Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Summer Shift includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lynn Kiele Bonasia. 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.
Mary Hopkins, a successful Cape Cod restaurant owner, is reasonably satisfied with her stable life. But at the beginning of a new season, when a young waitress is killed in a car accident, Mary realizes she knows nothing about the people who work for her. Meanwhile, she struggles to cope with the fact that her beloved great aunt Lovey has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Finally, when an old flame shows up at her doorstep, Mary is forced to abandon her careful existence and confront her own dark past.
As Mary fights to regain her footing, she becomes inextricably involved in the lives of the surviving members of her employee’s family and ultimately finds that moving forward usually involves forgiving the past.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1.) What effect does the beginning of the novel, in which Mary and Robbie open the restaurant, have on the theme of failed expectations that pervades the story?
2.) Many of the characters, such as Mary and Dan, express a deep sense of guilt in relation to Robbie’s death. How does the author handle the irrationality of this guilt while still acknowledging its inevitability? Does the last scene of the novel provide evidence for an ultimate transgression of guilt?
3.) Early in the novel, Mary introduces the “smooth stone with a vein of quartz running though it given her by her Robbie on their honeymoon that she’d been waiting to skim on the waves for fourteen years but hadn’t gotten around to it yet” (31). Later, it becomes a symbol of “her acceptance that he was now part of something greater even than the sea itself” (289). Do you think that the stone has come to represent something other than this acceptance? If so, what?
4.) When Mary visits the crash site, she notes that trees have the capacity to mend themselves and predicts that “years from now, there’d be just a scar, some imperfection in the surface that would hold the memory of what had happened” (50). How does this mirror Mary’s healing process?
5.) Bonasia gives the reader a contradictory image of time when she foreshadows that a shard of glass that has been thrown into the ocean will, “like everything else in time’s cauldron… be sufficiently pulverized” (84). How are these contradicting ideas reconciled in the end? Which proves to be a more accurate symbol?
6.) Mary removes a stuffed bear from the crash site to save it from imminent ruin. Why does she do this? Further, what does it signify that Ariel is ultimately given the bear during the charity event?
7.) Mary’s reaction to her aunt’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis is very different from Lovey’s own calm reaction. Compare and contrast Mary and Lovey’s reactions to the diagnosis. How do they play off each other?
8.) How does Lovey’s ability to live completely in the present affect Meg? How is she able to learn a valuable lesson from observing her aunt enjoy such things as “the scent of cinnamon. A yellow robe. Warm coffee on the lips” (219)?
9.) Why do you think Mary chose to lie to Meg about her true identity? How do you feel about Meg’s ability to completely forgive Mary for this falsehood?
10.) Mary’s new friend and neighbor Carleton Dyer asks her, “What is ugly? For there to be beauty, there has to be ugliness” (268). Do you agree with him? Cite examples from the novel to support your claim.
11.) Discuss Dan’s account of his near-death experience, in which he claims, “I was shedding the stuff that was not me, like the guilt or grudges I’d carried around all my life, my ways of thinking about things. It all felt meaningless and kind of washed off, and I was left with just this deeper understanding of who I was, that I was somehow connected to everything else” (378). Where else in the novel do you see moments of this ‘deeper understanding’? And how is it achieved in those cases?
12.) Towards the end of the novel, Mary asks herself (in regard to Alzheimer’s), “Where was the grace in such a horrible disease? Where was the grace in any of it?” (318). Do you think that Mary is eventually able to answer this question? When? How so?
13.) Discuss the scene in which Mary asks her employees to form a circle and share one thing about themselves. At the end of this scene, Bonasia writes, “it was as if they all at once remembered why they were there” (336). What have they remembered? What is the catalyst for this memory?
14.) Revisit the closing lines of the novel: “And though her heart was beating fast, she felt cradled in a stillness she’d never experienced before; perhaps her peace at last” (380). Which previous scenes do these last images evoke? How do they resolve the prevailing themes of guilt and loss?
Tips for Enhancing your Book Group
1.) Throw a dinner party with some of the authentic Wayne Chen recipes offered at the back of the book (no synesthesia required)!
2.) The character of Carleton Dyer bears a striking resemblance to Henry Hensche, a Provincetown painter who also suffered from Parkinson’s disease. To learn more about Hensche and Provincetown’s art history, visit: http://www.thehenschefoundation.org/ (and make sure to support your own local community arts).
3.) Visit the author’s webpage at: www.lynnkielebonasia.com. Make sure to read the article about the inspiration for her previous novel, Some Assembly Required.
A Conversation with the Author
1.) Where did the idea for this novel come from? Is there a particular scene or character that you wrote first?
The first novel I ever tried to write was a sprawling story about a woman who ran a clam bar. It ended up collecting dust on a shelf. After Some Assembly Required was published, I went back and reread the manuscript to see if there was anything salvageable. There’s a cyclical rhythm that seasonal business owners get caught up in that has always struck me as monotonous and challenging. And so there was still something compelling to me about my original main character and her situation. Nothing remains of the original work except for Mary Hopkins and her clam bar, and even Mary underwent significant changes. But I’m glad I took the time to find Mary’s voice.
2.) Summer Shift seems to echo your previous novel, Some Assembly Required, in that it spends a significant amount of time on the theme of moving beyond loss. How, if at all, do you think your perspective on this theme has evolved between the two books?
Loss is something I’ve always been thematically drawn to in my writing, and so, yes, both books do deal with the process of moving past it. While I was writing Summer Shift, I was reading a lot of eastern philosophy and trying to incorporate some of this thinking into my own life. A lot of these ideas ended up in the book, for example, allowing oneself to be at ease with what is rather than constantly wishing things were different. Sometimes by merely shifting the way we see things, resisting our reaction to always judge, we can ease our own suffering. Carleton really embodies this wisdom for me, his being able to let go of the past and live his life in the present moment. Lovey’s disease forces her to live this way as well. Mary, like myself, is a student.
3.) You have listed ‘waitress’ among your previous professions. How much of your restaurant experience is present in the novel? Which restaurant employee do you most identify with?
I waitressed at a number of different establishments when I was in high school and college, including a couple of seafood restaurants on the Cape. I definitely drew from that experience in writing Summer Shift, the controlled chaos, the internal caste system and the alliances that develop between co-workers. I think one of the interesting things about being young and having a summer job was that we all knew this was just a brief stop-over in our lives, and that we’d all be moving on to something else, most of us sooner rather than later. And yet we were learning some pretty important life skills. While I don’t see myself in any particular character, I can identify with each in some way, as an author must, I imagine.
4.) One of your more striking images is that of the ‘shard of glass’ being first pulverized by the ocean before ultimately becoming sea glass. How do you see the Cape Cod landscape as a reflection of Mary’s progression throughout the novel?
As many Cape Codders do, Mary turns to nature in difficult times. I believe if we’re open and in tune enough with our surroundings, we can often derive answers from our natural world, finding useful metaphors for our own lives. Standing at the edge of an ocean that’s been around for hundreds of millions of years, one’s problems are immediately weighed in a greater context. Nature has so much to teach, whether it be a lesson about perseverance from a fiddler crab, about the transient nature of all things from a shift in the tides, or how, through contemplating a shard of glass, we might learn that everything inevitably looses its sharp edges and yet there is beauty to be found even in that.
5.) Wayne’s synesthesia is a particularly interesting character trait. Is this character drawn from any personal experiences? What sort of research was involved in bringing his gift to the page?
I’ve always been interested in peculiar neurological afflictions, especially ones that create ironic situations. I may have Dr. Oliver Sacks to thank for that (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). I had read about synesthesia years ago and had always planned to give it to one of my characters. The manifestation where people “taste shapes’ is far more rare than the kind where people attribute colors to letters, number or music. I recently saw the Kandinksy exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York (2009). He was purported to have the “seeing sound” variety and, for much of his career, his work was inspired by music. There’s a book called The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E. Cytowic that I used as reference to understand Wayne’s particular type of synesthesia, and then proceeded to explore how, as with Kandinsky, such an affliction might be transformed into an artistic advantage.
6.) How would you compare the writing process of Summer Shift to that of Some Assembly Required? Did either come more naturally? Why or why not?
Some Assembly Required was my graduate school thesis for my Masters of Fine Arts degree. It took several years to write and saw lots of critical feedback from professors and fellow students along the way. There were interruptions in the writing as well, as I had to put it down to do other schoolwork from time to time. Summer Shift had a much easier birth. It took me about 18 months to write. Not another person set eyes on the manuscript until I sent it off to my agent. Throughout the process I kept wondering if it was all too easy. After all the hand holding with the first novel, I worried whether I’d be as successful on my own. But I’ve heard other authors talk about how some books just seem to flow from them. That was the case for me with Summer Shift.
7.) Two characters in the novel suffer from debilitating (? Would like to avoid “terminal”) diseases: Lovey is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; Carleton is living with Parkinson’s. How would you compare their coping mechanisms? Do you see a greater degree of resignation in either character?
I had a great aunt who suffered from Alzheimers’ disease and I was very involved with her care. I saw a tremendous amount of frustration in her at the beginning that eventually gave way to her settling into the inevitability of her situation. I think much of this was a function of the disease running its course. They say that Alzheimer’s is harder on the caregivers than it is on the patients. While I’m not sure if I agree with that, I did feel it was harder for us to let go at times. Parkinson’s affects the body dramatically and the mind to a much lesser extent. And so I would think someone would have to work harder to find a place of acceptance. Even Carleton, wise as he is, has moments of shame and frustration, particularly when faced with the prospect of having to interact with other people. I imagine that’s how it is in real life. No mater how enlightened and at peace you may be with your situation, there are going to be those moments where you resist what’s happening to you. I believe coping with pain, loss, illness and life, for that matter, is a practice, something you work on rather than something you achieve.
8.) Discuss your research for the character of Carleton Dyer, a painter that bears a striking resemblance to Henry Hensche, a Provincetown painter. Did you learn anything else about the history of the arts on Cape Cod?
I have many friends who are visual artists on Cape Cod and I’ve have had the good fortune to be drawn into their world, which includes gaining an appreciation for the history of the Provincetown art community. I saw Carleton as an amalgam of painters like Henry Hensche, Edwin Dickinson, Ross Moffett, and others. I imagine how exciting it must have been to be a part of such a cluster of talent all living and working in the same small town, bouncing ideas off one another and achieving worldwide recognition. From Charles Hawthorne’s arrival at the turn of the century through to the Abstract Expressionists of the 40s and 50s, Provincetown, for all its beauty, light and freedom of spirit, has always managed to capture and inspire artists, a legacy that lives on today.
9.) Do you have any new projects planned? Will you set another book in Cape Cod? Why or why not?
I recently had the opportunity to spend one week of pure solitude in one of the legendary Provincetown dune shacks. These are fabulously rustic little cottages with no electricity or running water, and situated just yards from the ocean on the backshore of town, accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicle. My intention had been to use this time to unplug and develop thoughts around a premise I had for a third Cape novel. All I’ll say is that my week was very productive and I’m excited to get going. I feel so lucky to be able to live and work in a place that has so much to offer in terms of natural beauty, history and an abundance of fascinating characters.