This reading group guide for Me for You includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with the author, Lolly Winston. 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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Waking up a widower at fifty-four years old was the last thing Rudy expected. Utterly devoted to his wife, Bethany, Rudy struggles to fill his days without having evenings with her to look forward to. At least his position as a department store pianist is a distraction from the tragedy in his life. The music and calm he knows it offers harried shoppers gives Rudy some respite, as does his friendship with Sasha, the Hungarian sales clerk who manages the watch counter.
Sasha carries her own tragedies: the loss of a child, memories from a broken marriage, and the countless obstacles faced by hardworking immigrants. Yet her optimism and kindness draw Rudy out of his shell, and his compassion invites something deeper than friendship for them both. As they begin to spend more time together, questions about Bethany’s sudden death continue to upset Rudy’s mourning and ability to grieve. As he spirals into his heartache, Sasha—who knows only too well the darkness of living with sorrow—offers a path to happiness. To reach it, though, Rudy and Sasha must each accept their own vulnerabilities and determine whether pain will continue to define their lives.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. One of the most poignant arguments the novel makes is how grief is a ridiculous, if tragic, experience for people to live through. Did you find that Rudy’s grief manifested in different ways throughout the novel? What kind of arc did his mourning take, and was it the “right” way to grieve? Discuss the stages Rudy goes through.
2. A defining characteristic of Rudy’s is his deep love of Bee and being married. How would you describe their relationship? Does their marriage change over time? How does their marriage compare to Sasha’s?
3. Discuss Rudy’s struggles with loneliness. How does being lonely compare with being alone? How does he respond to the swell of mourners offering help and support in the sudden absence of his wife? Do you find his reaction expected or out of character? Have you ever experienced an abrupt change in your support system?
4. Rudy views his daughter, CeCe, as organized, capable, and a “perfect child.” As Rudy’s grief overwhelms him, she steps up to care for his well-being. How does their relationship change from the beginning of the novel to the end? Does CeCe change? How does her marriage and family impact her bond with her father?
5. Is the piano crucial in Rudy’s life? Is music? How does the experience of playing music compare with listening to music? Do you relate to the shoppers who admit to Rudy that they wish they’d kept up with their lessons? Share your favorite musical memory: Were you playing? Listening to a live performance? Is it a favorite recording or song? How does music offer meaning to the different characters in Me for You
6. How is mental health depicted in Me for You
? Have you or a loved one experienced depression brought on by grief? Or perhaps overwhelming depression that requires medical help? Do you think Rudy is brave for confronting his depression and the trauma of Bee’s sudden death? Also, how might we honor those we’ve lost on special anniversaries, such as their birthdays or the anniversaries of their deaths? The holidays can be rough, too. Do you have special rituals or tips for depression during holidays or other trigger days? Consider the other patients Rudy meets in the hospital. Does mental health look different for them, or even for the women in his life?
7. In a shocking turn of events in the aftermath of Bee’s death, her coworker confesses to murder, a confession later proved to be false. Had you heard about false confessions before reading this book? How did this turn of events compound Rudy’s ability to “move on?”
8. Identify the different kinds of love and relationships (familial, friendship, romantic) you see in Me for You
. Are any of them stronger than the others? Consider Rudy’s evening with his online match, Barbara: Why does Rudy feel “buoyed by his crazy date”? Can companionship be just as vital as a romance? Have you experienced or observed this kind of connection?
9. Who is “the PA lady”? Why do her announcements bother Rudy? Discuss whether hearing her voice is part of Rudy’s imagination or a symptom of stress. Do you have a similar trigger, annoyance, or regular occurrence in your home or workplace? If so, when does it bother you and why?
10. Were you surprised by the chapters from Bee’s point of view? Why was it important to include her perspective? How did it shape how you understood the other characters in the novel?
11. Do you share Rudy’s frustration with Detective Jenson? Why or why not?
12. Write down three words to describe Sasha. After sharing, discuss whether they were nouns (mother, friend, immigrant) or adjectives (thoughtful, grieving, reliable). Would she use these words to describe herself? Do you think her self-image evolves during the novel?
13. Sasha and Rudy connect through their dispositions, but also their shared experiences of personal loss. Does Stefi’s death define Sasha? Reflect on the differences between Stefi’s and Bee’s lives. Is it fair to compare levels of misfortune? Does Sasha’s bereavement raise memories of your own or loved ones’ lives? How does the author’s portrayal compare?
14. Sasha’s experience trying to navigate the legalities of divorce and disentangling herself from her ex-husband is unfortunately not an isolated occurrence. Many people find themselves without resources or advice during such difficult personal junctures. Discuss the options—or lack of thereof—Sasha had during her life.
15. Sasha’s work could be described as part of the service industry, as a retail clerk she serves the needs of her customers and as an attendant in the health club she serves the needs of its patrons. Despite Sasha’s positive experiences, people in these roles are often overlooked. Have you ever held a job in the service industry? How did it make you feel? How often do you stop to listen and interact with your bus driver, barista, security guard, or sales clerk?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Rudy’s piano playing is an essential part of the book that draws him and Sasha together. Are there any piano bars in your community your group could go to? Or do any members of your group play an instrument? Pick out a few songs or composers mentioned as Rudy and Bee’s favorites, such as Moonlight
Sonata or pieces by Bartók or Chopin, to play or listen to together.
2. Rudy’s favorite part of the day was always spent in the kitchen preparing a meal for Bethany, and he cooks an elaborate French dish for Sasha the first time he invites her home. The meal he prepares, boeuf bourguignon, takes multiple steps throughout the day and involves a lot of prep work. Have you ever eaten boeuf bourguignon? Look up the recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking
and discuss meals that you’ve made for your family or loved ones that take a similar level of time and commitment. Ask your group to come prepared with recipes to swap, or prepare the savory beef stew yourself.
3. Bring a set of cards to your gathering and play a hand of gin rummy. Are you familiar with the rules? Ask someone in your group to teach you or make plans to learn together. Discuss whether you find it as therapeutic as the characters in Me for You
. Suggest other kinds of games or activities that have been therapeutic in your life.A Conversation with Lolly WinstonThe period Rudy spends in hospital, as well as his mounting alienation, is a stirring portrait of both grief and the power of mental health support. Why did you choose to capture this side of grief?
I went through a difficult ten-year divorce and a number of deaths in my family brought on by terminal illnesses. In addition to failed in-vitros and a miscarriage. Eventually my doctor admitted me to the medical psych ward for major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder, PTSD, and chronic migraines. That sounds melodramatic! But it was a defining experience in my life. I was so surprised to find that many of my fellow patients were also experiencing depression after having been T-boned by circumstance. They came from all walks of life—from students to engineers to professional musicians. There is comfort in knowing that you’re not crazy for feeling crazy and that we are not alone. I was so grateful for the help of doctors, therapists, occupational therapists, and even art therapists and therapy animals.Where did the inspiration for Rudy’s occupation come from? Do you often search out department-store pianists?
No, I don’t search them out, but I enjoy them. As a writer, I always wonder about people and their occupations and lives. I wonder about museum guards, department-store pianists, pharmacists. What’s it like to do that job? How did they get those special skills? Do they have bigger dreams? What do they do at home? Writing is so solitary and you sort of get sick of yourself! And interested in others. Also, I think this comes from working as a journalist. I’m always interested in others’ stories.Which character do you identify the most with and why? Or do you have a favorite character or one who was your favorite to capture on the page?
I love Sasha. I love the idea of seeing America through an immigrant’s eyes. The San Francisco Bay Area has residents from all over the world. It makes it a vital, interesting place to live—it’s nice (and important) to hear the stories and experiences of those from other countries and about their cultures. I can relate to Rudy, too—to his frustration with grief: JUST NO, EFF THIS!Did anything surprise you while writing of the novel? Did the storyline remain the same throughout the process of writing or during editing? If not, what changed and why do you think it did?
Bethany came to the fore as a character that needed to be on the page in her own voice. In a good marriage I feel like we can help each other lighten up a little and look at the big picture. It’s great having that dialogue, whether it’s about your job or children. I wanted to show their relationship and their mutual awe and perplexity for their daughter, CeCe. As I wrote Bethany’s backstory for Rudy’s flashbacks, she started to have her own scenes that became short chapters. I wanted the reader to see Rudy and their marriage from her point of view. And to see her coworker, who becomes a suspect in her death. I liked the idea of having flashback scenes from a dead character’s point of view. It gives the readers their own overview of the story. I feel that in the best books the reader always knows a bit more than the characters do.Why set the novel in California? What was important about placing these characters in the Golden State?
I’ve lived in the Bay Area for about twenty years and I love its diversity—from the population to the topography, the Bay Area has a bit of everything. And the tech industry and high cost of living make it a roller coaster of a place to live. People weather highs and lows that are unique to the area.Even if Rudy’s work playing piano began as temporary, it becomes a vital part of his day-to-day existence following Bethany’s death, and he clearly loves music. Do you have a similar love for piano or classical music? Do you play an instrument, or was his passion inspired by someone in your life?
I did play the piano as a kid. But, like Sasha, I veered away from Bartók toward Elton John (and I wanted to be
David Bowie), and thus was a poor piano student. And dang if I don’t wish now I’d kept up with my lessons. I have a friend who teaches piano, and she incorporates modern music into the lessons. I’ll bet this helps kids stick with it! As a writer, I was inspired by department store pianists and that dang PA lady at Nordstrom. Who is she? Where does she live? Is she real or automated? I can imagine that if you worked there hour after hour, day in and day out, she might start to get to you in one way or another. For Rudy, she seeps into his mind as a manifestation of grief. As a shopper, I always thought it would be funny if she just started making random two-word pages: “Chocolate pudding, chocolate pudding.”In your previous novel Good Grief, a widow was a main character, and now one of your key characters is a widower. What was different about writing from a man’s perspective?
In my second book, Happiness Sold Separately
, one of the main characters is a man and the story is told in part from his point of view. I really worked at making him sympathetic. When I first fell in love with literature, it didn’t matter to me if the character was male or female—I loved the main male character in The Moviegoer
. I also loved Flannery O’Connor’s male characters. As an English major, I decided it didn’t matter if the characters were male or female—it was their universal experiences that resonated with me. Also, my parents were divorced and I grew up with my dad and had three older brothers. When your brothers are shooting their BB guns at squirrels out the second-story window, smashing caps on the fireplace hearth, and breaking bottles behind the garage for kicks, a bit of boy is imprinted on your brain. But I have to say that the guys in my writers’ group really, really helped me. Saved me. They would point out little details and say, “Oh, a guy would never
do that.” Having male readers along the way always helped.This isn’t the first time you’ve written from the perspective of a grieving spouse, and you capture the absurdity of heartbreak so vividly that readers might wonder if you’ve undergone a similar loss. Did you have to do much research into grieving? Where did you find material and inspiration for illustrating this inimitable experience?
Well, I can’t seem to shake grief in my life. My dad died of cancer when I was twenty-eight; my mom of a brain tumor when I was thirty-three. One of my brothers was drowned. My closest sister-in-law, who was like an older sister to me, died of breast cancer when she was only forty-seven. While I was working on this book my closest auntie died of ALS, and my cousin, a year younger than me, died of breast cancer. Every time my family gets together it seems we’re spreading ashes! But my brothers are so funny that there is always some dark humor involved—maybe it’s a defense mechanism. And that’s part of the lunacy of grief. I’ve learned that grief is a universal experience—especially during and after the terminal illness of a loved one. Grief is odd in that it’s delayed: There’s the numb taking-care-of-business you go through first. And then there are periods during which it makes you plain crazy. While writing Good Grief
, I did read Dr. Joyce Brothers lovely book on grief written after she lost her husband. And Joan Didion’s gorgeous book The Year of Magical Thinking
later. Also, for me, infertility, a late miscarriage, the inability to have children, then divorce, was a great source of grief. Ultimately, I think the experience of grief is so universal that we can apply it to characters who’ve lost other family members in their lives—such as Rudy losing his wife, Bethany.This is your third novel, on top of your work as a journalist and short-story writer. What advice do you have for any aspiring novelists?
Oh, boy. It isn’t easy, is it? I think the number one thing is to just show up. Whether you feel like it or not, show up and write for a limited time. Set an egg timer or alarm and give yourself a limit for how long you’ll write for. It’s easier to write for a limited amount of time than to think you need to lock yourself in a room for an entire day or weekend and pump out War and Peace
. In Bird by Bird
, Anne Lamott gives the life-saving advice of committing to short assignments and shitty first drafts. So obvious, but there you have the three sh
s, which can become a mantra: show up, short assignments, shitty first drafts. It always helps to have a little assignment for yourself before you dive in: “I’m just going to write about George visiting Lucy at the store where she works and what it sounds and smells like, what he’s apprehensive about, what he’s excited about, and what her reaction to seeing him there is.” If you can’t come up with a short assignment for yourself, you can search the internet for writing prompts. They might seem silly, but they can evolve into a story. Also, you can make your assignment rewriting and go over what you wrote yesterday and one, make sure the five senses are included; two, make the nouns more specific; and three, make the verbs more interesting. I think fiction writing can be the most difficult, as it is the most open-ended. Feature stories and essays have a template that I can hold in my mind as I’m working. A novel is bigger and more unwieldy. Also, fiction allows room for so many possibilities and you feel like you want to choose just the right direction and tone. To me, the first most important thing to develop for a story or novel is the story’s voice. And that voice comes from a character. To me, all the best novels and short stories (and even TV shows—we live in a TV renaissance!) are character-driven.If Me for You were adapted into a film, who would you want to play each character? Do you have individuals in mind when you’re picturing the main characters?
I don’t. I love so many actors and actresses. Honestly, I’d be grateful for anyone who took the time to read the story and took an interest. I’d be delighted just for it to be optioned.What do you hope people will take away from the novel? What’s the lesson you hope they’ll carry from it?
You’re not alone, and you’re not crazy. I feel that’s what we all need to hear, and that the best books put forth some sort of universal theme that tells us that. Whether you’re single, living alone, widowed, dumped, divorced, ill, disabled, grieving, an immigrant, or feeling like an outsider—you’re not alone and you’re not crazy.Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
I’m noodling my way into a new story expanding on divorce and my few trips to the loony bin. But in a funny, poignant way. Think . . . Maria Bamford! (I love her.)