From the acclaimed author of Waiting to Surface comes a “searing” (Publishers Weekly) and emotionally powerful novel about a family and a community torn apart after an unthinkable tragedy.
In a suburb near Albany, New York, Ted and Ann Waring are waiting for divorce papers. Ted is hoping for reconciliation, but when he returns from a hunting trip with the couple’s two adolescent daughters, he loses his temper one last time, shooting and killing Ann in their living room. He claims it was an accident, but his thirteen-year-old daughter, Julia—the only witness—is sure it was murder. The younger girl, Ali, doesn’t know which way to turn. And when Julia testifies against her father, she sets into motion a struggle that pits family, friends, and townspeople against one another.
As the many layers of truth unfold in this “chilling meditation on the so-called acts of love” (The New York Times) Emily Listfield’s lean and subtle prose reveals the ways in which the emotions and evasions of the past reverberate uncontrollably into the present.
Reading Group Guide
Get a FREE ebook by joining our mailing list today! Plus, receive recommendations for your next Book Club read.
Summary In a suburb near Albany, New York, Ted and Ann Waring are waiting for their divorce papers. Ted is hoping for reconciliation -- until, after returning from a hunting trip with their two adolescent daughters, he loses his temper one more time. Was Ann's death an accident, or was it murder? Thirteen-year-old Julia testifies against her father, setting in motion a struggle that pits family, friends, and townspeople against one another. Julia and her eleven-year-old sister, Ali, must weather the scrutiny of the townsfolk and their schoolmates as they struggle to adjust to living with their mother's sister, Aunt Sandy. In the meantime, Julia is working as hard as she can to skyrocket away from everyone who loves her while Ali is dazedly trying to find truth and balance between loyalty to her sister and love for her father. Sandy, wrestling with a burgeoning relationship that threatens to turn into marriage, something she's both longed for and feared all her life, finds herself mining the past for clues about her own role in her sister's death. And Ted must face all of his demons as every flaw in his character is paraded out for examination, his sixteen-year marriage dissected in front of everyone he knows. As the many layers of truth about the killing unfold in the courtroom and in the characters' lives, this deeply moving and often chilling narrative explores the ways in which the emotions and evasions of the past reverberate uncontrollably into the present. Discussion Points The opening pages of the novel move between both Ted's and Ann's point of view. What do these early glimpses reveal about these characters? And as the novel took you back in time to see Ted and Ann before and throughout their marriage, were the opinions you formed of them at the beginning of the novel borne out? Why or why not? How did your opinion of these characters change? Among other relationships, this novel explores the dynamics of sisterhood. Compare the relationship between Sandy and Ann with the relationship between Ali and Julia. What might account for the points of similarity and disparity? How does placing the most critical moment of the novel -- Ann's killing -- at the beginning affect how you read the rest of the story? How does the structure of Parts and an Epilogue (versus traditional chapters) affect the way the story is told? Did you like it? Why or why not? It is often said that children are a reflection of their parents. In particular, the parents in this novel struggle with manic depression and alcoholism, two genetic disorders that can also affect the family environment, which shapes personalities. In what ways are the sons and daughters in this book reflections of their parents? In what ways have they consciously broken the patterns they observed growing up? Ann tells Sandy, "Marriage is a muddy business." In many ways, that seems to be the theme of Acts of Love. Compare and contrast the marriages of Estelle and Jonathon and Ann and Ted and the relationship between Sandy and John. Are any of them "normal"? Use examples from the novel to explain your perspective. Ted's stepfather, Jonathon, Ted, and John all exemplify different ways of being a husband, or partner, to their significant others. Identify moments in the novel, such as Jonathon's sharp response to Sandy on page 58, that illustrate the "style" of partnership these men exhibit. On page 20, Ted tells Julia, "There were no angels living in that house." Why does he say this? In what ways did Ann and Ted hurt one another? In what ways did they love one another? What is the significance of Ted's comment? Discuss Ted and Ann's releationship. Do you think that Ann really loved Mark Karinski, or was it something else? Were you surprised to learn that Ann cheated on Ted? Why or why not? Do you agree with Ted's assessment that the problem with him and Sandy is that they are too similar? If you agree, in what ways are they similar? If you disagree, explain why. Ted tells Ann that he can change, and Ann points out that she already has. Do you believe that people can change? Identify any characters that you think change over the course of the novel, and give examples to show why you think they have. Periodically throughout the trial, the author allows us to peek inside Judge Carruthers's point of view, such as when she notes her own son's run-in with the school counselor and her comparison of Ted to her ex-husband. Why do you think the author does this? Is she being judicious? There are many different people pulling and pushing at Julia and Ali throughout this story. Identify these people and describe their motivations. How do they deal with the publicity surrounding the trail, their peers, and their family? What is the popular opinion? In the end, why do you think Ali lies? How does this choice affect her relationship with her family? Do you see any evidence that it changes her? The final scene of the novel is quiet, chilling, and a little vague. What did you take away from the ending? Enhance Your Book Club Experience Emily Listfield is praised for her ability to create suspense and captivate her readers. She uses foreshadowing, a literary device that entails dropping subtle hints of what is to come throughout the novel. Sometimes these hints point to a plot twist, while others pull readers breathlessly through to the climax of the story. Draw a map of the clues dropped throughout Acts of Love and identify what aspects of the plot they pointed to. For fun, have each member of your book club mark on the map the point at which they "figured it out." In the small town of Hardison, some people find the best entertainment in daily visits to the courthouse. Check with your local courthouse to see what upcoming trials might be open to the public, and plan an outing with your book club to sit in on a trial. Some courthouses even offer informative tours that can teach you more about the legal system and your local government. You can find the nearest federal district court by visiting this site: http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/lookup.html. State and county courthouses can easily be found in your local phone book or online. Emily Listfield is also the author of several other novels. Spend a little time reading from her body of work and see if you can spot similar character types, plot threads, or sentiments throughout.
Emily Listfield is the former editor in chief of Fitness magazine and author of seven novels, including the New York Times Notable It Was Gonna Be Like Paris and Waiting to Surface. Her writing has appeared everywhere from the New York Times Styles section to Harper’s Bazaar. She is currently Chief Content Officer of Kaplow PR, where she helps brands like Skype, Shiseido, and Laura Mercier refine their voice, storytelling, and strategy. She lives in New York City with her daughter. Visit her website at EmilyListfield.com.
Publisher: Washington Square Press (March 18, 2008)