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This reading group guide forSing You Home includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jodi Picoult. 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.
Sing You Home follows the story of Zoe, Vanessa, and Max. After almost a decade of marriage and unsuccessful attempts to conceive with the aid of fertility treatments, Zoe and Max Baxter divorce and begin building their own separate lives. Max finds himself staring at the bottom of a bottle, until he finds salvation in the conservative Eternal Glory Church after a near-fatal, alcohol-induced car accident.
Meanwhile, Zoe, a music therapist, befriends Vanessa and their friendship ultimately blossoms into love. Soon after marrying, the two decide to try for a baby using the three remaining embryos from Zoe and Max’s fertility treatments—a decision that brings Max and his new Christian community crashing into their lives. An emotionally draining court trial for custody of the embryos ensues, testing the limits of faith, love, and the definition of family.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. An original, accompanying soundtrack is available for Sing You Home. Listen to the soundtrack with your book club members and discuss how the song choices reinforce or affect your reading. In what way did having a soundtrack enhance your understanding of Zoe’s “voice”? If you had to create a soundtrack for this book, what songs would you include? Explain your choices.
2. Zoe also claims that “music is the language of memory” and has the power to reach through even the darkest corners of dementia and awaken long-forgotten memories. Are there any songs or albums that remind you of a certain time or place in your life? Do you think it’s a blessing or a curse to be reminded of such memories through music?
3. Sing You Home is narrated by three different protagonists, each with their own unique voice and personality. Did this narrative device work for you as a reader? Do you think Zoe’s story would’ve been portrayed differently if there had only been one narrator? Why or why not?
4. Change and metamorphosis are reoccurring ideas in Sing You Home. In your opinion, which characters changed the most? Which characters remained the same?
5. On page 75, Max reflects on the nature of change: “Actually, when you turn into someone you don’t recognize, you feel nothing at all.” Do you think this is true in all instances? How would you describe periods of self-discovery and metamorphosis like those Zoe experiences?
6. How do Zoe’s struggles as a music therapist to Lucy give you insight into her character?
7. Whether it’s an expert witness discussing the scientific proof of physiological differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals or Vanessa talking about experiences unique to the gay dating world, great attention is paid to the differences between gay and straight relationships throughout the novel. Do you think the story features any universal dating realities and relationship experiences that transcend different sexual orientations? Explain your answer.
8. Vanessa’s mother and Zoe’s mother have very different reactions when her daughter says, “I’m gay.” Are both mothers justified in their reactions? Discuss.
9. During the trial, Max’s attorney brings in expert psychologist Dr. Newkirk to discuss the detriment of same-sex parent households on children. Dr. Newkirk’s argument is that a child needs the influence of both genders to ensure healthy development. Do you agree with her? Why or why not? Do you think the family structure ultimately created by Zoe, Vanessa, and Max is a healthy one?
10. When Zoe has doubts about being able to raise a son, her mom tells her, “‘It’s not gender that makes a family; it’s love. You don’t need a mother and a father; you don’t necessarily even need two parents. You just need someone who’s got your back.’” (p. 374) Do you agree with her? Explain your answer.
11. During his sermon, Pastor Clive argues against homosexuality by saying, “After all, I like swimming . . . but that doesn’t make me a fish.” (p. 399) Do you think his fish analogy is relevant? Do you find his interpretation of sexuality more or less accurate than Vanessa’s assertion that “we’re all just wired differently.” (p. 111)
12. When Max says to Zoe, “‘God forgives you,’” she replies, “‘God should know there’s nothing to forgive.’” (p. 406) Their statements are diametrically opposite, and they spend almost the entire novel arguing their beliefs to each other. Do you think both sides’ arguments were equally represented in the novel? Which points from either side did you find most compelling or convincing? Which points did you find most difficult to hear?
13. When Max seeks guidance from Pastor Clive as to how he should react to Zoe’s new relationship with Vanessa, Pastor Clive tells him a story about Pastor Wallace, who allowed homosexuals into his congregation. Pastor Clive believes that Pastor Wallace is a model for tolerance and that, while homosexuality shouldn’t be accepted, gay members of the church should be tolerated. Do you believe Pastor Clive practices what he preaches in the novel? What about when he says that the Eternal Glory Church isn’t “anti-gay” but rather “pro-Christ”? (p. 219) Is tolerance even possible without acceptance? Explain.
14. Despite being about a very specific relationship and a unique court case, Sing You Home addresses universal themes and ideas regarding family, love, and acceptance. Do you think this story reaches a wide audience, despite its unique specificities? Did you connect with the characters? Why or why not?
15. Several different story lines are left unresolved, such as Lucy’s story and why she made allegations against Zoe, and how Max and Liddy eventually get married. Are there any subplots you wish the author had resolved or delved into more thoroughly? Are there any that you would’ve resolved differently?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Visit the author’s website, www.jodipicoult.com, and learn more about Jodi Picoult and her seventeen novels.
2. Have life imitate art! Run a part of your discussion of Sing You Home as a court trial debate. Split your group into two opposing sides, such as team Zoe and team Max, and hold a debate over some of the novel’s main themes and events.
3. Get the lowdown on the law. Learn about your state’s civil union laws and discuss what laws (or lack thereof) you find most interesting.
4. Bring some music therapy to your book club and create a group discussion soundtrack! Have each member bring in a song, whether a personal favorite or a track that’s reminiscent of the story, and play them during your discussion.
A CONVERSATION WITH JODI PICOULT
You’ve written Sing You Home using three different protagonists instead of just following Zoe’s perspective. What made you decide to use multiple voices? Did you ever draft a version of the story told from one perspective?
I would never have considered taking an issue as contentious as this one and giving only one side a chance to speak. Max, Zoe, and Vanessa each represent a very different voice in the debate over gay rights and gay parenthood. Max is the conservative right-wing POV; Vanessa is the minority that has felt the sting of prejudice many times already; Zoe is the one who is new to the conversation—and who just wants to do what other people get to do without any argument, namely, raise a family.
The three main characters each have such unique, individual voices. What was the greatest challenge you faced creating Zoe, Vanessa, and Max? Did you have a favorite character to write or a character that you related to the most?
The biggest challenge I had was to keep all three characters sympathetic. Vanessa had to be funny—but not brash or militant. Zoe couldn’t whine. And Max had to buy into his beliefs, because then you can understand his actions even if you don’t agree with them. I have to say I’m most proud of Vanessa. I think she’s really funny!
One of Sing You Home’s most compelling elements is the authenticity of each character, including their sexual orientations and interactions with each other. Did you come across any unique challenges delving into Zoe’s and Vanessa’s histories and their relationship, or when writing in Max’s very male, masculine voice? If so, how did you overcome any roadblocks?
I’ve done a lot of research in my life, but this is the first time I had to sit down with someone and say, “So can we talk about your sex life!?” I was lucky to have several lesbian couples who were willing to talk to me—some of whom, like Zoe, had been in heterosexual relationships in the past, and who could really explain to me how and why they came to realize that they wanted to be with another woman instead. As for Max—I’ve written so many male characters in the first person that his actual voice wasn’t difficult for me—but it was very hard to wrap my head around some of his hate speech.
Throughout the trial both sides reference multiple past court cases, as well as various scientific and psychological studies. How much research did you have to do for the book? Were there any cases or studies that you found particularly interesting?
As always, when I write a legally based book, I sit down with attorneys. This time I had a whole legal corps—from family law attorneys to a lawyer whose specialty is fertility and reproduction law. What I found most interesting is that this is a case, again, where science has outstripped law. We have made great advances in reproductive technology but the legislation hasn’t caught up yet—so every time one of these types of cases is brought into court, the decisions veer wildly back and forth. There’s no consensus. Probably the most intriguing (and upsetting) thing I learned was that because there is not same sex marriage in Rhode Island, couples cross the border into Massachusetts to get married. But they live in Rhode Island, which means that if the union doesn’t work out and they want to divorce—they can’t. Their assets and property falls under Rhode Island law, which doesn’t recognize the Massachusetts marriage—so they are literally left in limbo.
Every novel you’ve written contains at least one controversial, debate-worthy theme. In Sing You Home, you weave in several hot-button topics, including gay marriage and the embryos-as-property debate. Did you have any specific reasons for pairing together the issues addressed in the novel? Were there any other issues you were interested in writing about that ultimately weren’t included?
I think that the two issues really go hand-in-hand. They are both areas that invite great debate—and often where you stand on the issue depends on your personal set of religious beliefs.
Throughout Sing You Home, there are multiple confrontations and heated debates between Max and the Eternal Glory Church, and Zoe and Vanessa’s support system. Did you find it difficult to maintain impartiality while writing these scenes? Have you ever faced a similar challenge while working on one of your other books?
I will admit, this was one of the hardest books to write for me. I don’t like to “put myself” and my opinions into books—which is why I’m always trying to present all facets of a situation, all viewpoints. For this book, I spoke to Focus on the Family, a group that opposes constitutional same-sex marriage and gay adoption. Although I am grateful that they were willing to talk to me and to share their views, I had a really hard time sorting through their logic (which to me seemed circular). An example: I was told repeatedly that they don’t hate gay people—they just don’t agree with their behavior. When I asked if maybe they worried their viewpoint might be misinterpreted by their followers to condone acts of violence against gay people, I was told, “Thank goodness THAT’S never happened.” When I gave a list of hate crimes against gay people, carried out by those who said they were acting in the name of God, the woman I was speaking to at Focus on the Family burst into tears. “That just hurts my heart,” she said. My personal beliefs were orthogonal to theirs, and to sit and listen to them explain theirs was quite hard to hear—and even harder to reproduce on the page. To some extent I felt this way during Change of Heart, writing the point of view that supports the death penalty (which I oppose personally)—but this was much more difficult for me.
One of the most dynamic relationships in the novel is between Zoe and Lucy. Ultimately their plot line disintegrates, and the future of Lucy and exactly what allegations she made are never revealed. What made you decide to leave Lucy’s story so unresolved?
Because I want the reader to be left wondering: Did she or didn’t she? Did Lucy herself make an allegation? Or did she get the courage to tell her parents that she might be questioning her own sexuality . . . only to have them twist that into an allegation? Unfortunately, I’ve met far too many kids like Lucy whose home life or whose parents’ beliefs make it impossible for them to come out. How do you tell your evangelical parents that you’re gay when you are sixteen and living in their household and depending on them to foot the bill for college? But if you can’t tell them . . . how do you not feel like you’re living a lie? I worry about Lucy, frankly, because she doesn’t have the support system she so badly needs.
Zoe’s greatest passion is music, so much so that she’s willing to sacrifice parenthood in order to continue her career as a music therapist. Do you share her love for music or her belief in its influence? Did you ever plan a different profession for her?
I have a love/hate relationship with music! I MUST have it playing in the car and I sing along with gusto (although by no stretch of the imagination do I have a good voice). But when I’m working, if I play music—it’s like kryptonite. I can’t get anything written, because I get too caught up in listening. As for music therapy—I had never seen that in action until I began to research Sing You Home. It’s amazing! To watch a child who has been burned over 70 percent of his body go from hysterical crying to calm as a therapist sings a lullaby to him—and to see the proven effects on the heart rate monitors he’s hooked up to—well, that’s pretty magical. We all do music therapy on our own—we just don’t call it that. Think of how you put on a sad song when you’re in a depressed mood; or turn up the radio to a boppy song on the first day of summer . . . that’s self-induced music therapy! I do believe that sometimes we can say things with music and reach places with melody that words cannot go—for this reason, I wanted Zoe to be intimately tied to music, so that she could sing her heart out to you in addition to telling you her story. I wanted readers to literally hear her voice. It’s much harder to hate someone because they’re different from you if you get to know them; I think Zoe’s songs accomplish that feat.
If you could choose one message or lesson for your readers to take away from Sing You Home, what would it be? What are the reasons for your choice?
That gay people not some nameless, faceless group. They are our sons and daughters, our grocery clerks, our doctors, our teachers. And what they want are not special conditions, but simply the right to do the same things the rest of us do. And that if you’re going to play the Bible card when it comes to opposing gay rights, it’s a specious one. Based on Jesus’s behavior in the Bible, and how he preached love and tolerance, I find it hard to believe he’d endorse the hate speech of some of the evangelical right. I truly believe that gay marriage is one of the last civil rights we haven’t yet granted in this country and I hope that one day we will look back and feel embarrassed by how long it took to change the system—the same way we look back at the Jim Crow laws today and cringe at our ignorance.
What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects currently in the works?
Yes! Lots! First, in a very different vein, I have a musical that was just published by Simon Pulse. Cowritten by my son Jake van Leer, with music by Ellen Wilber (who worked with me on Sing You Home), it’s something we performed with a teen theater troupe I help run, in order to raise money for charity. If you’re a middle or high school music teacher who’s looking for a fun, funny, age-appropriate show, check out Over the Moon. I am also putting the final touches on a kids’ chapter book that I cowrote with my daughter Sammy—so stay tuned. And I’ve just begun writing the 2012 book, which looks at wolf packs, family hierarchies, and the right to die.
Jodi Picoult received an AB in creative writing from Princeton and a master’s degree in education from Harvard. The recipient of the 2003 New England Book Award for her entire body of work, she is the author of twenty-one novels, including the #1 New York Times bestsellers House Rules, Handle With Care, Change of Heart, and My Sister’s Keeper, for which she received the American Library Association’s Margaret Alexander Edwards Award. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. Visit her website at JodiPicoult.com.