Father of the Rain
A Novelby Lily King
Award-winning author Lily King’s new novel spans three decades in a riveting psychological portrait of a wildly charismatic patriarch as seen through the eyes of his daughter.
In her most ambitious novel to date, critically acclaimed author Lily King sets her sharply insightful family drama in an upper-middle-class East Coast suburb where she traces a complex and volatile father-daughter relationship from the 1970s to the present day.
When eleven-year-old Daley Amory’s mother leaves her father, Daley is thrust into a chaotic adult world of competition, indulgence, and manipulation. Unable to place her allegiance, she gently toes the thickening line between her parents’ incompatible worlds: the increasingly liberal, socially committed realm of her mother, and the conservative, liquor-soaked life of her father. But without her mother there to keep him in line, Daley’s father’s basest impulses and quick rage are unleashed, and Daley finds herself having to choose her own survival over the father she still deeply loves.
As she grows into adulthood, Daley retreats from the New England country-club culture that nourished her father’s fears and addictions, and attempts to live outside of his influence. Until he hits rock bottom. Faced with the chance to free her father from sixty years worth of dependency, Daley must decide whether repairing their badly broken relationship is worth the risk of losing not only her professional dreams, but the love of her life, Jonathan, who represents so much of what Daley’s father claims to hate, and who has given her so much of what he could never provide.
A provocative and masterfully told story of one woman’s life-long, primal loyalty to her father, Father of the Rain is a spellbinding journey into the emotional complexities, mercurial contours, and magnetic pull of families.
“Lily King’s Father of the Rain is one of the most richly satisfying and haunting novels I’ve read in a long time.” —Richard Russo
“You know that moment when the ingenue in the horror movie heads downstairs to check the radiator, and you’re screaming, dumbfounded, at the screen? That’s the sort of protective rage you feel for Daley Amory, the narrator of Lily King’s novel Father of the Rain. . . . Haunting, incisive . . . King is brilliant when writing from the eyes of a tween, all self-conscious curiosity but bright and hopeful as a starry sky. And as Daley grows up and learns how to trust and to love in spite of herself, King cuts a fine, fluid line to the melancholy truth: Even when we’re grown and on our own—wives, mothers, CEOs—we still long to be someone’s daughter. The dream of an absent ideal father is like a thick, soft blanket; find one to burrow under, and enjoy.” —Rachel Rosenblit, Elle
“Spellbinding . . . Marvelous . . . A story of high drama in the court of Nixon-era New England aristocracy . . . King brilliantly captures the gravitational pull of the past and the way it can eclipse the promise of the present. . . . You won’t be able to stop reading this book, but when you do finally finish the last delicious page and look up, you will see families in a clearer and more forgiving way.” —Susan Cheever, Vanity Fair
“Lily King’s breakout third novel, Father of the Rain, harrowingly evokes a daughter’s fierce devotion to her magnetic WASP father, whose flair for cocktail-fueled self-destruction rivals anything out of Cheever.” —Megan O’Grady, Vogue
“Luminous . . . Uplifting . . . Fresh, with vividly drawn characters . . . and a clear eye for the details of their singularly messed-up relationships.” —Karen Holt, O, the Oprah Magazine
“Father of the Rain is a big, powerful punch of a novel, a gripping epic about a father and daughter that plumbs the dark side of a family riven by addiction and mental illness. . . . There’s something so raw and affecting about Daley’s love for her damaged father that the book will linger in your mind long after you’ve finished it.” —Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly (A)
“Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Roxana Robinson’s Cost are the most exquisite recent [literary] examples . . . of what living with an addict must be like. . . . Now Lily King’s Father of the Rain is a worthy companion on this theme. Surprising and wise . . . by a writer who understands the horrible burden of trying to save someone who’s ruining your life. . . . A brilliant exploration of the attraction of martyrdom, the intoxication of playing savior. . . . King poses the questions so powerfully that you can’t answer them easily: What kind of abuse finally abrogates one’s responsibility to a self-destructive parent? What is too much to ask of a child? . . . An absorbing, insightful story written in cool, polished prose right to the last conflicted line.” —Ron Charles, Washington Post
“King is a beautiful writer, with equally strong gifts for dialogue and internal monologue. Silently or aloud, her characters betray the inner tumult they conceal as they try to keep themselves together . . . [and] demonstrate through their confusions that what we like to call coming-of-age is a process that doesn’t always end.” —Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
“[An] excellent novel . . . Sensitive and perceptive . . . King gives us the messy complexities of family without tidying them up or providing neat morals. . . . The moving final pages depict a reconciliation all the more realistic because no one dramatically repents or forgives; they simply acknowledge bonds that can’t be broken. . . . [Father of the Rain] may be King’s best yet.” —Wendy Smith, Chicago Tribune
“Searing . . . Father of the Rain excavates the powerful forces of love and dysfunction with staggering aplomb. . . . King pulls no punches in her treatment of Gardiner’s alcoholism. . . . The principal feat of this powerful, moving novel is how deeply we understand and feel compassion for Daley, and, amazingly, for Gardiner too; instead of condemning him, we enter into their dynamic on its own distorted terms. This novel is as unflinching as it is beautifully true. You won’t soon forget it.” —Paul McLain, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“We are taken up with each step of [Daley’s] path as she moves from recognition of the problem, to anger and defiance, to wanting to be the savior, and finally acceptance. All masterfully woven in the beautiful prose of author Lily King.” —Kathleen Costello, Shelf Awareness
“Lily King writes with huge compassion about this shattered family and the girl growing up in the wreckage. . . . Father of the Rain is a relentless examination of a damaged man and his traumatized, but still loving, daughter. Its strength lies in the particularity of its detail. King creates a fleshed-out world in which, over and over, Gardiner feeds his dogs, opens bottles of vodka and stirs his drinks with his finger. All that happened is here, along with all the feelings.” —Rebecca Wigod, Vancouver Sun
“A beautiful, ruthless novel . . . What is particularly fine about Father of the Rain is King’s unflinching description of Daley’s emotional universe. The devastation in a child’s psyche caused by an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent has never been so well described, so far as I know. The 1970s were the years that kicking over the traces, discarding the supposed repression of centuries, became common. King shows us in precise and inescapable terms just what havoc that “freedom” wrought for the most sensitive. . . . Lily King’s Daley triumphs, but she is also Lily King’s triumph.” —Elizabeth Nickson, The Globe and Mail
“King infuses soul into this tale of a family torn apart by abuse.” —Marie Claire (Summer Reads)
“In Father of The Rain Lily King creates a brilliant portrait of a man who lives in the everyday world but follows almost none of the everyday rules. The result for his family is excruciating and for the reader a wonderfully intense and absorbing novel that reminds us of just how complicated love can be.” —Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street
“One of King’s extraordinary feats in Father of the Rain is her capacity to travel unflinchingly into the darkest recesses of family bonds, but do it with such unerring specificity that the effect is both comic and utterly heartbreaking. Like The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, this book beautifully depicts the emotional tightrope a child must walk with a charismatic, intelligent, and emotionally crippled parent. King also has a suspense writer’s gift to make the ways her characters love and betray each other a complete, up-late-into-the-night page-turner with an ending that simply took my breath away.” —Cammie McGovern, author of Eye Contact and Neighborhood Watch
“King doesn’t flinch away from telling family secrets—the embarrassing and hurtful moments, the points of danger and ridiculousness. . . . Anyone with complicated family relationships can understand feeling disgust and longing, and King writes it all so clearly—how the little things mean so much and cad add up to so much time lost.” —Wendy Ward, City Paper (Baltimore)
“A riveting portrait of a father so spectacularly dysfunctional that he rivals Alfred Lambert, in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. . . . Readers will be thoroughly taken by King’s exceptionally fluid prose and razor-sharp depiction of the East Coast country-club set.” —Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist
“John Cheever and Barbara Kingsolver . . . come to mind when reading Father of the Rain. . . . King shows once again her feel for the emotional undercurrents that control our most important relationships.” —Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Seattle Times
“A moving, impeccably written drama . . . Packed with phenomenal depth. . . . Fresh with resonant details . . . Beautifully structured . . . King is skilled at zeroing in on the nitty-gritty dynamics of this intense father-daughter relationship . . . [and displays] her ability to capture with visceral complexity a primal yearning to be treated with care.” —Heller McAlpin, The Barnes and Noble Review
“‘We think back through our mothers if we are women,’ wrote Virginia Woolf, but Lily King’s powerful novel about a daughter’s odyssey to find her way through the tangle of her father’s heart and so find herself, claims new terrain. In King’s masterful hands, Daley Amory’s quest for her drunk, charming, impossible father is heart-breaking and familiar in the oldest sense of the term. I wanted to shut my eyes, and couldn’t because I couldn’t stop reading. When I finished, I cried for us all.” —Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress
“[A] powerful family study . . . Daley is so beautifully portrayed that readers will clench their fists and protectively rail against her actions, only to be taken breathtakingly by surprise when her complicated, determined strength to do the right thing for both her father and herself replaces her losses with a wondrous resolution. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Lily King’s Father of the Rain is the most unsettling and exhilarating kind of love story—the sort that interrogates just how resilient the bonds of unconditional love can remain, even after a lifetime of damage at the hands of a heedless parent. This is a passionate and beautifully observed and fair-minded novel.” —Jim Shepard, author of Like You’d Understand, Anyway
“King peels back the emotional layers of pain, anger, chaos—and an adoring love that somehow lasts, despite the abuse it suffers—because love is like that. It’s not always easy to get into the dark places of family drama, but it’s real and heartbreaking and familiar in the sense that most of us know these realities even though we might not want to air them. Sometimes you just need to go to the dark place so you can see the light. Lily King leads the way, never letting go, never letting you down, keeping you till the end is there and it’s all good.” —Dear Reader (online)
“John Updike made the life of Boston’s suburban elite his territory—emphasizing their sense of entitlement and superiority, their ‘clubbiness,’ their alcoholism, and their sexual experimentation as a way of proving they exist. One generation later, Lily King, like her fellow Massachusetts authors Susan and George Minot, shares her own insights into what sometimes passed for family life in a similar, but more “Brahmin” suburban setting. . . . With a fine eye for imagery, an unerring ear for dialogue, and a firm grasp of the depths of emotion that underlie the interplay between Daley and Gardiner, [King] creates a novel that establishes her themes about daughters and their fathers, a surprisingly rare subject for fiction. . . . A fascinating look at the extent to which one woman yearns for a father, and what it takes before she finally gains perspective on her own life and sees her father for who and what he really is.” —Mary Whipple, Seeing the World Through Books (online)
“Father of the Rain is an intense, complex portrait of a father and a daughter and the indivisible bonds they share, arguing that family, no matter how fucked up, is what matters. . . . Emotionally riveting and never boring.” —Erin Balser, The Torontoist (online)
Winner of the 2010 New England Book Award for Fiction
Selected as a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2010
New York Times Editors’ Choice
An Indie Next List Notable selection (July 2010)
O Magaizne Summer Reading title
A Finalist for the 2011 Paterson Fiction Prize
An Indie/NEIBA Bestseller (June 2011)
My father is singing.
High above Cayuga’s waters, there’s an awful smell. Some say it’s Cayuga’s waters, some say it’s Cornell.
He always sings in the car. He has a low voice scraped out by cigarettes and all the yelling he does. His big pointy Adam’s apple bobs up and down, turning the tanned skin white wherever it moves.
He reaches over to the puppy in my lap. “You’s a good little rascal. Yes you is,” he says in his dog voice, a happy, hopeful voice he doesn’t use much on people.
The puppy was a surprise for my eleventh birthday, which was yesterday. I chose the ugliest one in the shop. My father and the owner tried to tempt me with the full-breed Newfoundlands, scooping up the silky black sacks of fur and pressing their big heavy heads against my cheek. But I held fast. A dog like that would make leaving even harder. I pushed them away and pointed to the twenty-five dollar wire-haired mutt that had been in the corner cage since winter.
My father dropped the last Newfoundland back in its bed of shavings. “Well, it’s her birthday,” he said slowly, with all the bitterness of a boy whose birthday it was not.
He didn’t speak to me again until we got into the car. Then, before he started the engine, he touched the dog for the first time, pressing its ungainly ears flat to its head. “I’m not saying you’s not ugly because you is ugly. But you’s a keeper.”
“From the halls of Montezuma,” he sings out to the granite boulders that line the highway home, “to the shores of Tripoli!”
We have both forgotten about Project Genesis. The blue van is in our driveway, blocking my father’s path into the garage.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he says in his fake crying voice, banging his forehead on the steering wheel. “Why me?” He turns slightly to make sure I’m laughing, then moans again. “Why me?”
We hear them before we see them, shrieks and thuds and slaps, a girl hollering “William! William!” over and over, nearly all of them screaming, “Watch me! Watch this!”
“I’s you new neighba,” my father says to me, but not in his happy dog voice.
I carry the puppy and my father follows with the bed, bowls, and food. My pool is unrecognizable. There are choppy waves, like way out on the ocean, with whitecaps. The cement squares along its edge, which are usually hot and dry and sizzle when you lay your wet stomach on them, are soaked from all the water washing over the sides.
It’s my pool because my father had it built for me. On the morning of my fifth birthday he took me to our club to go swimming. Just as I put my feet on the first wide step of the shallow end and looked out toward the dark deep end and the thick blue and red lines painted on the bottom, the lifeguard hollered from his perch that there were still fifteen minutes left of adult swim. My father, who’d belonged to the club for twenty years, who ran and won all the tennis tournaments, explained that it was his daughter’s birthday.
The boy, Thomas Novak, shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Amory,” he called down. “She’ll have to wait fifteen minutes like everyone else.”
My father laughed his you’re a moron laugh. “But there’s no one in the pool!”
“I’m sorry. It’s the rules.”
“You know what?” my father said, his neck blotching purple, “I’m going home and building my own pool.”
He spent that afternoon on the telephone, yellow pages and a pad of paper on his lap, talking to contractors and writing down numbers. As I lay in bed that night, I could hear him in the den with my mother. “It’s the rules,” he mimicked in a baby voice, saying over and over that a kid like that would never be allowed through the club’s gates if he didn’t work there, imitating his mother’s “Hiya” down at the drugstore where she worked. In the next few weeks, trees were sawed down and a huge hole dug, cemented, painted, and filled with water. A little house went up beside it with changing rooms, a machine room, and a bathroom with a sign my father hung on the door that read WE DON’T SWIM IN YOUR TOILET—PLEASE DOn’t PEE IN OUR POOL.
My mother, in a pink shift and big sunglasses, waves me over to where she’s sitting on the grass with her friend Bob Wuzzy, who runs Project Genesis. But I hold up the puppy and keep moving toward the house. I’m angry at her. Because of her I can’t have a Newfoundland.
“Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear,” my father says as he sets down his load on the kitchen counter. “Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair.” He looks out the window at the pool. “Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?”
My father hates all my mother’s friends.
Charlie, Ajax, and Elsie smell the new dog immediately. They circle around us, tails thwapping, and my father shoos them out into the dining room and shuts the door. Then he hurries across the kitchen in a playful goose step to the living room door and shuts that just before the dogs have made the loop around. They scratch and whine, then settle against the other side of the door. I put the puppy down on the linoleum. He scrabbles then bolts to a small place between the refrigerator and the wall. It’s a warm spot. I used to hide there and play Harriet the Spy when I could fit. His fur sticks out like quills and his skin is rippling in fear.
“Poor little fellow.” My father squats beside the fridge, his long legs rising up on either side of him like a frog’s, his knees sharp and bony through his khakis. “It’s okay, little guy. It’s okay.” He turns to me. “What should we call him?”
The shaking dog in the corner makes what I agreed to with my mother real in a way nothing else has. Gone, I think. Call him Gone.
Three days ago my mother told me she was going to go live with my grandparents in New Hampshire for the summer. We were standing in our nightgowns in her bathroom. My father had just left for work. Her face was shiny from Moondrops, the lotion she put on every morning and night. “I’d like you to come with me,” she said.
“But what about sailing classes and art camp?” I was signed up for all sorts of things that began next week.
“You can take sailing lessons there. They live on a lake.”
“But not with Mallory and Patrick.”
She pressed her lips together, and her eyes, which were brown and round and nothing like my father’s yellow-green slits, brimmed with tears, and I said yes, I’d go with her.
My father reaches in and pulls the puppy out. “We’ll wait and see what you’s like before we gives you a name. How’s that?” The puppy burrows between his neck and shoulder, licking and sniffing, and my father laughs his high-pitched being-tickled laugh and I wish he knew everything that was going to happen.
I set up the bed by the door and the two bowls beside it. I fill one bowl with water and leave the other empty because my father feeds all the dogs at the same time, five o’clock, just before his first drink.
I go upstairs and get on a bathing suit. From my brother’s window I see my mother and Bob Wuzzy, in chairs now, sipping iced tea with fat lemon rounds and stalks of mint shoved in the glasses, and the kids splashing, pushing, dunking—the kind of play my mother doesn’t normally allow in the pool. Some are doing crazy jumps off the diving board, not cannonballs or jackknives but wild spazzy poses and then freezing midair just before they fall, like in the cartoons when someone runs off a cliff and keeps moving until he looks down. The older kids do this over and over, tell these jokes with their bodies to the others down below, who are laughing so hard it looks like they’re drowning. When they get out of the pool and run back to the diving board, the water shimmers on their skin, which looks so smooth, like it’s been polished with lemon Pledge. None of them are close to being “black.” They are all different shades of brown. I wonder if they hate being called the wrong color. I noticed this last year, too. “They like being called black,” my father told me in a Fat Albert accent. “Don’t you start callin’ ’em brown. Brown’s down. Black’s where it’s at.”
The grass feels good on my feet, thick and scratchy. I put my towel on the chair beside my mother.
“You heard Sonia’s group lost its funding,” Bob was saying. I don’t know if Bob Wuzzy is white or black. He has no hair, not a single strand, and caramel-colored skin. When I asked my mother she asked me why it mattered, and when I asked my father he said if he wasn’t black he should be.
“No,” my mother says gravely, “I didn’t.”
“Kevin must have pulled the plug.”
“Jackass,” my mother says; then, brightening up, “How’s Maria Tendillo?” She pronounces the name with a good accent that my father makes fun of sometimes.
“Released last Friday. No charges.”
“Gary’s the best.” My mother smiles. Then she lifts her face to mine.
“Hello, Mr. Wuzzy,” I say, and put out my hand.
He stands and shakes it. His hand is cold and damp from the iced tea. “How are you, Daley?”
“Fine, thank you.”
They exchange a look about my manners and my mother is pleased. “Hop in, honey,” she says.
This morning she told me I was old enough now to host Project Genesis with her, that all the kids would be roughly my age and I could be an envoy to new lands and begin to heal the wounds. I had no idea what she was talking about. Finally she said I should just be nice and make them feel welcome and included.
“How can I make them feel included when there is only one of me and so many of them?”
I knew she didn’t like that answer, but because she was worried I’d tell my father we were leaving, she asked me softly if I could just promise to swim with them.
I stand on the first step, my feet pale and magnified by the water. I feel my mother willing me to behave differently, but I can’t. I can’t leap into the fray like that. It isn’t in my nature to assume people want me around. All I can do is watch with a pleasant expression on my face. The older kids are still twisting off the diving board. The younger ones are here in the shallow end, treading water more than swimming, their faces flush to the surface like lily pads. In the corner two girls are having underwater conversations. A boy in a maroon bathing suit slithers through them and they both come up screaming at him, even though he is underwater again and can’t hear. There are four boys and three girls, all different sizes, and I wonder if some of them are siblings. They seem like it, the way they yell at each other. But no one gets mad or ends up crying like I always do.
I move slowly from one step to the next, then walk out on tippy toes. They aren’t looking at me, but they all pull away as I approach. At the slope to the deep end, my feet slip and I go under. It’s cool and quiet below until a body drops in, a sack of bubbles. Normally when I look up from the bottom of the pool, the surface is only slightly buckled, like the windowpanes in the attic, but now it’s a white froth. The boy in the maroon bathing suit passes right above me. His toes brush through my hair and he screams.
When I surface, the littlest boy pushes himself toward me. The others watch him.
“This your pool?” he asks. The water lies in crystals in his hair.
“You swim in it every day?”
“When it’s warm out.”
“But it’s heated, right?” He swings his arms around fast, making his fingers hop along the surface.
“I’d swim in it every day,” he says. “Even if it was twenty below. I’d get in in the morning and not get out till night.”
“You’d have to eat or you’d die.”
“Then I’d die in this pool. It’s the perfect place to die.”
I decide not to tell him about Mrs. Walsh, who did. She had a heart attack. “Is that Mrs. Walsh floating in the pool?” my father likes to say sometimes when I’ve left a raft in the water. My mother doesn’t think it’s funny.
This leaves a pause in the conversation and the boy paddles away. I feel bad and relieved at the same time.
My mother’s smile fades as she realizes I’m getting out. Bob is telling her about some fundraiser and she can’t interrupt to prod me back in. After I dry off a little, I cross the lawn and run up the steps.
My father is in the den, watching the Red Sox and smoking a cigarette. I sit next to him in my wet bathing suit. He doesn’t care about the possibility of the slipcover colors bleeding. At the commercial he says, “You didn’t enjoy your swim?”
“I got cold.”
He snorts. “The pool’s probably over ninety with all the pee they’re putting into it.”
“They’re not peeing in it.”
I wait for him to say I sound just like my mother, but instead he puts his warm hand on my leg. “I promise this will never happen again, little elf. I’m going to put a stop to it.”
It will stop without you having to do a thing, I think.
They only come a few times a summer. On other weekends they go to other people’s pools or private beaches in other towns. “Project Genesis,” my brother said at the beginning of the summer, on one of the few days he was home between boarding school and his summer plans, whatever they are, making his voice deep and serious like a TV announcer. “In the beginning there was blue chlorinated water in backyards. There were trampolines and Mercedes and generous housewives in Lilly Pulitzer dresses willing to share a little, just a little.” My mother giggled. My father scowled. He can’t amuse her with his teasing the way my brother can.
They swim for hours, until Bob calls them all out and makes them dry off and change in the poolhouse. He and my mother get the charcoal lit in the bottom of the grill and, once the coals are hot enough, put fifteen patties on the rack. The kids explore the yard, back and front, running from the space trolley to the swing set to the low-limbed apple tree. They dare to do things I don’t, like hang upside down on the trolley as it whizzes from one tree to the other, crawl on hands and knees across the single narrow tube on the top of the swing set, and flip off the stone wall around my mother’s rose garden.
I watch them from the kitchen window.
“Bunch of monkeys,” my father says, mixing a drink at the bar.
They have so much energy. They make me feel like I’ve been living on one lung. The littlest girl skins her knee on one of the huge rocks that heaves up through the grass in our yard and the two oldest take turns jogging her in their arms, planting kisses in her hair and stroking away her tears. She clings to them for a long time and they let her.
“Daley.” My mother stands at the screen door. “Please come out and eat with the rest of us.”
“Oh, yes,” my father says. “Do go eat with the fairy and his little friends.”
My mother acts like no one has spoken. On the steps, away from him, she puts her arm around me. She always smells like flowers. “I know it’s hard, but try not to be so remote. This is important, honey,” she whispers.
Normally I eat dinner with Nora, but she’s in Ireland for two weeks visiting cousins. She goes every summer and I never like it. The rest of the year she lives with us except on Sundays when, after church, she drives over to Lynn, where her sister lives, and spends the night with her. “Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin. You never come out the way you went in,” my father often says when she drives away, but never to her face. She is a serious Catholic and she wouldn’t like it. I’ve gone with her many times to see her sister in Lynn on Sunday nights. They eat cutlets and play hearts and go to bed early. There’s no sinning for them in Lynn. There’s a picture on Nora’s bureau in our house of her and my father on some rocks near the ocean. She’s eighteen and my father is one. He’s holding onto her hand with both of his. His mother hired Nora for a summer in Maine, but she ended up going to Boston with them and staying for nine years, until my father went to boarding school. When my brother, Garvey, was born, she was working for another family somewhere in Pennsylvania, but she was free when I came along. After dinner Nora and I watch TV on her bed, Mannix and Hawaii Five-0, both of us in our bathrobes. She puts me to bed and we always say “Now I Lay Me” and the Lord’s Prayer, though at her church it has a different ending. My mother says that after we leave, Nora will stay on to take care of my father, who can’t boil an egg.
My parents didn’t name my brother Garvey. They named him Gardiner, after my father, and he was Gardiner all my life until he went to boarding school and came back Garvey. My mother tried to stop it, but he is Garvey now. At his graduation a few weeks ago even the headmaster called him Garvey.
We sit in a jagged circle in the grass. My mother’s dress is too short for her to sit Indian-style so she folds her legs off to one side, which tilts her toward Bob Wuzzy. I’m aware of how it will look to my father in the kitchen window, sipping his drink.
Bob makes us all go around and say our names, but after that we’re silent. Even the two grown-ups seem unable to keep up a conversation. We eat our burgers, then Bob says, “Who wants to play sardines?” and all of them cry out, “Me!” I know my father would rather I come in and sit with him, but my mother’s eyes are locked on mine.
Bob tells us we can only hide in the yard as defined by the back and front driveways, and not inside any of the buildings on the property. He makes it sound like a small college campus. Then he chooses a girl named Devon to hide first. The rest of us count aloud as fast as we can to fifty, omitting vowels and syllables, like racing down stairs three at a time. Then we scatter, to find Devon without anyone else seeing. I’m sure I’ll get to her first, since I know the terrain and all the good hiding places. I go first to the rhododendrons in front, then to the small empty fountain in the rose garden. After that I check behind the granite outcropping near the street. Soon everyone else is missing, too, except the little boy named Joe, my friend from the pool.
“Let’s check over there,” I call to him, pointing toward the small pines beyond the pool, but Joe runs off in the opposite direction.
As I pass the back porch, I hear a crinkling sound. They’re all in a tight cluster beneath the back steps, in a small, dark, spidery space that has always scared me. As I draw closer, the buzz of their chatter is so loud I wonder how I could have passed by twice without having heard them. I bend over and squeeze in. To fit all the way, I have to press up against several bodies. We’re all hot and our skin sticks. All their buzzing stops. No one says a thing. It seems to me that they’ve all stopped breathing. I try to think of something to say, something goofy the way Patrick can, that will make us all giggle. Out in the twilight of the yard little Joe begins to cry, and Bob Wuzzy tells us to come out.
The boy who found Devon first goes off to hide, and the rest run off to count. I slip back up the porch steps.
My father is eating a minute steak with A-1 sauce slathered all over it. His forehead and his nose are covered in sweat, the way they always are when he eats dinner. He’s staring straight ahead and I can’t tell if he knows I’m there.
“You’s a good kid, you know that, elf?” His words are skating slightly sideways.
When he’s done with dinner, he makes another drink. He gives me two tiny, vinegary onions from the bottle. In four days I won’t live here with him. When we come back to Ashing in the fall, my mother says, she and I will live in an apartment and I’ll only come up here on weekends.
The game outside has ended and no sounds come through the screen door. Then the pool lights go on, the little mushroom-shaped lamps in the grass and the big underwater bulb beneath the diving board. Bodies stream out of the poolhouse and crash into the water. My father’s body goes rigid at the sound.
He finishes his martini, jiggles the ice as he drinks to drain it of every drop. Then he sets the glass down on the counter. “I’ve got an idea,” he says.
I don’t say no to my father’s ideas, just as I don’t say no to my mother’s. If my father had asked me to go away with him, I would have. My brother says no all the time when he’s home, and that just gets everyone all riled up.
We take off our clothes on the back porch. The puppy is with us, jumping around our ankles, sensing something different.
“Un, deux, trois,” my father says. He knows French from fishing in Quebec. “Go!”
He heads straight for the pool, his long tennis legs springing across the grass he keeps shorn and stiff, a bulb of muscle at the back of each calf, his thighs thin and taut, his bum high and flat and stark white in the dark, and his long arms flashing fast as he moves, the right stronger than the left, with an Ace bandage at the wrist. He moves in a way no one else in my family does, graceful as water. When he reaches the pool, he begins to grunt. He veers right, away from the corner where my mother and Bob Wuzzy sit with their sodas, and runs along the patch of grass between the length of the pool and the garden’s stone wall.
A boy floating on my red raft sees us first.
“Streakers!” he yells.
My father leaps over the short toadstool lights, one at a time, his grunts getting louder, his arms beginning to buckle toward his body, his spine bending forward. He takes the turn around the deep end, his body all sinew and strength, flecked with silver veins and tendons, glowing in the pale green pool reflection.
All the kids are yelling now, hooting and slapping the water, laughing so hard they have to swim over to the edge and hang on.
He saves my mother’s spot in the corner for last. He comes at her now head-on, past the poolhouse, right toward her seat in the chaise longue, his balls whipping from side to side, the penis boylike, small as a mouse. He curls his arms up all the way now, scratches at his armpits, and says, “Ooooo-ooooo-ooooo” right in her face, and then is gone.
My mother, for a moment, looks like she’s been tossed out of a plane. Then she reassembles a smile for Bob, who, for the children’s sake, is pretending it’s an odd but innocent prank. But when she sees me, something snaps. She lunges out of her chair to grab me, but I’m fast and slippery without clothes. I feel the thick, tough grass between my toes and the wet summer night air moving through the hair on my arms and through my hairless crotch. I’m boylike, too, with tight buds on my chest, and this night I’m nearly as lithe and quick and nimble as my father. Both my lungs are pumping hard. I don’t want to stop running, stop the burning of my stomach muscles and the ache in my throat, stop the stars from seeing my bare, newly eleven-year-old body in the grass, fast and graceful as a deer through the woods.
On the porch we stand laughing and panting together with our clothes at our feet and our puppy spinning in joyful circles and my father grinning his biggest grin and looking at me like he loves me, truly loves me, more than anyone else he’s ever loved in his life.
Guide by Barbara Putnam
1. What are the defining traits of Father of the Rain? Is it a courageous book? Why? Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer talks about being “heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the author’s mother might have thought when she read them.” Talk about King’s daring, her bone honesty in this book.
2. When she is away, Daley misses her mother, her spirit and values. Daley calls her the ballast in her life. Does she actually miss her father when she is absent from him? If so, why? It takes Gardiner two weeks to call her when her mother has decamped with her to New Hampshire. Is that call just legal strategy? How does Daley react? (see p. 25)
3. “People need to be held accountable” (p. 23), Daley’s mother says, referring to Nixon in the summer of 1974. How is this issue of accountability woven through the novel?
4. Is there a sense of a lost Eden, however spurious? “I never suspected we all weren’t having a good time” (p. 66), Daley says about the Peking Garden restaurant and poolside frolics. What does her mother’s rose garden signify to her? Despite the family dysfunctions, in Daley’s mind certain things have connected the Amorys as a family. What are those things? Perhaps “I don’t like you, I don’t like Pinky, and I’m not having a good time” (p. 61)? Or the silly back-to-school song? Other things? How does Daley deal with these codes when she returns to Ashing? What does she mean by “those two smashed sides of me fusing briefly” (p. 61)?
5. Which of the minor characters move us to love or pity? For instance, is it Neal’s mother with her bipolar mania that we feel sympathy for? Or her son Neal who always has to conceal and protect her and pick up the pieces after McLean’s? The officer Mullen? The sisters Vance in their hidden garden world? Others?
6. Daley’s is a rich and capacious spirit. Whatever her pain, she has a great heart, and her sense of humor is often her salvation. Talk about that shrewd, funny quality in Daley. Even though her father’s humor is often crude and reductive, has she sharpened her wit on him? They do have each other’s measure. After an AA meeting Gardiner has jotted down that “‘Thank you is all you need to say to get God’s attention. I thought that was pretty good.’ He looks embarrassed, then laughs when he sees that my eyes have filled” (p. 212). When else are they able to share that connecting wire of humor?
7. Who are the people in Daley’s life that she truly cares about? Which ones does she dismiss without mercy?
8. Is regret part of Daley’s nature? If so, when? What would she like to change about herself if she could? What are the most terrible choices she has to make?
9. “Did my father ever have a conscience? . . . Or did he truly never develop to that extent? Was he only ever capable of feeling his own needs, his own pain? Was there any way to have had a good relationship with him?” (p. 343). Much of Daley’s growth comes with disillusion. Talk about these times in her life. How is it that the scorn and neglect of her father does not create a hard shell of a girl? “In my father’s culture there is no room for self-righteousness or even earnestness. To take something seriously is to be a fool. It has to be all irony, disdain, and mockery. Passion is allowed only for athletics” (p. 173). After a rare burst of anger at Gardiner, Daley is blistered with “You turned out worse than your mother, you little bitch.” It is the first word about her mother since her death nearly a decade ago. She retreats in despair, but “It’s a normal night for him. A quart of vodka, a vicious argument. He probably feels damn good, like he’s just played two sets of tennis” (p. 179).
10. Does the reader have any sympathy for Gardiner? Is his any kind of tragedy? Here is a man of great physical grace and prowess, with gifts of birth, enviable education, and mental agility laid low by alcohol and self-deception. “Ridding my father of his racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric would take a long time. It would be a whole reeducation. His prejudices are a stew of self-hatred, ignorance, and fear” (p. 167). How does Daley try to seek explanations in his childhood? In his dubious work experience? Is it Daley among all his women who battles to save him as well as herself?
11. What is the role of politics in Father of the Rain? How does it act as a wedge between some characters and a bond between others? Does Daley come to her convictions under the influence of others or based on her own observations? When she streaks with Gardiner through her mother’s Project Genesis pool party, is it her own protest or the lure of her father’s insidious charm? “My mother, for a moment, looks like she’s been tossed out of a plane” (p. 14).
12. Eudora Welty, in the preface to her stories, wrote: “I have been told, both in approval and in accusation, that I seem to love all my characters . . . to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself . . . man or woman, old or young, with skin black or white.” Do you think Lily King makes the jump in imagination Welty refers to? How does she achieve the astonishing truth of Daley’s world and of those around her? Carefully chosen vivid details? Ones that skewer a character or a type, a place or a custom? Give examples. Does anyone, including Daley, completely escape satire? Who? Can you both satirize and love a character? For example, when Daley calls her mother to talk about Myrtle Street: “She’s doing something, painting her nails maybe. The phone keeps slipping away from her mouth” (p. 66). Gently, a deft and funny sketch is made of a woman who cares deeply for her child but still has her own life. Other examples?
13. In the muddle of family behavior, how has King sifted through layers of the past for concrete evidence, the shards of love and hate, vengeance and delight that have made Daley who she is? Daley usually has no trouble being honest with herself. Does she ever delude herself? Does she slip into whitewashing herself when she tells her story? When does she disappoint you? What about Paul?
14. “The impulse to lie is instinctive, like one of those desert cats hastily burying its kill in the sand” (p. 156). Here Daley refers to covering her tracks with her father, even a phone call. Is it any wonder she learns the wiles of a feral creature in his house? “My mother . . . loved me but did not protect me . . . let me go off every weekend for years and years to my father’s even though I returned a wild animal and she never asked why” (p. 180). Beneath the veneer of Ashing civilization (pool, tennis courts, club, red pants, wild geese socks, multigenerational Harvard credentials,) the father’s behavior often veers between boorish and grotesque. Does violence always lurk beneath the surface even when it is not overt? What does Daley see in his language about “girls” and their bodies? Are you as shocked as she is when he ultimately turns his savagery against his daughter?
15. Is Daley’s commitment to taking care of her father an act of filial responsibility? She says it is her “duty not just as a daughter but as a human being” (p. 219). But both Jonathan and Julie tell her she is indulging in a need to be needed . . . and throwing away her life. How do you see it? What is Garvey’s opinion on her staying on in Ashing? Is she still trying vainly to rewrite the past? Is her attempt to “save” her father ultimately selfish or altruistic? What is an adult child’s responsibility to a parent who has been negligent or even abusive? The Bible advises: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Are there any exceptions?
16. How has Jonathan been raised to deal with white people? He recalls going to a movie in a crowd of white people when he was terrified but also exhilarated “because the world was different from what I had thought” (p. 138). How does loving Daley represent such a huge step for him? What do you think Jonathan sees in Daley, what about her interests him? What does she see in him? How do you think their children will fare with Jonathan and Daley as their parents? Is our world becoming “post-racial”?
17. King is sometimes stunningly graphic about sex. For instance, Daley is perplexed and horrified by accidental sightings of Gardiner and also Garvey. But what about her own explorations and lovemaking? “My mother had told me not to make love without love, but I had become a freakish air-traffic controller, determined to land the two, love and sex, at precisely the same time . . . With Jonathan I lost interest in control, lost the ability to control” (p. 139). What has happened by the lake? How has she been lucky enough to find exuberance and celebration in sex? (How does alcohol figure in the two really successful relationships, those of Daley and Jonathan and her mother and Paul?
18. Do you think Daley has met her match in Jonathan? For intelligence? Education? For sass and fun? Bedrock devotion? Integrity? Libido?
19. How is the Obama election a touchstone for various characters? Which ones? Any surprises? Is Daley celebrating for both herself and her family as well as for her mother?
20. In the end of the novel Gardiner the old reprobate shows a change of heart. How? Is his late transformation credible? What has caused it? His relationship with Barbara? With Daley’s children? Are his last moments of grace as much a gift to himself as to Daley and her family?
Suggestions for further reading:
The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The Liar’s Club by Mary Carr; The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls; Them by Francine du Plessix Gray; The Subject Was Roses by Frank D. Gilroy; I Never Sang For My Father by Robert Anderson