1. Describe the town of Utina, Florida. What is its interaction with the outside world? “Utina, inauspiciously named for the chief of a tribe of doomed Timucuan Indians, had been known historically for two things: palms and booze” (p. 10). How much has changed by the time of the novel? What is the narrator’s attitude toward the community?
2. Which characters do you find most reliable in their reflections and reactions? Are these people always honest about themselves?
3. What is it about the people of Utina that makes them so vivid and memorable? They may not triumph, but they persevere. Which ones are most full of life, passion, and imagination? Fury, lunacy, blame, and love intermingle in wild ways. Give some examples.
4. Who suffers most from guilt, and for what? Who appears unscathed by regret? Does this apparent immunity last through the book? Is blame effective in deflecting guilt? Talk about Dean, Frank, and Carson in particular.
5. Pick out some passages about the natural world that reveal beauty or solace, or that challenge the characters. The water is never far from their lives, at Aberdeen or in town. “There were many people in Utina . . . who believed that the back deck of Uncle Henry’s on a July night at sunset was the prettiest place on the face of Earth, with the light shining off the current and the fiddler crabs doing their tango down by the waterline” (p. 53). Barred owls are heard often, almost like guardian spirits. Which parts of the natural setting did you find most telling? Ironically, some of the beautiful places can also be catastrophic, such as the lake in Winter Haven and the dunes at the beach. How does human folly stain these places?
6. What is the condition of Aberdeen and what does it tell us about the people living there? Look at the outrageous Steinway dispute, the rampant climbing vines, “the landfill” that is Arla’s room. What does the old house represent to each character? Does it fulfill a destiny of its own by the end?
7. What kinds of parenting do we see in the book? Are there judgments about fathers’ behavior as compared to that of mothers? Does anyone grow as a parent?
8. How do class distinctions operate in this Florida community? On what are they based? Do you see shifts in classes? What are some of the cultural markers for people like the Boltons or for Maya? What shreds of gentility does Arla try to cling to, at least for Sofia? Who calls the Bravo boys “white trash”?
9. The Boltons were able to give Arla a privileged life, but “inside lived three people who were nothing, nothing at all, like a family” (p. xvi). Arla “knew about despair, and about the way her mother stared at her hands when her father was speaking” (p. xvi). Compare this group with the Bravos and their inexorable bond, as lacerating as it often is. After their fracases, Carson, Frank, and Dean converge, “the three of them sitting together in a dingy clinic waiting room, bruised and battered and barely able to stand, barely able to speak to each other, and yet bound together, somehow, with something that might have been love but was different—harder, tighter, stronger, even, than love. It wasn’t love, in fact. It was family” (p. 399).
10. Out of their “backwoods genetic stew” (p. 171), which included their ancestor Farragut’s “pithy, if boneheaded, battle cry: ‘damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead,”” the Bravos emerge as brave, stubborn, proud, and destructive (p. xi). If they are not always quick to pick fights, they certainly never turn away from them. Their ongoing feud with Do-Key, the hapless local police officer, takes on grand comic proportions. Look at the alligator caper for lunatic delight. “Oh, it was beautiful. Epic. The best move they’d ever pulled” (p. 22). Look later at the ghost of this alligator on the officer’s steering wheel in the hilariously compromised antique car. Imagination they have; but how does this antic, hell-driven power lead to calamity, especially with Dean and Carson in separate disasters?
11. “A costly delicacy indeed,/when to get to the heart you must kill the tree” (epigraph). How does this irony cast light on the novel?
12. Dean and Arla’s marriage was a whirlwind event, a perfect princess and her cavalier outlaw. Is it doomed from the start? Why? It is purely misfortune, or is it the natures of Arla and Dean? What were some high points for them? How did they each try to hold on? What do we make of their late reunion? Are there any marriages in this book worth fighting for?
13. Death recurs in the book, from animals to main characters. Family members are haunted by randomly lost pets. Give examples. Ghosts appear in many forms. Will remains a central character, to whom? How is Arla’s death symbolic of how she lived? Apart from her six-foot height and her rare beauty, Arla was a larger-than-life legend. Talk about this bold, loony, exasperating phenomenon. How is her death both a loss and a gift to her family?
14. Before Arla dies, “confusion was becoming a near-physical ailment, a nagging discomfort. She was sick of it. . . . So what did Aberdeen really matter? What was a house, anyway, in a world where nobody was who you thought they were, not even yourself?” (p. 342). Do other characters suffer from confusion about identity? To Dean’s questioning at the end, Frank says, “I don’t hate my brother. . . . I just think we’re not who we thought we were. Any of us” (p. 439).
15. What are some of the rebirths in the story? Were you surprised by some of the twists of fortune? Various characters save others at some point. Who are they?
16. How is the Bravo Multi-Fund an inciting force in the push to sell out to Cryder and his company? How is Christine Hughes central to Carson’s disintegration?
17. Dean’s return is a bombshell to the family. What precipitates it? What are their reactions to seeing him after twenty years? How do you think he handles re-entry? Has he changed essentially as a person? What were the events that inevitably led to his leaving his home years ago? Despite his demons and illness, how has he retained a spark of energy and a sense of style?
18. Talk about the distances between parents and children, and between siblings. Is there hope by the end that some of these chasms might be bridged or at least understood? By whom?
19. How do characters face down despair, some better than others? Who, ultimately, do you see as the most resilient ones?
20. How is weather a metaphor for psychological climate? Utina is a town where the Florida heat descends “like a guillotine,” where one person feels she is encased in Tupperware. What are some memorable instances of the suffocating heat? Does the weather ever seem to be a benevolent force?
21. In this tropical effusion of growth, nature can seem threatening. One mock-epic battle is that of the banker (Frank’s neighbor) against the palmetto. And there is the snaking hyacinth clogging the waterway. And at one point, Frank, hurting, feels “grief, for people and for places, a sadness threading stubbornly around his heart, like the creeping jasmine of Utina” (p. 414). Are there other examples of nature’s threats?
22. Checkered pasts abound in the story: Dean’s brother, Huff, Dean himself, Tip, Biaggio—all have served time, and the threat of prison time haunts Carson after his Ponzi scheme. Are there other kinds of imprisonment for the characters?
23. ‘mac was an anomaly, likeable in spite of himself” (p. 66). Does this sentence apply to anyone else? Minor characters lend insight into main characters, provide humor and local color, and vary the story’s angle of vision. Sometimes they exemplify moral standards that shift attitudes. Can you explore some of the range of minor characters in the novel?
24. Utina is destined to change dramatically. What are the chances of success after the new development is built with its marina, condos, mall, and chain stores? Is it possible the razing of the old life will be a kind of purification, forcing people to find new paths? How do you think each of the main characters views the demise of Aberdeen and Uncle Henry’s? Apocalypse? Nostalgia? Salvation? How do you feel about the end of these institutions? What do you predict for Sofia, Biaggio, Carson, Frank, Elizabeth, Mac, and others? “It’s time. . . . I’ve waited long enough” is a recurrent thought. What does Frank mean by it at the end?
Suggestions for further reading:
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell; Beloved by Toni Morrison; The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr; Father of the Rain by Lily King; The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis; The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls; Annabel by Kathleen Winter; Water from the Well by Myra McLarey; Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson; Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; Peace Like a River by Leif Enger; American Pastoral by Philip Roth; Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg; The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler; Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Guide by Barbara Putnam