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In a small town in Ireland called Kenmare, where everyone’s secrets are everyone’s business, five people begin a journey towards a renewal of love, faith, and hope. Mary is both beloved and whispered about in the town; the loss of her first love and her first child prove to some that she is marked by sorrow. Still, Mary is determined to find joy in her simple life and in those around her, especially her father, her beloved dog Mr. Monkels, and her best friend, Penny. Mary and Penny have been the closest of friends since Mary reached out to a lonely Penny when they were young girls at school, and Mary knows all about Penny’s secret affair with a married man – Adam, the same man that has loved Penny since she was a girl of twelve. However, even Mary doesn’t suspect the depth of Penny’s pain when her relationship with Adam ends – a pain that begins Penny’s slow spiral into addiction.
Sam, the mysterious American who moves in next door to Mary, knows about addiction all too well; he’s come to this quiet Irish town to escape the private—and public—demons of his past, and to learn to accept himself, flaws and all. All Sam really wants is some nice, quiet isolation—but he finds himself irresistibly drawn to Mary and to the people of Kenmare. Mary’s cousin, Ivan, despite the trouble in his marriage, always has a kind word and a smile for Sam, and Mary herself seems to understand him better than anyone has before.
As these five people face daily struggles both great and trivial, they are brought together in unexpected ways and provide support when it’s least expected. Though some might call them “hopeless cases,” they will ultimately save themselves by saving each other.
Questions and Topics of Discussion
On page 5 of the novel, we discover that Mary’s son Ben had died: “She smiled at him, now dead as long as he lived, he in turn smiling back at her, locked in time, forever a five-year-old, and forever smiling.” The novel often utilizes this mechanism of gradually leading up to an unexpected revelation about a character’s life; the same happens, on a much larger scale, with Sam’s secret. How did this technique influence your reading? How did the early revelation of her son’s death color your perception of Mary herself?
How did you feel about the novel’s treatment of addiction? Was it too sensitive, too harsh, or merely realistic? Both Sam and Penny struggle with different forms of addiction; at what moments in the novel did you feel each of their struggles most acutely? Why?
Apart from the Crowd is written in the third person, and the omniscient narration skips among all of the major characters. Did you like this technique? Which character’s perspective was most enjoyable for you? Was there a character that you did not like?
Penny and Adam’s relationship is wrought with emotion, tears and grief throughout the novel. Which one do you blame more for the situation in which they find themselves? Do you think the novel itself places more blame on one or the other? Is there a moral authority or judgment in the novel? If so, what is it?
On page 103, Sam remembers his feelings after his grandmother’s stroke: “Her loss in his life and the fear for her future threatened his very sanity but the worst of it was his own impotency. He couldn’t break her out and take her away to a better place. . . . She had given him everything and he had let her down.” Do you think this sense of responsibility for others is consistent for Sam throughout the novel? Why? How does his relationship with Mia reflect that sense? Did you feel that his interaction with her was selfish or selfless?
What did you think of the presentation of gender in the novel? Does the novel have a feminist or anti-feminist outlook, or neither? How do the women in the novel occupy both traditional and untraditional gender roles? The men?
On page 247, Mary says that her understanding of God changed when she realized “the world doesn’t revolve around me. . . . those who had gone on before had merely followed their own path as opposed to being a casualty on mine.” How does each character come to this realization in the novel, spiritually or otherwise? Who do you think is the wisest character in the novel? Who has the least self-awareness?
Sam, despite his growing attraction to Mary, questions its origins on page 269: “He worried that he was attaching feelings to this woman in a bid to escape from himself.” Did you believe that the attraction between Sam and Mary was authentic, or did you have doubts like Sam’s? Although their connection is often acknowledged, Sam and Mary never consummate that connection – they hardly even speak of it to each other. Did you like the novel’s subtle presentation of their relationship, or would you have preferred it to be more overt?
On page 334, Mary tells Sam, “Everybody lies.” What are the lies in this novel? Which lies do you think are most destructive? When did the lying – the lie itself, the liar, or the one being lied to – surprise you? When did you expect it to occur? Do you think the characters have reached a level of honesty with each other by the end of the novel?
How does the novel define love? Which relationship in the novel is the purest example of that love? Why?
The novel ends with an epilogue that takes place in New York, and describes a reunion between Mary and Sam. Did you like the ending, or would you have preferred something different? What else would you have liked to see in the epilogue? What do you think happens to the characters after the book ends?
Tips to Enhance Your Bookclub
To recreate the novel’s Irish setting and provide a connection with Mary’s occupation, create a pub-like atmosphere at your meeting. You can serve popcorn shrimp and fries as a “fish and chips” snack, and the only true Irish beverage – Guinness. (You can find a recipe for popcorn shrimp here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/recipes/recipe/0,1977,FOOD_9936_31050,00.html).
On page 197, Penny says that Mary “lives her life to a soundtrack.” Before the meeting, ask each book club member to email the host with the song that reminds her of an important time in her life. The host can prepare a CD of the collected songs and play it at the meeting.
One of Mary’s passions, and one of her methods for dealing with loss, is her photography. Organize a group outing to a local photography exhibit – or, better yet, provide each member with a disposable camera and visit a local landmark to take photographs. You can have the photographs developed and pick your favorites at the next meeting.
Addiction plays a large part in the novel. Get your group involved and help a local addiction service. You can look for local services online.