Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Mother Who Stayed includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Laura Furman. 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.
Written in concerto-inspired form, The Mother Who Stayed by Laura Furman moves its readers through three trios of short stories. Each trio concerns a different set of characters whose lives are connected through family, location, or sheer coincidence. Furman’s characters run the gamut of motherhood: a substitute mother who discovers that there is no self without the love of another, a motherless daughter who must come to her own epiphanies about the transience of life, and a childless mother who tries to act on her maternal instincts. The Mother Who Stayed is both a meditation on and a celebration of domestic American life, spanning generations of women.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. In “The Eye,” the opening story of The Mother Who Stayed, several events take place at the Ziegelmans’ Fourth of July picnic which serve as a window into the secrets shared by the families in attendance. What are those secrets? Rachel Cantor is a witness to some of the events. How does her new knowledge affect her? What does Rachel’s encounter with the fallen maple tree in the aftermath of the storm suggest about the character?
2. “And why didn’t the two families get together in the city? One family on the West Side, one on the East Side, both in the nineties. They could walk across the park but they didn’t.” (p. 31). How would you characterize the class differences between the Ziegelmans and the Cantors? In what way are these distinctions less important in the country, as depicted in “The Eye,” than in the city, as in “The Hospital Room”? How do the characters change in the course of the trio?
3. In “The Thief,” Rachel Cantor is accused of stealing a pearl necklace from her friend’s apartment. “I could see my hand setting the pearls back on Caitlin’s mother’s vanity….But at that moment I wondered, and sometimes I still do, if I did take the pearls.” (55) What motivation might Rachel have had for stealing? Who else might have stolen the pearls?
4. In “A Thousand Words,” Sandra, the narrator, revisits the history of her relationship with Marian Foster Todd, an eccentric and beautiful writer. Sandra considers Marian’s possible affair with her husband, Per, without ever concluding that it actually occurred. Does Sandra believe that there was an affair? How does Sandra’s preparation of her thousand-word prose piece contribute to the dissolution of her friendship with Marian?
5. The narrator of “Here It Was, November,” says of her illness: “I might have pressed down to feel the tumor….Still, I felt no desire to know its shape or to probe its private life.” (85) How does the narrator’s lack of curiosity about her own physical decline compare to her absorbing interest in completing her biography of Marian Foster Todd? What does the narrator’s literary detective work suggest about the true nature of Marian’s relationship with Dorothea Browne? How does this knowledge change the narrator’s ambitions about her own scholarly work?
6. How would you describe Marian Foster Todd based on her characterization in the three stories in the second trio of The Mother Who Stayed—“A Thousand Words,” “Here It Was, November,” and “The Blue Wall”? How does her character evolve over the course of the trio? What does Marian’s late-in-life relationship with Dorothea reveal about her seductiveness and her capacity for duplicity? Why does Dorothea take care of Marian?
7. What do the details of everyday domestic life in “The Blue Birds Come Today” reveal about Mary Ann Rathbun, a 19th century American mother living in upstate New York? Does “The Blue Birds Come Today” differ from the other stories in this collection in terms of its narrative, time frame, and plot? If “The Blue Birds Come Today” is based on actual events, what makes it fiction?
8. In “Plum Creek,” how does Dinah’s early loss of her mother—first through abandonment, and later through death—affect her as a child? What do the storm scenes in “Plum Creek” and “The Mother Who Stayed” reveal about Dinah’s fortitude and her self-reliance? What does Dinah have in common with Amber?
9. Dinah pursues her friendship with Amber even after Keith warns her to stay away. What is compelling and attractive to Dinah about the friendship? Given that she suspects Keith of physically abusing Amber, why doesn’t Dinah do more to protect the younger woman? Do you think she should hold herself responsible for the tragic consequences? Dinah comes to the following conclusion: “What she’d disliked in herself at a younger age now had to be accepted. She had never loved anyone enough” (p. 238). Do you think this is true?
10. How did the unique structure of this story collection impact your experience as a reader? How did the links between stories in each trio deepen your understanding of the characters?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. In The Mother Who Stayed, mothers and daughters take center stage. Think of the many mothers and daughters you have known. Who has mothered you in your life, and who have you mothered? How has your mother felt about the people who have treated you as a surrogate daughter? Who are mothers and daughters you especially admire?
2. Mary Ann Rathbun’s diary chronicles her domestic duties and the vagaries of the weather, but it also omits key facts, such as her daughter’s death. Try keeping your own diary for a week. What materials would you choose to include, and what would you omit? If your book club is so inclined, you could create an online diary on Facebook in order to share entries with each other. At the end of the week, you might have a different understanding of members of your book club. Whose diary is most revealing about her interior life, and why?
3. In “A Thousand Words,” Sandra prepares a brief history of her time in New Mexico that causes her to revisit the friendships she had during that time in her marriage. If you had to write a thousand words about any period in your life, what time would you choose and why? What people from your life would become real to you again as you revisited that time? You might ask each member of your club to prepare a thousand-word reminiscence (roughly four, double-spaced, typewritten pages) and have them read aloud, anonymously, at your group’s next meeting. Members can take turns guessing who composed each memory.
A CONVERSATION WITH LAURA FURMAN
How did you arrive at the concerto form for this collection?
I was intrigued by the idea of a story having a separate existence and also another life when it’s read along with others. In music, a theme appears and changes. The variations replicate and complicate. They introduce their own concerns. The resolution doesn’t negate the emotions raised by what’s gone before; rather, it provides a place for the emotions to rest. The movements seem independent—sometimes, movements are played on the radio as individual pieces—but they also exist as part of a whole.
For me at least, reading any type of fiction involves the same recognition, connection, and memory as when I listen to music. The reader of the trios in The Mother Who Stayed can move through time, accompanied by the past, anticipating what might come, and understanding each story’s singular world while making crucial connections to the other stories.
What are some of the pleasures and challenges of writing stories that are in dialogue with one another?
Short stories are sometimes called slices of life, which has always seemed contradictory for works that are complete in themselves. Even so, when I read short stories, I often wonder about the characters, major and minor, beyond the story’s borders. A novel satisfies this itch because the chapters reach into one another, and we understand the world of the novel piece by piece over time and through memory. The self-sufficiency of short stories is their challenge and their beauty, but I wanted something else for this book of stories. The challenge of the trios in The Mother Who Stayed was keeping the individual stories whole and at the same time allowing them to reach past themselves.
Have you always seen each trio of stories as discrete from the others? At any point were you tempted to “connect” the trios by having characters from the different trios encounter each other?
That’s an interesting idea, but I never considered a larger grouping. The characters are from different worlds. Instead, I sought to make connections among the stories in each trio without compromising the integrity of each individual work.
Art and literature play a predominant role in The Mother Who Stayed. What purpose does that serve in this collection? What shared characteristics do artists and writers have that make them compelling subjects?
The ways in which artists and writers differ from others and are the same intrigues me. What is the difference, for example, between Marian and Mary Ann Rathbun? Both characters write. But for Marian, the work comes first. For Mary Ann Rathbun, her work within the family was primary. She stayed faithful to those moments when she was writing the diary but it wasn’t her most pressing concern. It’s a question of self-definition, and also of what we value. The stories gave me the chance to explore such shadings of difference and similarity.
Is the larger-than-life character, Marian Foster Todd, inspired by a real-life literary figure or group of figures?
At a certain point, I began to read biographies more often than novels. My reading was uncritical; I wanted to be educated in the world of the biographical subject, whoever it was, and I wanted to follow the twists and turns the life took. Fidelity to facts isn’t important in writing fiction but it’s crucial to biography. Yet facts are chosen, isolated, played up or down to make the case for the biographer’s point of view about the subject. It all seemed very familiar; I create biographies about the people in my own life, deciding which details of background or history are telling, which episodes important and which minor, and how the facts add up to a person.
Beyond what I’ve learned from biographies about the lives of others, I’ve learned from life that there are people who have an idea about themselves and their importance. The rest of us are figures in the background. The fictional Marion Foster Todd is such a person. The middle trio in The Mother Who Stayed revolves around the lives of Marion’s minor characters—minor to Marian, that is.
Your collection focuses on mothers and daughters. What draws you as a fiction writer to these relationships?
You might say that the relationship has been my life’s study. My mother died when I was young, and the relationship between mother and daughter always drew me because it was one I didn’t have as an adolescent and an adult. Once I was a mother myself, my world grew larger, as did my understanding of my own mother and the demands of being a mother. For a writer, there’s always a balance to be maintained between what is known and what is imagined. The stories in The Mother Who Stayed were written with that balance in mind. I try not to confine my characters to my life.
You found the diaries of Mary Ann Rathbun’s included in The Mother Who Stayed in a house in New York State where you once lived. Can you talk a bit about that discovery?
In 1972, when I was beginning to write, I moved from New York City to upstate New York. Eventually, I bought a mid-nineteenth-century house, nine acres of land, and a few outbuildings. The place was a mess, full of broken furniture and junk. In the course of cleaning, I found twenty-three little books, some with paper covers, others leather or canvas. They were almanac diaries from 1874 to 1902, and all the entries were written in the same hand, mostly in pencil, a few lines per day. I was too impatient to give them more than a cursory reading. The phrase “I done what I could” was repeated on almost every page.
In the five years I lived in the house, I came to appreciate “I done what I could.” Occasionally I returned to the diaries. When I tried to match the terse mentions of fields, barns, and orchard to my own place, they didn’t fit. Mary Ann Rathbun was written on the flyleaf of each diary. Some place names and family names mentioned were familiar, though Rathbun was not.
Ten years later I sold the house and carried the diaries with me to Texas. Nearly ten years after that I began to transcribe them. By this time I too was a wife and mother. Most domestic lives are filled with repetitious activities similar to Mary Ann Rathbun’s; certainly mine is. As I read the diaries I remembered the double nature of rural stasis—beauty and boredom. My original impatience was replaced by curiosity and a sense that in removing the diaries from their original place, by asserting my accidental ownership of them, I had taken them on as an obligation.
My persistent question about the diaries was, Why did she write them at all? There was a late nineteenth-century fad for diary-keeping but fads are usually dropped long before a year has passed. Yet she kept writing. The diaries seemed in no way written to be read. If Mary Ann Rathbun had intended them for a reader, she would have identified the people she named and in relation to herself, as daughters, sons, and neighbors; she would have identified herself. As a storyteller, she would have told her reader how she came to be where she was, and why and how she stayed. But she wasn’t a storyteller, and her diaries are a private document.
The products of Mary Ann Rathbun’s long, hard domestic work wouldn’t last—food is eaten, a clean house becomes dirty, in time clothes and quilts decay or are discarded—but by recording the dailiness Mary Ann created something permanent. Her writing was an act of concentration that today we might see as meditative.
What Mary Ann Rathbun accomplished in writing her diaries, perhaps for no one and with nothing more in mind than noting each day as it passed, is an embodiment of her time and place.
In “The Blue Birds Come Today,” you depict 19th-century American domestic life. How challenging was it to inhabit that era fictionally? To what extent did Mary Ann Rathbun’s diaries enable you to do so?
The diaries gave me lots of mysterious clues and information I had to interpret. My time living in upstate New York gave me feelings and some knowledge of the countryside and the life there, but it took a long time, many years, for me to find a way, as I did in “The Blue Birds Come Today” and in “The Mother Who Stayed,” both to break away from Mary Ann’s literal life and to honor it in fiction. Through much experimentation and rewriting, I was finally able to transform all that material—the diaries, landscape, memories, and emotions—into art. When I finished “The Blue Birds Come Today,” it seemed both ridiculous and delightful that it had taken me so many years, so much research, so much thinking to write that story.
You are the series editor of the annual PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. How many short stories do you read in a given year, do you think? How do you narrow down your selection?
The exact number is unknown. I and my graduate assistant read about 200 journals a year, most of them quarterlies containing sometimes as many as six stories. Throughout the year, I make two piles, “No” and “Maybe,” and from time to time reread the Maybes, then reread them again at the end of the reading period to see what’s stuck with me, and what I think of the story at the moment. The pile of Maybes grows smaller until I’m usually at 25 or 26, and then the process of picking twenty winning stories and up to five or so Recommended Stories begins. Especially at that point, I take my time and think about the strengths and failings of the stories as individual work. I don’t choose to make a balanced collection, though it works out that way each time. It’s not my mission to give a survey of the year’s themes or types of stories being published. The stories I choose for each PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories are those that I believe will last.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about short stories by people who don’t read them?
Some readers have told me that they find short stories frightening because they fear not being able to understand them. Perhaps the brevity of the form relative to the novel seems to demand a quick response, as if you were going to be given an exam on the story. I don’t think we read novels so much for meaning as we do short stories, and this is a misconception. Why worry about meaning? That’s a question that can best be answered over time.
Often, I read stories I like several times. The first time I read to see what the world of the story is and what’s going on in it. The second is a reading without the distraction of not knowing what comes next, of plot. The first two readings are often close together. But the third reading is to keep the story with me. By then it’s become a kind of memory.