This readers group guide for Saving Beck includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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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When Natalie Kingsley’s husband, Matt, dies in a car crash on his way home from a college visit with their teenage son, their happy family life is irreparably damaged. One year later, she’s a widow still unmoored by grief, struggling to raise three grieving children who feel as if they have somehow lost both parents.
Her older son, Beck, helps Natalie with daily responsibilities that she can’t seem to manage alone. But in private, Beck agonizes over his role as driver of the car the night his father died. Unwilling to accept that a faulty seat belt is to blame, Beck turns to heroin to cope, and he quickly becomes addicted to the temporary escape it offers.
For Natalie and Beck, heroin threatens to endanger the fragile recovery that they have painstakingly achieved. Separately, and together, they must fight for their family’s survival.Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Describe Natalie Kingsley’s condition when she arrives at Mercy Hospital with her oldest son, Beck. What does Natalie’s heightened awareness of the private waiting area in the hospital—its sounds, smells, lighting, decor—reveal about her emotional state? How does her husband’s recent death intensify her perceptions?
2. “I feel my chest rise off the table, breaking rank from the rest of my body, and I feel myself thrashing against my will, yet it doesn’t hurt. . . . I don’t know why I’m able to think calmly when my body is out of control” (page 14). How does the author’s decision to incorporate Beck’s internal monologue into the novel’s narrative affect your understanding of his character and his motivations? How would you describe Beck’s awareness of his condition and his whereabouts?
3. Compare Beck’s relationship with his father, Matt, to his relationship with his mother, Natalie. With whom does he seem most able to express himself and why? In your discussion, consider examining his parents’ individual feelings about Beck’s athletic and academic pursuits, his future goals, his girlfriend, and his strengths and weaknesses as a person.
4. “Beck was the one who had been feeding the kids for me; he even paid the utility bill for me yesterday. . . . He couldn’t be that responsible and also smoke pot on the side” (pages 66–67). In the aftermath of Matt’s death, why does Beck assume the role of co-parent? In what respects do his self-medicating and use of illicit drugs reveal the impulsivity of a typical adolescent, the rebelliousness of one who cannot bear the new burdens imposed on him, or something altogether different?
5. Beck’s first experience with heroin leads him to seek out more drugs in a run-down Chicago building populated by drug users that he imagines as his “new family.” Why does Beck want to leave his family and the comforts of home? To what degree are Beck’s family and friends responsible for his drug use?
6. “It’s Kit, my husband’s best friend, and he’s filling the doorway with his giant shoulders. He’s a Great Dane in a sea of Labradors” (page 11). How would you characterize Natalie’s feelings for Kit? How does Kit’s changing role in the Kingsley family following the accident disrupt the stability Natalie has sought to reclaim?
7. How would you describe the sibling dynamic between Natalie and her younger sister, Sam LaRosa? In the aftermath of Matt’s accident, what substantive changes in Beck does Sam observe that Natalie is incapable or unwilling to acknowledge? To what extent are these changes visible to others close to Beck, like his girlfriend, Elin, and his younger siblings, Annabelle and Devin?
8. How do the present-tense and flashback narratives of Natalie and Beck provide a more comprehensive picture of their family’s experience? Which character’s voice or story did you find more compelling, and why? Why do you think the author chose to write the novel using these dual—and at times, dueling—perspectives?
9. Discuss the character of Angel and the role she plays in the novel. What does she represent to Beck? How did you react as a reader upon learning that Angel was a figment of Beck’s drug-addled imagination? To what extent does Beck’s interpretation of Angel—that she was the embodied spirit of Sarah Greene, the other driver, who perished in the car accident—seem persuasive to you? What are some other possible ways readers might understand Angel?
10. How does the premature death of Matt Kingsley impact each member of his immediate family? How does Natalie’s grief exacerbate Beck’s feelings of guilt for his role in his father’s death? If you were a therapist treating the Kingsley family, what would you encourage them to explore as they come to terms with their profound loss? To what extent do you think Natalie and Beck could have taken more preventive measures to avoid Beck’s overdose?
11. “People on the outside looking in think that I should’ve been able to fix it. That if I FORCED him into getting help, he would’ve beat the addiction. That’s not the way it works” (Author’s Note, page 290). How did the author’s decision to relate her experiences as a mother dealing with her son’s drug addiction affect you as a reader? Why do you think she chose to do so at the end of the novel, rather than in a foreword?
12. Saving Beck
touches on many complex social issues of our time—including illicit drug use, digital privacy, drug addiction, rehabilitation, adolescent/parent conflict, the consequences of extramarital sex, the death of a parent, distracted driving, vehicular homicide, grief, depression, and prescription drug abuse. Of the many issues the author highlights, which especially captured your imagination as a reader, and why?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Imagine that Natalie is a cherished member of your book club. How might fellow club members support her as she mourns her husband and despairs over the emergency hospitalization of Beck? Members of your club may want to share stories of acts of compassion and kindness they have received during difficult moments in their own lives, or discuss what they wish had been said to or done for them.
2. Over the course of the novel, Beck and Natalie experience many different stages of grief. Have members of your club reflect on losses they and those they know well have experienced. What kinds of healthy activities enabled them to come through these painful moments intact? In what ways does the novel’s depiction of grief in the aftermath of the death of a loved one echo their own lived experiences?
3. In its depiction of a high-achieving student from a well-to-do family whose life is nearly destroyed by illegal drug use, Saving Beck
upends commonly held perceptions that drug addiction happens to people in less stable circumstances. Have members of your club reflect on their own direct or indirect experiences with substance abuse and discuss as a group the current attitudes toward illicit drug use in their wider communities.
4. The catalyst for the plot of Saving Beck
is a fatal car accident involving substance abuse on the part of one young driver, distracted driving by another, and a potentially faulty seat belt. Ask your book club to defend the author’s decision to incorporate these narrative ambiguities into the novel. To what extent does the author’s implicit refusal to render judgment on her characters’ choices place the burden to do so on the reader? How does the author’s use of two narrative perspectives further complicate the reader’s assignment of responsibility?