Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Dear Lucy includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Julie Sarkissian. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. .
Dear Lucy tells the story of an uncommon woman with a unique voice and boundless compassion. Lucy has been abandoned by her mother and taken in by an older couple, known as Mister and Missus, to work on their farm. It is here that she meets Samantha, a pregnant teenager with whom she finds an unlikely connection. When Samantha’s baby disappears shortly after he is born, Lucy pledges to help Samantha find him. This is the first time in her life that Lucy has been trusted with an important task. Armed with Samantha’s letters and diary, which Lucy cannot read, and the company of a talking chicken named Jennifer, Lucy sets out to reunite Samantha with her child. What follows is a poignant story of faith and friendship, heartbreak, longing and loyalty.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the structure of Dear Lucy. What is the effect of having multiple narrators? Did you trust all of them equally? If not, who did you doubt, and why?
2. At the beginning of the novel, Lucy says, “I don’t have the words yet. I am still looking for them.” (p. 4). What does she mean by that, and how does it affect her interactions with others? Do you agree with her that “Not every time is a time when you need words to tell things?” (p. 12) If so, give some examples of where this statement is true in Dear Lucy.
3. Discuss the epistolary elements of Dear Lucy. Why do you think that Sarkissian includes both the letter from Samantha as it actually is and as Jennifer reads it on page 312? What’s the effect of doing so?
4. Missus’s first words in Dear Lucy are “Life constantly reminds us of all of the things that could have been different if betrayal weren’t in human nature.” (p. 8) How does this statement set up her character? Do you agree with her? What sort of betrayals occur in Dear Lucy?
5. What’s your initial impression of Missus and Mister? Did your feelings about them change by the end of Dear Lucy? If so, why? Did the revelations about their relationship with Stella surprise you?
6. Samantha and Lucy seem to be kindred spirits. Why do you think there’s such a kinship between the two girls? In what ways are they alike?
7. Stella symbolizes something different to each Missus, Samantha, and Lucy. What does she symbolize to each? And, what do each of the character’s reactions to Stella reveal about them?
8. Who is Jennifer? How does she guide Lucy, and why do you think Lucy needs her? Jennifer is afraid to speak when Lucy is reunited with Mum mum and again when she returns to the hen house with Lucy. At the hen house, Lucy says, “She will never have any more words…I will be her words, like she was my words.” (p. 337). What does Lucy mean?
9. When Lucy meets Rodger Marvin she thinks he “will be the first person to ever read my words, to help me get them ready for everybody else.” (p. 89) Does he help her? Do you think that Rodger Marvin is as pious a man as he initially seems?
10. Samantha says, “the trick is keeping your strength a secret, so people don’t suspect, so they don’t keep a close eye on you, so you have a chance to get away.” (p. 261). How is Samantha trying to keep her strength a secret? Are there other characters in Dear Lucy who are doing the same? Why? And, are they successful?
11. Lucy tells Jennifer that Mum mum is always crying “[b]ecause she has lots of feelings.” (p. 270). Do you think that is the reason for her tears? Describe Mum mum’s reaction to Lucy’s return. How do you feel about Mum mum’s treatment of Lucy?
12. Of a child’s relationship with her mother Lucy says, “There is a thread, and the thread is so long that it lasts forever. Your heart is tied to one end of the thread, and your mother’s heart is tied to the other end.” (p. 313) Are the mothers in Dear Lucy connected with their children? In what ways?
13. Describe Samantha’s behavior towards Allen. Why do you think that she treats him as she does? Do you agree with her assessment that “I didn’t have any love, or any goodness or anything to give”? (p. 99) After hearing Allen tell Lucy about how Samantha treated him, did you feel differently about either Samantha or Allen?
14. The phrase “the secret of growing” recurs throughout the book. What does Lucy mean when she talks about it?
15. Several of the characters make promises to each other that they try to break. What are those promises? With regard to each of these cases, do you agree with Lucy that “[i]f you don’t do a promise then you are lying.” (p. 293) Explain your answer.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Dear Lucy has drawn comparisons to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Read both books, then, compare and contrast them in your book club. In what ways are Lucy and Christopher John Francis Boone alike? How do they differ?
2. Read Julie Sarkissian’s short story,“The New Saint Claire Restaurant” here: http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/14398/the-new-saint-claire-restaurant-by-julie-sarkissian.html and discuss it with your book club. How are the themes that she tackles in both works similar?
3. When Lucy makes her home with Samantha, Mister, and Missus, she says, “We aren’t a family, but nobody says that part. A family, they are there from the beginning of each other. But we all got here at different times and now we are leaving at different times (p. 119).” Talk with your book club about what you think binds individuals together as a family, then share pictures of your family.
A Conversation with JULIE SARKISSAN
Although you’ve written short stories, Dear Lucy, is your first novel. Did the experience of writing a novel differ from writing short stories? How? Can you describe your writing process?
To me the experience of a short story is like a solo performance by a singer with an incredible, not necessarily beautiful but totally distinctive, voice, that needs to hit one or two notes really well and very clearly. A novel is more like conducting an orchestra, and playing all the instruments as well. There are so many working pieces, and so many moving targets, and not every instrument is as strong as the next. You can’t afford to miss a note in a short story, and in a novel you’re sure to miss a few.
I am inspired by voice, so I usually begin writing a piece with stream of consciousness narration, and when I feel like I have enough material I work backwards to figure out who the narrator must be, based on the clues the voice has given me. Plot doesn’t come as easily to me and ties my brain up in knots and it is often difficult for me to commit hard and fast plot elements and stay consist with the “facts” of my fictional world. Working with an editor is a great resource for untying those knots.
Logistically speaking, I have worked in restaurants since I was 18, so I have been waitressing and writing for oven ten years now. So I write during the day, and waitress at night and I like the balance it provides.
As a first time author, do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
One phrase about writing I think is brilliant and really relate to is by EL Doctorow: “Writing is like driving a car at night, you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
There is so much about an unfinished book that is impossible to for the writer to know until it is written. It is easy and natural to feel overwhelmed at how to move a story through space and time, but the process is made up of a million tiny steps. If you have the courage to write a sentence, over and over and over again, you can write a book.
Haley Tanner says that, “you’ll want to linger of the poetry of each and every sentence” of Dear Lucy. How did you create Lucy’s unique and poetic voice?
Thanks Haley! Lucy created her voice herself, I was just lucky enough to be the vessel through which she entered the human world. I think Lucy, and her voice, are part of the collective unconscious.
Originally Dear Lucy was titled This is How To Find Me. What made you change the title? Did it reflect a change in the way you were telling the story?
My agent, editor and I decided together to change the title after we learned that Junot Diaz had a novel forthcoming titled This Is How You Lose Her. We were worried the close similarity in titles might do my book a disservice. Additionally, it seemed that most people couldn’t remember This Is How To Find Me correctly. It was a practical decision to change the title; not artistically motivated.
All of the characters in Dear Lucy are flawed in some way and some of their actions seem unforgivable. how did you feel writing those characters? Could you identify with their choices?
While I felt different things for different characters, I did have some sympathy for everybody, especially as I recognized how desperately they were trying to believe their own stories. And I can certainly identify with that. We all hold specious conceits about ourselves that we are desperate to believe, but never truly can, so we become determined to have others believe it about us. I think Missus in particular demonstrates this.
A lot of the unforgivable actions in the book presented themselves to me as the solution to little mysteries. For example, Stella was always a character in the novel, she was always the adopted daughter of Mister and Missus, and she was always “missing.” I always knew something terrible happened to her but for a long while I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t feel like I had to know. But subconsciously the question of what happened to her was developing in tandem to my writing and creating Missus and Mister. So when it came time to address what happened to Stella, I had subconsciously already decided what happened. Once I knew it, I couldn’t not know it, It seemed to be true, whether or not I chose to address it overtly in the book.
Dear Lucy centers around the power of words. The characters can’t often say what they mean, either because they have “no words” or they’re unwilling to face certain truths. how did you get those voices to come together?
With so many characters selling their stories and telling half-truths, it was a challenge to reveal enough to the reader to allow him or her to put the pieces together, while still allowing the characters to be manipulative and partly obscured. Some amount of trial and error went into what was revealed and when and by who. And often what one character couldn’t say, another character could, either deliberately or inadvertently.
Gabe Hudson calls Dear Lucy a “gothic noir.” Were there any gothic writers who inspired you while you were writing?
Absolutely! Southern Gothic writers are some of my very favorite. Faulkner has long been an inspiration to me and was for this book. Other include Flannery O’ Connor, Nathaniel West, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty. The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton is a more recent novel that is certainly meets the darkness criteria for gothic writing that I was really inspired and moved by.
Dear Lucy is told from multiple points of view. Why did you choose to structure the story in that way? Was it difficult to switch between the voices of the characters as you were writing?
After writing about eighty pages in Lucy’s voice I realized I wanted a foil point of view, both to Lucy’s innocent truthfulness and her cognitive limitations. Missus’ POV was born out of that desire. Missus was already a character, and her voice became a good parallel to Lucy’s; Missus is completely shrewd and perceptive, but she is incapable of real honesty.
I liked the layered effect of the voices, like looking through multiple panes of old, weathered glass. It’s harder to see what’s behind the glass, but all the cracks and grime enrich the experience of trying to make out what it is you’re seeing.
Having multiple narrators was certainly a challenge, not so much in switching between the character’s points of view, but in distinguishing the sound and quality of the voices from one another. Lucy’s voice is so distinctive and it would creep into other POV’s, especially when it came to metaphors and similes.
What kind of research did you do while you were writing Dear Lucy?
Dear Lucy is timeless and placeless so really no research felt necessary. There isn’t much physical description of the farm, so there wasn’t a high risk of being factually incorrect when it came to farming. Likewise, any Biblical references are so vague I didn’t feel I ran the risk of being inaccurate.
As Dear Lucy ends, it is unclear what will happen to any of the characters. Why did you choose to end on such an uncertain note?
I decided to end the book at the most victorious moment in Lucy’s life. It is a choice when to end a book, and certainly I can imagine what could come in the moments and days after Lucy leaves the farm with the baby. But when Lucy is explaining her secrets to the baby, it is one of the longest, most intricate dialogues Lucy has in the book without displaying any self-consciousness about missing words. So not only has Lucy followed through on her promise to Samantha, she has fulfilled her promise to herself to find words for the shape of things inside her, and tell them to someone. Lucy is grateful for her words and for the intimacy they provide. She is proud of her words for perhaps the first time.
What would you like readers to take away from Dear Lucy?
Lucy’s sense of wonder at the things other people take for granted.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel about a pirate carnival, which is a floating fair of music, food, and entertainment collected from around the world. It is run by a mysterious community of gypsies, and travels up the eastern seaboard, spreading its celebration of life, passion, and indulgence. When the pirate carnival docks in a sleepy New England town, the lives of three young women will never be the same. Clarissa, a beautiful, painfully polite, modest young woman unlocks the dangerous power of her beauty. Sweet, chubby, Betsey, who has left college to care for her ailing mother, abandons her duties to become the loyal muse of a charismatic pirate baker. And Sue, the narrator of the book, falls in love with a pirate who speaks the language of her heart but won’t give her straight answer about anything. Up against her own desires, the beliefs of her family, and the twisted magic of the ship, Sue fights to uncover the troubled history of her beloved and save those she loves from disappearing into a world where ego, indulgence and beauty, seem to trump all else.