Books

Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

The Hole We’re In

by Gabrielle Zevin

“Zevin mixes sharp humor with moments of grace as she gives readers terrific insights into the problems of adult children removing themselves from the influence of parents, and establishes herself as an astute chronicler of the way we spend now. . . . The Corrections for our recessionary times.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date March 09, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-1923-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Publication Date March 03, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9789-4
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

From award-winning writer Gabrielle Zevin comes a biting, powerful, and deliciously entertaining novel about an American family and their misguided efforts to stay afloat—spiritually, morally, and financially.

Meet the Pomeroys: a church-going family living in a too-red house in a Texas college town. Roger, the patriarch, has impulsively gone back to school, only to find his future ambitions at odds with the temptations of the present. His wife, Georgia, tries to keep things in order at home, but she’s been feeding the bill drawer with unopened envelopes for months and can never find the right moment to confront its swelling con tents. In an attempt to climb out of the holes they’ve dug, Roger and Georgia make a series of choices that have catastrophic consequences for their three children—especially for Patsy, the youngest, who will spend most of her life fighting to overcome them.

The Hole We’re In shines a spotlight on some of the most relevant issues of our day—over-reliance on credit, vexed gender-and-class politics, the war in Iraq—but it is Zevin’s deft exploration of the fragile economy of family life that makes this a book for the ages.

Tags Literary

Praise

The Hole We’re In criticizes our rabid consumer culture, as well as the people who’ve bought into it without examining the actual or hidden costs. . . . Zevin’s writing is often surprisingly, if darkly, funny, thanks to her wry and astute cultural observations . . . [Main character] Patsy is flawed like the rest of her family, but she also has complex thoughts and tries to live without hypocrisy. . . . Zevin breathes real life into this tough-girl vet,
a heroine for our times, recognizable from life but new to fiction.” —Malena Watrous, The New York Times Book Review

“Every day newspaper articles chronicle families battered by the recession, circling the drain in unemployment and debt or scraping by with minimum-wage jobs. But no novel has truly captured that struggle until now. . . . The novel’s true subject is how a once-loving family reacts when times get bad. For Roger, that means taking refuge in his religion, even when it asks him to excommunicate his own children. For George, it means slipping into years-long depression. And all five Pomeroys—flawed, devoted, cranky, impetuous, utterly relatable—come blazingly alive on the page.” —Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly (Grade: A-)

“Provocative . . . Yet somehow the novel feels generous. We identify with the Pomeroys’ trouble while we gasp at their casual brutality and marvel at Patsy, who journeys from oppressive Bible schools to military service in Iraq and, finally, to becoming a more loving mother than her own could have dreamed of being.” —Caryn James, O Magazine

“Equal parts sharply funny and sobering, Zevin’s portrait of a family in financial free fall captures the zeitgeist.” —People

“Zevin delivers in her blazing second adult novel a Corrections for our recessionary times. . . . Zevin mixes sharp humor with moments of grace as she gives readers terrific insights into the problems of adult children removing themselves from the influence of parents, and establishes herself as an astute chronicler of the way we spend now.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

The Hole We’re In is a story of financial lives, and it makes plain that the financial life of a family is just as important as, if not more important than, its religious life. Even more surprising: It’s just as compelling as a novel that is primarily concerned with the emotional life of an American family. Hole feels current, like fresh journalism, a mirror held to modern times.” —Paul Constant, The Stranger

“Merely summarizing the plot doesn’t do the book justice—it’s far more gripping than you’d expect from a family drama about the consequences of falling deeper and deeper into credit card debt. The real force of the novel, aside from Zevin’s elegant, no-words-wasted prose, comes from her complicated, multifaceted characters, who have an astonishing capacity for extremes of both generous and selfish behavior.” —Becky Ohlsen, BookPage

“A sharp, funny, and timely look at a debt-ridden, God-fearing American family. . . . Zevin skewers a host of social issues from religious zealotry to the consequences of war to the entitlement mind-set of average Americans. What makes her book more than just a satire, though, is the deft way she thoroughly humanizes her characters. Readers will relate to and be moved by a beleaguered family’s attempts to climb out of debt and dysfunction.” —Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist

“Zevin powers her second novel for adults with the same understanding of family dynamics that fueled her knack with young adult literature.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer

The Hole We’re In is a gut-clenching illustration of a family spiraling down into a morass of debt. Told from the point of view of the different family members, their stories reveal an emptiness due to a kind of chilling emotional disconnect. Yet, whether readers are grateful not to be part of the Pomeroy family or identify uncomfortably with their predicament, we cannot help but empathize with them—which makes for quite the gripping read.” —Terry Miller Shannon , Bookreporter.com

“In this unforgettable novel, Gabrielle Zevin shares the saga of a uniquely American family. Devoid of pity yet full of compassion, The Hole We’re In introduces us to flawed characters desperate to get back to the garden of an idealized American Eden—where debts are forgiven, family secrets remain buried, everyone gets a good credit rating and a higher education, and spiritual redemption can be achieved with a new coat of paint.” —Stephanie Kallos, author of Broken For You

“Gabrielle Zevin’s sentences burst like fireworks off the page—from the first chapter, I was hooked. Smart, sassy, and wise, The Hole We’re In is a delightful treat.” —Amanda Eyre Ward, author of Love Stories in this Town

“An unflinching depiction of an all-American family. Hypocritical, debt-ridden, God-fearing—there might not be much to admire about Zevin’s characters, but there is much to love about them. The Hole We’re In is a compelling read, and a true and honest novel.” —Binnie Kirshenbaum, author of The Scenic Route

“The Pomeroys are your normal American family, heavily in debt, lacking communication skills, and tempted by your garden variety of carnal sins, with a side order of pride. . . . Zevin plays around with structure, juggling perspective at first and then honing in on one character. She packs the story with a full platter of issues, from abortion to race to veteran’s issues and of course, religious intolerance. The sins of the father (and mother) play out over two generations, in a manner that had me alternately sad and hopeful.” —Daniel Goldin, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, WI

“Zevin’s an author for the world between LA and NY.” —Geoffrey B. Jennings, Rainy Day Books, Fairway, KS

“I loved it! I picked it up for a peek. It is unputdownable!” —Karen Wendler, World Eye Bookshop, Greenfield, MA

“. . . very subtly Zevin pulls you in, and you begin to see the humanity, and (gasp) sometimes even yourself, in her characters. Her writing is a perfect match for this story, not a wasted word or scene. Roger (who kept bringing to mind John Edwards) remained the family member I most wanted to punch. Zevin was brilliant weaving all the threads of our current social mess (war, credit calamity, religion, class) together in a cautionary tale I won’t forget. So many scenes stay with me, so many sparkling paragraphs. Like Patsy, Zevin doesn’t pull any of her well-placed punches. I want a T-shirt for this book. Long live Patsy.” —Leslie Reiner, Inkwood Books, Tampa, FL

Awards

An Indie Next List Notable selection (March 2010)
IndieNext Spring-Summer 2010 Indie Reading Group List Selection

Excerpt

Part I — The Red House
A June and Six Septembers

Midway through his son’s graduation from college, somewhere between the Ns and the Os, Roger Pomeroy decided that he owed it to himself to go back to school. He was forty-two years old, though people told him at least once a week that he looked younger. Last Christmas, a salesgirl had mistaken his then nineteen-year-old daughter for his wife. Last week, a different salesgirl had mistaken his forty-one-year-old wife for his mother. He knew it wasn’t flattery, because in both instances the salesgirls had already made their sales: respectively, a flannel nightgown (wife’s Christmas) and a leather fanny pack (son’s graduation). And, at work—Roger was an assistant principal at the same Christian high school that his two older children had attended—all the girls flirted with him no matter how much he discouraged the practice.

His wife, George (née Georgia), nudged him. “You’re supposed to be standing.” Roger looked at the crowd, then past it to the dais.

A flag was being raised. Everyone was standing, so Roger stood.

The more he thought about it, the more it made sense to do it now. Roger had completed a master’s in education while working full-time, but if he wanted to get really serious (that is to say, a PhD) he would have to take leave. He had three children: Vincent, the son who was graduating; Helen, who would be a college junior the following year; and Patricia, age ten, the baby of the family though hardly a baby anymore. In any case, the kids were mostly grown, which meant two fewer mouths to feed. And if George had to work a couple of extra hours—here, he paused to smile at his wife. The smile was meant to acknowledge the official magnitude of the occasion, A Son’s Graduation from College, but George immediately detected the ulterior in it. She grinned back.

Roger lowered his thoughts to a whisper. If George had to work a couple of extra hours, it would ultimately be for the best. With a PhD, Roger would earn more money, which meant the wife could retire altogether. Based on the time it had taken him to complete his master’s, Roger estimated three years for a doctorate. He had been a family man for twenty-two years, over half his life. He had never cheated at anything, marriage included. He was an honorary pastor at their church and considered himself to be a better-than-average Christian. He had made sacrifices for others and now, he reckoned, sacrifices should be made for him.

George squeezed her husband’s hand. “Earth to Roger,” she whispered. “Your son’s next.”

They called Vinnie’s name, and Roger applauded. He had missed his own graduation from college because George had gone into labor with the boy. It seemed fitting and good that he had come to this decision on this day.

Caps flew through the air and Roger’s eyes filled with tears. The youngest, Patsy, was standing on the other side of him. He lifted her over his shoulders so that she could better see the show.

“Daddy,” Patsy said. She placed her doll hands on his cheeks. “Are you crying because you’re still mad at Vinnie?”

“No, I’m just happy, baby.”

* * *

FIFTEEN MONTHS LATER, Roger moved his family from Tennessee to Texas and began the PhD program at Teacher’s College, Texas University. He loved being full-time and working forms of the word matriculate into casual conversation. He was a sucker for anything (mugs, mouse pads, tube socks) with the Fighting Yellow Devils logo, despite the fact that these items were sold at a premium. If he could have afforded and gotten his wife to agree to it, he would have lived in student housing.

No doubt about it, the first year was difficult financially. The move alone had drained a good portion of their savings. But, by the second year, Roger had a decent teaching stipend amounting to fifteen thousand dollars per annum—less than a third of what he had taken in as an assistant principal, but combined with low-interest student loans, high-interest credit cards, a cashed-in retirement plan, and George’s job, not bad. And besides, he wouldn’t be a student forever. Just three years. Or four. Certainly no more than four.

After a summer of soul searching, Roger settled on a topic for his dissertation September of his fifth year. He would study the differences between kids who had attended schools with a religious component and kids who hadn’t. The topic was near to his heart: Patsy, now nearly sixteen, was going to a public school because no acceptable religious one had been found within a thirty-mile radius of Texas U. Roger’s standards for such an institution were very high indeed.

For the record, it was not an extraordinarily slow pace at which to complete a PhD. It was on the fast side of average, though it had obviously exceeded Roger’s initial estimates.

George asked him if he might consider going back to work fulltime while writing the dissertation. Roger declined. He had a lot of research to do, and he believed the whole enterprise would go more quickly if he could just focus. One other thing: upon reading his proposal, his adviser, the distinguished professor Carolyn Murray, had commented, “There just might be a book in this, Rog.” He was embarrassed by how many times he’d repeated these words to himself. Despite the comfort he took in them, Roger chose not to share them with his wife. Instead, he imagined the following scene:

Roger, who has not yet turned fifty but regardless looks much younger, has taken Georgia to the nicest restaurant in town.

“Can we afford this?” George asks after a cursory look at the menu.

Roger nods and encourages the woman to order whatever she wants.

“Well, if you’re certain . . .”

“I am, George. I am.”

After dessert is served, Roger casually reaches under the table and pulls a published book out from under it.

“What’s this?” she asks.

“It’s a book,” he says. {Alternatively, he says, “It’s all our dreams come true,” though this line effectually ends the scene, and Roger prefers to draw it out.}

George looks at the book. “But, it has your name on the cover.”

“That’s because it’s my book, George. It’s our book, and it’s going to make us very, very rich.”

“Why, Roger,” she says, “I didn’t even know you were writing a book!”

“I wanted to keep it a secret until I was sure,” he says, turning back the cover with a jaunty flick of the wrist. “Read this . . .”

George puts on her glasses: “To my family, especially my wife, Georgia, without whom there would be no book. And to our Lord Savior, Jesus Christ, without whom there would be no life.” George clears her throat. {Sometimes, the dedication continues: And to Professor Carolyn Murray, who supported this book in its infancy . . . And sometimes not. His wife’s hypothetical retort, “Roger, who’s Carolyn Murray?” pushed the scene in an unusual and frankly somewhat undesirable direction.}

“And look”—Roger flips to the back flap—“your name’s here, too. I’ve used the picture you took of me at Helen’s wedding for my author photo. You’re a professional photographer, George!” {He considers this to be a particularly nice touch, including her in the process as it did.}

George’s voice is husky with emotion. “Come here, you wonderful, wonderful man!”

“Roger.” The dream was deferred by Professor Murray’s latest assistant: a skinny, pimple-scarred, faux-hawked, gay (or so Roger suspected), overpriced-glasses-wearing, twenty-four-year-old kid, who claimed his name was Cherish. The kid was also at approximately the same place in the PhD program as Roger. “Carolyn will see you now.”

Her office was nice enough, but nothing special: furniture made of wood and not the particleboard rubbish that cluttered the offices of the junior faculty and staff; a brown leather chair with just the right patina; a Tiffany-style lamp; framed and matted reproductions by O’Keefe and Gauguin; a photograph of the professor with Laura Bush, the governor’s wife; another with Coretta Scott King; a humdinger of a group shot that included First Lady Hillary Clinton, poet laureate Maya Angelou, and Betty Friedan, taken at a women’s education summit in Washington, DC; a rather phallic pillar candle scented in cucumber-melon; an Oriental (Roger wondered if the term was offensive . . .) rug on the floor that almost managed to distract from the gray industrial carpet that plagued even the most attractive parts of campus; a first-class view of the university chapel and memorial gardens. It really is nothing special, he thought, but it really should be mine.

He had the same birthday as Professor Murray: March 12, though she was five years older than him. This fact had been revealed under somewhat embarrassing circumstances during Roger’s second year in the program. At the end of one of her famous lecture classes, her inner circle of students, a group that did not include Roger, arranged for a surprise cake. Roger stood when he saw the cake speeding through the door on the borrowed AV cart. How had they known it was his birthday? He was giddy with astonishment and pleasure. The cake made its way down the aisle, sweet and white as a bride, and he felt nearly like he had on his wedding day. And then, it passed him by. Roger wondered if he should follow it to the front: Is that how these things were done? That was when the singing began. By the third line, it became clear that the cake had never been for him. He clapped his hands and tapped his foot in time to the music as if this had been his reason for standing all along.

“Come in, Rog,” Professor Murray called. “Sit.”

He obeyed.

She looked him up and down in a manner that struck Roger as not quite professional. “My, you’re looking well!”

For the record, Carolyn Murray was a handsome woman, though Roger had never been attracted to the kind of women who were thought to be handsome women. She was ten pounds past slim, but she carried the extra weight well. Her suit was well cut, like her gray, curly hair, and its fabric expensive. It was not the kind of suit that often made an appearance at Roger’s church or in his wife’s closet. Even Professor Murray only wore the suit on lecture days, a custom in which Roger perceived gentility. At that moment, she had her shoes off and her feet displayed like a pair of knickknacks on the cluttered cherry desk. Roger could see a hole the size of a dime in her black stockings. It was just over the pad below her big toe, and its presence struck him as obscene. He wanted very badly to cover it up but settled for repositioning himself so he could no longer see it.

Although she was an ordinary enough specimen for a liberal arts college, Roger was a bit dazzled by her—that hole notwithstanding. He had spent his education (and, by extension, his life) in religious settings where the native birds tended to be of a different sort.

“So, Rog,” she said, “I’ve been thinking of you.”

Roger cleared his throat. He wasn’t sure how to respond.

Professor Murray took her feet off the desk and tucked them away from Roger. She laughed a little to herself, then said, “Your work. I’ve been thinking of your dissertation proposal.”

Roger cleared his throat again.

“Are you ill?” she asked.

Roger cleared his throat a third time. “I’m . . .,” he began. “What have you been thinking?”

“Well . . .”—she removed the proposal from her top desk drawer—“I’ve made some notes.” The top sheet was scarred with red ink. Roger couldn’t make out the words—Professor Murray’s handwriting was indulgently illegible in the style of MDs and PhDs worldwide—but he could see many exclamation points and even more question marks.

“I thought you liked it.” Roger tried not to sound childish, but did not succeed.

“I do, Roger. Very much. I think I mentioned to you when last we spoke that there might even be a book in it.”

He conceded remembering something of the sort.

“Though the truth is, I think this topic might be broader and require more resources than what your standard dissertation allows,” Professor Murray said. “In addition to library work, I foresee you conducting research trips, and you’ll probably want several grad students to conduct interviews, and of course you’ll need a good statistician. Have you put any thought into a good statistician?”

Roger had planned to run the statistics himself. He had taken an introductory statistics class in college and had recently purchased Statistics for Dummies as a refresher. He sensed that this would not be an acceptable response to the eminent professor’s query. “I had not,” he said.

“Well, I know a good one.” Professor Murray made yet another note on Roger’s proposal. “The thing is, Roger, I fear you may be a bit out of your depth here.”

“Oh.” Roger looked at his sneakers. His wife had purchased them in a back-to-school shopping trip that had also included a backpack for his youngest daughter. If worn more than two days in a row, the shoes, which were man-made in China, began to smell.

“Now, don’t look so gloomy,” Professor Murray said. “I think we can help each other.”

Here, the professor took off her glasses and switched her voice to tones normally reserved for the classroom. “You’re no doubt aware that there’s a growing movement in this country to send children to religious schools. In the seventies and eighties, we saw parochial schools closing in record numbers. And now, for the first time in decades, we’re seeing a small but significant number of new ones popping up. What accounts for this? Even in nonreligious settings, they’re reintroducing prayer in the classroom whilst removing sexual education and The Catcher in the Rye, and, well, I suspect this reflects larger trends in our society, yada yada yada. My point is, Rog, I think you may have hit upon something incredibly fecund here.”

Fecund was good. Roger giggled. The professor had a charming bit of Brooklyn in her speech that revealed itself when she was excited and only in words like fecund.

“You’re smiling. What?”

Oh, what the heck, Roger thought. “Did anyone ever say that you, uh, sound like a lawyer?”

She widened her eyes in mock horror. “No!”

“No, I said that wrong. Not a lawyer. The lawyer. From the O.J. trial”—the Jewish one, he wanted to say, but he wasn’t sure if that was racist—“I don’t remember the name.”

“Marcia Clark?”

“No.”

The professor gathered her curly hair into a loose bun. He considered telling her that he liked her hair that way but decided it wouldn’t be appropriate.

“You’re a fundamentalist Christian, am I right?” Professor Murray asked.

“Well . . . Yes.” Roger furrowed his brow in a way he both hoped and didn’t hope would be observed.

“Did I say something wrong?”

“No. It’s just, we’re called Sabbath Day Adventists.”

“So you’re not a fundamentalist Christian?”

“I am. It’s the same thing really.” All at once, he realized he didn’t wish to be having this discussion with this woman. “It doesn’t matter. Go on.”

“Don’t ever be afraid to correct me, Roger. If the other term is more precise, that’s what I’ll use. And before you came here, you taught for twenty or so years in a Sabbath Day Adventist”—she paused to receive the approval Roger was overly eager to bestow—“high school?”

“Twenty-one years,” Roger said. “And for half of those, I wasn’t a teacher. I was an assistant principal.”

Carolyn laughed, though Roger didn’t think he’d said anything particularly funny. “How marvelous,” she said. “Were you aware that I am a nonpracticing Jew?”

It was Alan Dershowitz, he thought.

“And now I like to call myself a weekend Buddhist, which is to say, I go on a lot of yoga retreats.”

Roger wasn’t sure if he was supposed to laugh.

“The point is, Rog, I think we’d make a very good team.”

“Team?”

“We should write this book together. I can offer you resources and experience and a different perspective and—”

In his mind, Roger crossed Jesus out of the dedication:

Revision 1

Roger casually reaches under the table and pulls a published book out from under it.

“What’s this?” George asks.

“It’s a book, George,” he says. “Mine and this other woman’s, Carolyn Murray’s. You remember her from the GSE Christmas party? She said she loved your sweater, took great pains to find out where you got it. You thought it was Ross Dress for Less, but you couldn’t remember for sure.”

“Oh, right,” George says. “Her.” She cracks the crust of her crème brûlée before taking the tiniest bite. “You know, honey, I don’t think she even liked my sweater.”

“Well, she said she did,” Roger replies. “But back to my book. It’s going to make us very, very rich.”

“Us and Carolyn Murray,” George corrects him.

“What about my dissertation?” Roger asked quietly.

“Oh, well, I imagine you’ll write that on some smaller topic relating to this one. But honestly, Roger, we’re onto something much bigger here. Do you have a notebook?”

Of course he did. It had a yellow devil gilded to the front and was separated into sections by dual pocket folders—$5.99 at the university bookstore.

Among other things, Professor Murray described how Roger would give up the four classes he was TAing (-$15,000) and become her full-time project coordinator (+$5,000). Roger decided it would be rude to ask her how in the good Lord’s name he was meant to make up the $10,000 difference.

“Let me pray on it,” he says.

“Seriously?” Carolyn Murray raises an impressively plucked eyebrow.

“What you describe is not necessarily the tack I was planning to take. I’m . . . I’m in favor of a religious education, Professor Murray. I’m a product of one, as are my children. And the book I was planning to write was going to be in praise of—”

“Seriously? Do you know who I am? And do you know who you are? And do you have any idea what I’m offering you? I know you’re Christian, but are you also daft?”

“Well, let me at least talk it over with my wife. There are financial matters to consider, and—”

“You mean that woman with the tacky sweater from the holiday party?”

She knew you didn’t like it, Roger thinks.

“Honestly, Rog, if you don’t get on board, and right quick, I’ll probably just steal the idea from you and write my own book. And where will you be then? Fifty years old and saddled with eighty thousand dollars in student loans. You and that tacky-sweater-wearing wife of yours will be working until you’re both buried in a hole in the ground. Why don’t you just pray on that, choir boy?”

The professor smiled at him, and Roger noticed that she had very nice teeth. “Take as much time as you need to think it over,” she said. “It occurs to me . . . I know your work from advising you for the past several years, but you might not know mine.” She danced over to the larger of her two bookshelves. “You may have bought some of these for your classes, but just in case . . .” She handed him a stack of her books. They had all been published by major publishers—not a university press, and certainly not a religious university press, among them. Her first book, The Wheels on the Bus Go Round, was considered the seminal work about school integration and busing practices. Wheels was still used in education classes everywhere, but it was the kind of book regular people bought, too. Several years ago, PBS’s Frontline had devoted an entire episode to the fifteenth anniversary of the work. Roger had turned up the volume when Carolyn’s interview came on. “George,” he said, “that’s my teacher!”

“Unga,” had been his wife’s reply. Roger had tried to shake her awake, but George would not be roused.

Roger wondered how many copies of The Wheels on the Bus Go Round sold each year. All he knew was that it had been used in a half dozen of his classes, and not just the ones taught by Professor Murray either. He contemplated asking Professor Murray to sign the copy she’d just given him, but decided that would irreparably imbalance their power dynamic. If he’d opened the book, he would have discovered that it was already presigned: “Live the dream, Carolyn Murray.”

She sauntered back to her desk and took off her suit jacket. “Excuse me,” she said. “I don’t normally give my colleagues a striptease, but it must be ninety degrees out there today.”

“Carolyn”—he had never called her Carolyn before—“Carolyn, of course I know your work. Everyone knows your work. And it would be such an incredible honor to work with you. When you called this meeting, I never imagined . . .” He was rambling. “A product of all religious schools—a religious high school and a religious college and . . .” She nodded encouragingly but also looked a bit bored or impatient. “Of course I want to work with you.”

“Good.” She praised him as if he were an obedient dog. In lieu of shaking hands, Carolyn stood to hug him. He could feel her breasts through her shirt. He didn’t want to be feeling them, but the fact was, he was. They felt strange. They felt strangely . . . buoyant. They felt like they could bounce or maybe even float. Was it possible that the esteemed professor had had a breast job? Or was it the trick of a clever bra maker? Roger knew little about such matters.

“Now, Rog, do you mind if I do something?”

“Um . . . no, I guess not.”

She reached her hand under his collar and lifted the back of his still-blond hair out of it. Her hand was cool and surprisingly soft. “That’s been really bothering me,” she said.

“I guess I need to get it cut.”

She didn’t disagree. “My husband—ex-husband—used to go to this terrific guy not far from campus. I’ll have my assistant e-mail you his name.”

“Where do you get yours cut?” Roger had no idea why he had asked that. “For my wife, I mean.”

“Me?” She said the name of a place, which Roger instantly forgot and which his wife surely couldn’t afford anyway.

The meeting was over, but neither was sure how to end it. Carolyn returned to her burnished throne, and she and Roger beamed at each other a bit. She put her feet up on the desk again. Roger could see a pesky corn pushing through the tear in her stockings. Now that they would be working closely together, he imagined buying her a gift certificate for a pedicure for Christmas. Women liked that sort of thing . . . Didn’t they? Did Carolyn celebrate Christmas? In any case, for the holidays. Was a pedicure an appropriate gift for a colleague?

Carolyn had a funny little smile on her face. “What are you looking at?” she asked evenly.

“Your foot. I mean, there’s a hole. I mean, your stocking has a hole,” he stammered, like it was the first time he’d ever spoken to a girl. “What I’m looking at is the hole.” In pointing at the rip, he accidentally grazed her foot with his index finger, but she didn’t seem to notice anyway.

“How can you look at a hole?” she mused.

Reading Group Guide

1. In the first chapter, “A June and Six Septembers,” we meet Roger Pomeroy, a forty-two-year-old assistant principal at a Christian high school. How does his decision to go back to school for a PhD influence all that follows? What does this choice reveal about him as a husband and a father?

2. What is the significance of the months as chapter names in Part I, The Red House?

3. In the second chapter, “October,” Roger’s wife, George, observes that “middle-class folks were forced to go nuts in their living rooms; the rich got to do it at spas” (p. 17). Is this just an amusing contemplation or does it suggest something significant about George? How does George cope with the escalating preparations for Helen’s wedding and the house painting debacle? At this point in the book, would you say that George is depressed?

4. When we first meet her as a high school cheerleader, Patsy, George and Roger’s youngest daughter, is a “little blonde about to crash into the gravel” (p. 30). What are the actual consequences of this moment, and how does this line resonate figuratively later on

5. In chapter three, “November,” Helen Pomeroy, Patsy’s older sister, is introduced: “This bottomless wanting had started from her first breath . . .” (p. 39). Would you describe Helen as a selfish person? A materialistic one? Is Helen more like Roger or George? What, if any, is the extent of Helen’s responsibility for what happens to Patsy, Vincent, and even George?

6. In “January,” the fifth chapter, we learn a bit about Vincent, who is a graduate film student at NYU. What is his place within the Pomeroy family? How would you say his sufferings compare with Patsy’s?

7. In “February,” Roger accompanies his PhD advisor, Carolyn Murray, to New York. Why does Carolyn choose Roger, and what are the dynamics of their relationship? Do you think that Roger has been tricked by Carolyn?

8. Why doesn’t George accept the job promotion even though it potentially afforded “the power to start digging them out of the hole they were all in? It seemed like too much to even dream of” (p. 68).

9. After Patsy is sent to her grandmother’s house in Tennessee, she “prayed and reflected and what she’d come to was this: people did what they could live with; all sin was relative” (p. 100). Discuss Patsy’s viewpoint. Would the other members of her family agree with this statement?

10. “Like Patsy, Roger had spent most of the summer in prayer, though his prayers were a bit more adamant and significantly more specific than hers” (p. 106). Does God provide answers to Roger? Where does this leave the rest of his family at the end of Part I? Which of the characters would you describe as religious? Why or why not? Does money or religion play more of a motivating role in this book? Explain.

11. Part II begins six years later with Patsy’s return from Iraq. Discuss the episode in the airport where Patsy’s sand globe is confiscated by airport security. Other than the sand globe, what other things has Patsy missed and/or lost in the last six years? Does Patsy at age twenty-three seem older or younger than her years?

12. Why is there a hole in Patsy’s backyard? Compare Magnum French with Patsy’s father, Roger Pomeroy. Would you say that Magnum is a better man than Roger?

13. Consider Patsy’s two friends from Iraq, Buddy and Smartie. What is significant about these relationships? Compare Smartie to the other male characters in the book: e.g. Patsy’s boyfriend, Harland, her husband, Magnum, and her brother, Vincent.

14. Patsy spends time at the Slickmart poking holes in water bottles. She also finds “a tiny hole you could peek through and view the store from above” (p. 184). Why does the stain on the ceiling affect George so deeply? Patsy tells the Sheriff that she didn’t know what she had been thinking when she tried to save the Jesus stain. What do you think Patsy was thinking?

15. Part III takes place in the near future. How does George handle the news of her cancer diagnosis? Have her coping skills changed?

16. Consider the following quote: “At some point, Vincent, we have to overcome the disaster of our parentage” (p. 233). Have any of the Pomeroy siblings overcome this family “disaster”? Discuss Tolstoy’s famous line from War and Peace, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” as it relates to the Pomeroy family.

17. “So, what is it George? Why do they hate us so much? Because it’s not just Vinnie. It’s Patsy, too! I’ve prayed over it, and I’ve asked God, and I just don’t understand” (p. 247). What accounts for Roger’s blind spot? Is George any more enlightened? By the end of the book, which parent did you feel more sympathy for?

18. Patsy decides to sacrifice her hard earned money in order to protect her daughter at the clinic. Though she never learns of her own mother’s betrayal (which led to Patsy’s expulsion years before), how might there be poetic justice in her actions here? What kind of a parent does Patsy turn out to be?

19. As Patsy is watching her father’s burial, “it occurs to her that she has spent most of her life digging herself out of or into one hole or another. And then in the end, they just lower you into the ground anyway. She whispers a question, kind of like a prayer, if she were the praying sort, to no one in particular, ‘How in the world do you ever get out?’” Does Patsy succeed in escaping from the hole? Will Patsy’s daughter escape the hole?

20. Britney Spears’s song “Baby One More Time” is used as the novel’s epigraph. Where else does the song appear and how does it resonate throughout the story?21. References and allusions to holes appear throughout the novel. What is the author implying, and what do you make of the significance of the title? What ultimately is “the hole we’re in”?

22. The title could almost serve as a headline for the state of the entire country today—in what sense do forces beyond the Pomeroys’ control (credit card laws, terrorism, politics, etc.) contribute to their struggle? Did this book make you feel better or worse about your own circumstances and choices?

Suggestions for further reading:

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen; American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; On Beauty by Zadie Smith; A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore; A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe; Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen; The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington; The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne; The Hours by Michael Cunningham; Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot