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. Introduction
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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 www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/prescription-drugs.html. 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.