself from Keith. Mira's a writer, introvert, observer of the scene, characteristics I definitely share. Tinker is the Virgo in me, the part that craves order although I'm not so good at achieving it. And William. Well, I have some of William's longings and insecurities. I also have a version of his work history – opting out of corporate life to freelance and then use his time for hiking.
2. Memories are prominent features throughout your novel. Minerva, William’s aunt, is the name of the Greek god linked with wisdom and memory. Yet pieces of William’s memory of his very early childhood are missing. Do you believe in selective memory?
If memory weren't selective we'd all be doomed to remember every single moment of our lives and probably go crazy, especially as we got older and our heads became fuller. But "selective" isn't completely accurate either because it suggests that we're the ones in charge, selecting our memories. I believe that strong emotion at the time of an event is what cements the memory of one event over another. In other words, memory happens to us.
When my younger son was about four he took a running leap into the deep end of a swimming pool not realizing it was quite different from the shallow end where he'd spent the morning. I can still see his little body suspended in midair, arms and legs flung out in pure joy, the sun above, the sparkling blue water below. It's a fixed picture because of my shock at seeing it. In the next instant I was in the water fully clothed fishing him out.
William's strongest memories are also rooted in shock and fear . . . and swimming pools. He says at one point about memory, "It was the way a swimming pool on a sunny day could blindside him with sadness." He was too young to have a specific memory of his father's cruelty, but old enough to have a very strong emotional memory that could be triggered by other events.
3. Your novel is tremendously engaging and can easily be read in one sitting. How was writing your second novel a different experience from writing your first? What was harder about the process? What was easier?
It wasn't exactly harder, just very different to write with a deadline. I had to be more disciplined work more regularly and quicken my pace. I also had the advantage of this very good piece of editorial advice about my first novel, Speak Softly, She Can Hear,. My editor said, "You have six pages of great atmosphere here but nothing happens." That was extremely helpful in keeping up the pace of the Perfect Family. Also, I naively expected the writing of the second book would have none of the pitfalls of the first. And while it had fewer, I still have a tendency to go off on tangential stories because it's so much fun, and then have to rein myself in.
4. Do you see your book as more of a mystery or a family story?
I'm very pleased it's selling as a mystery although I'm mostly interested in the family story. The central event is a death under ambiguous circumstances, so there is the fundamental question of how it happened. Was it a suicide, an accident or a murder? But each member of the family is revealed in the way they need to answer that question. Jasper needs to sweep everything under the rug and take the police's dead-end as an answer. Tinker needs to do whatever Daddy says. Mira needs to escape the whole thing by wrapping herself up in a dangerous new man, and William needs to dig the deepest, not only into finding out exactly what happened that day, but way beyond that into the family as a whole.
5. What was your inspiration for this story?
The inspiration was the drowning, and it wasn't based on any true story but came entirely from imagination, which is probably rooted in my love and fear of water. It's such a haunting and terrifying image — someone being caught under water by her hair. It was with me for a long time while I tried to understand who she was and what had happened to her, which opened up the whole family. I used to live in West Hartford where the Carterets live and that was another fascination for me. In some tony suburbs like that a lot of effort goes into looking "perfect" on the outside.
6. Much of the book is told, compellingly, from William’s point of view. As a female author, did you find it difficult to capture his voice? From whose point of view did you most enjoy writing?
I think I enjoyed writing from Tinker's point of view best because she's such a great mix of extremes; she can be terribly insecure and other times supremely self assured. I really I enjoyed her when she was so critical of everybody else. It was just fun to let fly with her take on everything. As to writing from a man's point of view, I depended a lot on the writers groups I belong to, especially the men in those groups to let me know whenever I sounded an unmasculine note.
7. Who is your ideal reader of the book? What do you hope they take away from your novel?
People regularly come up to me at readings or send letters about the shock of learning their own family secrets, so certainly anyone who's had that experience is an ideal reader. Secrets are always rooted in shame and shame is almost always rooted in sex, so it's not surprising that the secrets people keep for long period of time have to do with out-of-wedlock children and adultery. And along those same lines are people who are called "late discovery adoptees," who don't learn they were adopted until they are adults z and the sea change that causes in their outlook. They too are ideal readers of the book.
8. To what other writers would you compare your writing style? Whose books do you most enjoy to read?
I read Ian McEwan and Alice Munro and Tobias Wolf and others for pleasure and to try to unravel the brilliance of their sentences, economy and structure, although I certainly don't compare myself to them. For sheer reading pleasure there are so many, but mostly I love a good story. For mysteries I like both Jonathan and Faye Kellerman and of course Poe. For sheer reading pleasure I've read all of Harry Crews and most of TC Boyle. In nonfiction I love David Sedaris and just about any true account of wilderness disaster.
9. Do you have plans for your next book?
Yes, indeed. The core of this story is a kidnapping. It's set in the early 1900s when 15-year old Minke van Aisma of Enkhuizen, Holland, is sent to Amsterdam to tend to the dying wife of a man who wastes no time making her his second wife, taking her to the wilds of Argentine Patagonia where her first child, a son, is kidnapped. Minke never gives up her search for the child and her suspicion that her husband was behind it, even after he abandons the family to run off with Minke's sister, a foul-mouthed sexually aggressive girl who always has her way.