Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Sea Escape includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lynne Griffin. 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.
Lynne Griffin’s second novel is a thoughtful, deeply moving look at the complicated love between a mother and daughter. Helen and Laura are different women of different eras; a mother and daughter alienated from one another yet bonded by love and loss. Laura grows up in the shadow of her parents’ love, and when her father dies, it’s as though she’s lost both parents. For Helen, the only way to cope with her grief is to retreat into the decades old love letters from her husband Joseph, the ones she’s kept private from her children. When Helen has a sudden and devastating stroke, Laura’s world is turned upside down. Now a mother herself, she must juggle her mother’s care with her nursing career and the needs of her own family. Laura is willing to do whatever it takes to bring her mother back to health and so she goes to Sea Escape to search for the letters, hidden somewhere in her parents’ dream home by the sea. Along with the letters, Laura finds secrets and lies filling the space between each line written. She uncovers the patchwork details of her parents’ marriage, discovering a common thread: a secret that mother and daughter unknowingly share.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. In Sea Escape we are presented with three very different pictures of marriage: Maggie and Lee, Helen and Joseph, and Laura and Christian. Are there any similarities among these marriages? How does each woman's marriage shape her life and affect her relationships with her children?
2. Laura and Helen have an estranged relationship, even though they still see each other often. What does it mean to be estranged from someone? How does it differ physically and emotionally?
3. We see Helen and Laura in the roles of both mother and daughter. How does each woman’s relationship with her mother differ from and influence the relationship she has with her children?
4. Helen never seems to forgive her father for all he put her and her mother through. Why do you think she’s able to forgive Joseph his transgressions but not her father’s? Do you believe she really forgave Joseph?
5. On page 210, rather than explaining to her mother what really happened at the clinic, Laura says, "Go ahead, hate me. I deserve it." Why does Laura think she deserves to be hated? Why is it so hard for her to tell her mother a truth that it seems would only make things better between them?
6. Mourning is a theme throughout the book. How does each character grieve differently? In what ways can mourning be a selfish experience? What do the characters mourn besides the loss of a loved one?
7. Discuss the contrast between Helen's ability to accept other children into her home and Joseph's struggle to love Holden as his own son. Do you think it’s easier for Helen to open her heart than it is for Joseph, and if so, why?
8. Why do you think Helen reads Joseph’s letters over and over again? Do you think it’s comfort that she finds in them? Or is she looking for something else?
9. What does Joseph’s office symbolize? Why do you think Helen finally feels ready to change it?
10. Helen had never been able to share the pain of her miscarriages with Laura. What do you think it says about Laura that she told Henry and Claire about losing baby Lee?
11. Each pair of siblings in the book includes a brother and a sister: Holden and Laura, and Henry and Claire. How do you think it would have changed the story if Laura had had a sister, or if both of Laura’s children were of the same sex?
12. Even though Helen guarded her secrets through most of her life, in the end, she wanted Laura to know the truth. What does understanding the truth do for Laura? How does it help her move on?
13. Sea Escape is supposed to be the ultimate dream home for Helen and Joseph. On page 285 Holden says, “Helen was the master of painting us as the happiest family in Anaskaket, until his tragic death. But it wasn’t that way. No matter how much she tried to convince herself.” Do you think the dream ever became a reality for Helen? Or was Holden right, was all she created there an illusion, a façade?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- Laura’s favorite treat is the Martinez family’s pan dulce, or sweet bread. Try making your own sweet bread for your book club meeting with this recipe: http://www.recipezaar.com/recipe/Pan-Dulce-Mexican-Sweet-Bread-285930.
- Up until Joseph’s death, Helen was passionate about sewing. Bring in something that represents a passion or hobby of yours and turn your book club into show-and-tell!
- Sea Escape is Helen’s beach-front dream home, and it sounds like a piece of paradise. Describe what your dream home would look like and where you would build it if you were to start from scratch.
- Learn more about Lynne Griffin by visiting her website, http://www.lynnegriffin.com. And check out her blog at http://www.Family-Life-Stories.com.
A CONVERSATION WITH LYNNE GRIFFIN
Sea Escape is inspired by letters your father wrote to your mother. Did anything else from your family history make it into the novel?
So many little particulars from my childhood and the relationship I had with my parents found their way into the novel. For example, I’ve includeDmy parents’ account of the Worcester tornado in one chapter, and the way in which they met in another. Even the names of streets and other locales were borrowed from my family history to give authenticity to the novel. Though the story—what happens to Helen and Joseph—comes entirely from my imagination, friends and family will find a veritable hidden pictures experience as they read.
Did you find it difficult to create fiction out of something real in your life, and not let the “true” story take over?
Yes, the experience writing this novel was different and much harder than writing my first; its tenets more elusive. The fact that I'd written a novel already was irrelevant. My own mother-daughter story intruded as I wrote. The seeds I borrowed from my own life tended to obscure Helen's viewpoint, and disrupt Laura's story. It wasn't long before I realized, I was in the way. Letting go, stepping aside to let these women do and say things my mother and I never did was the single hardest thing I've ever done.
You were working on another novel when the idea for Life Without Summer came to you. Was that other novel Sea Escape? Which book did you finish first? Did you work on them simultaneously?
When I found my parents’ letters, after my mother’s death, I went so far as to imagine excerpts of my father’s beautiful writing shining within a novel I might write. In those musings, Sea Escape was born. Still I told myself, you've never written fiction. You don’t know the first thing about taking on such an ambitious project, weaving his words into your story. No matter how much I dismissed it, the idea nagged me. For years it wouldn't leave me alone. Characters were named. Plot lines fleshed out. Twenty or so pages written--pages that would eventually become the last chapter of the novel.
Then the muse staged a coup, insisting she had a different plan for my literary life.
One morning I woke from a restless night’s sleep with a new story in my mind. From beginning to end, the whole plot was crystal clear. I knew the first line and the last line, and those words, in what is now Life Without Summer , remain unchanged.
So, Sea Escape was pushed aside to make room for another story. Yet not for long. When my first novel went out on submission, I rolled up my sleeves and got back to what started it all; the story that compelled me to write fiction in the first place.
Both of your books have themes of loss and mourning. Is this something that you deal with a lot in your career as a family life expert? Do you think your work has helped you to understand your characters better?
My father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was a sophomore in high school. He went on a business trip with my mother and only she returned from New Orleans. This event disrupted our family in unimaginable ways. I continue to grieve the painful loss to this day. And until my mother passed away in 2000, twenty-five years after my father, she was never the same.
I began writing fiction at forty, after her death stirred up my fear of loss, the stabbing pain of it. Somehow writing to the heart of a story about a grieving woman and a lonely child gave me the chance to sort through things long buried, and to offer hope to others who may be afraid. It became my attempt to comfort those who know loss intimately as I do.
Whatever you call it, a hole, the missing piece, my soul wound, I accept–even embrace–my need to continually make sense of my profound losses. The stories I write, each unique in their way, highlight aspects of grief that are universal. While every person’s journey toward healing is deeply personal, we’re all tied to each other in the collective experience of it. At some point everyone will make its acquaintance. For those who do, I have a story.
Is there one character in the book that you relate to or sympathize with the most?
I’m asked this question a lot, and while I truly care deeply about all my characters—in all their shades of humanity—the one I love the most is Helen. Like my own mother, she struggles with what’s called prolonged grief disorder. A specific kind of depression brought on by loss, that for some reason refuses to follow the typical trajectory of grief. In my years as a grief counselor, I’ve met countless people who simply cannot move through the grieving process. I empathize with Helen, stuck in the past, gripped by the pain. And I have enormous compassion for what my mother experienced after the death of my father. For this reason, Sea Escape is a very personal and deeply emotional novel for me, and Helen, a character I will be forever connected to.
You’re from the Boston area, where the book is set. Was the setting important to you? How does it play a role in the story of these two women?
I grew up in Worcester and later Holden, MA. I’ve lived in and around Boston for most of my life. I live in a seaside town now. The familiarity of these settings made aspects of this challenging story easier for me to write. But the real reason portions of the novel take place south of Boston, on the Massachusetts coastline, is because my parents dreamed of having a home like Sea Escape. Placing the story there was my way of giving that to them.
Does Laura’s story end for you where it does for us as readers? Do you have a future in mind for her beyond the pages of the book?
For me, the end of one of my novels is merely the end of the final scene. My characters are very real to me, so yes, I believe Laura’s story continues. I believe her grief work has just begun. The novel ends with her realizing many things between her parents—and between her and her mother—were not as they seem. Still she chooses to believe in love and commitment and dreams full of promise. It’s who she is. So I imagine Laura will be just fine. She is a lot stronger than she gives herself credit for.
What’s your next project? Are you working on a third novel?
I’m really excited about the next novel I’m working on. Once again, I’m digging to the heart of a family story with overtones of loss, and a strong emphasis on the parent–child relationship. Stay tuned.