This reading group guide for A Special Relationship includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Douglas Kennedy. 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
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Sally Goodchild is a foreign correspondent living a life of action, independence, and intelligence. She has it all: a solid resume, an active career, and a strong journalistic reputation. The one thing she has never encountered is a man that can match her intelligence, her wit, and her lifestyle. That is, until fellow foreign correspondent Tony Hobbs saves her life on the flooded plains of Somalia. His acerbic humor, confidence, and elite British charm quickly seduce her. But their journalistic love affair is threatened when Sally becomes pregnant with his child. Much to her surprise, Tony is pleased and asks for her hand in marriage and a life with him back in his home town of London. This sets in motion a downward spiral of depression and deceit, as the man whom she thought she loved attempts to take from her what matters most, her own son. Sally must fight to rebuild her life against a rising tide of opposition as a stranger in a strange land. Discussion Questions
1. When we first meet Sally Goodchild, she is living the life of a foreign correspondent—rootless, brave, with a schedule in a constant state of flux. She must travel all around the world to dangerous and precarious locations. What types of individuals are drawn to this manic lifestyle? What are the payoffs? What are the sacrifices?
2. Sally is instantly attracted to Tony Hobbs, the charming journalist she meets in Africa. However, there are potential warning signs that Sally ignores. “He enjoyed repartee—not just for its verbal gamesmanship, but also because it allowed him to retreat from the serious, or anything that might be self-revealing” (p. 18–19). What clues does this give to Tony Hobb’s personality and his eventual betrayal?
3. Early in Sally’s life, she suffers the death of her parents. She develops a philosophy to cope with this loss: “. . . you come to realize pretty damn fast that everything is fragile; that so-called ‘security’ is nothing more than a thin veneer that can fracture without warning” (p. 29). Is this particular cynicism and fear of instability what leads her to fall into Tony Hobb’s arms so quickly? Why would Sally jump into a risky situation with a man she hardly knows?
4. The novel discusses the differences between American and British culture. What are some of these intrinsic differences? How does Sally’s use of language differ from the people that surround her in London? How does being a foreigner affect her life in England?
5. As Sally and Tony’s love affair continues, she receives odd reports about Tony’s recklessness, one from a colleague from the Daily Telegraph
: “It’s common knowledge back in London that Hobbs is something of a political disaster when it comes to the game of office politics” (p. 31). This information from a fellow journalist does not dissuade Sally from falling head over heels in love with Hobbs. What causes her blindness? Does the fact that she is “crowding middle- age” play a factor in her decisions?
6. When Sally learns she is pregnant with Tony’s child, she immediately tells him, expecting this to complicate things between them. However, Tony agrees to keep the child, and furthermore, offers marriage as well. For two people bent on independence and freedom for all of their lives, why does Tony go along so easily into this new arrangement? More important, why does Sally?
7. Sally explains: “We can delude ourselves into believing that we’re the master captain, steering the course of our destiny . . . but the randomness of everything inevitably pushes us into places and situations where we never expect to find ourselves” (p. 98). One of these ‘random’ situations Sally finds herself in is married, pregnant, and living in a stable home in London, a far cry from her adventure-laden journalistic lifestyle. Sally blames her situation on this ‘randomness.’ Is this really accurate? How much of Sally’s own free will, not randomness, is the cause of her current predicament? What could she have done differently to have avoided this fate?
8. As her pregnancy progresses, Sally begins to experience a myriad of health problems, which forces her to leave her job and remain in the hospital until her child is born. This is the beginning of Sally’s decline, mentally and physically. “I always had to be active, always have to be accomplishing something—my workaholism underscored by a fear of slowing down, of losing momentum” (p. 101). How does this ‘down time’ begin to chip away at her mental health? What happens to a person so accustomed to action when they are suddenly confronted with no responsibilities or deadlines?
9. Soon after she recovers and is able to leave the hospital, Sally receives word that her job with the Post
’s foreign bureau is no longer available. This is the beginning of the descent for Sally. Was it fair for Sally to be let go because of health conditions? Was there anything she could have done to prevent this?
10. The marital bliss between Tony and Sally starts to unravel sooner than expected. “But what I couldn’t get out of my brain was the larger, implicit realization that I had married someone with whom I didn’t share a common language” (p. 108). Despite some advice from her sister about marriage, this divide between Tony and Sally only grows deeper. How are they missing each other? What are some examples from their lives that show this breakdown in communication?
11. Once little Jack is born, he suffers from a serious case of jaundice. The first time Sally is allowed to see her son, she is shocked by her initial feelings of disconnection. “But another terrible thought hit me: could he really be my son?
They say that you should be swamped by unconditional love the moment you first see your child . . . and that the bonding process
should begin immediately. But how could I bond with this miniscule stranger, currently looking like a horrific medical experiment?” (p. 117). Can you identify with Sally here? Why does she feel this way?
12. As the months of banality pile upon each other, Sally finds herself caught in a nightmarish world of postnatal depression, which this novel grimly confronts. The disconnection between she and Tony grows; their sex life is nonexistent; and her time is divided between sleeping (alone), feeding little Jack, and changing diapers. “The hopelessness of my situation took hold. I wasn’t just a useless mother and wife, but someone who was also in a no-exit situation from which there was no escape. A life sentence of domestic and maternal drudgery, with a man who clearly didn’t love me” (p. 202). This is the point of view of a woman obviously suffering from postnatal depression, a serious condition of clinical depression. What are some of the ways Sally tries to reach out for help? Are these cries for help answered?
13. In therapy, Sally confesses to experiencing a ‘feeling of inadequacy,’ “the perennial worry of the perennial B student who never felt she was achieving her potential . . .” (p. 242). What do you believe are some of the causes of Sally’s feelings of inadequacy? Is there a link to the feeling of responsibility for her parent’s death?
14. As Sally’s life becomes more manageable, she begins to experience a sort of cathartic realization about pain. “At heart, all grief centers around the realization that you can never escape the bereavement that has stricken you. There may be moments when you can cope with its severity; when the harshness temporarily lessens. But the real problem with grief is its perpetuity. It doesn’t go away. And though you are, on one level, always crying for the loss you’ve sustained, you’re also crying because you realize you’re now stuck with the loss, that—try as you might—it’s become an intrinsic part of you, and will change the way you look at things forever” (p. 350). What instances of grief is Sally referring to? What tragedies has she overcome, and still must overcome? Do you agree that these tragedies never leave us?
15. Sandy, Sally’s sister, is angered when she hears in court about Sally’s feelings of responsibility for her parent’s death. She is offended, not because she actually believes Sally is responsible for their accident, but for not trusting in her sister to tell her she felt this way. Why did Sally keep this secret from her sister for so long? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read Journalistas: 100 Years of the Best Writing and Reporting by Woman Journalists,
edited by Eleanor Mills, to get a taste for the exciting and often dangerous lifestyles of foreign correspondents like Sally Goodchild.
2. Postpartum depression, or postnatal depression (PND), is a form of clinical depression that affects more than 25 percent of woman after childbirth. This condition is a debilitating and dangerous illness resulting in fatigue, irritability, sadness, reduced libido, anxiety, and crying episodes. All of these symptoms afflict Sally Goodchild after the birth of her son, Jack. Research the effects of PND with source materials such as Brooke Shields’s memoir Down Came the Rain
and Dr. Sandra L. Wheatley’s Coping with Postnatal Depression
to learn about this common and debilitating illness.
3. The distinct difference between British and American style of discourse, modes of expression, and cultures are noted numerous times in the novel. “That was the most intriguing thing about London—its aloofness. Perhaps it had something to do with the reticent temperament of its natives” (p. 54), Sally comments. In contrary, she finds considerable trouble caused by her “. . . inborn American inability to couch things in coded language . . .” (p. 291). Sally refused to “. . . accept that pragmatic pessimism, which . . . struck me as so desperately English. I wanted to embrace that old hoary American fighting spirit” (p. 351). Compare and contrast the American and British world views as depicted in the novel. What do you find to be specific to each culture’s social and personal philosophies?A Conversation with Douglas KennedyQ: A common trait in your characters is the need for unrelenting independence and a yearning for freedom. However, this independence and freedom is challenged by the act of falling in love. Is the act of love diametrically opposed to freedom and independence?
A: Romance is one thing, domesticity another. And do note that I choose to use the word “romance” rather than love in this context. All love stories begin as a romance. And speaking from personal experience, all romances begin (or, at least, should
begin) with sexual and emotional headiness. Then, of course, the moment arrives when someone has forgotten to do the dishes for the first time—and the entire game changes. Love, of course, is a wholly different construct to romance. Love is about proper intimacy and true complicity. And that’s why it is so damn difficult to sustain. Q: The novel opens with terse action and vivid portrayals of flooding in Somalia and the chaos ensuing on the ground. You have traveled extensively around the world. Have you been a witness to such chaos?
A: I have been chased by three brick-wielding youths down a backstreet in Algiers. I was arrested, temporarily, by the military police in the Egyptian oasis of Siwa for traveling into a “security zone” without proper authorization. I have woken up in a no-star hotel in the Moroccan town of Meknes to find a guy in my room, going through my suitcase—and I did catch him in the back of the head with my shortwave radio, which I grabbed off the bedside table . . . and which was smashed in the process. And I have ventured into a bikers bar in Alabama and emerged with all my teeth intact (no easy trick that). So, yes, travel, especially travel in edgy places, has its attendant dangers, which is, after all, the point of venturing into edgy places. Q: Your work is reminiscent of the classic Madam Bovary, particularly with the theme of women trying their best to avoid the banality of a suburban life. What influence does Gustave Flaubert have upon your work?
A:Flaubert did something absolutely epoch-changing in Madame Bovary
. He was the first novelist ever to confront a key malaise: boredom. All those novels (mine included), which have grappled with marital discontent and the horrors of quotidian life owe a huge debt to Flaubert. He articulated for the first time the way the day-to-day can grind us down, and how we often turn to banal melodrama (like an affair) as a way of subverting the cul-de-sac into which we have imprisoned ourselves. More tellingly, Flaubert understood the fact that we are the architects of these cul-de-sacs . . . and that we frequently imprison ourselves in lives that we don’t want. Q: Sally Goodchild’s slow descent into the horror and the hopelessness of postpartum depression is expressed so harrowingly across the page. At what lengths did you research this terrible condition experienced by women after birth?
A: I met a woman in her mid-thirties at a dinner party in London, who, after around three large glasses of chardonnay, started telling me about the fact that, though she had so wanted a big family, after the birth of her son she had been hit with a postpartum depression so severe that she never had a second child. I explained my interest in such a story. I’d begun to think about a novel centering around motherhood-as-nightmare and asked her for her phone number (reassuring her it was for professional reasons only). We met for coffee around a week later and she talked nonstop for three hours (no one had ever asked her about her descent into postnatal hell—and her stockbroker husband found the whole episode so distasteful that . . . well, you can complete the sentence). I took extensive notes while she spoke, then read two books on postnatal depression afterward, and also spoke at length with a doctor on the subject. After that, during the actual writing of the novel, it was essentially all about imagining my way into Sally’s head as she plunged into this hellish vortex. Some years after the original UK publication, while giving a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I was approached by two women from the British Society of Postnatal Depression. They told me that this novel had become, for them, a standard set text on the subject, and one that they gave to women in the throes of this nightmare. “How did you get it so right?” they asked me. It was the nicest compliment imaginable because, while working on the novel, I was so cognizant of the fact that (as a man) I was dealing with a great terra incognito
. Q: Examples of the differences between American and British social mores and communication styles are rampant throughout the novel. As an American man who lives in London, what personal experiences informed these frequent philosophical quips about the difference between the two cultures?
A: I once told a rather shocked English journalist that the only way to live in London as an American was to become an Anglophobe. “It’s an English perversity, but they prefer someone who is slightly contemptuous of them than someone desperate to fit in to English life.” I love London for its theaters, its museums, its concert halls, my great friends, its extraordinary ethnic diversity, its social tolerance and social democracy, its stealthy sense of irony, and the fact that it hates self-importance. But I have never considered myself residing in the UK, rather in the city-state that is London. And perhaps that tells you all you need to know about my relationship with the place! Q: The British legal system, something quite foreign to an American audience, is depicted quite extensively in this work. What were your research methods for getting it right?
A: I had the great counsel of a wonderful divorce lawyer named Frances Hughes, a very smart, canny woman who had seen it all when it came to the folly of marriages gone wrong, and who gave me a crash course in the British legal system, which, indeed, is so wildly different from our own in the US. Life is full of extraordinary ironies. And perhaps the biggest one in relationship to Frances, who was so clever and dry and perceptive when it came to the legal aspects of the novel, is that when my own marriage fell apart six years later she was the lawyer whom I engaged to handle my divorce. And she did a brilliant job, keeping me sane during the yearlong roller coaster ride that ensued. Q: The art of survival and facing challenges is a common theme in your works. Sally Goodchild is brought to the brink of madness before she begins to fight against powers that are trying to destroy her. Have you faced any challenges when you had to fight, much like your characters, for your own survival?
A: Put it this way: Like everyone I know I have had my share of personal upheavals and challenges in life. But I have also come to appreciate the fact that such crises are part of the price we pay for being alive. There are crises that you yourself spark. There are crises that others spark. And there is the happenstantial stuff that can send your life into a downward spiral. I think the trick is to understand that we all land in a very dark wood from time to time. Extricating oneself from this enclosed place is never a simple matter, but it usually teaches us enormously about ourselves and the people to whom we are (allegedly) closest. Q: There is an interesting passage in the novel regarding the breakdown of human relationships: “. . . it also stems from a need for turmoil, for change . . . all of which might be linked to that very human fear of morality, and the realization that everything is finite. It is this knowledge that makes us scramble even harder for some sort of meaning or import to the minor lives that we lead . . . even if it means pulling everything apart in the process” (p. 370). Do you believe this to be true? Is there something essential built into the human structure that desires to destroy itself?
A: We are all sold a bill of goods in life about the absolute need for stability. The fact is, nothing in life is truly stable, and to think otherwise is to engage in profound self-delusion. More tellingly, I do think there is a self-destructive aspect built into us all, and one which certain people (in my experience) foster more than others. “Things fall apart, the centre will not hold,” Yeats noted in his great poem, “The Second Coming.” But the truth often is that things fall apart because we ourselves don’t want the center to hold. Q: The passages about grief in this work are very powerful, especially about how grief becomes “an intrinsic part of you.” Coupled with the ideas that “everything is fragile,” the world you paint of modern life is riddled with fear and misfortune. As Sally whispers to her son at the close of the novel: “It’s just the rain. And we had better get used to it.” Is this a perspective you share with your characters?
A: I sense one of the reasons why my books have such a wide and diverse public in so many countries is precisely because they grapple with modern anxiety. And, let’s face it, we all love reading about other people’s nightmares, especially ones we know could easily happen to us. Q: When Sally Goodchild first sees Tony Hobbs after he tried to take her son away from her, she can’t help but to reminisce about their first meeting in the helicopter over a flooded Somalian valley: “That’s how our story started—and this is where it had now brought us: to the steps of a court of law, surrounded by our respective legal teams, unable to look each other in the eye” (p. 419). This reflection on the path of one’s life is an important one. It is amazing to see where the path one starts can lead. Did you envision this kind of success when you left Manhattan for Europe in 1977?
A: Of course I find the way my life has progressed in the thirty-three years since leaving Manhattan nothing less than intriguing (please note the use here of understatement). And yes I also frequently find myself wondering just what level of alcoholic I’d be right now if I had followed my father’s advice and become a lawyer (and I say that as someone with many lawyer friends, but they wanted to enter the legal profession and, ergo, have a great passion for it). I started out running theaters, then wrote plays, then wrote narrative travel books and journalism, then wrote novels, and, in my early forties, finally worked out that my métier was indeed as a novelist. In the midst of all these different creative lives, I have lived in Dublin, London, Paris and Berlin, learned how to speak fluent French, traveled everywhere from the Australian Outback to Patagonia to Western Samoa to Vietnam to Egypt to Indonesia to Newfoundland to the American Bible Belt to . . . well l, I could go on, but it might get tedious. But I still think of so many places that I haven’t seen and so many novels I still want to write. As I tell my children constantly, the key to an interesting life is twofold: openness and curiosity. Perhaps there’s a third key: doing what you want, not what others expect of you. And you also need to be aware of the fact that life can change in an instant. It’s just that we never know when or where that instant will come.