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This reading group guide forLove Water Memoryincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jennie Shortridge. 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.
When missing Seattle woman Lucie Walker is found standing in the frigid San Francisco Bay with no recollection of her past, she must wake from the fog of amnesia to finally confront her darkest secrets. In this emotional drama, thirty-nine-year-old Lucie slowly uncovers what made her run away from a successful career and loving fiancé Grady, who struggles with his own emotional shortcomings and hides the details of his last encounter with Lucie. As Lucie struggles to reclaim her identity, she must first discover who she used to be, including finally unearthing the details of her tragic childhood.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Lucie suffers from dissociative fugue. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “The word fugue comes from the Latin word for ‘flight.’ People with dissociative fugue temporarily lose their sense of personal identity and impulsively wander or travel away from their homes or places of work. They often become confused about who they are and might even create new identities . . . Dissociative fugue has been linked to severe stress, which might be the result of traumatic events—such as war, abuse, accidents, disasters or extreme violence—that the person has experienced or witnessed.” Discuss how the condition applies to Lucie.
2. Lucie’s aunt Helen Ten Hands says, “We didn’t know how a mind could break so badly,” (p. 316). Discuss how and why neither Lucie nor her loved ones understood the depth of her mental illness. How might they have helped her earlier?
3. Compare the pre-amnesiac Lucie with the “new” Lucie. How does she change, and what does this signify?
4. How does Grady’s early family life affect his relationship with Lucie, and his own life choices? What role does his large, loquacious family play in the present-day story?
5. Grady spends much time under water. Lucie woke in the water, and seems to be swimming through a fog. Discuss the symbolism of water for both characters in Love Water Memory.
6. Lucie goes to great lengths to learn to cook after she comes home. What is the significance of food and the cooking scenes in the story?
7. Discuss the role of psychotherapy in the book, and each character’s take on it. Why doesn’t Lucie get help earlier? Can family members force their loved ones to seek counseling?
8. How did the death of a parent at a young age impact both Lucie and Grady? What are the similarities and differences in their experiences with love and loss, and how does early loss affect each one?
9. Compare the effect of music for Lucie, and water for Grady. What do they each find in those things, and why?
10. Helen longs to reconnect with her niece, yet is overwhelmed at having to tell Lucie the truth about the past. What contributes to her internal conflict?
11. In what ways is Grady holding on to his prior notions of the “old” Lucie? How does this affect his developing feelings for the “new” Lucie?
12. Discuss the similarities between Grady and Helen’s deceased husband, Edward Ten Hands, and what drew Lucie to each of them.
13. How do you think Lucie will resolve her “new” and “old” selves?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Grady turns to swimming as an escape from the world. Discuss what place, activity, or passion is your retreat, and what effect it has on you, and why.
2. The pre-amnesiac Lucie saw family as an obstacle to her relationship with Grady. The new Lucie embraces his big clan as her own. Discuss how family affects—for better or worse—the relationships in your life.
3. Music, food, and photos are all memory triggers for Lucie. What senses or sensations are memory triggers for you?
4. What do you think the author is saying about identity and about the ability or inability to change your own? Has your identity changed over time or through difficult life events or stressors? What makes you you?
5. Visit the Mayo Clinic’s website (mayoclinic.com) and read about the four types of dissociative disorders, including dissociative fugue. Discuss the nuances of each, and how Lucie fits her diagnosis. Has mental illness affected anyone in your life?
6. Visit the author’s website, JennieShortridge.com, and read more about what influenced her to write this book, as well as her tips for book group meetings.
A Conversation with Jennie Shortridge
1. What prompted you to explore the world of mental illness, more specifically dissociative fugue?
Whether I plan to or not, I always seem to include some aspect of mental illness and health in the stories I write, most probably because I grew up under the care of a mother who suffered from various forms of it. I am most interested in the stories of people who are grappling with something very difficult but very human, as we all do from time to time—even if it’s not as dramatic as amnesia.
Reading fiction often shows us a path for coping with our own issues and problems, because we become so deeply involved with the characters and how they solve their dilemmas. It doesn’t matter if they do a shoddy job of it; we observe that and make better plans for ourselves. That’s why reading fiction was so important to me as a kid, and why I’ve been so drawn to writing it for as long as I can remember.
2. In your other novels, you created fictional stories using true life experiences. Was Lucie’s story based on any real-life events?
Love Water Memory was inspired by a news article in the Seattle Times in 2006, about a man who disappeared for six weeks, having suffered from dissociative fugue. His fiancée found him much in the way Grady found Lucie, and they began their lives together again even though he didn’t remember her. That fascinated me, and I wanted to write that story: how two people might come back together, and what hurdles and obstacles might get in the way.
What I didn’t realize until after I wrote the first draft was that I used a very personal and very dark early memory of my mother experiencing post-partum psychosis in crafting Lucie’s back story. I’d thought I was writing something completely outside of my own experience, and yet, I guess we never do.
3. Many of your books are set in the Pacific Northwest. Why did you choose Seattle as the setting for Love Water Memory, and how did your experience living in the city help shape the story?
The Pacific Northwest is all about mood and light, so it creates the perfect setting for drama. Even though there isn’t much rain in this story, there’s still something about the shade of tall trees, the vista of water at the horizon, that feels evocative to me.
I wanted to write a story set in a very ordinary neighborhood—much like the one I live in—to ground these characters who were forced completely out of their comfort zones. In fact, their bungalow’s floor plan is mine exactly. They do have different tastes in decorating than I do. Their house is cool and unemotional while mine is bright and messy and sometimes overly emotional. But every room is in the same place.
4. The name Lucie means “light,” and Grady is Irish for “descendant of the noble one.” Did you choose these names as representations of the characters’ personalities?
Oh, how wonderful! I had no idea. I actually named them after my husband’s grandmother and my own step-grandfather, who was part Cherokee. I then asked friends if I could use the names of their favorite grandparents for the rest of the characters. I use different naming conventions with each book (sometimes looking up meanings, sometimes, as in this time, obviously not) and it just pleased me to use the names of people who were so loved by people I love.
5. It is never revealed what exactly happened to Lucie during the days she ran away to San Francisco. What do you imagine her doing before she was found?
One of the interesting things about dissociative fugue is that those who have it don’t remember anything about the time between going missing and “coming to.” In writing this book, I wanted to give the reader the same experience. All we can do is piece the story together, as Lucie tries to do, through eyewitness accounts and her own kind of sleuthing, figuring out her past. Not everything in life can be known. Some mysteries remain forever, and I find that idea really intriguing and worth sharing.
6. Playing the piano becomes instrumental in helping Lucie reconnect with who she is. As a songwriter, how does music influence your writing?
First of all, nice pun! I think all writing is musical. It has a rhythm and melody, with repeating themes, changes in tempo, glissandos and swells and dynamic range. Some writing clunks, and you know it when you read it, and you endeavor to smooth it into a pleasing passage, or to hit the right notes in an action sequence.
That said, I can’t listen to music when I’m writing, which makes me really sad. I have friends who do, and it seems so romantic, so pleasing to have music in your ears and mind and soul when you’re writing. But it just distracts me, unfortunately. I love to write either to silence or to the loud white noise of a coffee shop.
7. The topics of your novels have ranged from homelessness, addiction, broken marriage and death, and often mental illness. Do you specifically set out to address certain difficult issues, and why?
Perhaps because of my background, I’m driven to understand how and why things break, and to examine and pull apart and put back together all of the pieces. I realized early in my novel-writing life that when I did this, other people benefited as well, especially if they’d dealt with hardships in their lives (which, of course, most of us have in one way or another).
I think that by writing and talking about difficult things, we bring them out into the light where they aren’t as terrifying or awful, and we find that others have felt or experienced the same things. That’s what reading is all about, to me: the realization that we’re not alone. We are connected in so many ways that we may not understand until we find ourselves in the muck, looking for a way out.
8. At the book’s conclusion, Lucie and Grady seem to have reached a new level of understanding but still have challenges ahead. Do you think they’ll make it in the long run?
What’s more important is what do you think? I don’t mean that in a coy way. I actually believe the reader is an active participant in the story, and it’s up to each reader to decide certain things, especially what happens after the written word stops.
9. You have said, “I write to examine the universal story through the personal lens.” What is the universal story you would like readers to take away from the book?
As with every book I’ve written, I want them to see that there is a certain magic to love. That unhappy beginnings or experiences in life don’t have to lead to unhappy lives. And, most importantly, that there is always hope.
Jennie Shortridge has published five novels: Love Water Memory, When She Flew, Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe, Eating Heaven, and Riding with the Queen. When not writing, teaching writing workshops, or volunteering with kids, Jennie stays busy as a founding member of Seattle7Writers.org, a collective of Northwest authors devoted both to raising funds for community literacy projects and to raising awareness of Northwest literature.