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The Fall of Lisa Bellow

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for The Fall of Lisa Bellow includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Susan Perabo. 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.

    Introduction

    A story of the intricate ties that bind families together, The Fall of Lisa Bellow starts with a harrowing near-kidnapping that leaves one family questioning how to move forward. Husband and wife dentists Mark and Claire retreat into old patterns, while their teenage children Evan and Meredith forge new identities as the community reels around them.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. Claire’s experience of motherhood is very different from Colleen Bellow’s, both in attitude and in circumstance. Who do you think is the “better” mother, and why?

    2. The dark underbelly of a “safe” suburban life is a through line in the book. In what ways does the Oliver family fit the “picture perfect” suburban mold? In what ways do they not?

    3. Evan was once Meredith’s “best friend, confidante, the love of her life.” How does Meredith and Evan’s relationship change over the course of the novel? How had it changed even before Evan’s accident? How do you see it playing out after he goes away to college?

    4. Discuss the symbolism behind the baseball going in a straight trajectory, such that Evan’s brain knows where it will be even though his eyes can’t perceive it. Were you sympathetic to his desire to play again?

    5. Various members of the community cope with tragedy in widely varying ways, from the clique of girls making memorial bracelets “for charity” to the Deli Barn hiring new staff. What do you make of these various coping mechanisms? With which do you most relate? Do you have sympathy for the characters when they open up old wounds, or would you rather they have pretended everything was the same?

    6. What significance does it hold that Claire’s mother has passed away? Why do you think the author chose to have a step-grandmother intervene? What purpose does she serve within the family? How does she fit in (or not)?

    7. The characters spend quite a bit of time in their cars. How do cars (the Olivers’, the abductor’s, the Bellows’) serve the characters’ needs, both practically and emotionally?

    8. Why do you think Meredith’s mind chose the bathroom as the safest place to visit Lisa? Is there another place in the apartment that you think would have been a better choice?

    9. On page 333, Evan tells Meredith that he changed at thirteen and at fourteen, implying that all of his teen years have been fraught with change. At what age do you feel you became an adult? When did you stop feeling like a child and start to exhibit adult thinking? When you think back on your teenage years, were they more childlike or adultlike?

    10. Each character in the novel has a distinct worldview and method of coping (think of Mark’s optimism and task orientation or Claire’s fatalism and avoidance). Which character did you most closely relate to in The Fall of Lisa Bellow? With which character did you struggle to connect?

    11. When Meredith finds Mrs. Bellow’s yearbook, it calls out that she graduated the same year as the millennium. What has changed since the year 2000 that differentiates the lives of the young characters from those of the adults? What has remained constant from middle school as you knew it to the middle school experiences of today?

    12. On page 281, Claire thinks of the moment she never picked up her child again and asks, “Would it be better to know that moment was that moment? Or was it better not knowing?” What do you think?

    13. Claire makes a questionable decision to drive inebriated on Halloween night. Did you find her decision-making suspect? Criminal? Or merely happenstance, the kind of situation that could happen to anyone? What would you do in the same situation?

    14. The nature of popularity is something the author explores quite a bit, both with the middle-school kids and with Claire and Mark’s newfound popularity as Evan becomes a star baseball player. Were you popular at school? What do you think makes someone popular in a closed social environment, like a school or a workplace?

    15. Do you feel Lisa is judged too harshly by her peers (particularly by the “nice” girls)? How do you think both Meredith’s and Claire’s perception of Lisa changes by the end of the novel?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Have everyone in the book club bring their old yearbooks and flip through them. What do you know about these people now? Discuss how yearbooks impacted you as a teenager or middle-school-age child, and how that pattern has been disrupted by Facebook and other social media. Write each other yearbook-style messages on pieces of paper.

    2. The family sets their goals for the day every morning at breakfast. Go around the room at set your individual goals for the next day.

    3. Read another book that deals with the aftermath of a tragedy to befall a young girl (some suggestions are The Lovely Bones, All the Missing Girls, or Pretty Is) and compare the two looks at trauma in the life of a teen girl.

    A Conversation with Susan Perabo

    What originally inspired you to write this novel? Is it based on a true kidnapping? Or did you start with another inciting incident?

    This story began as a collision of two moments of imagination that occurred to me fifteen years apart. The first, a fleeting thought about how it would feel to be the one who wasn’t “chosen” by a kidnapper. The second, a parental-desire-gone-wild to exact revenge on elementary-school bullies. Those two moments collided, and Meredith and Claire were born. Neither existed until this collision; the moment that I realized they were mother and daughter was the moment their stories began to take shape.

    Claire states early on in the novel quite explicitly that the “nice” girls are often just as cruel as the “bitches.” Do you agree?

    I think any attempt to categorize people leads to—at best—emotional disconnection and—at worst—total disaster. So I reject the whole idea of “nice girls” and “bitches.” That said, of course these social distinctions exist, particularly in the teenage world. And it’s simply a fact that some children (some people, really) have a capacity for meanness that others do not. But to oversimplify—to not consider the subtleties of context and the complexities of motivation—serves only to deepen the divide.

    Meredith’s early imaginings of Lisa’s captivity include a little dog named Annie. What did the dog symbolize to you? What made you use that imagery to help Meredith work through the danger that befell Lisa?

    In order to stave off an immediate and complete emotional collapse, it is essential for Meredith to create something to comfort Lisa once Meredith imagines her in the kidnapper’s apartment. Meredith imagines a cute little dog because that is the first cliché that leaps to her mind: A girl in a terrifying position, put a dog on her lap, suddenly the image is not so terrifying. Meredith creates the dog to keep herself sane and then continues to use the dog to comfort Lisa (and thus herself) even in the most horrible imagined circumstances (for instance, the possibility that Lisa is being raped). This allows Meredith’s emotional collapse to be delayed. It’s only when she realizes that she’s invented the dog that she must insert herself into the narrative. She, essentially, replaces the dog as the source of Lisa’s comfort—and in doing so immerses herself completely in the imaginary world.

    Meredith’s POV is quite distinct from Claire’s. How did you capture the voice of an adolescent girl, a notoriously tricky subject? What was the hardest part of keeping the two women’s voices distinct?

    The only tricky part of telling the story from both perspectives was figuring out how to divide the scenes more or less equally between them—like who “got” which scene. Keeping the perspectives distinct was never an issue. Both characters were so thoroughly developed in my head that, when I came to the end of each chapter, it was honestly as if the incoming POV would shove the outgoing POV off the desk chair and sit down and go to it. I never mixed them up. It would have been like mixing up two actual people.

    On page 67, Meredith thinks, “She always knew she and Evan would excel at peril, given the chance.” It seems like a common thought for a kid, especially one raised on Hardy Boys or Boxcar Children books. Do you think that Meredith and Evan have excelled at peril? Why did you choose to have both of the teens undergo trauma?

    I think every kid has a desire to face pretend “Hardy Boys” peril, especially with another kid—a sibling or a friend. Fun fact: the original title of this book was “Peril.” That’s how important the idea of it was for me. Not a great title, but a central theme. I think it’s almost impossible to anticipate peril. It can come in any form, in any place (a baseball field, a sandwich shop), out of nowhere. But more important than that is the idea that the greatest peril we all face is the inability to communicate with one another and an unwillingness to put aside our own needs and really take care of each other. This is what Claire finally grasps at the end of the novel—that her children’s greatest peril was not caused by a kidnapper or a foul ball, but rather by her own fear and failings as their mother.

    What was the inspiration for Meredith’s skill at mathematics and the ways she uses concentrating on math to cope with reality?

    I wanted Meredith to be good at something, and I wanted her to have a safe zone in that terrifying moment at the Deli Barn. It made sense that the thing she was most confident about would manifest as that safe zone.

    How did you imagine the concept of starting the kidnapping narrative again midway through the book? Was it immediately apparent to you, while writing, that Meredith was imagining Lisa Bellow in the bathroom? Or did you believe that perhaps the previous chapters had all been wishful thinking and Meredith had never returned from the Deli Barn?

    I knew when I started writing the novel that there would be a separate, imagined story line in which Meredith wrote herself into the kidnapping narrative. I didn’t know precisely how it would work structurally, nor how much of it there would be; I just trusted that I would know the right time, psychologically, for Meredith to take solace in that narrative. And I did. And even though I knew it was happening in Meredith’s imagination, I believed it as “truth” while I was writing it (just as I believe all my fiction as truth while writing it). For that reason, I found the scenes between Meredith and Lisa to be among the most compelling scenes in the book—for me as the writer. I was constructing a way for Meredith to process what had happened to her and to Lisa, and I was genuinely moved by watching that process unfold. Also I got to know Lisa in those scenes—or rather I got to know Meredith’s version of Lisa, which in the end is the most complete version we have of her, even though it’s not “real.”

    Themes of escape run throughout the novel: Claire’s temptation to escape the life she chose with Mark, Evan’s looming escape to college, even Claire’s willingness to take on the shift at Hillsboro rather than spend additional time with her father and stepmother. Why do you think you chose to focus on the eagerness of people to leave the everyday behind?

    I think our desire to escape our own circumstances is pretty constant. Sometimes that desire is rooted in dissatisfaction and sometimes in curiosity. Sometimes escape is really good for us (reading, for instance) and sometimes it’s really not (drinking too much, having an affair, etc). I think we are almost always imagining a better place, even when we are happy with the place we’re in. I think that’s just the human condition. Technology makes escape too easy, but even that ease can’t compete with the escape into imagination. At one point Meredith says Lisa is around the corner of every thought. That’s what saves her, but it’s also what threatens to take her out of her real life, and her real relationships, completely.

    Meredith figures that she wasn’t abducted because the kidnapper chose to take the prettier one. This is a logical, if sad, line of thought for a young girl. What about that darker concept—the inadequacy of not being chosen for an objectively horrible experience—felt necessary to you to explore?

    It’s precisely that bizarre juxtaposition of emotions that drew me to that moment to begin with. Once I had the thought—how would it feel to not be chosen?—I couldn’t shake it. How wonderful! But how humiliating! When Meredith thinks about all the things Lisa did, over years, in the name of middle-school popularity, unwittingly making herself more desirable for that decisive moment, it’s almost unbearable.

    A major turning point for Claire as a mother is when Evan comes home from school subdued and she feels powerless to protect her children from the dangers they might encounter in the world, despite her best efforts. Do you agree with her assessment that we can’t protect children from the world?

    Yes. But, again, I think we do have the power to protect them from the worst of ourselves.

    When the books ends, the characters haven’t really received closure as to what happened after Lisa was abducted—i.e., the kidnapper is never caught, the police never find a body. Why did you choose to leave unilluminated the outcome of Lisa’s kidnapping?

    The book is not about Lisa. The book is about Meredith and Claire; thus, the resolution belongs to them. Also, realistically, sometimes there is simply no resolution to a tragic event. The people impacted must simply find a way to move on, despite this. I recognize the ending might leave some readers unsatisfied, but I felt offering an answer in the end would have been dishonest. I wanted the reader to draw her own conclusions, as the characters do.

More Books From This Author

Why They Run the Way They Do
Who I Was Supposed to Be
The Broken Places

About the Author

Susan Perabo
Sha'an Chilson

Susan Perabo

Susan Perabo is the author of the collections of short stories, Who I Was Supposed to Be and Why They Run the Way They Do, and the novels The Broken Places and The Fall of Lisa Bellow. Her fiction has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, and New Stories from the South, and has appeared in numerous magazines, including One Story, Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, and The Sun. She is Writer in Residence and professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and on the faculty of the low-residency MFA Program at Queens University. She holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

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