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This reading group guide for The Pursuit of Happiness includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Douglas Kennedy. 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.
Kate Malone stands at her mother’s coffin surrounded by the remains of her fragmented and troubled family. A mysterious woman she does not recognize stands with them, mourning quietly. Days later, this same woman demands to be in Kate’s life, explaining that she “knew her as a little girl.” Kate finally relents and allows Sara Smythe, a witty, intelligent New England woman to tell her story. Sara reveals details of her life as a young and passionate woman, being a professional writer in a man’s world after WWII, and of a secret love that bonds her to Kate’s own father, Jack Malone. What follows is a heart-wrenching, tragedy-soaked journey of a woman’s life, told to another to inspire, and teach life’s most perfect lesson, to survive at all cost, in the pursuit of happiness.
1. The novel is full of betrayals and infidelities. Both Kate Malone and Sara Smythe find these actions deplorable and are both betrayed by their significant others. However, both women find themselves wrapped up in affairs, now on the other end of the betrayal as the other woman. How do you make sense of this apparent contradiction? How can anyone who despises a certain act fall prey to the same flaw? How do they justify these actions?
2. Kate Malone reflects upon her mother’s death: “A very quiet death. Dignified. Stoic. Borne without complaint. My mother died the way she lived.” (p. 27) There is a sense of ironic anger to Kate’s statement about her mother. What is this resentment? Is she afraid she will grow up to be her? What does she want to avoid?
3. Kate Malone says directly: “You should never expect a child to make you feel wanted.” (p. 40) This statement explains Kate’s state of mind, trying to find some solace in the love from her very young child and not getting anything back. What exactly is Kate looking for when she attempts these attention-getting routines with her son Ethan?
4. Before Kate Malone receives the photo album full of pictures of her life from Sara Smythe, the mysterious woman from the funeral, Kate does everything in her power to avoid contact. Why is she so adamant about not allowing this woman to speak to her? What is this initial resistance? Where does it stem from?
5. The majority of the characters in The Pursuit of Happiness are well educated, raised with a sense of morality and religion, a strong work ethic, and exist in a middle- to upper-class lifestyle. Essentially, they are poised to live the American Dream. However, all of the characters suffer from a certain feeling of utter weariness and discontent. If modern life is about survival, success, and the accumulation of these securities, especially in Manhattan, what makes all of these characters so unhappy? What is missing from these character’s lives?
6. Kate Malone, right at the outset of the novel, is not a very happy woman. Her cynicism pervades all aspects of her life, her romantic world, her ex-husband, and her brother. The people around her never fail to remind her she’s a glutton for punishment. How responsible is Kate Malone for the overall negativity in her life? Did she have other options before her mother died to make her life better?
7. New York City is famous for the ambition, strength, and down-right hustle and bustle of its inhabitants. As Sara Smythe reflects on New York City’s skyline: “. . . it reflected the city’s spirit of arrogant indifference. It was a skyline that issued a challenge: try to conquer me. But even if you did—even if, like Eric, you were fêted as a New York success—you still didn’t ever really make your mark on the place. All that striving, all that ambition—and the moment after you’d had your moment, you were forgotten.” (pp. 361–362) Is this observation true? Is it worth it to even try? What makes characters like Sara and Eric Smythe even try to succeed in such a competitive world with barely any tangible rewards?
8. Eric Smythe’s whole career and successful life is crushed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an organization of the Senate during the Cold War whose job it was to root out subversive Communist propaganda in the media. They demand he turn in the names of those he was briefly affiliated with before WWII at student Communist rallies—and he refuses. He loses his job and descends into alcoholism, and eventually, death. Should he have cooperated with HUAC? How different would Eric’s outcome have been?
9. “‘Romance is a game for saps.’ . . . I had been in love with love. And I vowed never to make such a misjudgment again.” (pp. 157–158) Sara Smythe admits. Her life falls apart after not receiving any response to the heartfelt letters she had sent for months after Jack Malone went overseas. Is she justified in this feeling about romance? Was it wise to turn her back on this kind of intimacy with others? How is romance different than love? Is there a difference?
10. The novel is full of women communing through experience: broken hearts, selfish and ignorant men, the struggle for respect in the work place. What is unique to Sara Smythe’s, Aunt Meg’s, and Kate Malone’s communion through tragedy and loss? Is this form of bonding unique to women? How does it differ from men?
11. “[T]he act of admission—of owning up to a mistake, an error of judgment, a bad call—is sometimes the hardest thing imaginable. Especially when, like Jack, you suddenly find yourself cornered by a biological accident.” (pp. 293–294) Children in this novel are viewed as a trap, a burden upon individual freedom. These ideas go directly against the 1950s stereotype of the doting mother and housewife. How revolutionary are these ideas? How rare are these feelings really?
12. “Doing the right thing” is a prevalent theme within each character’s motives. Moral and religious guilt guides the decisions made by these characters. However, they still find themselves less than content. Why are the characters compelled to follow a code they no longer truly believe in? Is doing the “right thing” always the correct choice?
13. Tragedy is a constant in Sara Smythe’s life. “There is a thing called tragedy, and it shadows us all. We live in fear of it. We try to keep it at bay. But, like death, it is omnipresent. It permeates everything we do.” (p. 475) This is a bleak and honest outlook on life. How does Sara Smythe confront this? What are her methods for dealing with a tragedy that is always awaiting her? What can we learn from this?
14. Sara Smythe comes right to the edge after the death of her brother, losing her job, and losing a child. There is a moment when she has the suicide pills right next to her, a bottle by her side, and she is ready to die. But something stops her. What is this change? What drives Sara to live?
15. After Kate Malone learns Sara’s life story, she has a moment of pure clarity. She has a vision of her son, Ethan, growing up in his many different phases. She confesses to herself: “When would he realize that this is all such a deeply flawed business? That we never get it right? Most of us proceed with good intentions. We try our best. Yet so often we fail ourselves and others. What else can we do but try again? It’s the only option open to us. Trying is the way we get through the day.” (p. 572) How does Sara Smythe’s confession about her father’s past help Kate come to this realization? What was passed between these two women? What will happen to Kate? Will her world view really change?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. After WWII, the Senate created a committee dedicated to eradicating all subversive acts against the American way of life. This included harassment of homosexuals, artists, and political philosophers. Most of the people examined by this Committee never returned to their previous positions of respect. Research the devastating effects of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on Hollywood and the Media.
2. One of the coping mechanisms Sara Smythe turns to is writing fiction. It seems that at each crucial moment of her life, it is an act of writing that saves her. Start by simply writing a paragraph a day about your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but don’t go back and read it. After a month, open the journal again and then read through the passages. What have you learned about yourself? Can you relate to Sara’s need for self-expression?
3. The Pursuit of Happiness is a tale about Sara Smythe fighting against the banality of being a housewife and not following her dreams. She fights tooth and nail for some kind of personal freedom. Pick up Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” a novella about a successful father in a middle-class society, who, when faced with a deathly illness, comes to the realization that his life has been a fraud and he is surrounded by people who do not truly love him. This could have been the fate of Sara Smythe if she had not been brave enough to break free. Compare Ivan’s failures with Sara’s triumph.
A Conversation with Douglas Kennedy
Q: Your prose is clear and precise, lyrical at necessary moments, and blunt with philosophical vigor. Who are the literary heroes you admire and what influence have these writers had on your particular style.
A: Graham Greene taught me how to write accessible novels that wrestle with life’s larger moral conundrums. Trollope taught me how to look at a historical moment of time with a novelistic sensibility—and to get all the material details absolutely right. And Flaubert taught me that quotidian life is the essential subject all writers must confront in fiction . . . because, after all, we all live (in one way or another) quotidian life.
Q: In the late seventies, you returned to Dublin to form a cooperative theater. This led you to run the Abbey Theatre’s second house, the Peacock. Some years later, you resigned yourself to write full time. With an already established career, what made you decide to focus solely on writing? What were the risks you were taking in this decision?
A: The decision to write full time was made when I was twenty-eight years old and had just had two small plays accepted for BBC Radio. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I also knew I was still a single man with few commitments. I lived cheaply in a small studio apartment in Dublin. I continued to write plays. I wrote a ferocious amount of journalism. And little by little, I began to think that my talents lay outside writing for actors—that, verily, my future was between hard covers. But it took five years for my first book to appear. After that I moved to London and my career really began to kick-start.
Q: In April 2007, you were awarded the distinction Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an order dedicated to the recognition of significant contributions to the arts and literature. Other notable figures who have been awarded this distinction are Jude Law, Julian Barnes, Ernesto Neto, Philip Glass, and George Clooney. How does it feel to be part of such a distinguished group?
A: I was awarded the Chevalier at a reception at the French Ambassador’s residence in London. It was so grand a setting it was a bit like being knighted at the Palace of Versailles. Of course I was flattered and honored to be made a member of such an elite club. And it’s a reminder— not that one is really necessary—that the French take writers very seriously . . . which is no bad thing!
Q: You reside part time now in Maine, but you have lived in several countries. Sara Smythe’s cottage in Maine provides solace at two crucial moments in her life, her nervous breakdown after Jack’s disappearance and after the death of her brother. What experiences at Bowdoin College and after led to your lifelong connection to the State of Maine? Does it provide you the same solace as it does for Sara?
A: I left the United States for thirty years, as my career was largely based in Europe. Of course I never stopped being American—and visited regularly. But in my imaginative mind, Maine was always omnipresent, not simply because I spent several interesting years there as a student at Bowdoin but also because I always loved its emptiness, its independent esprit, its isolation, its refusal to follow trends, and (of course) its ravishing scenic beauty—especially along its epic coastline. So, for Sara, Maine too becomes a place of refuge and consolation. If life teaches you anything, it’s that you never can run away from your problems. But, at least, in Maine you can contemplate and wrestle with them in a place of great silent grandeur.
Q: In The Pursuit of Happiness, the story is told in a confessional style, with Sara relating her life experience to Kate Malone. I was particularly reminded of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Diary of Anaïs Nin in the way the characters confess the story of their lives to the reader. What made you decide to use this literary technique?
A: Confessions are always so fascinating—especially if the narrator has (like Sara) a certain self-awareness and an ability to see, retrospectively, the errors that she made which, in turn, helped form the trajectory of her life. One of my favorite philosophical aphorisms comes from Kierkegaard : “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” That statement underscores all literary confessions—or, at least, the ones I write.
Q: The female characters bond as they trudge through one maddening and disappointing experience after another, and this bonding comes from telling each other stories of their lives. In what ways, would you say, is this particular style of bonding uniquely feminine? How are you able to write from the feminine perspective so well?
A: I’m always asked that question! Perhaps the answer is that I never think “as a woman”—rather as my narrator. And I see the world completely from her perspective. Perhaps a good novelist is like a good actor—someone who can slip into a role (without having to dress up!) and create an entirely convincing worldview that is so divorced from his own sensibility. Then again, all my narrators have many aspects of their creator in their complex personalities.
Q: Sara explains: “Once you grasp the flawed nature of everything— you can move forward without disappointment.” Is this a philosophy you subscribe to? That “there is a thing called tragedy, and it shadows us all”?
A: Tragedy is one of the larger prices we pay for being alive. No one ever sidesteps tragedy. It is always there, shadowing us. We don’t like admitting this, but it is a key component of human existence: the fact that life has the potential for things both wondrous and horrific.
Q: The destructive power of the House Un-American Activities Committee comes into play during the post-WWII segments in this novel. The HUAC destroys lives, displaces people, and scatters artists across the globe. What was your inspiration for writing about one of the more shameful abuses of power this country has seen?
A: McCarthyism is a dirty stain on the American body politic—and one which we sidestep at our peril, as within its vindictive machinations are all the darker aspects of our collective psyche: our willingness to point fingers, to be in thrall to the messianic ravings of an evil opportunist, to swallow all the usual tired patriotic bromides, to distrust intellectualism, to embrace conspiracy theories. Arthur Miller got it right in The Crucible when he saw the origins of these witch-hunt tendencies dating back to our theocratic, puritanical roots—and that there has always been an ongoing struggle between progressive thought and righteous doctrine throughout our history.
Q: Your novels reflect a very distinct and insightful look into American life. How has your experience living outside of the country informed your writing about the experience of living within the country?
A: Intriguingly American history was my area of specialty at college— and I briefly toyed with the idea of getting a doctorate in history. But the need to be out in the larger world sent me in a different direction. Given that, all my novels are deeply American—even if my Americanness has been shaded by a childhood in Manhattan (which the rest of the country doesn’t totally consider American!), and by thirty years in such disparate places as Dublin, London, Paris, and Berlin. But all my years abroad (and now I live part of the year in Maine) have intriguingly deepened my sense of what it is to be an American— and has given me an intriguing perspective of being the insider/ outsider.
Q: Legacy is an important theme in The Pursuit of Happiness. The legacy of one’s parents’ failures, the legacy of a heart broken by betrayal, the legacy of the death of a loved one. Kate Malone, at the end of the novel, has an almost prophetic vision of her son growing up. Kate wants to explain it all to her son, but knows she can’t, but will try. “Trying is the way we get through the day.” How close is Kate’s philosophy to your own? What legacy, as a father, do you want to leave to your children?
A: Besides curiosity—which I think an essential component of an interesting life—I would hope to pass on the idea that (as I tell my two children frequently) life is so much about persevering. You can get easily overwhelmed or defeated by life’s shortcomings or the way others let us down . . . and, more tellingly, the way we lets ourselves down. If there is an abiding theme in The Pursuit of Happiness it is the idea that you come into the world already shaped by other people’s past histories. How you then grapple with everything life throws in your path—and how your own sense of ethics dictates so much about your dealings with life’s larger questions—determines so much. “Character is destiny” is a statement (from the German poet Novalis) that so underlines my world view—both as a writer and simply a sentient person, trying to make the best of his time here.
By Abigail Tarttelin, Tamara N. Houston, Patricia Scanlan, Thomas Keneally, Sahar Delijani, Christina Schwarz, Kate Morton, Douglas Kennedy, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Lucinda Riley, Karen Brown, Saira Shah, and Katja Millay
Douglas Kennedy is the author of eleven previous novels, including the international bestsellers The Moment and Five Days. His work has been translated into twenty-two languages, and in 2007 he received the French decoration of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He divides his time among London, New York, and Montreal, and has two children. Find out more at DouglasKennedyNovelist.com.