Broken for Youby Stephanie Kallos
A buoyant debut novel about two women in self-imposed exile whose worlds are transformed when their paths intersect, and a glorious homage to the beauty of broken things.
National best-seller and Today Show Book Club selection Broken for You introduces us to a remarkable new storyteller and has garnered comparisons to the works of John Irving, Anne Tyler, and Margaret Atwood. The story of two women in self imposed exile whose lives are transformed when their paths intersect, Stephanie Kallos’s debut novel is a work of infinite charm, wit, and heart. It is also a glorious homage to the beauty of broken things.
When we meet septuagenarian Margaret Hughes, she is living alone in a mansion in Seattle with only a massive collection of valuable antiques for company. Enter Wanda Schultz, a young woman with a broken heart who has come west to search for her wayward boyfriend. Both women are guarding dark secrets and have spent many years building up protective armor against the outside world. But as the two begin their tentative dance of friendship, the armor begins to fall away and Margaret opens her house to the younger woman. This launches a series of remarkable and unanticipated events, leading Margaret to discover a way to redeem her cursed past, and Wanda to learn the true purpose of her cross-country journey.
Funny, heartbreaking, and alive with a potpourri of eccentric and irresistible characters, Broken for You is a testament to the saving graces of surrogate families and shows how far the tiniest repair jobs can go in righting the world’s wrongs.
“I absolutely fell in love with this book. . . . There is a message here about creating family in the most unusual places. . . . I promise you this: you will not be sorry you read this book . . . there is a wisdom and soulfulness there. . . . It’s a wonderful, engaging story.” —Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees
“Theater veteran Kallos debuts with a dazzling mosaic of intersecting lives and fates. . . . Kallos has a rare, deft way with whimsy, dream sequences and hallucinations. Comparisons to John Irving and Tennessee Williams would not be amiss in this show-stopping debut.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Well-crafted plotting and crackling wit make this debut novel by Seattle author Kallos a delight to read and a memory to savor. The compelling story highlights the losses and disjointedness of life and the many paths back to healing for those who seek the way. . . . The clever plot and luminous characters are not all that place this novel at the head of the class. Ghostly characters only Margaret sees and heaps of broken porcelain provide powerful metaphors for the sins of the past and the need for personal sacrifice. Book groups will enjoy discussing the layers of meaning, the stylistic nuances, and the powerful message of hope secreted in these pages.” —Jennifer Baker, Booklist (starred review)
“Tikkun olam is a Hebrew phrase that means ‘repair the world,’ and this imperative serves as the narrative catalyst of Broken for You. . . . This is a novel of redemption.” —Susan Coll, Washington Post
“This is ultimately a work of repair and redemption. . . . Kallos has given us a compelling, richly layered story reminiscent of works by John Irving and Anne Tyler in its bittersweet humor and well-drawn characters. Carol Shields also comes to mind for the sharp attention to domestic detail and insight into the tenuous relationships of contemporary life. . . . Recommended for all fiction collections.” —Jenn B. Stidham, Library Journal (starred review)
“Sweetly rich with detail, and when romance sneaked into the book, I was sure it was a story of redemption and second chances. . . . Broken for You is moving and endearing, painful and satisfying, put together in just the right shape.” —Susan Hall-Balduf, Detroit Free Press
“A story of growth and redemption filled with a delightfully offbeat cast of characters. . . . Kallos writes in a chatty, breezy style that fits the quirkiness of the characters. . . . There’s an almost magical feeling to this story.” —Ann M. Colford, Pacific Northwest Inlander
“Refreshing and delightful . . . sincere in its originality, fun in its engagement. . . . In her acknowledgements, Kallos states that the novel took her seven years to finish, and there is a definite sense that this is a book that has been well-raised. Care has been taken in its telling. . . . Nothing feels rushed, the timing and pace just right.” —Lacey Galbraith, Nashville Scene
“Kallos . . . has taken well-developed and honestly imperfect characters who were once strangers, and intertwined them lovingly in a beautiful mosaic that may forever hang in readers’ minds and remind them of why some things must break before they can become a part of something truly beautiful.” —Colleen Dougher, Sun-Sentinel
“A series of reunions, tragedies and newfound friends highlights Kallos’ sparkling first novel, but the author’s attention to detail leads the reader to believe she’s a longtime novelist. A supporting cast of characters colors the story and reinforces the theme of love and family—both by blood and by choice.” —Michael Bratcher, The Sunday Oklahoman
“Artful meandering is only part of the magic. . . . A wondrous tale, peopled with quirky characters and implausible plot twists, but no cheap tricks. . . . If you open yourself to the world Kallos has created, you may not have the foggiest idea where she is taking you, but you will willingly go, as she pulls you along, piece by piece.” —Cindy Lange-Kubick, Lincoln Journal Star
“[A] dreamy, powerful tale of familial warring, secrets and redemption . . . . This haunting and memorable debut is reminiscent of early [Margaret] Atwood, peopled by lovably imperfect and eccentric characters.” —Publishers Weekly
“Set in contemporary Seattle, this debut novel features a septuagenarian recluse and a young woman with a broken heart. How these two women come together, open up to each other, themselves, and those around them makes a fascinating and compelling book.” —Akankha Perkins, The Sun of the Heart Bookstore, Bridgewater, VT, Book Sense quote
“This book will appeal to fans of Anne Tyler or Eleanor Lipman, or any reader who enjoys a smart, touching story with an unforgettable array of quirky characters.” —Bridget, Toadstool Bookshop (Peterborough, NH)
“Mesmerized by the first page, I read this book in one sitting, and it has been a favorite of the 40 book clubs registered at our store. There’s plenty to discuss in this amazing novel of hope and transformation. Kallo’s humor, wit, and beautiful plotting are amazing and a joy to read.” —Sally Brewster, Park Road Books (Charlotte, NC)
“Stephanie Kallos’s lovely and heartfelt first novel is a gift. A story of broken hearts and broken promises, it is also the story of the ways we put things back together—messily, beautifully, and ultimately triumphantly. Kallos is a writer to watch, and one who, mercifully, still believes in happy endings.” —Sheri Holman, author of The Dress Lodger and The Mammoth Cheese
“Let the angels in! With this story of transformative friendships, Stephanie Kallos calls us to leave the dreary wisdom of our lives and seek the company of souls adrift. Good things come in pieces.” —Nancy Rawles, author of Crawfish Dreams
“In this sparkling debut novel, Stephanie Kallos has created an extraordinary testament to the power of love and forgiveness. Broken For You is a big-hearted book that pulses with life.” —Tova Mirvis, author of The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary
“A seventy-six-year-old woman who’s just learned that she has a brain tumor takes in a thirty-four-year-old woman who’s just been dumped by her boyfriend. Can this be funny? Yes. Painfully funny, beautifully written, and completely original. I love this novel.” —Lolly Winston, author of Good Grief
Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees, picks Broken for You for the December 2004 Today Book Club
A Book Sense Reading Group Suggestion Top Ten Pick
A Book Sense Selection
A Library Journal Best First Novelist of 2005
Winner of a 2005 Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association Award
Quill Book Award finalist for Debut Author of the Year
One — Margaret
When Margaret Hughes found out she had a brain tumor, she stared at the black-and-white images illuminated on the screen behind her physician’s desk—”slices,” he called them. She was surprised to see that her brain looked like two halves of a desiccated walnut.
Her physician spoke of cisterns, vessels, ventricles, a star. Of cells that had forgotten how to die. It was so complicated, so difficult to understand, but in all fairness she had no one to blame but herself. She was the one who’d insisted on seeing the images, made him promise that he’d be straightforward, tell her the names of things, explain why she’d been experiencing these headaches, these slips of the tongue, errors in cognition, apparitions. The fact that he continually referred to the images as “slices” only made matters worse; Margaret had already been so flustered before her appointment that she’d left home without finishing breakfast.
Dr. Leising pointed out the mass effect of the enhancing something-or-other as seen on Coronal Slice #16. Margaret’s stomach rumbled.
I can’t believe it, she thought.
I forgot to eat my jelly toast.
Her physician concluded his speech and asked Margaret how she wished to proceed, what interventional options she wanted to pursue, and was there anyone she’d like to call. “Stephen perhaps?” he suggested, rather too lightly. “Mightn’t he want to know?”
Well, of course her ex-husband would want to know. Couples don’t go through what she and Stephen had without forging some kind of enduring connection—even (although few people understood this) a complicated, battle-comrade kind of love.
But there was something irritating in Dr. Leising’s tone—as if he didn’t think she should hear his prognosis in the absence of a male shoulder to weep on. As if she couldn’t handle things without the benefit of counsel by some father-by-proxy. Margaret had managed her own affairs nicely for most of her life. She wouldn’t be railroaded, pitied, or bamboozled now. I might look like a nice, diffident old lady, she thought, but I’m not about to be treated like one.
She asked a few pointed questions. Dr. Leising gave answers which she considered unacceptable, evasive, patronizing, and then launched into yet another discussion of her “slices.” Would it never end?
Margaret couldn’t listen anymore, so she excused herself to the rest room, took the elevator down to the street, and walked until she came upon a cafeé with the words “Desserts, Etcetera” painted on the windows. She deliberated. On the rare occasions when she had to leave the house, she made sure to have as little contact as possible with other people; on the other hand, she was so hungry that she felt nauseous. Peeking through the window, Margaret saw that the café was open but empty of customers. This was satisfactory, so she went in.
Inside was a display case filled with artfully presented pies, cakes, cookies, and an assortment of French pastries. Margaret whispered their names: Génoise à l’orange. Mousse au chocolat. Génoise à l’orange. Mousse au chocolat. Crème Brûlée. Roulade à la confiture. She felt better already. Hanging over the counter was a menu written on a large chalkboard which included sandwiches and soups as well as desserts.
An anorexic-looking girl with short blue-black hair and black lipstick was talking into a telephone behind the counter. “I don’t give a shit, Jimmy,” she was saying, her voice tense and hissing, “You CANNOT use the juicer at three o’clock in the morning, I don’t care HOW aggravated your ‘vata’ is!” Margaret waved to get the girl’s attention. “Gotta go. Bye.”
The girl hung up and loped to the counter. “Yes,” she enunciated through clenched teeth.
“What can I get for you?”
“It all looks so good,” Margaret said. On closer inspection of the girl’s face, Margaret was alarmed to see that she was wearing a gold ring through her right nostril. She tried not to stare at it. “What is your soup of the day?”
“Split pea,” the girl said, and sniffed.
God, Margaret thought, I hope she doesn’t have a cold.
“Well, in that case . . . I’ll take a slice of raspberry cheesecake, a slice of pear ganache, the crème brûlée, and the caramel flan.”
Nose Ring began punching the buttons of a small calculator. Her fingernails were painted dark blue and sprinkled with glitter. They looked like miniature galaxies. “Do you want whipped cream on your flan?”
“Excuse me?” Margaret said. “Whipped what?”
“Cream. On the flan.”
“No, thank you,” Margaret said without thinking, but then, “I mean yes! Why not? Whipped cream!”
“Will that be all?”
“Tea, perhaps. Do you have peppermint tea?”
“Have a seat,” Nose Ring said. “I’ll bring it out when it’s ready.”
Margaret awaited her desserts. On the café walls there were several black-and-white photographs of empty buildings, streets, docks, parks. Margaret didn’t much care for them. There were no people in the photographs, and something about the time of day the photographer chose or the angle at which he took the photos gave even the most benign landmarks—the Seattle-to-Bainbridge ferry, the pergola in Pioneer Square, the Smith Tower—a menacing, doomsday appearance. They made Seattle look like a ghost town, and they reminded Margaret of an old movie.
What was it? It took place in New York City; it was about the end of the world. She had found the movie very disturbing, although she couldn’t say why. She couldn’t for the life of her remember the name of it.
“The World, the Flesh, and the Devil,” said Nose Ring as she arrived at Margaret’s table.
“That old black-and-white movie about the end of the world. You were saying that you couldn’t remember the name of it.”
“Uh-huh.” Nose Ring began unloading dishes and tea things from a large tray. “Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, and Mel Ferrer. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil.”
“Unless you mean On the Beach.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire? Directed by Stanley Kramer.”
“No . . . I would’ve remembered Fred Astaire.”
“Or you could be thinking of Fail Safe. With Henry Fonda as the president.”
“I think you were right the first time.”
Nose Ring stood up straight and announced, “I’m a film student.”
“I see.” Margaret smiled and nodded. She made another effort not to look at Nose Ring’s nose ring. “Well, that must be very interesting!”
Nose Ring sighed. “Do you have everything you need?”
“Yes! Thank you! It looks lovely.”
Nose Ring resumed her place behind the counter.
Margaret took a small, yellowed photograph out of her wallet; it was a school picture of Daniel, taken when he was eight. She stared at it.
The whole thing was quite simple, really.
According to Robert Leising, MD, and the various other neurology, oncology, and so-on-colleagues with whom he had consulted, Margaret had a very common type of malignant brain tumor: an “astrocytoma.” A slow-growing star. The traditional treatment was surgery followed by radiation.
“What’s the prognosis?” she had asked.
“Well,” and here Dr. Leising had pulled one of six sheets of film off the light board and scrutinized it, “your age is—?”
As if he doesn’t know, Margaret thought. “Seventy-five.”
“Seventy-five.” Dr. Leising nodded thoughtfully. He glanced at Margaret before resuming his study of the film. “Depending on the characteristics of the tumor—which we can’t clearly define without getting in there and removing as much of it as possible—with treatment you have a chance of living as long as several years or as little as two.”
“How much of a chance?”
Dr. Leising didn’t look up. “Twenty-five percent.”
“That’s with treatment?”
“What happens if we don’t do anything?”
“I mean, if I only have a twenty-five percent chance of surviving this anyway, why don’t we just leave it alone?”
“Maybe I haven’t made myself clear, Margaret,” Dr. Leising said, as if he were speaking to a nincompoop. That was when he resumed his discussion of Margaret’s slices in a way that clearly constituted the American Medical Association’s form of filibustering.
So, this was her choice: She could either undergo a lot of treatment and die, sooner or later, or she could undergo no treatment at all and die, sooner or later.
“Is something wrong?” Nose Ring had returned. “You haven’t tried anything.”
Margaret swallowed hard. Now that all of this lovely food was in front of her, she found that she wasn’t hungry after all. She took a sip of tea, just to be polite.
“Is that your grandson?” Nose Ring asked, leaning closer. “Cute.”
She’s quite a young girl beneath all that makeup, Margaret realized. And much too thin. “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
Nose Ring shrugged. “What is it?”
“Well, it’s a rather trite question, I suppose, but if you found out that you had only a short while to live, maybe a year or two, how would you spend your time?”
The girl frowned. She picked absentmindedly at her fingernails, and showers of silver glitter flaked off and fell toward the floor. Margaret tried to follow the trajectory of the glitter, but it seemed to vanish into thin air.
“I suppose I’d think about whatever it is that scares me the most—relationship-wise, I mean—and then do it. Do the opposite of what I’ve always done.”
Margaret studied Nose Ring. She’d always assumed that people who embraced dramatic vogues in fashion were actually compensating for an innate dullness of character or chronic insecurity. She’d expected someone who looked like Nose Ring to offer a superficial answer to her rather trite question: “Take up hang-gliding! Sail around the world! Race hot-air balloons!” Something along those lines.
“It would be a last chance, wouldn’t it?” the girl went on. “To break all your old bad habits?” She caught herself worrying her hands and promptly stopped. “Well anyway, here’s your bill. Pay whenever you’re ready.” She made her way back to the counter, looking pensive.
Margaret contemplated her own habits. She stared at Daniel’s photo. He had been at that age when most children are self-conscious in front of a camera. But in this picture his expression was relaxed, serious, and sage. “You can see exactly what he’s going to look like when he’s twenty!” Margaret remembered saying to Stephen all those years ago, when the package they’d ordered came home from school: one 8×10, two 5x7s, four 3x5s, and many, many billfolds.
But Daniel would never be twenty. The 8×10 remained unframed. The billfolds were never passed out to school friends and teachers. Margaret wondered if Stephen still kept a photograph of their son in his wallet, along with pictures he surely carried of the children he had with his second wife. His living children.
“Jimbo?” Nose Ring was on the telephone, speaking gently. “I’m sorry I yelled before. . . . Yeah, I know. . . . I love you, too. You want me to pick up some Håagen-Dazs on the way home? . . . No, I’m not kidding.”
Maybe it was time for a change. A commuted sentence. Margaret had no difficulty knowing what was required. Daniel stared back at her, without forgiveness, but without condemnation, either, his eyes alight with the detached, loving wisdom of a little monk. Margaret tucked the photograph back into her pocketbook, sipped her tea, and waited until Nose Ring hung up the telephone.
“Excuse me, dear,” she called across the room. “Have you a pen I might borrow?”
“Sure. Are you a writer?”
“Oh, no,” Margaret said automatically. “I’m . . .” I’m anything I want to be, she thought. Anything at all. “I’m the woman who invented the garlic press!”
“Ah.” Nose Ring handed over her pen. “I’ll get more hot water for your tea.”
“Thank you, dear. That’s very kind.”
Margaret turned over the bill and began writing. “Room for rent in large Capitol Hill home. $250. All utilities included. Month-to-month. Private bath . . .” By the time she was satisfied with the ad, her appetite was back. She started with the créme brülée.
Magnifique! she thought, not minding that the café had begun to fill up with customers and she was no longer alone. C’est parfait.
Before she actually placed the ad she would have to ask permission. Of course she would. She couldn’t just willy-nilly start taking in boarders without consulting her housemates. After all, they’d lived together practically forever. She’d tended their needs, kept them pristine and perfect, sheltered them. With the exception of those few intervening years when Stephen and Daniel had shared the house, they’d had her completely to themselves. Her devotion was unquestionable. Still, she knew they’d feel threatened. They’d never stand for a unilateral decision. It would take finesse, skill, and diplomacy to pull this off. What she intended would be a hard sell.
Of course, they’d want to know what was in it for them. They’d have a point. She’d have to come up with something.
Praise? Admiration? That might be an incentive. They’d be in contact with another set of human eyes. What could be the harm in that? They’d be ogled and applauded by someone besides her. That should be enough for the vast majority. Most of them were a bit shallow anyway. Fools for flattery. Yes, that could work. And she’d never take on anyone clumsy or bullish, that was certain. The more diffident among them could be reassured about that. They’d be in no danger.
So there. That was settled.
The next question was, how would she broach the subject? And who would she speak to first? Who would be the most receptive to change?
Not the soup tureens; as a group, they were consistently unimaginative and stodgy. The game pie dishes at least had a sense of humor, but they were cowardly, and always took sides with anything lidded. Which eliminated the teapots and casseroles and so on. It was very tricky, as the lot of them were quite cliquish. All of the figurines were out; in spite of her best efforts, she could never manage to address them without sounding condescending, and they resented her for it. One or two of the teacups might be sympathetic. She also considered the gold-encrusted inkstands, who, for all their decorative excess, had always struck her as fair-minded and sensible.
But, no. The others would never be convinced by anything so diminutive as an inkstand. She’d need an ally that was at the very least physically impressive. Objects responded to things like size and blunt speech. Margaret roamed the rooms of the house in her mind’s eye: the Aviary Suite, Bonbon Dish Room, Smoke and Snuff Room.
Aha! She had it. The pair of Qing Dynasty garden seats. They’d be perfect. Large and commanding, with their sea-green celadon glaze, they were not only elegant but wise and plain-speaking. The fact that they once sat in the open air had given them more free-thinking views. And if all that weren’t enough, there was the added prestige of their appraised value: eight thousand dollars each. The other garden seats were worth five thousand or less. If she could win over the Qing twins, Margaret knew, they’d get everyone to give her a fair hearing.
Margaret reviewed her defense. She headed out to the sunny atrium (also known as the Chinese Garden Seat Room), cleaning flannel in hand. She’d surprise all of them with a thorough polishing first to get in their good graces. Then she would plead her case to the Qings.
Readers’ Guide: BROKEN FOR YOU
1. How is Margaret portrayed in the beginning? Who is this woman who is entombed in a vast, carefully dusted house with her father’s collection? An unlikely heroine, she is an old, peculiar recluse. How is her diagnosis an inciting force for change? Talk about her growing appreciation of the uncommonness of common things.
2. In the clamor of the first armload of plate crashing, Wanda “suddenly knew that she had found a home with someone who was as deeply aggrieved and crazy as she was. It was tremendously comforting” (p. 133). How does the Hughes house, truly a sanatorium, provide a haven and structure for these women to pass through madness to sanity? Can you think of other books or plays that explore the same theme?
3. When Wanda reflects on her life in the theater, she says, “You’re part of this intense family for a while, and then everyone moves on” (p. 165). How does Troy shift the rules? What is different about the steady accretion of people at the Hughes house?
4. How much is it possible to know another person? What are the limitations imposed on characters in Broken for You, both by accidents of history and by their own actions? Even with breakthroughs of knowledge and trust, do any characters keep a part that is private? Which ones? Margaret and Wanda, for instance, as close as they are, each retain core secrets until almost the end. Why? And what are the secrets? Why does M. J. Striker withhold his own secret and recognition so long?
5. What do we learn about Margaret’s mother? How does she function in the book? Were you reminded of No’l Coward’s Blithe Spirit? In her visitations, what is her value to Margaret? There is high comedy in her shenanigans. “Oh, Margaret really! You must enjoy this hoopla while you can. Believe me when I tell you it’s no fun being part of a scandal after you’re dead” (p. 289). Is Margaret working something else out in these spectral appearances? (The visits of Daniel are fewer and very different. How?)
6. Did you find conflicts between traditional values and newer ones? Where? Which characters grow larger or more sympathetic from being challenged by younger people? Does the converse hold?
7. How is the theme of the quest important in the book? Which characters commit themselves to seeking someone lost? What are the results? Who abandons the quest and why? Are there surprising rewards?
8. Parenting is explored in various characters’ stories. Discuss Oscar, Margaret, and Michael as parents. Others? How is the idea of surrogate parenting developed? How successful is it?
9. “Once the door is open . . . you can’t shut it again, impose limits, set degrees of openness . . .” (p. 126). In what ways do Margaret and Wanda, and later Gus and M.J., irrevocably make themselves available and vulnerable to life?
10. What does it mean to bear witness in this book? “Margaret had been given the privilege of bearing witness to Wanda’s life” (p. 126). What other characters participate in this act? What are the larger ramifications of bearing witness, and why does it matter? For instance, why does it matter to honor the dead and find out their stories and try to fulfill their wishes?
11. Talk about the title. To how many characters and things and ways of life does it pertain? What is meant by a ‘dissolution of borders’ on page 269?
12. How is the star motif expanded in the book? Think about the star imagery from Margaret to l942 school children in Europe. (See page 282 for some of Margaret’s own thoughts on the subject. And see page 290 for a further amplification of the symbol.)
13. “The Hughes Collection Scandal: Desecration or Deification?” (p. 278). What do you think about the central occupation in the book? Art? Or half-crazed mayhem? What do Wanda’s pieces say about her as an artist? What does the media criticism of her work say about the art? “Consider the artist’s point of view” (p. 293). Do you accept the premise that salvation or restitution may come through destruction and loss—and moving on? Which characters find their own salvation through building up others?
14. How does the Crazy Plate Academy serve as a culmination of the process that has gone on through the book? “Sorting was like beachcombing on a shore where every pebble is precious and time is boundless. And the familiar way everyone chatted—so many hands in constant, purposeful, attentive motion—gave Margaret the feeling of being at a quilting bee, a barn raising, or a wake” (pp. 327-328). What do these activities, certainly disparate, have in common?
15. How does the fact that neither Margaret nor Wanda is Jewish affect their joint efforts vis-à-vis the Holocaust victims and memories? When does expiation for her Nazi-sympathizer father become important for Margaret? Do you agree that “at the center of this controversy is the concept of worth: what we as humans value—and why” (p. 280)? When Margaret is researching Irma’s past in Paris, she realizes, “Bodies had been shattered and things had not” (p. 313). How directly does her involvement in the making of tesserae correct this imbalance? Does the appearance of the Jewish patron Babs Cohen add credibility to the undertaking? Discuss other times Judaism appears in the novel. Think about, for instance, Sam Kosminsky singing in Hebrew at dinner, the background imagery of Kristallnacht (p. 227), the museum in Paris, and Bruce singing the blessing.
16. Irma Kosminsky is the most vocal proponent for doing mitzvahs. What are some of them? How do you explain her life-affirming resilience and sense of humor? How does she explain it? In a conversation with M.J. we hear “Why bother, Mrs. K? . . . We both know you’re going to win” (p. 274). Apart from Scrabble, how else does Irma “win” in the book?
17. Discuss Stephanie Kallos’s definition of a relationship: “a marvel of construction, built up over time and out of fragments of shared experience . . . Maybe we feel such a strong kinship with pique assiette because it is the visual metaphor that best describes us; after all, we spend much of our lives hurling bits of the figurative and literal past into the world’s landfill—and then regret it. We build our identities from that detritus of regret. Every relationship worth keeping sustains, at the very least, splintered glazes, hairline fractures, cracks. And aren’t these flaws the prerequisites of intimacy?” (p. 295). Do you find this an alarming view of human behavior? Or do you find it oddly comforting?
18. What is the significance of the Sevre chocolate service? How is the mystery resolved? What is the story of the single teacup? “It was like that all through the war, things like that, little things that people did” (p. 321). What ultimately is the fate of the tête-à-tête?
19. How is the poetry of Yeats interwoven in the book? Why in particular should it be Yeats who recurs?
20. What were the funniest parts of the book for you? Think of Irma, with her dry survivor wit as well as her bolder humor. Recall Maurice, whose clumsiness is a boon in the Hughes house. And Margaret’s outrageous mother. Talk about other moments of high or low comedy.
21. How are love and sex recurring symbols of healing and joy? Think about specific relationships, those that survive and those that don’t. Describe M.J.’s loves, both as Striker and as o’Casey. How do you compare young love to that of older people? Why does Wanda wait so long to accept Troy as her lover? What does the parenthood of Susan and Bruce say about love, sex, and family?
22. The china, both whole and in pieces, generates stories, such as the ice-fishing ninety-two-year-old Alta Fogle. “Maybe this is true. Maybe not. You can never be sure: all objects in the Hughes house have to have meaning, and if their past is not known, stories are invented” (p. 337). In chapter thirty-two, the narrator addresses the reader directly, as if one were M. J. Striker approaching the Hughes house. “Pay attention. Let your mind embrace metaphors. It’s your first clue about what goes on here” (p. 337). How do these quotations help us understand multiple levels of the story? Is the making of mosaic art also a metaphor for writing stories, the novel, for instance?
23. Did you find the dream sequences effective in conjuring up the memories and surreal perceptions of the injured Wanda and the dying Margaret? As a reader was it hard for you to suspend disbelief in a kind of free fall? Have you encountered magic realism in other books? In the third dream sequence, Margaret approaches Wanda. “Be happy. . . . We’re worth more broken” (p. 348). How is the last line of Margaret’s dream, “The balloon arcs up forever, into the night sky, past millions of glittering stars” (p. 350), magically apt?
HOW TO WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL
by Stephanie Kallos
Be an only child. And/or spend vast amounts of time alone, whether you like it or not.
Write your first story when you are seven. Make it long. Make it controversial. Refer to images gleaned from Life magazine—thalidomide babies, for example—so that grown-ups will be impressed and give your story a lot of attention. Submit a contest essay to the Mattel toy company on the subject of what you want to be when you grow up. Write, “I want to be a writer, because it’s the kind of job that lets you stay home with your husband and babies.”
Watch your parents when they think you aren’t watching. Notice the subjects they tend to revisit: your looks, your future, your talent, your lack of good common sense. Have the kind of selective memory that clings to statements like “Someday, all of this will be yours.”
Don’t write all the time. Turn cartwheels. Ride your skateboard. Climb trees. Read the same books over and over: the story of the Wright Brothers; Charlie Brown comics; biographies of Galileo; romances by Mary Stewart; epics by Taylor Caldwell; A Wrinkle in Time, about a young girl who’s smart but clumsy and not pretty and doesn’t fit in anywhere and has a crush on the boy next door and saves her entire family. Believe in God. Remember your dreams. Obsess about the end of the world. Take French from the prettiest teacher at your school. Notice how speaking French makes her even prettier, especially when she teaches the vowel “u” as in “une soeur.” Pursue other interests that allow you to spend vast amounts of time alone. Paint your piano pink and play the theme from The Pink Panther on it. Make obsessively realistic drawings of Breck girls while watching Fahrenheit 451 on television. Scour your house for the best places to hide your books so that the Thought Police won’t be able to find them.
When you are thirteen, take note of Françoise Sagan, the world’s youngest published author. Repeat her name, endlessly (Françoise Sagan, Françoise Sagan) and the name of her novel (Bonjour Tristesse, Bonjour Tristesse). Vow to beat her record. Start writing your first novel in your parents’ basement on an oily old Smith Corona. It is about a young girl who’s smart but not pretty and doesn’t fit in anywhere and is kidnapped with her baby brother and the boy next door and who saves her entire family, making everyone realize what a treasure she really is. Do not finish this novel. Do not show it to anyone.
Watch the same movies over and over. Notice that no matter how virtuous and loyal the brunette is, it is always the morally suspect blonde who wins true love. When no one is listening, attempt to speak aloud especially exotic character names like Marius and Marnie, actor names like Louis Jordan, Leslie Caron, James Shigeta, Miyoshi Umeki, Sydney Poitier.
Keep diaries—the kind you lock with tiny ersatz gold keys. Hide them in the same places you’ll hide your books from the Thought Police. Make peace with the fact that you will never be Françoise Sagan or look good as a blonde. Make peace with the fact that no one is ever going to pronounce the name “Kallos” as anything other than “callus.” Take note of the fact that fictional characters with the first name Stephanie are always old maids and usually bitter. Invent pen names. Write them on the inside of your dime-store diaries. For a first name, choose from Haley, Hillary, Taylor, Millicent, Christina, or Tippie; your last name will be St. James, Pleshette, or Connery.
Write in dime-store diaries until you are eighteen. After that, grow up. Keep journals. Hide these too. Never reread them, but save them all.
Go to college. Start misbehaving. Major in things that allow you to spend more time alone. When you are twenty-one, go with your musical theater actress/roommate to an audition and accompany her as she sings “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” On a whim, try out for a play. Get cast. Impress people with your ability to concentrate, honed over many years of spending vast amounts of time alone. Heed these same people’s compliments. As a result, spend the next twenty years in a career for which you are completely unsuited, but which gives you the ability to stand up in front of an audience and give a decent reading.
Keep writing. Keep hiding the things you write.
When you are thirty-something, change your life: get a file cabinet! Now you have a place for all the diaries and journals you never reread and the stories you never show anyone.
Have many unhappy romantic relationships. Escape them by writing. Surround yourself with cats who will sit on your keyboard while you cry and try to write.
When you visit your parents, notice how much stuff they have.
Someday, all of this will be yours.
In 1986, try to write a short story involving human attachment to objects, cleverly changing the names of your parents so that they will be unrecognizable. Never show this work to anyone; bury it in the file cabinet.
Have the good sense to fall in love with and marry someone who majored in English, knows what a participle is, and can dangle it. Show him your writing. Be emboldened by the fact that he not only likes it, but laughs and cries at it.
Join a writers’ group. Revise that old short story about your parents and show it to your writers’ group. Despair when your writers’ group informs you that it isn’t a short story after all; it’s the first chapter of a novel.
Become an atheist.
Have beautiful noisy boy children who offer to carry your laptop for you, deliver Peeps and Hot Wheels cars to your office while you’re working, and pretend to understand what you mean when you tell them that Mommy is working on her “big book.”
Steal without compunction other people’s family stories: your best friend in fifth grade, a preacher’s kid named John who had six brothers with names all beginning with “J.” Steal their words: the stage manager who said, “I came to him like a pilgrim.” Cultivate a benevolent form of schizophrenia. Do not become alarmed when you start hearing voices, especially the voice of a nice little old Jewish lady who reminds you that you’ve always been inexplicably and profoundly affected by the Holocaust and “Hey doll, shouldn’t that be part of this book it’s taking so long for you to finish?”
Do NOT clean the bathroom. Write instead. Write when you can, even if it’s only five minutes. Write what you can, every day, even if it’s only a paragraph, a sentence, a word, a semicolon. Tell yourself that you are a writer, especially on semicolon days. Send ten dollars to PBS in thanks for providing high-quality children’s programming so that you can continue to write semicolons while your kids watch Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Create as many obstacles as possible. Tell yourself you’re stupid. Try to quit. Throw fits: it’s too damned hard! Consider other careers, it’s not too late: Physical therapist! Medical transcriptionist! Yoga teacher! Registered nurse! Surround yourself with people who will not let you do this: your husband, your writer friends. Hear a radio interview with Robert Ludlum, who used to be an actor, published his first book when he was forty-eight years old, and spent the next thirty years writing. Vow to match his record.
When in doubt, reach deep into the file cabinet and pull out the story you wrote when you were seven. Reread it. Remember that you’ve always known what you really wanted to be when you grew up. Remember all the reasons why. Realize that what you write doesn’t really belong to you anyway, none of it is really yours, you had only the smallest hand in getting it done, so it’s okay to finish.
So, finish. Put your own name on it, the name your parents gave you, because in the end it’s one of the few things that actually does belong to you. Take a long time typing T-H-E-E-N-D. Pet the cats. Hug your husband. Watch some PBS with your babies.
And then start planning your next essay: “How to Write Your Second Novel.”