A Hundred Small Lessons

A Novel

LIST PRICE $11.99

About The Book

Through the richly intertwined narratives of two women from different generations, Ashley Hay, known for her “elegant prose, which draws warm and textured portraits as it celebrates the web of human stories” (New York Times Book Review) weaves an intricate, bighearted tale of the many small decisions—the invisible moments—that come to make a life.

“Readers who loved the quiet introspection of Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge will enjoy the detailed emotional journeys of Hay’s characters. Their stories will linger long after the final page is turned” (Library Journal).

When Elsie Gormley falls and is forced to leave her Brisbane home of sixty-two years, Lucy Kiss and her family move in, eager to make the house their own. Still, Lucy can’t help but feel that she’s unwittingly stumbled into an entirely new life—new house, new city, new baby—and she struggles to navigate the journey from adventurous lover to young parent.

In her nearby nursing facility, Elsie traces the years she spent in her beloved house, where she too transformed from a naïve newlywed into a wife and mother, and eventually, a widow. Gradually, the boundary between present and past becomes more porous for her, and for Lucy—because the house has secrets of its own, and its rooms seem to share with Lucy memories from Elsie’s life.

Luminous and deeply affecting, A Hundred Small Lessons is a “lyrically written portrayal” (BookPage, Top Pick) of what it means to be human, and how a place can transform who we are. It’s about a house that becomes much more than a home, and the shifting identities of mother and daughter; father and son. Above all else, this is a story of the surprising and miraculous ways that our lives intersect with those who have come before us, and those who follow.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for A Hundred Small Lessons includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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

When Elsie Gormley leaves the Brisbane house in which she has lived for more than sixty years, Lucy Kiss and her family move in, eager to establish their new life. As they settle in, Lucy and her husband, Ben, struggle to navigate their transformation from adventurous lovers to new parents, taking comfort in memories of their vibrant past as they begin to unearth who their future selves might be. But the house has secrets of its own, and the rooms seem to share recollections of Elsie’s life with Lucy. In her nearby nursing home, Elsie traces the span of her life—the moments she can’t bear to let go and the places to which she dreams of returning . . .

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. In the Michael Ondaatje poem, we see the titular phrase “a hundred small lessons” (ch. 12), describing children dreaming of their past lives. How does this idea of dreaming and learning from our previous incarnations relate to the major themes of the book? What are some of the “small lessons” you see in this novel?

2. Early on, Lucy notes that she usually has no difficulty adjusting to new places when she has moved for Ben’s work. Why does it take so much longer for her to feel at home in Brisbane? What are some of the factors that make this transition different, and why do these distinctions have such an impact on Lucy?

3. Lucy is fascinated by the idea of vardøgers, imagining her “other selves” and attributing things she can’t explain to their actions. What are some moments throughout the book that don’t explicitly mention the concept of vardøgers but evoke the same idea? Pick a couple examples from Lucy’s perspective and a couple from another perspective, and discuss what these seem to signify.

4. Birds have been thought to portend good or bad luck and foretell the future in many cultures throughout history. Elsie believes that the disappearance of the baby crow she saw in the yard is “the reason she and Clem had had no more children” (ch. 6). Do any of the other birds that appear in the book strike you as omens? If so, what do you think they signify?

5. The epigraph at the beginning of the novel quotes from a poem by John Burnside titled “III. De Libero Arbitrio,” in reference to a book on free will written by the fourth-century bishop Augustine of Hippo. Now that you’ve read A Hundred Small Lessons, reread the epigraph. Why do you think Ashley Hay selected this poem? How might it inform your reading of the novel?

6. Both Elsie and Lucy become stay-at-home mothers after the birth of their children. Compare and contrast their relationships to motherhood. In what respects does having a child impact them in similar ways, and how and why do their experiences of raising their children diverge?

7. Elaine and Elsie have a difficult relationship, in part because of their differing opinions about what constitutes success and fulfillment in life. What do these concepts mean to you? Consider the various characters throughout the book—Lucy, Ben, Elsie, Clem, Elaine, Donny, Richard and Ida Lewis, etc. What assumptions about their happiness or sense of achievement might you make if you came across them in real life? How do these compare with what the characters themselves express over the course of the novel?

8. In chapter 13, Elsie first sees her portrait by Ida Lewis. Were you surprised by how she reacted to the painting? What do you think she was hoping for, prior to seeing it? Do you think she was disappointed? Why, or why not? What do you think her relationship with Ida meant to her, and why did she decide not to continue to see her?

9. While preparing for her wedding, Elaine says “I thought there’d be more to it than this” (ch. 4). After a moment, Elsie responds, interpreting “it” as a reference to Elaine’s bouquet. Later, Elsie recalls this moment, thinking “I’d never before thought [Elaine] was greedy” (ch. 6). How did you understand this scene as it transpired? What were Elaine and Elsie really saying to each other? Do you think Elsie’s recollection of that moment changed over time?

10. The last chapter is titled “Lucy’s house.” At what point did you feel it became “Lucy’s house,” after long being thought of by Lucy herself as Elsie’s house? What are some things you do to make a space yours when you move somewhere new?

11. Elsie laments that Elaine and her daughter Gloria “never found a way to be friends” (ch. 2), and later wonders aloud if she and Elaine were ever friends. Do you think it’s important for family members, specifically mothers and daughters, to be friends? Discuss the different expressions of love we see throughout the book and the role of emotional intimacy in the many familial relationships. Are love and emotional intimacy the same thing? Why, or why not?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Lucy spends much of the book fantasizing about who Elsie is and what her life in the house was like. Consider your own home, and imagine either its past or future tenants. Who are they? How might they feel about their home? Write a short story envisioning a scene from their lives in your home, and share with your reading group.

2. Lucy and Elsie both must confront a flood endangering the same home, and must contemplate the way their possessions and the memories and significance they represent could be suddenly washed away. What would you grab from your home if you could only take what you can carry? If possible, bring one of these items to your reading group, and share why you chose it.

3. Check out Ashley Hay’s other novels, The Body in the Clouds and The Railwayman’s Wife. To find out more about Ashley, visit www.ashleyhay.com.au, or follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ashleyhaywriter.

About The Author

Photograph by Nigel Beebe

Ashley Hay is the internationally acclaimed author of the novels A Hundred Small Lessons, The Body in the Clouds, and The Railwayman’s Wife, which was honored with the Colin Roderick Award by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the most prestigious literary prize in Australia, among numerous other accolades. She has also written four nonfiction books. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (November 2017)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501165153

Raves and Reviews

Praise for A Hundred Small Lessons:

“A reflective, mystical meditation on interconnectedness and shared experiences…that will prompt readers to reflect on how one life can be commingled with the past as well as be a first draft of the future.”

– Shelf Awareness, starred review

“Numerous scenes in this thoughtful novel will linger in the reader’s memory…A lyrically written portrayal of the lives of two women tied together by memories and the house they share, A Hundred Small Lessons is sure to be enjoyed by readers of Kate Morton.”

– BookPage (Top Pick)

“Hay’s prose is stunningly, shatteringly beautiful, and the emotional punch she delivers as the women’s paths ultimately converge makes this seemingly quiet novel a breathless and powerful read.”

– San Francisco Book Review

“Hay truly encapsulates how our lives are interwoven. We are sent on a journey through the decades as small events and echoes of memories overlap, intersect and suddenly converge into a beautiful portrait spanning the past, present and future. Every word has a purpose and resonates…Readers will fall in love with the vivid landscapes of Brisbane and the impeccable, lyrical language that seeps from the pages.” 

– RT Book Reviews

"If you haven’t read anything by Ashley Hay, you are in for a treat: her language is lyrical, the lives she creates are authentic, her words are a delight to read. This is another delightful book from a very talented writer."

– WAMC Radio

“This contemplative novel explores the emotions of saying goodbye to a life of familiarity and embracing the unknown…Readers who loved the quiet introspection of Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge will enjoy the detailed emotional journeys of Hay’s characters. Their stories will linger long after the final page is turned.”

– Library Journal

“If home is where the heart is, when does a house become a home—or, conversely, stop being one? Two women struggle to find the answer…Elsie’s aging memories give the book a timeless sense of marriage and motherhood and perhaps a flicker of what Lucy may find in her future. The home that Elsie must give up with regret, Lucy must learn to love. This is typical of Hay who slowly weaves a tale of past and present lives, exploring the sense that the gap between the two women is not impervious to sensitive souls. Both Elsie and Lucy are finely and sympathetically drawn, and their lives highlight issues that affect many women. A cerebral tale, slow-moving but profound.” 

– Kirkus

“Her intricately layered story, bolstered by perspectives of an old mother and a young one, tackles the thorny questions of what it means to become a parent and how it feels to be no longer needed as one. Lyrical and tenderhearted, this will delight fans of Liane Moriarty and Kate Hewitt.”

– Booklist

“Engaging…Hay’s perceptive prose illuminates both Elsie’s and Lucy’s lives, resulting in a rich dual character study that spans generations.”

– Publishers Weekly

“A book that overflows with gratitude for the hard, beautiful things of this world, and for the saving worlds of our imagination.”

– Helen Garner, award-winning author of Everywhere I Look

"An emotional and satisfying read about navigating life's many phases and how place can transform who we are."

– Hello! Canada

“Hay renders the small details of an undramatic, decent life with tenderness that is touching and compelling…a measured piece of writing that works carefully to create pensive and evocative images of time and place and people.”

– The Australian

A Hundred Small Lessons explores notions of home, family, identity, creativity, aging and our relationship with cities and the natural world.…Hay explores the ways in which we inhabit spaces: building homes and filling them with our possessions, dreams, regrets, fears and secrets. This graceful novel, with its unflinching approach to reality and its gentle undercurrents of sadness, nostalgia and hope, is a highly recommended read for fans of literary fiction.”

– Books + Publishing (Australia), five stars

“Hay’s intelligent scrutiny of the human psyche gives depth to this neatly constructed story.” 

– Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

Deeply affecting…Hay’s unique novel glides like a swan and only after the last page do you realize how deeply you’ve dived.”

– Country Style (Australia)

“Hay creates a compelling story, charting what it is to be human.”

– Mindfood (Australia)

“Hay explores with considerable empathy and insight the everyday lives of two very different generations…With a lovely attention to the detail of things and feelings, Hay enlists our concern for her characters and an appreciation for the revealing echoes they call up in our own lives.”

– The Advertiser (Australia)

"A luminous evocation of ordinary lives and the city that shapes them. Ashley Hay brings a pointillist eye to the daily miracles of love, of chance, of belonging."

– Kristina Olsson, award-winning author of Boy, Lost

Praise for The Body in the Clouds:

“Exquisite…a rich, meditative novel that explores the connectivity of people living in the same geographical space across the distance of time. Through a series of satisfying, recurrent metaphors, Hay weaves her characters’ stories closer, offering an allegory for the commonality of human experience. Her deft touch means that these connections are never forced; rather, they give the feel of a memory, a half-waking dream…Hay’s elegant prose draws warm and textured portraits…from the first aboriginal inhabitants through the early British settlers and into the tumult of modern urban life. Within that sprawl, Hay discovers beauty.”

– New York Times Book Review

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