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Introduction In this remarkable and incandescent novel of devastating beauty, set on the East End of Long Island, a young woman embarks on a poignant voyage of self-discovery and comes to terms with the aftermath of one horrible choice that changes everything. Friends since childhood, Annie, Jake, and Mason had a special bond that transcended all other relationships. When Annie's parents die in a car accident on her and Mason's wedding night, the three friends decide to raise Annie's infant sister, Opal, together. Jealousy and possessiveness entwine with love and friendship, and Annie struggles to be both a sister and a mother to Opal. And then, on one fateful night, the friends step over a line that has shocking consequences. Beautifully written and brilliantly vivid, this truthful and engaging novel of friendship and premature death, love and suicide, and, ultimately, resilience and understanding will resonate long after each character tells his or her story. The Worst Thing I've Done is a subtle and heart-rending novel of uncommon grace. It is another great achievement in Ursula Hegi's literary career.
Discussion Questions: 1. The novel opens with Annie listening to two radio psychologists while driving at night. How do Dr. Francine and Dr. Virginia address their callers differently? Which psychologist's style does Annie prefer, and why? Do you agree with Annie's preference? 2. Discuss the title of the novel. Who do you think is the 'I' in The Worst Thing I've Done? What is the worst thing that Annie has done in the novel? Mason? Jake? 3. Discuss the meaning of Annie's collages. What is the significance of her Raft Series and Train Series? How does Annie's latest collage encompass all her previous work, "beyond sequence, everything at once" (252)? Do you think Hegi portrays Annie's artistic process realistically? Why or why not? 4. Annie considers the lifelong dynamic of her friendship with Mason and Jake: "one of us always looking on" (15). Do you think it's inevitable that one person will feel excluded in a triangle friendship? Do you think Mason, Annie, and Jake could have prevented the tragic implosion of their friendship? If so, how? 5. Annie plays a dual role in Opal's life, as both her sister and her mother. When do Annie and Opal seem most like sisters? When is Annie able to assume authority as Opal's mother? Do you believe in the possibility of "Mother-by-choice" (225), as Annie calls it? Why or why not? 6. Review Opal's game of playing rescue with her doll on page 180, which involves "the tossing and the rescuing and the rocking all-in-one." Where do you think Opal has learned the behaviors she incorporates in her rescue game? What is the significance of Opal's throwing the rescue rope into the fire at the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts? 7. Consider the character of Pete, Aunt Stormy's boyfriend. How does Pete influence Annie and Opal's lives? What lessons do they learn from him? Do you think Pete and Aunt Stormy will ever marry? Why or why not? 8. What is the role of the war in Iraq within the novel? When Jake says, "I heard on the radio that Bush said tomorrow is the last chance for peace" (194), how does the political situation parallel to Jakes relationship with Annie? 9. The ups and downs of friendship, such as Lotte and Aunt Stormy's "sisters- by-choice" (36), or the tension between Mason and Jake, is featured prominently throughout the novel. Which bond is stronger in the novel: friendship or family? Or are they strong and tenuous in different ways? Explain your answer. 10. At the end of the novel, Jake tells Annie about the day he and Mason fought on the raft at summer camp, but does not reveal what he saw of Mason's suicide. "Inching closer to the secret he can't tell her. Confessing without losing her" (254). Do you think Jake will ever tell Annie the deeper secret, or will he always keep it to himself? How will his decision affect their relationship in the future?
Enhance Your Book Club: 1. Get inspired by Annie's artwork, and make your own collage! If you're the host of this book club meeting, pick up some basic art supplies, such as paper, brushes, glue, glitter, and fabric. Encourage other members to bring materials personal to them, and create collages together! 2. Screen the 1967 movie The Graduate for your book club, and discuss it afterwards. Mason's parents are watching The Graduate when Annie and Jake visit after the suicide, and they compare their reactions to the movie. Does your book club sympathize with Dustin Hoffman's young character, or with the adults in the movie, as Mason's parents do? 3. Research the history and meaning of the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts in Chinese tradition, and share your findings with your book club. Ask each member what he or she would provide as an offering for the Hungry Ghost to take away. 4. Consult a map of Long Island and find North Sea, the town where much of the novel is set. Imagine what sort of beach house you would like to own if you lived in North Sea. Would it be like Aunt Stormy's cottage, Big C's artistic summer house, or a new mansion? Sketch a picture your dream beach house, or find one in a magazine that resembles it, and compare it to other book club members' dream houses!
Ursula Hegi is the author of The Worst Thing I've Done, Sacred Time, Hotel of the Saints, The Vision of Emma Blau, Tearing the Silence, Salt Dancers, Stones from the River, Floating in My Mother's Palm, Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories, Intrusions, and Trudi & Pia. She teaches writing at Stonybrook's Southhampton Campus and she is the recipient of more than thirty grants and awards.