Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Why of Things includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop. 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.
Since her seventeen-year-old daughter’s suicide less than a year ago, Joan Jacobs has been working to keep her once tight-knit family from coming apart. Now, arriving one June evening at their summer home in Massachusetts, she and her husband, Anders, and their two younger daughters stumble across another tragedy: a pickup truck has, inexplicably, driven straight into a quarry in their backyard. Within hours, divers drag up body of a young local man, James Favazza. As the Jacobs family learns more about the events that led up to that fateful evening, each member becomes increasingly tangled in the emotional threads of James’ life and death: fifteen-year-old Eve grows obsessed with proving that James’ death wasn’t an accident, though the police refuse to consider this; Anders finds himself forced to face his own deepest fears; and little Eloise unwittingly adopts James’ orphaned dog, all while Joan herself becomes increasingly fixated on James’ mother, a stranger whose loss so closely mirrors her own.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What are some of the ways in which the author uses the prologue to set the mood? Discuss specific examples to which you were able to relate.
2. On page 9, the author writes, “If there is a God, Joan thinks, he treats the world with the same irony as a writer treats her world; it is awful, she thinks, to find herself a character.” In what way does Joan feel she has been reduced to a character?
3. The novel is written in the present tense. Do you think your reading experience would have been different if it had been written in the past tense? Why or why not?
4. What are some of the objects that trigger painful memories for the members of the Jacobs family? What do you find yourself remembering when you encounter certain items, places, or songs? Give some examples from the book, and from your own life.
5. Why does Eve feel it is important to prove that James P. Favazza’s plunge into the quarry was not a suicide? What does his death represent to Eve?
6. Even when not dealing directly with the deaths of James Favazza and Sophie Jacobs, the book deals frequently with different kinds of death, such as the seagull burial, the chipmunk from camp, and the diseased roses. Can you think of other examples? How do each of these details contribute to the development of the characters and the overall themes of the book?
7. On page 118, why does Eve feel betrayed by Saul? Do you think she is justified in her feelings? Why or why not?
8. What is Joan’s fixation with Elizabeth Favazza? Do you think her obsession is healthy, or harmful? Use examples from the novel to support your opinion.
9. What prompts Anders to encourage Eve to get a summer job? Was there something in their conversation that may have motivated him to do so? If so, what was it? If not, what else do you think may have motivated him?
10. On page 162, when talking about James Favazza, Anders says to Joan, “Whatever it was, I’m not sure that it matters. The outcome is the same.” What might Anders be referring to other than James’ death?
11. Anders describes breaking through the surface during a SCUBA dive as “like waking from a pleasant dream; the real world seems vaguely disappointing by comparison.” Are there moments like this you can identify in your own life?
12. Why do you think Joan decides not to tell Elizabeth that her son died in Joan’s backyard? Or that she’s had the same experience? Would you have shared this with Elizabeth, or chosen to remain anonymous? Explain your opinion.
13. In the final chapter, Eve’s employer, Nestor, reveals two secrets: one about him and one about Eve. Did his revelations surprise you? Do you think sharing them with Eve was the right thing for him to do? Why or why not?
14. What do you think really happened to James?
15. Each of the characters in the book goes through an individual journey toward acceptance and renewed hope, though they take very different, isolated routes to get there. How would you describe each of their journeys? How do they compare to one another? Was it inevitable that they would have to go through what they did before achieving a level of peace by the end of the summer?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop is the author of two other books: December and Fireworks. Read one of them and see how it compares to The Why of Things. How are they similar? How are they different? Do you see her approaching certain topics in a similar way across her novels? Share your findings with your book club.
2. This novel is told from multiple points of view, so we get to see the thoughts and motivations of each of the main characters. Choose a secondary character in the novel and imagine a scene from that character’s perspective. How does point of view allow you to manipulate the reader’s experience? Is there a character whose point of view you would have liked to see more or less of throughout the novel?
3. Each of the characters in the Jacobs family deals with Sophie’s suicide in a different way. Which character do you think you relate to the most? Using examples from the novel to illustrate your opinion, share with your group which character you chose and why. Then try using that character as a lens through which you describe how you feel regarding the events in the novel, and the events in the character’s life.
4. When Eve discovers Vic’s, a bar in the middle of town, she is surprised at how central it is and how she’s passed it so many times, yet never noticed it before. Once noticed, it’s hard to miss. Can you think of such a “white noise” place in your own area? If not, search for one—notice a café or store or park that you pass every day and never really see, then visit it. Talk about this experience at your next book club meeting, or better yet, hold your next meeting at your newly discovered venue.
A Conversation with Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop 1. What drew you to this particular story? Are there any parallels to your own life in the Jacobs’ experiences?
About ten years before I began writing this novel, an incident similar to what happened at the Jacobs’ quarry did in fact happen at one of the many private quarries on the Cape Ann, where I was living at the time. I don’t know who the person was, nor do I have any other information surrounding the circumstances of his death. I remember reading in the paper simply that a car, with the body of a young man inside, had been found at the bottom of a quarry, and I remember waiting with interest for a follow up article explaining what had happened to appear. None ever did, nor through any internet searching was I able to discover anything further. I certainly didn’t obsess over the incident the way Eve does, but it did remain in my mind as one of those seeds that I knew had the potential to someday grow into a story of some kind.
2. On pages 9, you reveal that Joan is a novelist. Why did you assign her that role? Can you relate to some of the writing issues she has, like thinking about your characters at night as much as the real people in your life? Do you think this is an issue many writers struggle with?
I chose for both Joan and Anders professions that would allow them to exist, for the time of the novel, at a home away from home; Anders, as a teacher, has the summer off; and writing is a portable occupation. But beyond that, the role of novelist, as opposed to painter or some other largely portable profession, is something that I could easily relate to. It didn’t require any research to imagine how Joan might feel about her work, and the time that I do think most writers put into simply thinking about their writing added a layer of complexity to the regret and sense of responsibility Joan feels about Sophie’s death. She must ask herself not only what she could have done differently as a mother, but how things might have been had she been focused exclusively on the real world and her own children, as opposed to a fictional world and her made-up characters. Not all the time, but when I am in the thick of writing a book, I do constantly have my characters and their situations on my mind as well.
3. Why did you decide to set the novel at a vacation home, or second residence? Was it important to the story to put the family in a routine state of transition as they worked out the larger issues of transition?
It was important for me to set the novel at a second residence mostly for matters of timing. I wanted enough time to have passed for the initial pain of Sophie’s death to have begun to subside, or at least, as Joan thinks in the book, to have “woven itself into the fabric of reality,” so that the characters have, by the time the novel begins, resumed their normal lives and are no longer subsumed by grief when the incident of the truck in the quarry occurs, allowing that incident, and not Sophie’s death, to be the central focus of their attention. At the same time, I wanted their grief to be central, and it seemed that a good way to bring this to forefront—to revisit the freshness of the pain they surely felt without relying exclusively on flashbacks—would be to put them in a physical place where they would be confronted anew by the fact of Sophie’s absence; it is the first time they have been to this residence without her there. Setting the book at their summer home also seemed to further highlight the irony of the incident given the “escape” from reality—at least for Joan and Eve—Cape Ann represents.
4. You write the novel from different points of view: male and female, adult and child. How did you manage to get inside the minds of others, like that of a depressed man or an upset teenager? Did you find this more or less challenging than writing from points of view that might be more similar to yours in age, sex, or experience?
I enjoy writing from different and multiple points of view, whether male, female, adult, or child. When I think about each character, I don’t necessarily think about their age or sex as much as I think about some fundamental sense of who that person is despite such defining factors. When I think about Anders, I don’t think first and foremost about how he would react as a middle-aged adult or a male as much as I think about how the person I imagine him to be would react, which might be very different to how another middle-aged male might react. Same for Joan, and Eve. Of course, age and sex are important to consider, but to me, they are just people, and once they have been imagined—and they seem almost to write themselves—it is easy to get inside their minds. It would be harder for me to write from the point of view of a thirty-something female with similar experiences to mine if I didn’t know who she was than it would be to write from the point of view of a dying old man whom I have intimately imagined.
5. This is your third novel. How was the writing of this novel different from the first two? How was it the same? Are there themes or ideas you feel you are constantly returning to?
Each of my three novels has been an entirely different writing experience. Fireworks began as a short story, and December began as the exploration of a single idea. I came to this novel quite accidentally. I had written the opening scene some years before (probably shortly after the actual quarry incident occurred), and during a case of writer’s block after I had finished December I was poring over old files, stumbled across the scene by the quarry at night, and decided to continue on—to write around in the setting and explore these characters—and to see if anything came of it all. More than either of the other two novels, which I wrote from essentially from start to finish before doing any major revisions, this one was all about writing and rewriting and rewriting again as I went along. I came to many dead ends and road blocks along the way, and again and again I’d have to back up and find a different way forward; again and again I’d have rip things apart and rearrange. Each chapter had at least ten incarnations. Interestingly, this process was not any more time consuming than writing the other two was, though sometimes I felt as if it required reading my own material so often I grew too close to it to make sense of things. When this happened, I’d have to take a week off.
As far as themes that recur throughout the novels, I would say I tend to return again and again to ideas of family, and how various family members relate to, rely on, and affect each other. Families are a curious web that I never seem to tire of exploring.
6. On page 272, you show readers Joan’s manuscript, followed by notes on future chapters and insights on how she works. Would a spy find the same type of notes on your writing desk? How do you tend to work? Do you prefer to submerge yourself and write long days in short spurts, or does slow and steady win the race for you with a few pages every day?
As I wrote this novel, yes, my desk appeared much in the same way that Joan’s does. I kept a notebook beside my computer in which I jotted down ideas for future chapters, asked myself questions, and left little reminders of things I needed to address. I also scrawled out little outlines, delineating a chapter’s scenes to see where there were holes, or else sketching an alternate order in which the scenes might be rearranged to work better. As far as the creation of each chapter, I tended to write scene by scene, and within that, paragraph by paragraph, first writing notes to self about what that scene would achieve, then writing it loosely, then tweaking the language to get it just how I wanted it. Of course, the process of tweaking is never ending. . . . And slow and steady wins the race, for me. I would take myself to my desk each morning and work until I couldn’t anymore. Generally this was about four or five hours, at the end of which I might have several pages, I might have a few sentences, or I may have decided that everything I had written the day before was awful, and sent it to the slush pile.
7. Hobbster is an interesting concept: an imaginary friend for a child who needs one but who hasn’t imagined one for themselves. Where did this idea come from? Was there a Hobbster in your own childhood?
Many ideas in fiction are strictly fictional, but some are shamelessly ripped from life, and Hobbster was one of these. Though my imaginary creation had a different name, I was a form of Hobbster for my middle sister one summer when we were about the same ages as Sophie and Eve, when Sophie created Hobbster for her sister.
8. On page 245, Joan somewhat disagrees with Elizabeth’s claim that she knows who she is. There are obvious reasons—Elizabeth may know about where Joan lives but not about their shared loss—but beyond that, do you think this is a claim that can be made for most characters of one another? Or people in the real world for that matter? Do you believe people who think they know each other don’t always really know each other as well as they think?
In a way, yes, I do think that people often don’t know each other as well as they think they do, or at least what the other is thinking or feeling. It’s one of the reasons why writing from multiple characters’ points of view so fascinates me; I can explore what each one thinks of the same situation, and of each other, and show the idiosyncrasies of inner experience and the contrasting world of other people. 9. In one scene from the book, Anders passes the railroad track where his daughter died and muses over how insignificant the spot is to daily commuters who simply pass it by. Yet it is a sacred spot to him. In a sense, are all spots sacred, if we are made aware of what has transpired there?
I do think so, and it is an overwhelming thought—things that are important to somebody, maybe even life-changing, take place in mundane spots every day, and so yes, in a way, all spots have an element of the sacred. Joan also grapples with that question, though in a different way; it occurs to her in an early chapter to reassure Eloise that people die all over the place every day, and yet she doesn’t consider these places “haunted,” so why then should their quarry be?
10. When visiting the junkyard, Eve is taken by the idea of car parts being reused—the idea that cars have histories that will live on in other cars. She considers the thought “creepy and cool” at the same time. Can that also be said of writing a novel: Will these thoughts, whether prompted by real life or imagination, become a kind of living history?
I’d love to think so—that my novels will withstand the test of time and live on in perpetuity, my words alive on the page forever—but in truth that doesn’t cross my mind as I write a novel. It might sound simplistic, but when I write a novel I’m just doing what I do, hoping, of course, that people will care to read my thoughts, but counting on nothing. I don’t think of my novels as my legacy, or anything like that.
11. As Anders prepares to go SCUBA diving at Norman’s Woe, he makes reference to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” Can you talk a little about the poem and how it relates to this story and the characters in this novel?
Norman’s Woe is an actual reef off of Cape Ann, one where there have indeed been several wrecks over the years, including that of the Favorite, which is the inspiration for Longefellow’s poem, “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” The poem is about a ship captain who brings his daughter along on a winter voyage, ignoring warnings of a potential hurricane and tying her to her mast when the storm does indeed materialize. The ship crashes into the rocks at Norman’s Woe and sinks, and the next morning a fisherman finds the body of the daughter still lashed to the mast and drifting in nearby surf.
As I researched various diving spots around Cape Ann, looking for a setting that might work for Anders’ last dive, once I stumbled upon the reef at Norman’s Woe—which I’d always known existed, but never as a spot for diving—I knew, being familiar with Longfellow’s poem, that there was no way his last dive could take place anywhere else. It was too perfect on too many levels: on one level it is simply a beautiful and harrowing dive; on another, it is what Anders would consider one of those “sacred spots” where people have died; and finally, that the famous poem written about it features the death of a daughter made it an utter boon. Though I played with the idea of expounding on the specific content of the poem (having Anders consider the captain’s daughter specifically, or discuss with Joan the captain’s guilt v. their guilt etc.), in the end this all seemed to heavy-handed, and I chose to simply mention the poem in passing. Enough, it seemed when it came to Norman’s Woe, was enough.
12. You have a knack for finding deep emotion in the simple moments: a tucked-away funeral program, a discarded grocery store address, a seashell found in a pocket, holding hands under a night sky. These are the sorts of things people experience every day but sometimes fail to notice. What is it about such moments that you find interesting?
It sounds clichéd, maybe, but life today is so fast-paced I think that many of us do often gloss over these sorts of moments, which, if we stopped and considered them, might really give us pause. Perhaps it’s that we’re so busy searching for some larger thing in life, scanning the horizon for the “big thing” that will make us go “Aha! That’s what I’ve been looking for!” that we look right over the seashells and funeral programs as incidental when really, I think, it is those small things that a real life is made of. If people stopped and took of stock of all the small instances of magic or sadness, those gestures of humanity that happen around us daily—and these things do happen, if you look, whether it’s as small as watching a father lift his child closer to a flower, or noticing a woman stumble in the street—I think (it may be bold to say) they’d find their lives that much richer.
13. In the last chapter of the book, Joan follows the stranger who has pulled into their drive and he leads her to Elizabeth’s house. Joan realizes this must be James Favazza’s brother. She imagines what she’d like to do, what the characters in her book would do, but realizes that it is not what she will do in real life. “Perhaps in her book, things will turn out differently.” (page 292) Are some of those scenarios things you considered having happen in the novel? On the flip side, do you sometimes find yourself doing things in a novel that you wish had been done in real life?
I envisioned all sorts of scenarios for Joan, as she followed the stranger in the maroon car, but in the end, I wrote none of them out, because what does happen (nothing, aside from the realization that the man is James’ brother) seemed right, and true to life. That said, it was hard for me to imagine that the scenarios that had occurred to me (her accosting him, etc.) wouldn’t have occurred to either Joan or the reader, and it seemed fitting at least to acknowledge them. I don’t know if I would have done this if Joan hadn’t been a writer—I don’t, for instance, have Eve consider alternate courses of action from the ones the takes, even though I, as the writer, did consider them, but for Joan, since she already thinks of herself as a “character,” I felt I could get away with it.
14. What’s next? What are you working on right now?
That’s a good question. As I answer these questions, I’m working on a seven-month-old daughter, who three months ago decided she didn’t much care for naps. Before that happened, I had started work on a somewhat sprawling novel, about nine members of a family brought together by an accident that has left the matriarch in a coma. Of course, they all come to the book with their own issues and stories, so it’s almost like writing several books in one. And I’ve had on the back burner for years and years a series of interrelated short stories, which take place, as does The Why of Things, on Cape Ann. I’m not sure which project I’ll return to when I get back to writing, or if I’ll find myself writing something entirely different. . . maybe to do with napping.