Named a Best Debut Novel of 2020 by Library Journal
“Seen through keen eyes and full of deep feeling, Ordinary Hazards delves into the psyche of a woman grappling with grief, loss, and the burdens of inheritance. Anna Bruno vividly renders the messiness of a single human life in all its joy and heartbreak.” —Claire Lombardo, New York Times bestseller
For fans of Celeste Ng and Claire Messud comes an impeccably paced and transfixing debut novel about finding hope in the dark.
It’s 5pm on a Wednesday when Emma settles into her hometown bar with a motley crew of locals, all unaware that a series of decisions over the course of a single night is about to change their lives forever. As the evening unfolds, key details about Emma’s history emerge, and the past comes bearing down on her like a freight train.
Why has Emma, a powerhouse in the business world, ended up here? What is she running away from? And what is she willing to give up to recapture the love she once cherished? An exploration of contemporary love, guilt, and the place we call home, and in the tradition of Ask Again, Yes and Little Fires Everywhere, Ordinary Hazards follows one woman’s epic journey back to a life worth living.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for Ordinary Hazards includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anna Bruno. 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.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. By the end of the first chapter, it’s fair to say that Emma is reckoning with something in her past. She makes multiple references to the differences between the woman “she is” and the woman “she used to be” (pages 2 and 27). What do you make of this distinction so far? Why do you think Emma is obsessed with who she was in the past?
2. On page 52, we first learn about Emma’s book, The Breakout Effect, and what Emma describes as the key insight, which is that it’s “not who you are that makes you a leader, it’s the story about who you are.” How do you think that mentality has shaped Emma’s present? What does it say about how she views her own successes and the successes of others?
3. Emma credits Lucas’s career for her better understanding of walls. On page 67 she says, “I began to see walls for what they really are: a thin façade covering up ducts and electrical wiring . . . [now] I think about everything it takes to make the surface appear smooth.” How does that apply to how she sees other people, especially those closest to her? What walls does it appear Emma has put up for herself?
4. Take a moment to discuss Emma’s relationship with her father. Consider the scene on page 76 when he’s giving her the Cobble Hill town house on the night of her wedding. How would you describe their dynamic? What impact do you think his parenting has had on her and the way she approaches life?
5. Emma again references the meaning behind The Breakout Effect on page 100, making note of the interconnectedness between the feeling of pain and the major concepts within her book. What do you make of her keen interest in pain’s influence on life’s outcomes?
6. Why do you think the author included the scene with the sparrow in the bar (pages 100–103)?
7. There’s a moment during the conversation between Emma and Gil (page 131) when she realizes he doesn’t know about what happened to her and Lucas. She thinks, “This sudden realization of my own anonymity feels fantastic.” Why does Emma have the desire to be unknown? Can you think of other examples of things Emma has done to maintain anonymity?
8. Revisit the scene where Cal finds his wallet in Martin’s coat, and the ensuing scene between Emma and Martin in the bathroom (pages 154–159). Why do you think Emma chooses to tell the truth and bail him out? Do you feel any more empathy toward Martin after their talk in the bathroom? What did you learn about all the characters during these scenes?
9. There is a lot to digest at the end of the chapter titled “10PM.” In the midst of all the chaos, we learn that Martin was with Lucas the day the traumatic event that changed Emma’s life occurred. At this point, what do you believe that event was? Why do you think Martin chose that moment to tell Emma this?
10. We learn on page 207 why Jimmy believes that he is responsible for what happened to Lionel. Emma, Lucas, and Jimmy all blame themselves for it. Why might that make it more difficult for each of them to find closure?
11. Discuss Addie’s significance in the novel. What does she mean to Emma? To Lucas? To their story as a whole?
12. On page 249 Emma thinks, “To inhabit a place is to alter it in some way, to leave a mark.” Do you agree with that? How important is it to leave one’s mark, or to have a legacy?
13. The Final Final is a place with which Emma has a special connection. Where the students see a run-of-the-mill dive bar, Emma sees a place full of memories made with Lucas and their friends. However, because it’s a bar, drinking plays an integral role throughout the action of the entire novel. Does this affect her reliability as a narrator? What, if any, impact does it have on the narrative?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. As readers, almost all new information learned throughout the novel is done so through memories and flashbacks, yet the story itself takes place in the present. How does the pacing at which we learn new things about Emma’s life or the lives of everyone in the story impact our reading of the novel? How would it have changed had we known about what happened to Lionel earlier on? Did your opinions of any of the characters change because of the order in which the story was told?
2. Did Ordinary Hazards remind you of any other novels you’ve read? Whether it be due to themes (relationships with friends and family, the pursuit of personal success, definition of happiness), characters, or events that harken back to other stories. Did those other stories provide commentary on those same themes or topics that differ from that of this novel?
A Conversation with Anna Bruno
Q: Did you always know this was the story you wanted to tell with your debut novel? Where did the inspiration for it come from?
A: From the first word, I knew the story would take place in a bar over a single night. When I’m in a public place, especially an intimate one, I am aware that the people who surround me all have stories. People are always falling in love or out of love. They may be in immense pain, or simply stuck in the doldrums of everyday life. They are constantly making the small decisions that propel their lives forward. I wanted to give the reader an opportunity to be a fly on the wall—to learn the gritty details about a woman who would otherwise just be another person at the bar.
When I started writing, I did not yet know anything about Emma or what brought her to the bar. Lucas and Lionel did not yet exist. As I got to know her, I came to know them too.
Q: While the primary action of the novel takes place over the course of one night, the reader is given a very thorough history of the characters and their stories through vignettes woven throughout. Why did you choose this time-fluid method to tell the story?
A: Some sort of constraint seems essential in the writing process. Otherwise, the blank page is too daunting, the world building too arbitrary. The decision to limit the present story line to one night at the bar focused the plot on a singular chain of events. Of course, when a constraint is imposed, something is always lost or impossible. Lucas, for example, is not at the bar because he can’t be. As the night slowly spirals out of control, Emma’s memories allow for limitless exploration of the people in her life, their intertwined histories, as well as her feelings of complicity and guilt.
Present circumstances trigger memory, and memory informs decisions that alter the course of the present. This fluidity between present and past feels true to me. The vignettes woven throughout operate in the way that memory imposes itself on the here and now. Emma relives these memories because she must, because she doesn’t want to lose them, but as she tells her story, the world inside the bar moves ever forward. As the patrons interact, tension bubbles, and Emma’s memory is continually triggered. By the end, when Emma and Jimmy finally talk directly about what happened, past and present collide.
Q: The Final Final is such an important place in your novel that it almost takes on a character of its own. Is this based off of a real place in your life?
A: There are four bars that factored into building the world of The Final Final. In Upstate New York, where I lived for two years while attending business school at Cornell, the best hangout for grad students and locals alike was a bar called Chapter House. We had Wednesdays off (no classes so MBAs could travel down to the city to network), so we drank at Chapter House every Tuesday night (dubbed “Tuesdays at Chappies”).
When I moved to Iowa City, I met the man who would eventually become my husband. He liked to hang out at a little townie bar called IC Ugly’s (now defunct). His friends had a habit of texting one another “Ugs?” and gathering there without notice, often several days a week. The bar was exceptional because it was populated almost exclusively by regulars, a handful of mostly middle-aged men. University students rarely crossed the threshold. It was an oasis.
We also spent a great deal of time at a place right around the corner, Georges, which has been an Iowa City staple for decades. Writers love Georges, especially poets. The bartenders know the patrons’ names and what they drink. They pour whiskey generously. There, I drank limitless grapefruit juice and soda water when I was pregnant with my first child.
In San Francisco, where I lived for several years before I moved to Iowa, there is a bar on the edge of town called The Final Final. The ambiance is completely different from the bar in the novel, but I always loved the name. I love the idea of a final stop after the final stop, or as Emma would say, “One more drink, which is always one drink too many and at the same time, never enough.”
Q: And on a broader scale, how much inspiration did you draw from your life when coming up with the characters and setting?
A: In my writing, an essential aspect is an exploration of what each character does for work. I think this is a departure from many literary novels, which either minimize focus on work in service to other aspects of character (family and friendship) or draw characters who are either writers or academics. I’ve always wanted to read books about people with jobs that are more representative of what people actually do. Even minor characters like the random guy who buys Emma a drink, have jobs. Emma recalls that he delivers medical equipment in New York and New Jersey.
Before we had two babies, my husband and I used to hang around the bar with general contractors and electricians. We have a good friend who works for a family drywall business, one who works at a diner, and another who owns a storied pizza joint down the block. (Someday I’ll write a novel about a guy who owns a pizzeria.) Having gone to business school, some of my friends work in finance like Emma. I suppose I wanted to explore the intersection of these lives, and the bar provided a unique opportunity to do so.
While the people who populate The Final Final and their conversations were inspired by many of the people I spent time with at our local bar, they are not directly based on anyone. The exception is Emma’s dog, Addie, who is closely based on my dog (also named Addie). I basically stole Addie’s personality and put it down on the page, figuring she wouldn’t mind.
Q:What do you hope the reader’s opinion of Emma is at the end of the novel? Did you find yourself forming new opinions of her over the course of writing the book?
A: My guess is that readers will be split on Emma’s “likability.” In the end, I hope she is seen as self-aware. She’s privileged, of course, but she’s aware of her privilege. She also understands that women are viewed as unlikable while men in similar circumstances are not. For Lucas, friendship and loyalty come naturally because he’s easygoing and fun. He describes himself as water flowing downstream. But Emma knows that men can be easygoing because they have that luxury. While Emma worries and judges and pursues, Lucas plays and laughs and enjoys. Of course, this is a generalization and an oversimplification of their dynamic. Emma acknowledges that while she is traveling for work, Lucas is maintaining their domestic sphere, which includes diapers, feedings, and crying, crying, crying. Still, as a mother, I empathize with Emma. When I’m in the kitchen disinfecting bottles for my infant, I glance over at my husband building block towers with my toddler. My work is invisible; his shines like gold.
For a long time, I’ve been waiting for people to wake up and realize women are likable for all the important reasons a person is worthy of being liked. Certainly, when women become mothers, they see their own mothers in a new light. But as I’ve gotten older, I care less about what people think of me, and I’ve come to the conclusion that likability is overrated. I think we need to get over the idea of likability. If we don’t, exceptional people will be passed over for guys everyone would love to grab a beer with.
Q: A couple of the more prevalent themes throughout the novel are the importance of a sense of family and a sense of place. Why did you choose to explore these two concepts in such depth?
A: When I moved to Iowa City after nearly a decade in San Francisco, I thought deeply about the decision to live in a big city or a small town. I distinctly remember attending a reading at Prairie Lights where Vivian Gornick stated she couldn’t wait to get back to New York where she could take a walk and there would be (interesting) things to look at. I didn’t agree with her but I understood the sentiment. Ultimately, I chose to stay in this small town.
Big-city bars always struck me as anonymous. The bartenders rarely know the patrons, and the patrons rarely know anyone other than the people they walked in with. In my twenties, I felt this anonymity deeply. When guys hit on me, I had the distinct feeling that I could be anyone. I was merely a body taking up space. Small-town bars are the opposite. Bartenders know your name and your drink. Patrons have known one another for years. Some of them spend Thanksgiving and Christmas at the bar. The intimacy of the townie bar is a writer’s playground.
Q: There are a handful of dark themes throughout your novel, but it ends with the slightest bit of optimism for the future. Is that a comment on a larger conversation about life and its unpredictable nature?
A: The novel explores ordinary hazards, (“you can worry all you want, but you’ll never predict the thing that will destroy you”), along with the idea that small decisions that are good or neutral sometimes add up to unexpected outcomes (“our fate was a tyranny of small decisions”). We can’t eliminate ordinary hazards. We also can’t stop making small decisions. If we attempted to do either, we’d exist in a state of paralysis. The flip side, blissfully, is that human beings are designed to adapt. So yes, life is unpredictable in one sense, but grief is a means of processing and overcoming the inevitable.
Also, I should say, for me personally, Ordinary Hazards is a love story. Perhaps this is because I wrote it as I was falling in love with my husband. Emma and Lucas belong together, even if circumstances push them apart.
Q: Have you begun working on your next project? And if so, can you tell us what it will be about?
A: My next novel is about a group of friends who grew up in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, an affluent suburb of Pittsburgh. After experiencing a tragedy at their Catholic prep school, they go to college and move away, but never fully move on. The novel explores the mystery of the tragic event while confronting what it means to be raised Catholic and whether their parents’ faith is still a possibility for a group of kids raised in the eighties and nineties.
Having a second baby threw a wrench in my writing schedule, but I can’t wait to get back to it.
Anna Bruno is a writer and teacher at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business. Previously, Anna managed public relations and marketing for technology and financial services companies in Silicon Valley. She holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an MBA from Cornell University, and a BA from Stanford University. She lives in Iowa City with her husband, two sons, and blue heeler. Ordinary Hazards is her first novel.
“Seen through keen eyes and full of deep feeling, Ordinary Hazards delves into the psyche of a woman grappling with grief, loss, and the burdens of inheritance. Anna Bruno vividly renders the messiness of a single human life in all its joy and heartbreak.” —CLAIRE LOMBARDO, author of The Most Fun We Ever Had
“Bruno shows a masterful talent for sketching both the outlines and depths of depression, guilt, and self-loathing… A spellbinding portrait of grief.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Crisp, haunting, and intelligent. Beneath the surface of this booze-soaked, small town, dive bar novel lies a devastating story of loss, guilt, and grief. Bruno’s narrator proves a dark, funny, unflinching companion as you descend with her, step by step, towards the revelation of what has led her to the bar tonight.” —STEPHEN MARKLEY, author of Ohio
“Echoing the small-town atmospheric work of Richard Russo, Andre Dubus III, and Jane Smiley, Bruno's novel introduces a lyrical, earnest, and heartfelt voice. For the regulars, or anyone who's walked into a woodpaneled haven and had their drink of choice slid across a well-polished bar without exchanging a word, Ordinary Hazards burns deliciously, but goes down easy.” —Booklist (starred)
"Ordinary Hazards is a kaleidoscopic novel of the best variety, spinning into and out of itself as it explores grief, love and loss in ways that will haunt readers long past the last page." —Shelf Awareness (starred)
“What is fated? And how do we create our own fate through the smallest decisions? With humor and heart, Anna Bruno has written a haunting novel that confronts this question in all aspects of one’s life: family, career, marriage, and motherhood. Each character in Ordinary Hazards bears the weight of their history, and Bruno shows how even the most devastating secrets deserve redemption.” —FATIMA MIRZA, author of A Place for Us
“Ordinary Hazards is a devastating slow burn of a book. It's rare to read a novel that takes such an unflinching look at grief, self-recrimination, and the way people try to put themselves back together after loss. Heavy topics are handled with a light touch.”—LYDIA KIESLING, author ofThe Golden State
"[An] engrossing debut... Bruno’s thoughtful tale offers memorable insights on the meaning of home." —Publishers Weekly