Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for You Take It From Here includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Pamela Ribon. 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.
How far would you go to be there for a friend in need? In Pamela Ribon’s You Take It from Here, thirty-five-year-old, newly divorced Danielle Meyers is forced to answer this question when her best friend, Smidge Cooperton, makes a very complicated dying request that Danielle isn’t sure she can take on.
On one of Danielle and Smidge’s yearly trips together, Smidge reveals that her cancer has returned. Still feeling remorse and guilt for the way she acted the first time Smidge was diagnosed, Danielle promises to be supportive in every way possible. But Smidge’s request—for Danielle to take over her home when she dies, caring for her husband and raising her teenage daughter, Jenny, until she leaves for college—is more than Danielle ever expected. Written as a letter from Danielle to Jenny many years after Smidge’s final breaths, You Take It from Here gives voice to the journey traveled by those who loved Smidge most. It is a story of friendship, sacrifice, and ultimately, of love.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Though Smidge and Danielle appear to be complete opposites at first glance—Danielle, the more introverted, practical, and patient one, and Smidge, the loud-mouthed leader who always attracts the spotlight—which traits do they have in common? Do you think it’s their similarities or their differences that keep their friendship strong? Does their relationship remind you of any such ones in your life?
2. “It’s a lot like having a lion for a best friend—everything is Really fun and exciting until the lion is unhappy” (p. 57). Do you think Smidge would have agreed with Danielle’s comparison? If not, which animal do you think Smidge would think she is most like? Which animals do you think Smidge and Danielle represent?
3. “When I die, I want you to take over my life” (p. 60). What was your reaction when you first learned of Smidge’s proposition to Danielle? Do you think it is fair to make this kind of request to a friend?
4. Throughout the novel, Danielle mentions the regret she feels for not having been there for Smidge during her first battle with cancer. In what ways do you think Danielle’s guilt affects the way she reacts and responds to Smidge the second time around?
5. At the start of the novel, Danielle refers to Tucker Collier as a superhero. In what ways throughout the novel does he come to Danielle’s rescue?
6. In what specific ways does Jenny grow up from the beginning of the novel to the end? As she makes the transition from girl to woman, in what ways do Smidge and Danielle view and treat her differently?
7. Danielle goes into detail about both her and Smidge’s family lives when they were younger. How do you think their respective experiences growing up shaped the women they became?
8. How would you describe Smidge and Henry Cooperton’s marriage? What role does each of them play in the relationship? Danielle says she’s never seen “two people ever fall more instantly in love” before (p. 92). What do you think it is about Smidge and Henry that instantly drew them together?
9. The moment when Vikki tells Danielle that she knows about Smidge’s cancer is a moment of comfort for Danielle: “The giant weight placed on my shoulders shifted, eased into a new position” (p. 268). Why is Danielle so relieved? Were you surprised to find out why Smidge had been keeping Vikki at a distance?
10. “[E]verybody sees this disease through their own mortality, looking back over their shoulders, wondering, Would I be ready for this? Cancer is selfish” (p. 59). Do you agree with Danielle’s assessment of the disease? Why or why not? Have you or anyone in your life been affected by this disease? Take a moment to discuss, or to reflect on, how your life has been impacted by cancer. Do you see any reflections of your own stories in Smidge and Danielle’s?
11. Danielle sees Smidge cry for the very first time after her fight with Jenny in the kitchen. Danielle says, “This is where your mother cried, Jenny. It only took her entire life, but here is where real tears fell from her eyes” (p. 275). What emotions do you think Smidge is feeling in that moment? What do you think it is that finally causes the tears to fall?
12. Although Smidge tries to keep her cancer a secret from all of her friends and family, it becomes apparent to Danielle at Smidge’s birthday party that everybody already knows—except for Henry. How do you think Smidge was able to keep her illness from Henry for so long, while the rest of the town already had it figured out?
13. Although she debates doing so, Danielle ultimately provides Smidge with the Seconal that ends her life. Do you think Danielle did the right thing? After reading the story, do you think Jenny would agree?
14. “After all these years of silence, Jenny, if I could ask you only one question and have you answer it truthfully, I would want to know if you thought I kept my word” (p. 280). Do you think Danielle fulfilled her promise to be there for Jenny in all of the ways Smidge wasn’t able to? After reading the story, do you think Jenny will feel that the promise was kept?
A Conversation with Pamela Ribon
What first inspired you to write You Take It from Here?
I have a few bossy lady friends, and more than my fair share of them are Southern. The idea for this novel came to me after I took a fourteen-hundred-mile emergency red-eye flight three hours after one called me in a hysterical panic, telling me that her daughter was in the hospital and near death. I’d just torn a ligament in my knee the day prior (please see my previous novel, Going in Circles, to find out how), but hobbled in a knee brace through LAX, uncomfortably smashed myself into a middle seat, was couriered via wheelchair to catch my four a.m. layover, and frantically fought my way to her side . . . only to be told, “She’s getting released today. Um, someone might have called you after having too much wine.”
We had a good visit, and I eventually got to take a few painkillers for my knee, but I flew home, thinking, “I just dropped everything and went. I didn’t even question it. How far would I go for this woman? And, more importantly: how much can a best friend feel entitled to ask?” Add this to my unresolved feelings about my father’s death from lung cancer many years ago and the story started taking shape.
This novel is written as a letter from Danielle to Jenny, retelling the journey she and her mother took from start to finish. Why did you decide to structure You Take It from Here as a letter? What about this format felt right to you?
After I’d written more than half of it I realized it needed to be a letter. If I wanted to get to the ending I wanted, to have the feeling on the page that I felt in my gut, I was going to have to change my approach to the story. That realization came with such a sense of loss, knowing that I was going to have to go back to the very beginning and change almost every sentence to make it right. These kinds of confessions—about the love you have for a friend—are best done to the only other people who know how crazy they can make you feel: their children.
Did you know all along how the story was going to end? Or did the “right” ending reveal itself along the way?
I knew Smidge’s ending, and at first I wanted it to be a bit of a question what Danielle ultimately decided to do, but the wise women who counsel me with my writing suggested I needed to tell more. This is how it became a letter to Jenny, the only one who had the right to judge whether or not Danielle had kept her word.
One of your main characters is named Smidge. Why couldn’t she be a Jessica, Denise, Lucy, or any other common name? Why did her character call for such a unique name?
Because there could be only one of her. For the sake of everybody and everything.
Have you ever been given a nickname that stuck with you?
The very first nickname I ever got was “Pamie,” right when I was born. I think my mom was actually trying to name me “Pamie,” but the nurse thought, “That tired woman who just went through thirty-six hours of labor meant ‘Pamela.’” Other nicknames have come and gone, though “Wonder Killer” has stuck, mostly due to self-promotion.
Do you see more of yourself in Danielle or Smidge?
I know I’m very much Danielle, but I have fantasies of being bold enough to be Smidge, even for only one day. Just to get some things done that I would normally consider beyond my control.
You’ve written for television, for blogs, and for the stage. How is the experience of writing a novel different?
When writing a novel, the period of time where one is isolated with one’s own paranoid, anxious, soul-crippling thoughts of imminent failure is much longer. You spend months convinced you have made a series of irrevocable mistakes and soon everything you care about will be gone because you have no business stringing words together. If I only wrote novels, I would no doubt develop agoraphobia.
With a blog, I know right away if what I wrote worked for the reader. With a novel, I’m the only one who’s going to write it, from start to finish; that’s my job. But with television, the work gets spread around. (So does the blame.) I like the collaborative nature of television as well as the deadlines. You’re putting on a show every week, not waiting a year or more to see the final product.
Were there ways in which writing You Take It from Here differed from writing your previous books? Which book was the hardest to write? Which was your favorite to write?
When I’m writing a novel there inevitably comes a point where I say out loud, “Why did I do this to myself?” Whether I’m writing about divorce, death, separation, depression, loss . . . usually around the third pass of the manuscript I curse myself for having to sit with these feelings and memories once again. I don’t have a favorite novel of mine, and I don’t go back to read them. They feel like old diaries, in a way, because I remember where I was when I wrote them and how my life was going at the time.
In reviews of your books, readers often point out how skilled you are at creating novels that are both poignant and funny; novels that make readers laugh just as much as they make readers cry. Is it difficult striking this balance?
I don’t know if I’m consciously trying to strike that balance as much as I know I prefer reading a story that takes me through more than one emotion. I write toward that destination.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve been having a very good time writing an original movie for The Disney Channel, and partnering on a graphic novel for Oni Press with the extraordinarily talented Emi Lenox.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. To keep their friendship strong, Smidge and Danielle take yearly trips together. Ask each member of your reading group to make a list of the top five places they would choose to travel to in the world. Then, compare lists: Are there any matches?
2. The relationship between mothers and daughters is a theme that is explored throughout the novel. With your discussion group, write the novel’s mother/daughter relationships on a series of index cards—Smidge and Jenny, Danielle and her mother, Smidge and Lydia/“the Lizard,” and so on. Then have each group member pick an index card and talk about that pair’s particular relationship. How did each woman fulfill her role as either mother or daughter? Ultimately, was that character successful in her role? Finally, discuss: Which characteristics, if any, do you find that all of the mother-daughter relationships in the novel share?
3. Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer in the United States, killing more people each year than breast, prostate, colon, liver, kidney, and melanoma cancers combined. To learn more about cancer, visit the American Cancer Society’s website at www.cancer.org. To help in the fight against lung cancer, visit the American Lung Association at www.lungusa.org.
4. For more information on the Death with Dignity movement, please visit the Death with Dignity National Center at www.deathwithdignity.org.
5. For more information about Pamela Ribon and her books, visit her personal website and blog, www.pamie.com, or like her fan page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PamelaRibon, or follow her on Twitter @pamelaribon.