One reader’s thoughtful response

MAJOR SPOILERS BE HERE!

Linda is a fellow author from my fanfic days. She told me she thought I put the questions in the book because I’m an English teacher and can’t help myself. She may be right! However, providing discussion questions is also not that uncommon in potential book club reads. Anyway, I’m sure Linda and I will both get a kick out of seeing any comments back from you, so feel free to respond.

SERIOUSLY! LIKE, RIGHT AWAY.

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1. Should he have slept with her?
The way you have written the characters, well, a reluctant yes. You are pushing the limits of cultural acceptance and that is a good thing to explore. The act does help both of them. The primary adult in Molly’s live has given consent (her mother) and no one else needs to know about it. And frankly, their age difference is moderate compared to human sexual pairings that have occurred in the dominant American culture and even more so in other cultures. Much older men have taken much younger female partners even as young as 12 or 13. While not the norm, it happens. In native Australian culture, a young girl is married to an older widower. Then when she out lives her husband, she is paired with an inexperienced boy. This seems to be that culture’s view of how to satisfy the sexual needs of the different genders at different ages.

(Sandra: I think the Aborigines may be on to something!)

2. Should the author have had Molly ask David to sleep with her?
I think so. Actually, it shows that Molly really wants this and is not just going along with something someone else needs or wants. Lots of kids her age are sexually active. Her psychological needs after the rape seem to be that she needs a good and kind sexual experience. An older experienced man that she trusts rather than an inexperienced and more callous age mate may have been the better choice for her.

3. Can or should these two live happily ever after?
Probably not. In our culture their needs are different at their current ages. College is not just academics; it is learning adult interaction with age mates preparing for careers and living arrangement after they graduate. Frank discussions of these things would only be inhibited by an older adult.

4. Is Cassandra good mother?
Yes, in the only way she can be. She deeply cares about Molly and in her own way tries her best to prepare her for adult womanhood. She can be comforting and protective of her daughter and even considers holding back on her art if it would harm her daughter. It is not her fault that her daughter has a completely different personality which sometimes makes it difficult for them to communicate. Cassandra is a very interesting character and there are people around who are like her in that they find it difficult to make sense of the world except though their art. I think people like her need to do art, to create on a concrete level, the things that happen to them and to others in their life, in order to better understand them. She cannot experience her daughter’s rape with her daughter’s body and mind. But she wants to. She wants to fully understand it.  And to do so, she has to, in a sense, recreate it.

5. Is Cassandra a good artist?
Yes. She may appeal to only a subset of the art loving population but she is trying to be true to her vision of life. It is almost as if she can’t help trying to express herself in the only way she really knows how to and hopes that she is communicating her views to people. To make money off her life’s work seems to be secondary and she will only take jobs that are not of the art world, if subsistence demands it.

6. Does Kim get a pass for her bad behavior?
Only a partial pass. The readers and Molly only have a dim understanding of why Kim was in such urgency to get away from her parents home. But she is a major user and manipulator. She could have picked up an idea of what better behavior was from other families, like Molly’s, and other organizations she participated like school or even church if she ever went. Molly was instinctively correct in thinking the relationship was not mutual (if it ever had been) and ought to be ended.

7. Some readers are upset that Molly suffers what she does at the party – that the author doesn’t have David save her from it. Your opinion?
Not really upset, though feelings of outrage overcame me. Heck, this is a key plot point on which much of the book is built. And it is ever so true that the legal system fails to dispense true justice, more often than we would like to think. It needs to be thought about and talked about just like the current exposure of the high rate of killing of Black males for minor violations or for even just for running in fear.

8. Are there too many victims in this novel?
No. When someone is abusive, there are usually multiple victims. For example, Mr. Schmidt abused not on his daughter, but his wife, and even his sons were abused by his bad example. Joey may get away with some highly illegal behavior for a while but I see him one day going to prison or even being killed by an irate boyfriend of some girl he abuses in the future. And anyway, everyone is a victim of something or other, even if only mildly, over their lifetime.

9. What about the references to the passage from To the Lighthouse? Successful or pretentious or just getting in the way?
Well, thinking of myself as somewhat literate, I should have understood the passage better than I do. I have seen a TV production based on this book. I also tried to read it at one point but found it hard to get into so it is on my backlist to tackle one day again because it is “good literature”. You did give somewhat of an explanation but I think I needed more. Since it is highly relevant to the theme, maybe it could have been mentioned at least one other time and a further analogies made to it.

(Sandra: Part of the reason I included this question was that a fellow adjunct professor at HVCC who liked the book also burst out with “But GOD! If I saw one more Virginia Woolf reference I was going to throw it across the room!”)

10. How does David change over the course of the novel? Has he grown up?
David has changed but he is already grown up. He was a functioning adult and the tragedy imposed upon him gave him adult problems to work through. He is a traumatized adult who has lost people he has loved and in a manner where he questions his own ethical behavior and his manhood as protector of his loved ones. He is scarred and mildly disabled. He has no relatives left who are sympathetic as he really needs them to be. He is pressured by the possibility that he might no longer be up to doing his life’s work. And he is shocked by his wife’s diaries to learn that she had negative thoughts about him that he didn’t realize and can no longer try to fix. His only child is dead and that is something he cannot face yet. He doesn’t realize how bad off he is until he attempts suicide. But he does start to recover and Molly is a big part of that. Cassandra helps and so does Colin. He is not okay yet, but he will be – someday.

(Sandra: Honestly, I don’t view David as a grown-up at the beginning of this book — I think men of that era were often immature because of their abundant gender privileges and lack of privation.)

11. How does Molly change? Has she grown up?
Oh yes. I was not sure she should have been given the lead in a job to help a traumatized adult. I think there should have been a trained nurse visiting David and overseeing his recovery and medications and monitoring his psychological state with Molly cooking and cleaning and being guided by the nurse. But then, many plot points could not have happened. And it is true that teenagers sometimes have to assume adult responsibilities. I don’t know how she learned them but Molly has tremendous internal resources and instinctive compassion.

12. How has Cassandra changed, if at all?
Not much changed. But we do see she can put off her own work or hide it over concern for her daughter’s mental health. I don’t think she is capable of much change or adaptation. Certainly she could not change to save her marriage like some women have to do. Maybe Molly will see that one day and treasure her mother for who she is – a unique and talented and perhaps rare type of human being.

13. What is the point of Colin? Should he have been portrayed differently?
Colin is a kind of comment on American society. He is also an ally to Molly and Cassandra and even David. He is a likeable voice of reason who appreciates Cassandra, accepts her eccentricity and subtly helps Molly appreciate her mother.

14. What is the point of Molly’s father? Should he have been portrayed differently?
Oh boy. While he does have his daughter’s interest at heart, wanting to save her pain, in his own profession he shows why justice for rape victims is so hard to achieve. I think there will be difficulties in the future between Molly and her dad. I wish this could have been explored more in this book but I realize it would be more of a side issue, not directly in the flow of the plot. But isn’t it a bit of karma that his own daughter is a victim of the very crime that he defends men and boys who are accused of it? How many guilty men has he got off? How many female victims has he prevented from achieving justice through intimidating and heavy-handed hardball lawyer techniques? I’d love to see him run this through his mind and begin to question his own ethics and whether it was all worth it to make a living this way. But that would be another story, maybe even another book.

15. Who are the villains and do they work as villains?
Mr. Schmidt, Joey and Paulie are almost pure villain without redeeming qualities. They are one-sided characters, not nicely rounded out like the other characters. But that seems to be the point, their purpose in the book – people the reader can really hate. And boy did I hate them! I had an image of tying them down and with a knife carving rapist into every inch of their skin.

(Sandra: Honestly, I tend to see Paulie as another victim here. Neglected by his parents, he fell into Joey’s awful orbit. And Joey is the sad product of his father, and even Mr. Schmidt was probably brutalized in his childhood… abuse seldom arises from nothing.)

16. What is the novel trying to say about sex? About marriage? About art?
About sex, well, there could be situations where it is acceptable, even therapeutic, that our culture does not embrace yet. There are also situations where it is harmful and damaging that our culture has yet to prevent even though it is tagged as wrong. Ours is not an ideal culture, maybe no culture is.
Marriage is not easy. Some marriages do not work when the individuals finally understand who it is they have married, like Molly’s parents. Some marriages are pathological like the Schmidt’s and their continued married state is damaging to the family members. Some marriages, though not perfect, are fairly good working marriages and when terminated by tragedy, leave scars which are difficult to scab over and heal.

17. Why set it in the seventies? Would it have been better set today? What would have had to change?
Perhaps it is the author’s own time of coming of age? So she can really understand Molly? I think much of the same attitudes and legal reactions to rape have not changed much since the seventies. The questionable parts about some parts of our culture have not changed and that is a good thing to point out. All cultures evolve and maybe ours has areas we really have to work on to achieve the justice we give lip service to.
But as to what would have had to change to make the story be set now would be some more feminist reactions to the rape. That could be done and shown to be almost as ineffective as in the seventies – which does happen. And perhaps have a character to point that out, like Cassandra saying something like there are louder protests today but the rapist still got away with it.

(Sandra: I don’t think this kind of relationship between David and Molly would be socially tolerated much at all today, while it was not uncommon back then. It would have been much harder to make David or Cassandra come across as believable or sympathetic in today’s climate.)

18. What would have been a better title for this book, and why?
I am not sure. I think the title is fine but may be a bit esoteric for a lot of readers. It needs a little more background explanation or story line from the work from which it was extracted.

Additional comments:
I am extremely impressed by the variety and depth of you characters. They certainly seem real. The time frame seemed to fit, and I lived through it as a young adult just out of college. The social context, the local culture, was interesting to learn about. It was enjoyable to read and also engaged my emotions.

Well, one effect of reading this novel is that since you have a sixteen year old facing adult problems, it kind of gave me permission to pick up a project I had laid aside last year which also has a sixteen year old doing things I thought might be beyond him because of his age. My sixteen year old is an autistic male with a hidden computer talent who runs away from home. Of many ideas I have on the back burner which have been defusing instead of focusing my energies, this one now has excited my interest again and seems viable. Thanks!

Sandra: I’m so delighted to hear that I’ve inspired you, Linda!

COMMENTS / QUESTIONS / CONCERNS?