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A Secret Word

A Novel

Jennifer Paddock's incandescent debut novel spans fifteen years in the lives of friends Leigh, Sarah, and Chandler, beginning one fateful day in high school that forever connects them. While Leigh remains stuck in dead-end jobs in their Arkansas hometown, the more privileged Sarah and Chandler move to Manhattan, where Sarah seeks acting fame and Chandler struggles to make sense of her failed relationships, only to be sent reeling by an unexpected tragedy.
Sweeping from the Deep South to New York and interweaving each girl's distinctive voice into a seamless narrative, A Secret Word is a luminous story of friendship and family, sex and secrets, growing up and growing apart. It is about how well you can ever really know another person and the secrets we keep from our friends, our families, and, most important, ourselves.

Reading Group Guide
1. Why do you suppose Jennifer Paddock chose A Secret Word as the title of her novel? In what ways do the characters keep secrets from one another, and also from themselves?
2. Split into sixteen chapters that are narrated from three different points of view, the novel has an unusual and intriguing structure. Why do you think Paddock chose to tell her story this way? How do the differences between the three young women come through?
3. Do you think the book has a main character, and if so, who is it? Whom did you identify with the most? Which of the secondary characters did you find most interesting? Why?
4. The opening chapter of A Secret Word centers on a car accident that takes the life of a boy that all three of the central characters know well. How does this shared tragedy affect their relationships with one another? Do you think it primarily distances them or binds them together?
5. Each chapter is narrated in the first person, and the tone is often very frank and personal, in the manner of a diary entry: "God, it's depressing being me. Old at twenty, Sarah Blair." [p. 36] How does this approach enrich our understanding of the book's characters and themes? How do the three narrators' voices change over time?
6. Chandler and Sarah grow up going to the country club almost daily to play tennis, while Leigh lives with her single mother who works odd jobs, waiting tables or selling cosmetics. How do their disparate class backgrounds influence their relationships with each other? Later, how do social class and their perceptions of it influence their choices in life?
7. "He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God."[p. 63] Chandler is struck by this quotation from Aeschylus when she sees it posted in the office of her coworker Scott Foster. Do these words resonate with Chandler's experience? Are they relevant to the lives of other characters in the book? Does the Aeschylus passage square with your own experience?
8. When Scott breaks off the affair with Chandler, she is deeply hurt and suddenly realizes how much she had invested in the relationship. She remarks, "Uncertainty quickens the heart, fools you into believing what could never be true." [p. 74] Do you find that to be true? How does the feeling of uncertainty enhance or hinder the characters' lives?
9. Reflecting on how much she likes Mr. Carey, Chandler's father, Leigh says, "People sometimes ask if I've ever tried to find my father, but I haven't and don't want to. My mother is burden enough." [p. 79] Leigh is not the only one in A Secret Word to have a tangled relationship with her parents, and particularly her father. How do the three main characters' feelings about their parents influence their lives? How do you think their choices are affected by their parents' expectations or values?
10. In the chapter called "And When I Should Feel Something," Chandler recounts finding out her father has killed himself, traveling home to Arkansas for the funeral, and then returning to New York, where she goes again and again to see Savion Glover tap dancing in the Broadway show Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. What makes this chapter so compelling and moving? How would you describe the writing style?
11. Near then end of the novel Chandler recalls a time when she thought Manhattan would save her: "I felt almost happy when I would see the New Yorker hotel sign, and I'd think, I am home, and I will never leave this place." Yet she winds up moving back to the South, to Fairhope, Alabama. For her part, Leigh ends up leaving Arkansas to start fresh in Destin, Florida, where she remarks, "I am now certain that I will become who I really am here, to be cured of all that I never was." Discuss the significance of place in the lives of the main characters. For example, how does living in New York change Chandler and Sarah? What about them remains the same?
12. When Chandler and Mark Starling are growing closer, he sends her a card with the lyrics to one of her favorite songs, a song she used to listen to after her father died. She describes how the song moved her and made her think about her own life, even though she couldn't entirely make sense of the words. Are there certain favorite songs of yours that have this kind of effect on you? Do you ever feel that music communicates to you in ways you don't fully grasp?
13. Near the end of the book, Chandler expresses admiration for Brinson Carr, the singer who used to date Sarah, praising him for giving a benefit concert in New York after September 11th, for "helping people in New York, helping me when my father died." And in the novel's last scene, Sarah sees Savion Glover on the street and yells out to him, "You saved my friend. Thank you!" In what ways do the main characters in A Secret Word save each other?

Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City A Secret Word captures the dreamy rhythms of adolescence between staccato moments of crisis, as three perfectly ordinary and utterly memorable young southern women find themselves transported inexorably into the cosmopolitan landscape of womanhood. While many first novelists wave their arms and stamp their feet to get our attention, Jennifer Paddock seduces the reader with the narrative equivalent of a raised eyebrow or the almost imperceptible nod of the head. At the end the reader is inclined to ask of the writer as well as her characters -- what's next?

Melinda Haynes author of Willem's Field A Secret Word is a rare gem of a book, distilled and heartbreaking, yet full of quiet grace that illuminates the page in extraordinary ways. There is something about Paddock's writing that defies conventional description. The closest word I can summon is 'magic.'

Michael Knight author of Goodnight, Nobody Jennifer Paddock writes like Raymond Carver with a bigger heart...a perfect novel-in-stories.

More books from this author: Jennifer Paddock