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A Novel

About The Book

In this “heartfelt chamber piece of flawed personalities, calamitous decisions, and unexpected moments of grace” (The New York Times Book Review), two suburban families are hopelessly entangled during an explosive Thanksgiving weekend that changes their lives forever.

When Benjamin’s wife kicks him out of their house, he returns to his childhood home in Connecticut to live with his widowed father. Lost, lonely, and doubting everything he felt he knew about marriage and love—even as his eighty-year-old father begins to date again—Benjamin is trying to put his life back together when he recognizes someone down the street: his high school crush, the untouchable Audrey Martin. Audrey has just moved to the neighborhood with her high-powered lawyer husband and their rebellious teenager, Emily. As it turns out, Audrey isn’t so untouchable anymore, and she and Benjamin begin to discover, in each other’s company, answers to many of their own deepest longings. Meanwhile, as the neighborhood is wracked by a mysterious series of robberies, Audrey seems to be hiding a tragic secret, and her husband, Andrew, becomes involved in a dangerous professional game he can never win. And, by the way, who is paying attention to Emily?

Powerful, provocative, and psychologically gripping, Housebreaking explores the ways that two families—and four lives—can all too easily veer off track, losing sight of everyone, and everything, they once held dear. Like the best from Tom Perrotta and Rick Moody, “this compassionate, utterly engrossing novel of suburban dysfunction…makes some trenchant points about how easily people can lose sight of what’s most important” (Booklist).


The last day of summer, 2007

THE NIGHT his wife kicked him out, Benjamin Mandelbaum took the dog and a bag of clothes and drove to his father’s house in Wintonbury. It was 10:00 P.M. on a Saturday, the suburban street as quiet as a graveyard. He got out of his car and felt the wind rise, stirring the leaves of the apple tree he’d climbed as a boy. He took the spare key from under the flowerpot and let the dog in ahead of him. The house smelled like mothballs and stale cologne, an old man’s lair.

A few minutes later Leonard appeared in his bathrobe at the top of the stairs. “Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Dad.”

“Benjamin? What’s going on?”

Yukon rushed up the stairs and sniffed at a stain on Leonard’s robe. Benjamin realized that, in all the commotion, he had forgotten to feed the dog its dinner. “I’ll be staying over, if that’s okay.”

“That’s fine. That’s fine.” His father had a habit of saying things twice. “Where’s Judy?”

“She’s home.”

His father’s eyes were bloodshot, his face puffy from sleep.

“Go back to bed,” said Benjamin. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“There’s some tuna salad in the fridge.”

In the kitchen, Benjamin filled a bowl with water while the dog went from room to room, inspecting. The refrigerator was practically empty: the bowl of dry tuna, a few brown eggs, mustard and ketchup on the side shelves, lemons and wilted lettuce in the crisper. His father had lost weight since Mom’s death, and now Benjamin could see why. In the cold-cuts drawer he found an unopened can of corn. In the freezer, among the frozen vegetables and meats, he found something even odder: a pack of Marlboros with only two cigarettes left. His father didn’t smoke. Had he started now, at eighty-four? And why keep them in the freezer?

After Myra’s funeral, Benjamin and his sister had tried to convince their father to sell the house and move into a retirement community. They thought it would be good for him: Leonard had always been a social creature; part of his job at the car dealership was going to restaurants and functions, handing out his business card. But Leonard wouldn’t hear of it. He kept up the house as if Myra were still alive. It became a shrine of sorts: her clothes still hanging in the closet, her prescription bottles in the medicine cabinet, framed photographs of her in every room. His sole occupation was maintaining everything as she had liked it. He hired landscapers, gardeners, and handymen. It all made Benjamin wonder if he would end up the same way: old, alone, going to bed early, living with the ghosts of his past.

He went into the den and stood before the wet bar. His father always had a fine selection of single malt—not Benjamin’s intoxicant of choice, but he’d left his stash of pot in the glove compartment. He poured a Glenlivet and added two ice cubes. His father had excellent taste in the good things—liquor, clothes, shoes. The old man had style, even if he now wore his pants cinched over his navel, shuffling around the house in his slippers. Benjamin eased onto the sofa and found himself exhaling after each sip of scotch, happy to be home.

Home. The word gave him some comfort. Sure, Leonard was eighty-four. But his father would take care of him, even if Benjamin didn’t need taking care of. He felt a luxurious heat rising from the liquor, and for the first time in a while he felt like he could breathe easily. Judy’s presence had weighed on him for so long. He’d been held accountable for nearly every moment; his cell phone rang ten times a day, a phantom chaperone. Where was he? Did he remember to pick up the dry cleaning? Her prescription? He sighed. Years ago, he’d found it endearing that she wanted their lives so intertwined.

Yukon came into the den and stood before him, panting. “Lie down,” Benjamin said. “We’re not going anywhere.” The dog obeyed, but was up again after a few minutes, padding out to the kitchen, roaming the first floor. Benjamin intended to walk the dog—their nightly ritual—but he dozed off after his third glass of scotch, and Yukon lay in the doorway, head between his paws, watching him. The dog slept, but not deeply. He whimpered throughout the night, unaccustomed to this strange house and its old man’s smell.

Outside on the front lawn, a mob of deer nibbled at the arborvitae, silent as ghosts, watchful as criminals. Somewhere deep in the woods, an owl warbled.

* * *

THE NEXT MORNING Leonard Mandelbaum came downstairs to find his son snoring on the couch, his hair covering his face. He had a fine head of curly black hair, Benjamin did. Leonard stood for a moment, admiring his son, who looked childlike curled in sleep, his hands tucked under his chin. Leonard saw Benjamin regularly at the office, but it had been a long time since he’d been able to watch his son sleep. Leonard noticed the bottle of scotch and the empty glass on the coffee table. Benjamin had been a beer drinker ever since high school, when his pals would come to the house to play Ping-Pong in the basement. To take up the hard liquor meant something was bothering him. More trouble with Judy, no doubt. It was a shame that they argued so often. Leonard had always liked Judy. She’d helped out with Myra during her illness, staying up nights when the late nurse didn’t show. You could always depend on Judy. A fine, sturdy woman. A good mother to the children. And she’d converted too, mainly to please him and Myra. How many gals would do that for their in-laws?

Leonard went into the kitchen to start the coffee and opened the Hartford Courant to the obituaries. Each day, it seemed, he knew one of the deceased, usually someone who’d bought a car from him. Leonard Mandelbaum never forgot the name of a good customer.

Today it was Manny Silverman. Above the obituary was a thumb-size photo taken in the 1950s, around the time Leonard had put Manny into his first DeVille. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Cancer, then. Poor Manny. Leonard had sold him another five Cadillacs over the next fifty years, most recently a top-of-the-line XLR. That had been when? Last year? No, longer than that. He recalled telling Myra about it—dapper old Manny in his seersucker suit, zooming off the lot in a seventy-thousand-dollar convertible.

Leonard went into the front hallway and sat at the mahogany desk, where he made his phone calls and wrote his personal notes and letters to the editor. When his grandchildren visited they treated his black rotary phone like some Ice Age fossil. Fingering the dial, David had once asked, Does this actually work, Grandpa?

Leonard took a sheet of his personal stationery from the desk drawer and wrote, In Memory of Manny Silverman. He checked the date on his calendar—September 23, 2007—and wrote a hundred-dollar check to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. On another sheet of paper, he composed a letter to the editors of the Wintonbury Gazette.

Manny Silverman, who died recently, served this community for more than forty years as a dentist of great skill. He filled two pages with remembrances, then concluded: When we lose a man like Manny Silverman, we lose a small part of the qualities that he stood for: integrity, wisdom, professionalism. We will miss you, Manny.

He addressed the envelopes, pasted on the stamps, and brought them to the front porch. He checked his watch: not yet 8 A.M. As he put the letters in the mailbox, Benjamin’s dog appeared in the doorway, tail slashing.

“Stay,” said Leonard, trying to conjure the dog’s name. “Stay right there.” The dog wanted to go outside and run around, like all dogs, but he was well trained and would not disobey. Benjamin always trained his pets well. So many dogs and cats had come and gone, Leonard could not remember this animal’s name. “Good boy,” he said. “That’s a good boy. Now go sit.”

Benjamin would be up soon, and hungry. His son liked raspberry Danish from the Crown Market. He complained that he couldn’t find anything as good in Granby. Leonard picked up his keys and his wallet, got into his Escalade, and accelerated out of the driveway.

At the bottom of the street he noticed a few pickup trucks parked outside Eleanor Hufnagle’s place, with workmen milling around the yard. The farmhouse had been unoccupied for years, ever since Eleanor collapsed at her ironing board and the postman found her four days later. The woman had lived to ninety-nine alone in that house. He had one of her oil paintings hanging in his den. Loss of a great artist, Leonard had written, then, to the Wintonbury Gazette.

At the supermarket, he clipped the curb pulling into the handicap space. His physician had gotten him the permit for his arthritic knees. All those years of running—on the track team at City College, in boot camp in the Navy, then later on the tennis courts at Tumble Brook Country Club—had taken their toll. You’re rubbing bone on bone, the doctor had told him, and that was exactly what it felt like these mornings, worse in wintertime.

At this hour he had his pick at the bakery. Most days the challah went before noon, no matter how many times he complained to the manager about the shortage. He often had to go without challah or marbled rye if he got there late. And Benjamin was absolutely correct about the quality of the baked goods. You’d have to go to New York City to find a better challah. He picked out a couple of loaves, a few Danish, and a coffee cake. Orange juice, he remembered, which Benjamin drank like water. He examined the cartons in the cooler, feeling the chill of the refrigeration. Was it Tropicana or Minute Maid that Benjamin liked? Pulp or no pulp? There were so many different brands now, so many choices. Reaching for one of the cartons, he lost his grip on the challah, and it fell, followed by the marbled rye. “Dammit,” he hissed.

“Let me help you, Mr. Mandelbaum.”

Leonard turned to see a middle-aged man, dressed in sweat clothes and a baseball cap like a high school kid. He gathered Leonard’s items from the floor and rose to his full height. “It’s Dick Funkhouser,” he said, smiling.

Leonard took his hand. “I knew your father. A wizard with a nine iron. How’s your mother? I haven’t seen her at the club lately.” Terri Funkhouser, originally from Newark; she’d never lost the accent. Myra hadn’t liked her. Said she smelled like cheap perfume.

“She’s not a member anymore. Ever since Dad passed.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

The man carried Leonard’s goods to the checkout line and placed them on the conveyor belt. Leonard began fishing in his wallet for some cash.

“She doesn’t get out of the house very often,” said Dick Funkhouser. “She always speaks fondly of you.” He produced a pen and scribbled something onto a scrap of paper. Leonard pulled his reading glasses out of his breast pocket and examined the note: a phone number.

“She’d love to have dinner or see a show. You should call her.”

Leonard tucked the slip of paper into his pocket. Why would he call Terri Funkhouser? He hardly knew her. The woman hadn’t been a regular presence at the country club or synagogue. Dick Senior had once complained that his wife would rather stay home with a bottle of sherry than go to the Met. She has low tastes, he had confided.

“Are you a member of the club?” asked Leonard.

“I’m not much of an athlete,” said Dick Funkhouser.

“I see.” Leonard remembered now. The son had resigned from the club following the scandal at Funkhouser’s Dry Cleaning. After Dick Senior died, the son had ruined the business on bad loans, second mortgages, tax evasions. A shame, that sort of financial mismanagement. Dick Senior had put his life into dry cleaning.

“Let me take the groceries out to your car.”

Leonard shook his head. “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

Back at the house, he carried the brown bags up the front steps. Benjamin met him at the door. He looked puffy-eyed but otherwise his same boyish self, curly-haired, fit, more handsome than his dad ever was. The girls had always gone wild for Benjamin, as far back as junior high school. Fonzie, some of the gals called him then, on account of the resemblance.

“I’ve got Danish,” he told his son.

* * *

AFTER BREAKFAST a car horn blared from the street. Benjamin looked out the kitchen window and saw the familiar red pickup truck pull into the driveway; MARIANI LANDSCAPING, read the faded letters on the side. Two men got out, slamming the doors.

“Who’s that?” said Leonard, peering over Benjamin’s shoulder.

“No one.”

“Are those Judy’s brothers? Why are they honking the horn? It’s a Sunday morning, for goodness’ sake.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

Benjamin went out the front door in his socks. “What’s up, guys?”

Anthony, the youngest of the three brothers, glanced at him and went around to the back of the truck and pulled down the tailgate. There was a third brother, currently under house arrest on a DUI charge. In the winter they did snowplowing, and sometimes Lou worked maintenance for a guitar factory in New Hartford.

Anthony pulled a set of golf clubs from the bed of the truck and dumped the bag onto the lawn. A couple of yellow Titleists rolled out of the bag toward his dad’s Japanese maple.

“Here’s all your shit. Special delivery.”

The truck smelled of gasoline and grass clippings. Benjamin peered into the back, seeing a jumble of clothes, luggage, skis, books, DVDs, Rollerblades. Actually, those were his son’s Rollerblades. Judy must have gotten confused in her frenzy. He could picture her rifling through the closets in the basement and attic, plucking his possessions from the wreckage of their marriage. How exhilarated she must have felt, purifying herself of him. She’d always liked throwing things out. He noticed random clutter as well. Board games. A black-and-white TV with a broken antenna. Even some of her old clothes. He recognized a French maid’s costume, a Valentine’s gift from years ago. The brothers tossed it all onto the lawn, a showering of his worldly possessions, old and new. His Matrix trilogy hit the grass, and one of the DVDs slipped out of its case and rolled toward the street.

So this was payback.

He had played nice with the brothers all these years, sharing beers at family gatherings, listening to their inane opinions about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, their crass jokes. He shouldn’t have tried so hard. They’d turned against him openly ten years ago, after the blowout with Judy over the Dutch au pair. But they’d never liked him. They were Italians; he was a Jew, and their sister had converted to marry him. Sometimes they’d even called him that to his face as a sort of joke: “the Jew.”

Anthony was wearing his usual ripped jeans and T-shirt. He had a closely cropped head with a long, thin string of hair growing from the nape of his neck, like a rat’s tail. He was the talker in the family; the other two rarely said a word.

“Twenty years you jerked my sister around,” he said.

“You’ve never been married,” said Benjamin. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“No?” He flicked away his cigarette and pulled a pile of clothes on hangers out of the bed of the truck and tossed them onto the driveway. Benjamin noticed his navy blue Brioni on the top of the pile, his best suit. He’d worn it to weddings and parties, never to work. On sale it had cost him eight hundred bucks.

“You ruined her life,” said Anthony, stepping close to Benjamin. “That’s what she told me this morning. Her exact words.”

Benjamin held his gaze, feeling vulnerable in his socks. Both brothers were wearing heavy boots flecked with cut grass. “Yeah, well. She had some things to say about you over the years, believe me.”

“Fuck you,” said Anthony.

Lou quickly stepped between them. “Cut the high school stuff.” He shoved his brother back. “Look,” he said to Benjamin. “You got no reason to go back to the house. This is all your junk right here. Judy doesn’t want to see you anymore.”

“That’s the way it’s going to be,” said Anthony. “Got it?”

Benjamin didn’t answer.

The brothers got into the truck and backed out, running over his suit.

Leonard joined Benjamin in the driveway, squinting into the sun. “A shame, throwing around private belongings like garbagemen. You should tell Judy what they did.”

Benjamin picked up his suit. There was a tire tread on the front lapel. Maybe the dry cleaner could get it out.

“Judy sent them.”

“Not Judy. She wouldn’t do that.”

“Well, she did.”

“She’ll cool off. She’s a fine woman. A good mother.”

Maybe she would cool off, but Benjamin doubted it. Temper, temper, he used to lecture, like a schoolmarm, whenever she lost it and started yelling at some slowpoke driver or snippy salesclerk. Maybe she hadn’t told her brothers to trash his stuff, but she certainly had packed it up and told them to take it away. Take him out of her life.

Benjamin gathered the rest of his clothes, his hands trembling with adrenaline. He was conscious of Franky DiLorenzo, watching from his front lawn next door, a water hose in his hand. Benjamin rubbed the tears from his eyes. It always happened when he felt angry or threatened, ever since he was a child, this sudden welling. He never cried when he was sad, not even when his mother died—not at her funeral, not even the night before her death when she’d told him in a moment of lucidity, You’re my love, Benjamin. You always were.

A car pulled up on the street. A man in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt got out and strolled up the driveway, pursing his lips. “How much for the skis?” he said.


“The skis. What are you asking?”

Leonard and Benjamin stood staring at the man.

“This a tag sale, isn’t it?” the man asked.

Benjamin sighed. “Sure.” He hadn’t gone skiing for five or six years, not since the kids rebelled against weekends in the woods near Okemo with nothing to do, so far from their friends. “Twenty bucks.”

The man scratched the back of his neck. “Would you take ten?”

* * *

THAT AFTERNOON was the first day of autumn, technically, but it felt more like mid-July, the sky an endless canvas of pale blue, the temperature well into the eighties. After a few trips up and down the stairs, Benjamin felt the sweat dripping down his face and back.

“That’s a lousy delivery job.”

Benjamin looked up to see Franky DiLorenzo coming across the lawn. Benjamin forced a laugh. “I’ll say.”

They shook hands. In the silence that followed he became aware of Franky DiLorenzo eyeing his wrinkled slacks and button-down shirt, which he’d worn to work the day before. “A bit of trouble on the home front,” Benjamin explained. “I’ll be sticking around for a while.”

Franky’s eyes flashed with interest. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Part of life, I guess.”

Franky DiLorenzo was wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. He wore this same garb into November, sometimes December. He was horseshoe-bald, a bit stooped in the shoulders, and thin as a marathoner, yet he seemed impervious to the elements and he never tired of physical labor. He’d worked as a mechanic for thirty years at a garage in town. Now he spent his days in his yard, mowing, trimming, repairing. He also did chores for Leonard and Betty Amato and other elderly people in the neighborhood—taking out their garbage, fixing what needed to be fixed—and he refused to accept any payment in return. Benjamin considered him a godsend, the way he helped out his father.

“Did you see what’s going on at the Hufnagle place?”

“No.” Benjamin looked toward the bottom of the street, shading his eyes. He saw a couple of trucks parked in front of the old farmhouse.

“It finally sold,” said Franky. “Court-ordered, I heard.”

“That house has been empty for a long time.”

“Five years almost,” Franky said and nodded. “A lawyer bought it, a guy named Andrew Murray. He’s about forty-five. He gutted the place—kitchen, bathrooms, wooden floors, central air. A hundred grand in upgrades, minimum.”

“Is he going to flip it?”

“No, they just moved in. I met him and his wife a few weeks ago in the yard. She goes by her own name, Audrey Martin. A real pretty lady. They mentioned a seventeen-year-old daughter, but I haven’t seen her yet.”

“Audrey Martin?” It had been many years, but the name clicked instantly.

“Do you know her?”

“I went to high school with an Audrey Martin. She was in the class ahead of me at Goodwin.”

Franky shrugged. “It might be her. She’s about your age. They’re moving up here from Greenwich. He took a job at a firm in Hartford.”

“You’re amazing, Franky. Nothing gets by you.”

Franky smiled. “Well, I like to keep an eye on the neighborhood, with all the break-ins lately.”

“What break-ins?”

“I told your dad, but I guess he forgot to mention it. Somebody’s been smashing car windows, stealing things out of garages and toolsheds.”

“When did this happen?”

Franky DiLorenzo leaned in close and lowered his voice. “The trouble started last year, about the same time this family moved into a ranch on Lostwood Drive. They’re from Texas. The mother’s divorced with two teenage boys on her hands. The oldest is seventeen. Billy Stacks. That’s the punk. He assaulted some girl in Texas when he was fourteen, I heard. Too young to do jail time. You’ll see him riding around the neighborhood on a motor scooter. He’s got a shaved head, tattoos all over his arms, wears his pants down below his waist. I got my eye on that kid.”

“You think he’s the one causing trouble?”

“I can’t prove it, but I got my suspicions.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Housebreaking includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Dan Pope. 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.



A pitch-perfect, smartly told, and completely gripping drama, Housebreaking explores the dark realities of modern suburbia as two families are on the verge of unraveling. Presented with the opportunity for a fresh start or a second chance, they’ll have to overcome adultery, divorce lawyers, and drugs among other threats to find their way and come out on the other side. Through the intersecting narratives of these troubled, funny, and highly sympathetic characters we are presented with a picture of life today that can be both disturbing and reassuring and forced to think a little more carefully about the mistakes we make and the secrets we keep.


Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. How would you interpret the significance of the title for this book? Why do you think the author chose that title?

2. The novel is broken into parts focusing on the Mandelbaum family and the Martin-Murray family. What did you think of the shifting perspectives and the structure of the story? How might the reading experience have been different with an omniscient narrator telling everyone’s story simultaneously?

3. Benjamin is back living in his childhood home when he comes across his high school crush, Audrey Martin. In a way, Benjamin’s separation from his wife puts him in a situation that may feel like he’s gone through a time warp, but also presents him with an unexpected second chance. Discuss this concept of a second chance as it applies to Benjamin’s story. How does it evolve and change for him? How is the idea of a second chance or fresh start relevant to other characters in the story?

4. Leonard reflects on his grief over losing Myra. For him, it seems as if moving on is impossible. His children can’t understand because, “For them, life was about looking ahead, about what would happen next.” At what point in life do you think you transition from looking ahead to looking back? Should you ever stop looking ahead?

5. Benjamin and Audrey’s lives took off in different directions after high school but then brought them both back onto the same street. How do you think Benjamin’s life has been affected by staying in and around Wintonbury? Do you live close to where you grew up, or would you want to? If not, have you been back? How has your perspective on your hometown changed as you’ve grown up?

6. Benjamin wonders, “Wasn’t lying to someone you loved sometimes the right thing to do? Who could bear to know the truth of what went on, day in, day out, in the other’s mind?” Do you agree? How important do you think total honesty is in a relationship?

7. Compare the grieving process for each of the Martin-Murray family members. Can you relate to any of their coping methods? How much do you think grief is at the root of each of their actions and behaviors?

8. Andrew “pondered Sampson’s proclivities for men and women. Odd, that lack of preference. Andrew could understand being gay a lot easier than being bi.” Discuss Andrew’s perspective here both in general and in light of his eventual “relationship” with Sampson. What do you think Andrew’s sexual orientation was?

9. Emily is coming down from a high as she looks into the mirror: “Her face stared back blankly from the dresser-top mirror. . . . Curious, this mask. How strange that people considered it Emily. She had been outside her body for four days.” Discuss the idea of one’s face being a mask. Have you ever felt that what you saw in the mirror was different from what other people were seeing?

10. Emily admits that “Later, she would look back and say that when she was seventeen, she tried to commit suicide but ended up killing only the parts of herself she no longer wanted.” Do you think Emily consciously tried to kill herself? Was it a cry for help? An accidental near-overdose?

11. Most of the characters are holding on to a secret at some point in the story—some secrets come out, some threaten to, others remain tucked away. What do you think the story suggests about how well we know our neighbors, our colleagues, and even our own families?

12. Discuss the image presented in Housebreaking of a modern family. How well do you think Wintonbury represents life in the suburbs today?

13. At the end of the book there is a sense that everything and nothing has changed. Discuss what may appear to be the same on the surface though perhaps irrevocably altered deeper down.

14. What do you think becomes of the Martin-Murray family after putting their house up for sale? What do you imagine happening for Audrey and Andrew?

15. Who, if anyone, do you think has a happy ending in Housebreaking?



Enhance Your Book Club

1. After hearing that Audrey Martin just moved in nearby, Benjamin digs out his high school yearbook to look at her senior photo and take a trip down memory lane. Do you have any of your high school yearbooks? If so, bring it in and share some of your high school photos, crushes, and memories with your book club.

2. When Emily is in the hospital, she has a near-death experience and believes she sees her brother in heaven. Do you know anyone with stories of near-death experiences or glimpses of afterlife? Have you ever felt a presence of someone who passed? Share your stories and any ideas you may have about the possibility of an afterlife.

3. Were you surprised at how easy it was for Emily to access prescription pills? National studies show that a teen is more likely to have abused a prescription drug than an illegal street drug. To learn more about prescription drug abuse, visit


A Conversation with Dan Pope

What was your inspiration for Housebreaking?

A dog. She appeared by the back door of my parents’ house one evening over the holidays, howling. This happened about twenty years ago. I was home from graduate school. She was a malamute, a bit overweight, with heavy gray and white fur. She had somehow escaped from her home by breaking the link of her thirty-foot vinyl dog line, which was trailing behind her. Instinct—well, love—brought her to seek out my brother’s akita (the dog’s name was Saki). We let him outside to romp around with her for ten or twenty minutes, which ended with him making a half-hearted attempt at mounting her. She growled and hissed and they had to be separated. Then he came inside and happily went about his business, while the malamute stayed outside, sleeping on our front porch, apparently lovelorn. We let her into the house to warm up, but she immediately ate all the cat food and started on the dog bowl, which didn’t sit well with Saki the akita. So we had to put her out again. She stayed all night. The next morning, her owner appeared, a perfectly lovely woman with her son, who was in his teens. They lived two streets over. They’d been searching the neighborhood for their runaway. They gathered their dog and took her home.

A few days later, the malamute was back. The same interactions occurred: dog roughhousing, attempted humping, separation, reunification the next morning with rightful owner. This happened often—more than a handful of times, over a few years. The malamute had a talent for escape.

As I said, this happened a long time ago. I would see this woman and her son when I came home to visit my parents. The mother and son would take walks around the neighborhood after dinner. The boy was blessed with a wonderful nature, intelligence, good looks. I never really got to know him or his mother. But we exchanged phone numbers, and whenever the malamute would appear, we would let the dogs play, then call to inform the mother or son of her escape.

A few years later, the story appeared in the newspaper. The son had died in tragic circumstances overseas. It seemed impossible that this young man could be so suddenly gone. The dog disappeared around that time, too. I don’t know what became of her.

That experience—the dog, the tragedy of the son—was the first germ for the book, although I had no intention of writing this novel then. But much later, when I began to form an idea for a novel that took place in my hometown, that episode came to mind and became, in some way, the spine of the novel.


How did the experience of writing an adult novel compare with writing your first book, a coming-of-age novel?

Housebreaking was a more difficult book to write, for many reasons. My first novel is narrated by a twelve-year-old boy, and the entire book runs on the mania of his preteen voice. Housebreaking, in contrast, has various perspectives, from a seventeen-year-old girl to an eighty-four-year-old man, all of which circle around the same time frame—the autumn of 2007. Getting the time frame to cohere in the different sections and to orchestrate all that overlapping action was also challenging, in a headache-inducing kind of way.


Housebreaking is set in the same area of Connecticut where you live. Why did you choose to set your story close to home? How similar is Wintonbury to your own town?

When I was forty-four years old, I returned to Connecticut after the death of my father to help care for my mom. My hometown, West Hartford—particularly the north side of town—is a quiet, comfortable place. Wintonbury, the fictional town in the novel, is just a fictionalized name for West Hartford—fictionalized because I wanted to have the freedom to change the town landmarks and architecture for my own purposes.

For some reason, I tend to write at night. After dark the suburban neighborhood shuts down, even in summertime. I would go out for walks at odd times of night—midnight, 2:00 am—and I’d be more likely to see deer than people. Once, a pack of coyotes ran past me, jumping over a split-rail fence and disappearing across a lawn. Another time, a black bear lumbered by me on his way to some garbage cans. The houses were silent and dark. Once in a while you would see a blue glow of a TV or computer monitor through an upstairs window. I got stopped by police officers more than once on these late-night jaunts: “Do you live around here?” I couldn’t blame them. Anyone in the suburbs out that time of night is suspicious. “Trouble sleeping,” I would tell the cops. I didn’t want to admit the truth, that I stayed up to 4:00 in the morning writing a novel, every night, and that the air cleared my head when I got blocked. Writers are, in a way, weirdos; they don’t really fit into the suburban vibe.

Being back there, in the rooms where I grew up, summoned, of course, a host of old memories. But what struck me, more than the past, was the tragedy and pathos that managed to find its way into this peaceful, affluent place, not just to the town, which is fairly large, but to my street and the two or three neighboring streets. As I started thinking about the novel, a high school boy died in a car crash on a sleepy side street. A troubled kid from the next street got his hands on a handgun and shot it off on his front lawn. Someone started breaking into garages and vandalizing homes.

All of this stuff, in some way, shaped the book I was writing and the feeling that came upon me, so different from how I used to view my neighborhood as a boy, that the beautiful houses, the fine lawns, the orderly streets—it was all an illusion of sorts.


How did you decide to tell the story from different perspectives, and whose to include? Whose perspective was the most challenging for you to write?

Telling the story from the different perspectives seemed to arise naturally from the material. At one point, I intended to expand the perspectives to include some of the more peripheral characters (the neighbor Franky DiLorenzo and also, in a moment of craziness, the dog Yukon). But it quickly became clear that I should restrict the perspectives to the five main characters.

The most difficult perspective was Audrey’s, by far. She internalizes her grief, more than the other characters, so much that it makes her nearly mute. I had trouble getting past that grief to find the person inside. Her sadness is drowning out the person she was, and it was difficult to get her emotions other than grief to come to the surface.


Is there one character you relate to or sympathize with the most?

Oddly, I think Leonard Mandelbaum was the easiest to write, which must mean I sympathized with him the most. My dad had died a few years before I started the book, and so had a lot of others I knew from that generation—aunts and uncles, parents of friends. I guess I spent a lot of time listening to them as a child, so I had channeled their way of thinking and manner of speaking. Leonard represented to me that entire generation, sadly all gone now, or almost gone.

Both families in the story have a dog that features prominently—are you a dog lover as well? Do you have any pets?

Love dogs. Had them growing up, and my brother had the akita I mentioned earlier, who was a lot of work. So I haven’t had a dog lately, but I’m often reduced to gawking at passing dogs in the street or park, as if they were supermodels. That sort of natural beauty—it’s hard to pull your eyes away, whether husky or boxer or some breed in between.


Did you know all along how you would end the book, or did you come to it at some other point in the writing process?

The ending! It was definitely the most difficult part of the book to write. It seems so obvious now to me in retrospect. But I think getting the ending right took me at least a year or more. I went through every possible scenario and then came to this ending, which seemed the right one for these characters. I had a different ending in mind at the start, when I was plotting out the novel, but in the writing of it, the book took many different directions. So I had to rethink the ending (and the structure too, which is another story!).


Does the story end for you with the pages of this book, or do you imagine futures for any of your characters?

One of the reasons I wanted to set the book in 2007 is so I could take the characters forward eight years to the present at the end, to get an idea how they turn out. I intended to include much more about them in the now and future, but it didn’t seem right to do so in the final calculation. But yes, I do imagine their futures, in an end-of-American Graffiti way.


What do you find to be the most challenging and rewarding aspects of being a writer?

The answer to both those questions is the same, for me: doing the writing. It’s terribly challenging to do it every day. One of the best feelings for me is waking up the next day with the realization that, Oh, I did some work yesterday; I can’t wait to see how that looks. If I fail to get any work done on a particular day, it usually seems to me that the day has been irrevocably wasted, even if it happened to be a great day otherwise (say, a day at the beach or slumming in used bookstores). It’s a really terrible way to live, in some respects.


What other writers do you feel inspired by?

Inspired by is a complicated reaction. It eventually gets around to inspiration, but first there is the wonder of reading the book—say, off the top of my head, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, The Great Fire, Underworld, or anything by those authors or Denis Johnson, Alice Munro, James Salter, William Trevor—and then the feeling of devastation that sets in afterward. Devastation in the realization that, Okay, you could try every day for the rest of your life and never write anything even close to that! But, fortunately, I’ll muster the troops after a while and say, Well, you still can try, though, right?


What’s up next for you? Are you working on any new projects?

As I told my wonderful editor, Millicent Bennett, more than a year ago, “I’m working on four ideas for novels. Two of them are really good, and two of them are terrible ideas.” She said, after a moment, “Why don’t you just concentrate on the good ideas?” I had no answer for her then, or now, except to say that the bad ideas could be really fun to write. But, in short, I’m working on a novel, although I’m not sure at the moment which of the four ideas will win out.

About The Author

Photograph by Lynn Wilcox

Dan Pope has published short stories in Postroad, McSweeney’s, Crazyhorse, Shenandoah, Gettysburg Review, Witness, the Iowa Review, and many others. He graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 2002, which he attended on a Truman Capote fellowship, and where he won the Glenn Schaeffer Award and the John Leggett Prairie Lights Fiction Prize. The author of In the Cherry Tree, Pope lives in Connecticut.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 31, 2016)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476745916

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Raves and Reviews

“A heartfelt chamber piece of flawed personalities, calamitous decisions and unexpected moments of grace.”

– The New York Times Book Review

“One of the beauties of being a reviewer is that every so often,one gets to discover an unknown gem in the dog-eared pile of books to be read. Housebreaking is one of thosegems. Dan Pope has created characters that the reader is unlikely to forget orto stop thinking about long after the book is finished.”

– Portland Book Review

“Is there anything left to say about suburban family dissolution and the edgy temptations of adultery that Updike, Cheever, Moody, Homes, Perrotta, etc., etc., haven't already said? As it turns out, there is. . .Fresh rewards come with the strength of the storytelling…Dan Pope's steady prose and rich characters bring new life to the familiar story of a suburban family unraveling.”

– Shelf Awareness

“This work will captivate and immerse readers in a cyclone of emotion that could leave them short of breath by the last page. Not for the faint of heart, this realistic novel is an excellent portrait of flawed people, tragic circumstances, and the behavior that consumes them.”

– Library Journal, Starred review

"Desire, discontentment and unrealized dreams propel the likable lost souls in this empathetic cut-to-the-bone look at multigenerational suburban malaise."

– Family Circle

“Housebreaking looks behind the facade of a suburban neighborhood and tells the truth about love and lust, marriage and family, youth and aging, grief and loss. These characters are as real as anybody I know, men and women in the jump of life. Dan Pope is a writer of extraordinary insight, wit and heart.”

– Jennifer Haigh, author of Faith

"Housebreaking is a necessary American novel of rare beauty and power, of unkillable human striving in the face of so much human failure. Pope's vision, his fidelity to the multihued and paradoxical truths of our ordinary lives, produces more than potent writing: what he speaks in these pages sounds like a courage our kind cannot do without."

– William Giraldi, author of Hold the Dark

Housebreaking is a trenchant, captivating, and stirring novel, the kind of book you want to finish in one sitting, but instead choose to savor. The characters are deeply nuanced and beautifully flawed, and they’re rendered with such sympathy that we come to know them like our own neighbors, like ourselves. I’ve long admired Dan Pope’s luminous writing, and Housebreaking confirms his place among our finest writers."

– Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This

Unflinching and sometimes brutal, Dan Pope's novel Housebreaking hooks the reader—tacking between grief and lust, manipulation and fear— as it races to a conclusion that is both satisfying and surprisingly tender. Pope is a sophisticated, sensitive, and astonishing writer.

– Sabina Murray, author of Tales from the New World and The Caprices

"Like Richard Russo, Dan Pope has a solid grasp of small-town sorrow and middle-aged crazy. Housebreaking is a smart, surehanded novel about sex, love and the confusions of desire."

– Stewart O'Nan, author of West of Sunset

"I could gush here about the roller coaster twists and turns in Housebreaking. Or I could marvel at the contemporary spin Dan Pope gives the suburban novel that Richard Yates and John Cheever made familiar. But instead I will simply say that Housebreaking is exciting and wonderful from start to finish, and that you must must read it and discover its pleasures for yourself."

– Ann Hood, author of The Knitting Circle and The Obituary Writer

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