This reader’s guide for Other People’s Children includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author R.J. Hoffmann. 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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Gail and Jon Durbin moved to the Chicago suburbs to set up house as soon as Gail got pregnant. But then she miscarried—once, twice, three times. Determined to expand their family, the Durbins turn to adoption. When several adoptions fall through, Gail’s desire for a child overwhelms her.
Carli is a pregnant teenager from a blue-collar town nearby, with dreams of going to college and getting out of her mother’s home. When she makes the gut-wrenching decision to give her baby up for adoption, she chooses the Durbins. But Carli’s mother, Marla, has other plans for her grandbaby.
In Other People’s Children
, three mothers make excruciating choices to protect their families and their dreams—choices that put them at decided odds against one another. You will root for each one of them and wonder just how far you’d go in the same situation. This riveting debut is a thoughtful exploration of love and family, and a heart-pounding page-turner you’ll find impossible to put down.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. From the start, we learn about Gail and Jon’s struggle to have a baby. After suffering three miscarriages, Gail and Jon turn to adoption, a process with its own unique stresses. What are their respective coping mechanisms to deal with the uncertainty?
2. Through flashbacks, we learn about Jon’s troubled childhood. His mother was depressed and neglectful. How do these memories inform his concerns about fatherhood?
3. When Carli first considers reclaiming her baby, Paige repeats to herself, “Right down the middle. Don’t take sides. Right down the middle
” (p. 145). Does Paige stay neutral? How does she help Carli, Gail, and Jon make their decisions?
4. Carli studies psychology at school. At one point, she slogs through Carol Gilligan’s ethics of care, which state that “At the first level, girls make important decisions based upon what’s best for them. . . . At the second level, women make their decisions based upon what’s best for others.” Then she reads: “Lots of women never make it to the third level . . . where women balance their moral choices between their own needs and care for others. Do no harm to yourself and do no harm to others
” (p. 140). What level describes Carli’s development at different points in the novel?
5. Gail and Jon’s decision to flee with Maya is spontaneous. Gail asks, “‘What if we take her?’” (p. 177) and Jon agrees. What propels them to make this radical decision? How do you feel about their decision, and how do you think you would react if presented with their situation?
6. How does R.J. Hoffmann make you sympathize with all the characters and their decisions, even though the situation pits them against one another?
7. Gail and Jon’s marriage struggles under the expectations and disappointments involved in their desire to have a baby. How does touch meaningfully play into their marriage?
8. While sharpening knives, Gail thinks about her father’s advice to “Feel the balance of it” (p. 243). What does he mean by this? How does this advice influence Gail while she’s on the run with Jon and Maya?
9. Marla pressures Carli to reclaim the baby because Marla wants the chance to become a good grandmother and compensate for how she raised her daughters, Carli and Wendy. On the other hand, Paige suspects that if Carli reclaims the baby, “Marla would watch Maya once, maybe twice. . . . She would make excuses, make herself scarce, and Carli would realize how alone she really was” (p. 144). Do you think Paige is right? Would Marla make a good grandmother, or would she be absent again? What is “good” parenting and grandparenting?
10. Marla is an abusive mother. When experiencing anger, she “felt nothing but the heat, her vision went black around the edges, and her fists hardened” (p. 273). Why does Marla lash out at the people she loves? What does her anger say about her? How much of her anger is due to her circumstances and how much of it is her personality?
11. How does R.J. Hoffmann develop the novel from a family drama into a thriller? How did your reading experience change as you progressed through the story?
12. According to Paige, Marla and Carli live in a neighborhood where “All the houses on Carli’s block looked depressingly the same” (p. 123). Gail and Jon are middle class with access to more resources and money. How do socioeconomic issues manifest in the characters’ dynamics? How does it manifest in the conflict over Maya?
13. Carli is surprised to learn about Paige’s teenage pregnancy and decision to keep her daughter against her mother’s wishes. Paige says she works for the adoption agency “So that girls like us have a choice” (p. 339). Did Paige’s backstory surprise you?
14. How do you feel about the novel’s ending? Did all the characters get what they wanted or deserved?
15. After finishing the book, reexamine the title. In what ways can it be interpreted?Enhance Your Book Club
1. With its emotional twists and riveting getaway, Other People’s Children
has cinematic qualities that lend themselves to film. Who would you cast as its stars?
2. Gail and Jon deal with the intricacies and stresses of the adoption process. Does anyone in your group have personal experience with adoption? Do some research and discuss your findings: What is the process of domestic adoption? What kind of requirements are involved and what is the time line?
3. The book takes place in Elmhurst and Morris, Illinois. Plan a trip with your book club to explore the cities!
4. Supplement your fictional experience and learn about the real history of adoption in America. Check out books such as American Baby
by Gabrielle Glaser, or watch the documentary Three Identical Strangers
(dir. Tim Wardle).A Conversation with R.J. Hoffmann Q: Congratulations on your debut novel, Other People’s Children! Can you share your journey as a writer? Did you always want to be an author?
A: I blame all of this on my parents. When I was seven, my family’s television broke, and they decided not to replace it until my siblings and I all made the honor roll in the same quarter. It took us a few years to piece that together, and in the meantime I became addicted to reading. When I was growing up, becoming a writer was like becoming an astronaut or a professional soccer player—something to fantasize about but not practical enough for serious consideration. So, instead, I became an IT consultant and wrote in the margins of my life. The fantasy persisted, though, and it’s fair to say that it’s always been something I dreamed of.
As I approached fifty, I realized that “always” has an expiration date, so I decided to quit my job and go back to school for my MFA. I kept quiet about it because it felt a bit foolish. I only told those closest to me, and those who asked how work was going. I probably gave more effort to each semester at Columbia than to my entire undergrad. I approached it as a job and spent fifty hours each week on schoolwork and writing. I was old enough to recognize the value of the opportunity I was given. Q: What was your inspiration for this story? Do you have personal experience with adoption that influenced the novel? How much research did you need to do while writing?
A: My wife and I adopted both of our children (internationally). That experience taught me what it means to wait, how to sit with the uncertainty that is essential to the adoption process. I also felt that immediate attachment that Jon and Gail felt for Maya. There was nothing gradual about the way that we fell in love with our children. Gail described it as “like waking from a dream into a bright light.”
For me, the book really centers on the expectations with which we all enter adulthood and the way that life sometimes shreds them. My daughter struggles with a variety of challenges, and a year before I began my writing program, those challenges became so volatile that we were forced to send her to a residential treatment center. By the beginning of the pandemic, thankfully, she was ready to come home. Everything about that experience tore me apart. The pain of being separated from my daughter—and adjusting my expectations to that reality—inspired the book and may explain some of the heavy emotions that the story churns up.
For better or worse, I tend to avoid up-front research. I research after I write, to learn whether I’ve imagined a place or an experience in a way that aligns with reality and to make sure that I’ve gotten important facts right. For me, research can be an excuse to put off the writing, and although it can enrich the details, it can also confine the imagination with pesky facts. So I get the characters and the story down first, and then later I go find out whether I’ve invented something that departs too far from reality. Q: This novel is memorable for its depiction of motherhood. Gail, Carli, and Marla are mothers with intense desires and a deep capacity for love. At the same time, they demonstrate this love in very different ways. What prompted you to focus on motherhood?
A: I would suggest that the story focuses on parenthood. The story began as Jon and Gail’s, but when I wrote that first scene from Carli’s point of view—when her water breaks in the classroom—something shifted for me. I found her deeply interesting. Over time, as Carli’s character burst onto the pages, she demanded a starring role, and the story re-centered itself upon Carli and Gail, elbowing Jon into a supporting role. I’ve never been a mother, but parenthood is central to my identity. I sometimes wonder if motherhood and fatherhood feel
similar, even if men and women express those emotions very differently. Q: Early in the novel, Paige remarks that the Durbins don’t seem to really “fit.” What was the inspiration for Jon and Gail’s characters? Do you think they’re well suited for each other? How did they and their relationship with each other develop during the writing process?
A: I think that, in so many ways, Gail and Jon are complementary. Gail organizes their lives while Jon brings the ability to improvise and adjust. Throughout the story, the strengths of one complement the weaknesses of the other.
A funny thing happened between Jon and Gail’s characters as I wrote the book. I gave a version to an early reader and was told that Jon’s character was strong, but Gail didn’t come through clearly. I rewrote Gail’s chapters, didn’t touch Jon’s, and gave the book to another reader. The feedback: Gail was fantastic, but Jon felt weak. This happened over and over. The strengthening of one character washed out the other. I think the competition between those two characters inevitably strengthened the book. They demanded more and better of each other. I’m not sure that I could invent a better metaphor for marriage than that. Q: Other People’s Children explores the class differences between Marla, Carli, Gail, and Jon through the different cities in which they live. Marla and Carli live in Morris, whereas Gail and Jon live in Elmhurst. What did you want readers to take away about class divisions in America?
A: I want readers to take away the idea that integrity lives on both sides of the tracks. As do dishonesty and work ethic and malevolence and disappointment.Q: Carli thinks about fundamental attribution errors, “the idea that people blame mistakes on your character rather than your circumstances” (p. 95). The people in her life think she is a “fuckup” because of her pregnancy. By the end of the book, what do you hope readers will take away from Carli’s self-perception?
A: When Carli studies that chapter, she finds herself at the nadir of her self-regard. She goes through a lot in her fight to reclaim her baby, and once Maya comes home to her, she still has much more to fight through. By the end of the book, she’s struggling, but she’s struggling with dignity and with a developing confidence. I’d like to believe that when Carli retakes that psychology class next semester, she’ll digest that chapter differently. I want to believe that as she gains distance from the home she grew up in, and as she finds some success as a parent, that she’ll begin to recognize the strength of her character. I hope that she’ll discover a bit more compassion for herself. Q: While writing the book, did you always know what the ending would be?
A: Absolutely not. I was a hundred pages in before I learned that Gail and Jon were going to run with Maya. I was struggling with what would happen next when a professor suggested to the class that we should consider having our characters do something illegal—and there it was. Once they broke toward Canada, I knew where Maya would land, but that same professor challenged me to keep the reader torn—until the last possible moment—about what they
want for Maya. That suggestion served as a compass for the rest of the book, and it reminded me that Carli, Gail, and Jon are all victims, even as none of them are blameless.Q: Marla is an extremely complex character. She’s abusive to Carli and Wendy at times and experiences flashes of uncontrollable anger, yet she works hard to provide for her family and wants to be a good grandmother. What emotions did you hope Marla would evoke in readers?
A: I want people to feel strongly about Marla. When a friend reads the book, I sometimes get a text when they’re halfway through it, and Marla’s name usually shows up in that text. I don’t expect anyone to side with her. She makes everyone’s life difficult. But I hope that the strength of the reaction comes in part from the motivations (relatively pure) that drive Marla’s actions (mostly destructive). Above all, I hope that readers examine their reaction for fundamental attribution errors.Q: Which authors do you admire?
A: Toni Morrison is a marvel. I’ve read most of the dozen or so books that Ian McEwan has given us. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
took my breath away. I loved both of Celeste Ng’s books and enjoyed my time in Mississippi with Jesmyn Ward. Fredrik Backman’s novels are never the same and always wonderful. I love a sad ending, and Lauren Groff almost always delivers. John Steinbeck earned his way onto everyone’s bookshelf. I try to read The Pearl
every few years. Q: Are you working on anything right now? If so, can you tell us about it?
A: I’m finishing my second novel. It’s about a terrible secret that four boys keep as they graduate high school, the corrosive nature of the lies that secret forces them to tell over the next thirty years, and what they must do to repair the damage.