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Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God

Nine weeks after losing her husband, Charlotte escapes to a wooden motor yacht in New Hampshire, where her shipmates are an aging blue-haired widow, an emotional seventeen-year-old, and the ugliest dog in literature. A genuine bond develops among the three women, as their distinct personalities and paths cross and converge against the backdrop of emotional secrets, abuse, and the wages of old age.
Off the boat, Charlotte, an archaeologist, joins a local excavation to uncover an ancient graveyard. Here she can indulge her passion for reconstructing the past, even as she tries to bury her own recent history. She comes to realize, however, that the currents of time are as fluid and persistent as the water that drifts beneath her comforting new home.

Reading Group Guide
1. The kitten Charlotte rescues after Jonah's death is named after a couple towns, then a river, and then, finally, Charlotte names it with an archeological term for a layer of refuse, Midden. Why does Charlotte keep changing the kitten's name, and what does his final name signify to her? What role does the kitten play in Charlotte's life, and how is it connected to Jonah's death? At the end of the book, after debating Jonah's place in her life with her in-laws, Charlotte again thinks of changing Midden's name (244). Does this decision reflect something Charlotte's learned over the course of her stay in Portsmouth?
2. Grace keeps Rosinante tied to the dock for 4 years after Sweet George's death. How does Rosinante's relationship to the ocean mirror Grace's relationship to life, and what does it mean when Grace finally decides to have the boat made sea worthy again? After Grace's stroke, Charlotte and Chloe bring Grace on to Rosinante, hoping to spark her memory. She doesn't remember the boat, but she recognizes that the boat is valuable and worries that someone will try to steal it (166). Why is she so possessive of the boat, even though she doesn't remember it? Why are her daughter's plans to sell the boat so threatening to all three women living aboard Rosinante?
3. After Grace's stroke, Charlotte tries to help her recover memories by showing her some of her possessions and pictures. She says, "I walked into the hospital with dirty hands and knees, holding what I thought was a box of memory and hope, and walked out with the same box, a loose collection of yard sale merchandise" (139). The language she uses here implies that she literally had to excavate Grace's belongings from the ground, even though they were just on the boat. Why does she relate this experience with Grace to her work as an archeologist?
4. Think about the argument Charlotte has with Grace while Grace is painting a portrait of Sweet George. Charlotte is startled that Grace would change the color of Sweet George's eyes in the painting. She said, "that's like some creep asking his wife to wear a blonde wig to bed" (119). What did you think of this argument? Is Grace unethical or unfaithful for changing the color of his eyes? Are Charlotte's qualms justified? How might this argument relate to the way she deals with her grief?
5. Charlotte, Grace and Chloe all have a lot in common. All three of them are estranged from their families to some degree; also, Charlotte and Grace are widows, and Chloe only separates from her boyfriend after a great deal of trauma. All of them battle with the ways their families try or fail to care for them and their relationships with their men. Why do they run from their families, and how is the family they develop with each other different from the families they escape from?
6. During her dig with the Strawbery Banke crew, Charlotte unearths a couple of skeletons whose lives are thought to bear startling similarities to those of Grace and Chloe. Think about the relics Grace has left behind in Portsmouth, like her paintings. What would you be able to learn about Grace from an archaeological dig at Portsmouth (what was Grace herself able to learn about her life from her possessions)? What have the archeologists learned about the lives of the two seventeenth century women? In one of the most striking discoveries of the dig, Charlotte learns that the two skeletons were most likely buried outside the graveyard on purpose, as punishment for their sins. The three women of Rosinante spend some time evading the long arm of the law, during which they rename the boat "Sin'n." How does this new name describe, or fail to describe, the status of the women aboard the vessel?
7. The most dramatic scene in the novel may be when Chloe pilots the Rosinante away from the dock in an effort to escape from Robert. Much of the impact and desperation of this scene comes from the violence Robert uses as he attempts to control Chloe, and yet, this scene is pivotal in many other ways as well. Although Robert's violence is the most obviously destructive, the threat that Grace's daughter and Charlotte's in-laws pose to each of them threatens their health and happiness as well. In the moment Chloe seizes command of the boat, Charlotte convinces her to set sail, and Grace waves goodbye to her daughter, what are these three women actually taking control of, besides the Rosinante? How is this moment significant for each of them?
8. Charlotte describes her in-laws as scavengers. What are they scavenging for? What is it in Charlotte's memories that they crave? Their interest is clearly unhealthy and destructive, so much so that Charlotte runs from them. Where do they cross the line with Charlotte? The lawsuit they file is confusing for everyone involved. Charlotte thinks they're after control; her lawyer thinks they might be after revenge. What do you think they wanted? When Charlotte finally talks to them, why do her memories seem to diffuse the conflict between them, even though she doesn't agree with anything they've postulated about her marriage?
9. There is an epigraph for each of the three residents of Rosinante at the beginning of the book. How do these quotations describe the three main characters? Which quotation describes Chloe, which applies more to Grace, and which seems to relate to Charlotte? And how do they reflect the primary concerns that each character struggles with over the course of the novel?
10. Grace has quirky relationship with God. She snaps at Chloe for saying grace ("No religion at the table, Chloe" (30)). But she doesn't have much sympathy for Charlotte, who claims to be agnostic. She says, "Who in the hell are you not to believe in God?" (58) Does her opinion change over the course of the book, or are these seemingly opposing attitudes reconciled somehow? After all the girls are back in Portsmouth, Grace says, "I have the queerest sensation now that I remember God, as if he were some real person in my past" (229). In the last paragraph of the book, Charlotte says, "It seems to me now that faith and memory are one and the same thing, or at least that they can't exist without one another" (245). How does Charlotte's epiphany help explain Grace's newfound memory?
11. Speaking of memory, after Charlotte, Chloe and Grace return from the journey to Prince Edward Island, Grace realizes that her memory may still be threatened by strokes like the two she has experienced. She decides to commit suicide, writing, "I won't go to heaven without my memory" (242). Why is Grace's memory the sine qua non of her life? And why does she choose a burial at sea?
12. Charlotte is a professional archeologist, but her passion for archeology defines her character away from dig sites as well. As she tries to come to grips with her husband's death, she says, "I ate my remembrance and regurgitated, ate and cramped with poisoning. In the end I was able to see it as a healing process, but during its interminable excavation and reburial it seemed anything but a coming to terms with understanding" (45). Why do you think the author chooses to use the language of archeology to compare Charlotte's process of grieving with her professional work? How does her work at the Strawbery Banke influence her healing process, and vice versa?
13. What is the significance of Charlotte's love of moving water? Why does she struggle with this feeling at first, saying, "I thought I'd never be able to love anything again, anything other than the memory of my dead husband, and so I felt ashamed and queer kneeling there on the dock...and feeling for a moment, not sad" (7). What does the ocean symbolize in this book?
14. Towards the end of the novel, while Charlotte is "beachcombing for a shipwrecked God," she finds a whale's rib on the beach and she, "stood in the airy cavity where Jonah wept" (208). How does the biblical story of Jonah and the whale help explain what happened to Charlotte's husband? Why does Charlotte see evidence of God amongst the most "fractured and diminished" detritus washed in to shore?

Joe Coomer is the author of Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God, The Loop, Sailing in a Spoonful of Water and an award-winning book of nonfiction, Dream House. He lives in Texas and Maine.

Elinor Lipman author of The Way Men Act The proverbial great read where you can't rest until the story's been told -- beautifully -- and all its secrets have been confided.

Tom Pilkington Dallas Morning News An entertaining, provocative read.

Judyth Rigler Fort Worth Star Telegram A captivating novel...provocative and life-affirming.

More books from this author: Joe Coomer