This reading group guide for Leaving the World includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Douglas Kennedy. 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. Summary
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After another tension-filled dinner with her parents on her thirteenth birthday, only child Jane Howard makes an announcement: she vows never to marry or have children. The next day, her father leaves the family—something her mother attributes directly to Jane’s declaration. This guilt and abandonment forever impacts Jane and her interactions with other people. After years of academic study, she falls into a clandestine affair with her much-older and married professor. When he dies suddenly, she is bereft and drifts into a relationship and eventually has a child with a film anthologist. Soon after the birth of her child, reality sets in hard and despite her careful planning, her life is thrown into merciless tumult and she is tested in ways she could have never imagined. Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. After a particularly tense birthday dinner, thirteen-year-old Jane Howard announces to her parents that she will never marry nor have children. After her father leaves the family the next day, Jane’s mother attributes his desertion to Jane’s statement. What does this tell us about Jane’s mother and her character? Do you think Jane’s statement actually influenced her father’s decision?
2. Early on in the novel, Jane states: “We can rarely tell others what we really think about them—not just because it would so wound them, but also because it would so wound ourselves. The gentle lie is often preferable to the bleak truth.” (p. 37) Do you find this to be true? Why can’t Jane tell her mother the truth as she sees it?
3. Early in their clandestine relationship, Jane tells David Henry, “If we lived together, . . . the letdown would be huge,” a point she felt was “decidedly romantic” because “I don’t have to find out whether or not you floss your teeth, or kick your dirty underwear under the bed . . .” (p. 40) Do you think she makes a salient point about “familiarity breeding contempt”? Do you think their romance would have become serious if it had been out in the open?
4. Given Jane’s feelings about the possibility of “wounding” people, why do you think she was still somewhat honest about her dislike of David’s novel? Why could she be honest with David and not with her mother?
5. After David’s death, Jane is reminded of something he once told her: “We try so hard to put our mark on things, we like to tell ourselves that what we do has import or will last. But the truth is, we’re all just passing through. So little survives us. And when we’re gone, it’s simply the memory of others that keeps our time here alive.” (p. 57) How does his musing differ from Jane’s theory that “words matter, words have import”? With whom do you agree more?
6. After the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, Jane comes to the conclusion that “when men are threatened, they vanish.” How does this prophecy manifest in Jane’s life?
7. Why do you think Jane takes the financial job at Freedom Mutual, given that it was the “anathema to all that [she] valued in . . . life”? (p.84) How is overbearing Trish the polar opposite of Jane?
8. How has Jane’s relationship (or lack thereof) with her father impacted her relationships with other people?
9. Why do you think Jane is worried about settling into domestic life with Theo, besides the obvious fear of turning into her parents? How does Theo’s behavior after Emily’s birth echo her early theory about men vanishing when they are threatened?
10. What do you think Jane means when she has the foreboding reflection of “never underestimate the need for self-sabotage when someone has finally gotten what they always wanted”? (p. 214) How can success be a problem?
11. How would you describe Jane’s relationship with her mother? What made her flee during her mother’s last hours?
12. After her mother’s death, Jane concludes, “if life teaches you anything, it’s this: you can never dispel another person’s illusions.” (p. 236) How is this true for Jane and her mother? In what way was Jane’s mother “deluded” about her marriage?
13. After the Fantastic Films debacle, Jane feels “I deserve all the bad stuff that is going to come down from this. Because . . . there is a part of me that always believes I deserve disaster.” (p. 248) Why do you think she is developed this skewed view of the world? Do you think she is angry with herself for ignoring her thirteen-year-old declaration?
14. How do you think Jane has dealt with the tumult in her life, the lawsuits brought on by Theo’s recklessness, and ultimately, Emily’s death? Why do you think she could not let friends like Christy or Professor Sanders be there for her?
15. After her failed attempt at taking her own life in Montana, Jane retreats from the world. She cancels her credit cards, quits her job, and heads north to Canada, for no reason in particular. What would you have done in Jane’s circumstances? What is the significance of the title, Leaving the World
16. After fleeing Boston for a small coastal village in Canada, she reflects on “that oft-quoted pensée of Pascal about man’s unhappiness all coming down to his inability to sit alone in a small room and do nothing.” (p. 126) Given today’s never-ending barrage of data from cell phones, computers, and other mobile devices, do you agree?
17. Why do you think the case of missing girl Ivy MacIntyre so struck a chord in Jane? Why do you think she is convinced of George MacIntyre’s innocence?
18. This is the fourth novel in which author Douglas Kennedy writes from the point of view of a woman. How accurately does he capture a woman’s voice?
19. Given all that Jane has been through, what do you envision in her future? Enhance Your Book Club
1) Leaving the World
is a novel that has aspects of the picaresque tradition. What are some other books in this vein your group can read and discuss?
2) Jane has a very emotional reaction to Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony when Vern recommends it to her. You can check online for a sample of this moving piece and see how it affects you and the members of your book club.
3) Many important parts of the novel take place in Canada. If your book club serves wine, why not serve some regional wines from the Great White North. You can learn more about the different varieties at http://www.winesofcanada.com/. A Conversation with Douglas Kennedy1. You were born in New York City but have lived in Europe for the last thirty years. How has living abroad informed your writing?
That description of an expatriate as being someone “at home abroad and abroad at home” doesn’t really apply to me. Yes I have spent thirty-three years living in such disparate cities as Dublin, London, Paris, and Berlin—but I never considered myself to be one of those Americans who turned his back on his country. On the contrary, America is everywhere in my novels because, to me, your country is like your family: the perpetual argument. Given that, three decades elsewhere has also played into one of the underlying themes in all my books: the need to run away. And it has also somewhat altered my world-view, in that I sense my inherent (and still active!) American need for optimism has been shaded by a European pessimism about the human condition. But I remain profoundly American in the belief that, even when life is profoundly unfair, we have to somehow move forward. And, by the way, I now live part of the year in Maine—so I have, in a sense, come home. 2. This is your fourth novel written from a female point of view, and you do an incredible job of capturing the female voice. Does writing from a feminine viewpoint pose a challenge? Do you approach it any differently than if you were writing from the male perspective?
I am asked constantly how I am able to write so convincingly as a woman—as I have done in The Pursuit of Happiness
, A Special Relationship
, State of the Union,
and now Leaving the World
. The simple answer is: when writing as a woman I have never thought “as a woman.” I have always thought as my narrator—and see the world through her eyes. As such I never pose dumb questions to myself along the lines of: “Now what would a woman think in a situation like this?” Rather, what would Jane (in the case of Leaving the World
) think in this situation? I have always written novels in the first person—and, as such, see myself as an actor playing a role. At the same time, there is a strong feminist streak in all my books. Perhaps being the byproduct of a rather unhappy midcentury American marriage—with a highly educated mother who gave up her career to play housewife—had a certain impact on my world-view. Certainly what women readers tell me all the time is that I seem to “get it right” when it comes to dealing with the complexities of female identity in the modern world. To which all I can say in response is: thank you. 3. You have described your reading tastes as “very Catholic.” How so? Your writing has been compared to John Irving and, more recently, Claire Messud, and there are themes that are reminiscent of Dreiser, especially, the naturalistic style. Who are some of your favorite writers and why?
In 1992 I happened upon Richard Yates’s then-forgotten novel, Revolutionary Road
and discovered a writer who wasn’t afraid of telling uncomfortable truths about the way we so often talk ourselves into lives that we don’t want—and the hellishness of quotidian domesticity as practiced in the postwar American suburbs. Though Yates died that same year a largely forgotten figure, it is wonderful to see how his literary star has risen again—and that he is now considered one of the giants of postwar American fiction. Or, at least, he is for me. Another writer who has enormously influenced me is Graham Greene—as here was a serious novelist who wasn’t afraid of being popular and accessible, and told great stories which also confronted the essential grayness of human morality and the way we all search for some sort of forgiveness in a most unforgiving world. Thanks to Greene I became a novelist who believes in the primacy of narrative drive—better known as making the reader want to turn the page—yet who also attempts to pose certain philosophical questions within the architecture of a “serious popular” novel (or a “popular serious” novel—take your pick). 4. Guilt plays a major part in the narrative of Leaving the World—Jane’s guilt over Emily, her father, her mother. What made you want to address a topic such as this?
Guilt is everywhere in life . . . and anyone who ever tells you they don’t feel guilty about something is either a liar or pathological or both. Guilt is such a fundamental human dilemma—and underscores so much that we grapple with, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Without guilt there would be no art. And there would certainly be no novels by Douglas Kennedy—because guilt is a fundamental theme which courses through my fiction. Just as it courses through everybody’s existence.5. Many of the protagonists in your novels are on the run from something or are trying to escape the chaos in their lives. Why is this so prevalent in your work? Why do you think stories of flight and reinvention appeal to readers?
We all want to run away. We frequently believe that life is elsewhere. We all often wonder about the lives we could have lived if we had only chosen another path, another strategy, another way of looking at the world. We all rue the way we are so often the architects of our own cul-de-sac and have trapped ourselves in existences that we don’t really want. “Man is born free and is everywhere in chains,” noted Voltaire. But in modern western societies, the chains are so often self-imposed.6. Were you ever worried, in the early stages of writing this novel that at some point an editor, an agent, a trusted reader would say to you “too bleak” in regards to all the difficulties that befall Jane?
Well, terrible things do happen to Jane. But, then again, terrible things do happen to most of us during the course of a lifetime. In fact I would posit the idea that nobody escapes the specter of tragedy. It’s part of the price we pay for being here—and this novel certainly reflects that. 7. Your novels have sold amazingly well worldwide and have been translated into twenty-two languages. Why do you think your books have such international appeal?
Perhaps because my novels are very much rooted in day-to-day existence—and the notion that there is no such thing as a firm foundation in life. It’s all a veneer which can so easily fracture. Or, to put it another way, my novels deal with modern anxiety—and we are all fascinated by the anxieties and nightmares of other people. They reassure us that we aren’t alone. And perhaps the other reason why I have such a large readership is because I believe in the primacy of a good story, in making you turn the page, yet also in posing complex moral questions throughout my novels . . . and never supplying any answers. 8. Despite dealing with some modern issues, Leaving the World has elements of a picaresque novel (albeit, darker ones), with Jane abandoning her old life and having one experience after another. Was this intentional or did the narrative just happen organically? Do you outline the plot before you begin writing?
All my novels are densely plotted, and I have never once planned out a novel in advance. I always start with the narrator, the basic trajectory of the story, the central dilemma, and (intriguingly) the novel’s last scene. Everything else happens during the course of writing the damn thing. And even after ten novels it’s a mystery to me why this methodology (or lack thereof) works. But it does—and I don’t question it.9. You have two children. How difficult was it for you to write in such painful detail about the loss of a child?
Of course I was articulating my worst nightmare. And that was one of the more intriguing things about writing about such an unspeakable subject—how to make it “speakable,” how to examine one of the most appalling things imaginable, and how to watch my narrator, Jane, find a way through her agony. A word I truly despise is “closure” —because it gives lie to the idea that, in time, you can slam the door on something terrible and move forward. My preferred word is “accommodation” —and the notion that, in the wake of a tragedy, you learn how to coexist with its aftermath, but your life is inexorably altered by it. There is no closure. There is only accommodation. 10. In an interview with The Independent in 2007, you spoke of how you kept a Post-it note above your desk with the mantra, “It’s the Story, Stupid.” How did this come to be your motto?
When I decided that I wanted to be the sort of novelist who could be serious and popular at the same time . . . and when I also worked out that what I disliked in so much literary fiction was the abandonment of narrative drive, and what I disliked in so much popular fiction was a lack of nuance and shading when it came to character development, and a tendency to see the world in a simplistic, two-dimensional way. I have a very nineteenth-century view of the novel: it is, first and foremost, an entertainment . . . but one which can also speak volumes about the human condition. 11. While working at the library in Calgary, Ruth, one of Jane’s coworkers, comments: “. . . that’s the thing about other people’s lives. You scratch the surface, you discover all this dark stuff. We’ve all got it.” (p. 345) Do you think this is why people love to read stories about other people’s struggles?
During the course of a book-signing session in Paris recently, I was approached by a woman who told me: “In the course of reading your new novel I realized that I wasn’t alone . . . that my doubts, my fears, my griefs, were shared ones.” I informed this woman that this was the nicest compliment imaginable—because we all read to discover that we aren’t alone. 12. Can you tell us a little about your next project?
It’s a novel called The Moment
. It’s a love story set in Berlin back when it was a divided city. And as I am in the middle of it right now, I think I won’t say anymore about it. Except: watch this space . . .