#1 New York Times bestselling author Haven Kimmel makes an exhilarating foray into psychological gothic territory with the electrifying story of a young woman emerging from layers of delusion, fantasy, and lies.
With her astounding intelligence, fierce independence, and otherworldly lavender eyes, college senior Trace Pennington makes an indelible impression even as questions about her past and her true identity hover over every page. From her earliest years, Trace turned away from her abusive mother toward her loving father. Within the twisty logic of abuse, her desperate love for him took on a romantic cast that persists to this day, though she’s had no contact with her family since she ran away from home years ago. She’s eked out an impoverished but functional existence, living in an abandoned house, putting herself through college—and leading a double life: at school she is Ianthe Covington, a young woman with no past.
Trace’s solitary life is upended when she and her literature professor fall in love. As it becomes apparent that he has his own dark secrets, she’s forced to face herself and her past. After recovering a horrific, long-suppressed memory, Trace finally copes with the fallout from her brutal childhood. This unique portrait of the psychological effects of trauma is tantalizing, shocking, and ultimately hopeful.
This reading group guide includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Haven Kimmel. 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.
Brilliant, unconventional college senior Trace Pennington has eked out an impoverished, solitary, but highly functional existence in the years since she ran away from her abusive home. But when Trace finds love with a much older man, her life is upended and she's forced to face herself and her past. After recovering a horrific, long-suppressed memory, she discovers that much of her present-day life is a carefully constructed delusion. With equal parts genius and psychosis, Trace copes with the fallout from a brutal, bizarre childhood in a heart-stopping story that explores both the terror and wonder of mental illness.
Questions for Discussion
1. The opening line of the first chapter is among the most shocking imaginable: “I never had sex with my father but I would have, if he had agreed.” What was your reaction to this confession? Did you make any assumptions about the narrator or anticipate what might follow?
2. What do you later learn about Trace’s affections for her father? How does Colt respond to Trace’s extreme adoration? Where do you think these feelings come from and do they carry into Trace’s relationships in her adult life at all?
3. In their discussion about a man Candy hears on the radio claiming to have been abducted by aliens, the concept of “screen memory” is mentioned. Reread this passage (pp. 13-14) and define this term. Are there any examples of possible screen memories that Trace relays to the reader?
4. Describe Trace’s relationship with her other immediate family members – her mother Loretta, her stepfather Marty, her brother Billy and her sister Dusty. What is your interpretation of the events that took place in regard to Marty in Trace’s childhood? Do you view her as a victim, a martyr, a nymph, a hero, or simply an innocent little girl?
5. Just before Trace happens upon the Nation of Islam stockpiling center, Kimmel writes, “no one knew better than she how much there is to fear, and that the threat is never where you expect it to be.” What are the threats in Trace’s life? What does she fear? Do you think these fears represent a kind of paranoia or are justified?
6. In her dream journal entry on p.49 Trace writes, “the whole of the past, even what belongs to someone else, is not what happened but what happened to me; dreams are not autonomous, they are messages to me about me.” What is Trace saying here about personal reflection and consciousness?
7. Trace records incredibly vivid dreams and memories, many of which include the presence of animals. What is the significance of these animal dreams? Are they comforting or frightening for Trace?
8. In the end we discover that Trace has seizures and a disassociative personality disorder. Is this something you suspected all along? How does this information color your reading of Trace’s story? What is the traumatic event that launched her into this state?
9. Who is Ianthe Covington?
10. When the doctor asks Jacob and Trace how long they’ve been married, Trace thinks four months and Jacob says four years. What do you make of this gap in the perception of time?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Contact your book club members a week before meeting and encourage them to keep a dream journal for a week. See what interesting images emerge.
2. Do your homework and look up the terms that head each chapter. What relevance do these words have to the novel?
3. Read a bit about James Hillman, the psychologist who Trace frequently mentions, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hillman.
Haven Kimmel is the author of The Used World, She Got Up Off the Couch, Something Rising (Light and Swift), The Solace of Leaving Early, and A Girl Named Zippy. She studied English and creative writing at Ball State University and North Carolina State University and attended seminary at the Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Durham, N.C.
"In her fourth novel, Kimmel offers a beautifully wrought portrait of the brilliant and psychotic Trace Pennington, a runaway now scraping by in an Indiana farmhouse while completing her final year of college.... Trace is haunted by a disturbing personal history, hinted at via dreams, startling recollections and entries in her journal.... Kimmel skillfully weaves together Trace's lucid moments and her diminishing sanity, providing a full picture of a troubled woman whose identity, past and present are repeatedly called into question." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)