This reading group guide for Sleeping in Eden includes an introduction, discussion questions, and a Q&A with author Nicole Baart. 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.
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Dr. Lucas Hudson is filling in for the town’s vacationing coroner on a seemingly open-and-shut suicide case in Blackhawk, Iowa, when he unearths the skeletal remains of a young woman in a barn. Lucas is certain that they belong to a local girl, Angela Sparks, whom he and his wife, Jenna, had presumed had run away from her neglectful father years ago. Jenna has never recovered from Angela’s disappearance, and Lucas becomes driven to solve the mystery of the victim’s identity, both to bring Jenna some closure and to save his faltering marriage.
Years before Lucas ever set foot in Blackhawk, Meg Painter meets Dylan Reid in nearby Sutton, and the two quickly become inseparable. Their relationship turns turbulent when Jess Langbroek, Meg’s older neighbor, takes an interest in her. Jess is the safe choice for Meg, stable and loving, but Meg can’t let go of Dylan and the history they share no matter how hard she tries. Caught in a web of jealousy and deceit she can’t control, Meg’s choices in the past collide with Lucas’s investigation in the present. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “Blackhawk was nothing to write home about, situated in the proverbial middle of nowhere” (p. 14). Discuss the setting of Sleeping in Eden
. What role, if any, does the remote landscape of the novel play in the temperaments of its characters?
2. Discuss Meg Painter’s initial encounter with Dylan Reid on the Fourth of July during a neighborhood game of Bloody Murder. To what extent does their conversation anticipate the nature of their relationship?
3. “Maybe it was [Angela’s] innocence that drew Jenna in. Maybe it was her undeniable beauty or her deep silences or doleful eyes. Whatever it was, it wasn’t long after meeting the small, seemingly parentless, grubby Cinderella that Jenna was beyond smitten” (p. 29). Compare and contrast how Jenna and Lucas Hudson feel about Angela Sparks, the adolescent girl they befriend.
4. The eight-year-long unexplained absence of Angela Sparks contributes significantly to the deterioration of Lucas and Jenna Hudson’s marriage. Why doesn’t her return serve to mend their union?
5. “It was a ring. And if [Lucas’s] assessment was right, it was real gold, though grimy and neglected and discolored. The piece of jewelry looked sad lying there, like a dejected attempt at intimacy, an artifact of love that had long faded” (p. 35). Why does Lucas feel that Jenna is entitled to conceal the crime scene ring from the police? What does his ethically questionable decision suggest about his character and his feelings for his wife?
6. When Lucas examines a newly pregnant patient at the clinic, he has a revelatory experience listening to her unborn baby’s heartbeat. How does his longing for a child compare to that of his wife? How does their grief over losing Audrey affect their relationship?
7. Why does Lucas invade Jenna’s privacy by accessing her computer without her permission? What information does he hope to find? To what extent is his behavior justified?
8. “[Looking] at Jess’s face was like peering into a mirror. The way [Meg] felt for Dylan was the way Jess Langbroek felt for her” (p. 105). Why does Meg stay in a relationship with Jess, despite her reservations, when it is Dylan whom she truly loves? How do Jess’s possessive feelings toward Meg complicate their romance?
9. How does the return of Angela Sparks affect Lucas Hudson? Given the troubled nature of her relationship with her father, why does she feel compelled to clear his name? To what extent do Lucas and Angela have the same motivation in their search for the identity of the woman in the barn?
10. How does the novel resolve the questions around the body in Jim Sparks’s barn? To what extent were you surprised by the explanation for Meg’s death? Discuss some alternative possibilities raised by the events of the novel.
11. What do Lucas Hudson and Meg Painter have in common as protagonists? Your group might want to discuss the way each character is affected by their romantic interests, their willingness to rebel against the status quo, and their individual ethics. Which of the parallel narratives did you find most gripping and why?
12. Meg Painter’s love triangle with Dylan Reid (the handsome stranger from the wrong side of the tracks) and Jess Langbroek (the handsome neighbor who knows she’s the right one for him) captures some of the dynamics of romantic love that characterize adolescence. To what extent did these relationships remind you of others you know, either from personal experience or from other novels? Did you find yourself rooting for one of the male suitors, and, if so, which one?
13. “‘We were sleeping in Eden,’ Linda explained. ‘But we didn’t even know it until it was gone.’ She sighed, her voice breaking. ‘Paradise lost’” (p. 347). What does this exchange between Meg Painter’s mother, Linda, and Lucas Hudson mean to you? In what ways are you sleeping in your own personal Eden?
14. Near the end of the book, Lucas realizes that everyone must be held accountable for the things that they did—and didn’t do. What do you think this means? What sins of omission did the characters in this book commit? A Conversation with Nicole Baart 1. The narration of Sleeping in Eden alternates between the stories of Lucas Hudson and Meg Painter. Did you write each narrative separately, or did the novel come to you in a linear fashion? What drew you to these characters in particular?
It took me over ten years to write the stories of Lucas and Meg, and it was a very messy process. The novel came together much like a thousand-piece puzzle: one tiny bit at a time, and only with the help of friends, family, agents, and editors who were willing to get down on the floor and search for missing pieces!
The story was sparked in my mind when the body of an unidentified woman was found near my hometown. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. My heart ached for her and for the people who missed her—and who had no idea that she had been found murdered in a ditch in Iowa. She started to come to life in my imagination, and she was very different from who I expected her to be. She was spunky and vivacious and interesting. The sort of girl who tempted fate simply by being her amazing self. And, of course, with a heroine so charming, I had to find someone who would fight for her. Someone who would feel the pull of her story deeply enough to set aside his own common sense and do everything in his power to right the unimaginable wrong that had been done to her. That someone was Lucas, and like Meg, he was a total surprise! These two characters absolutely gripped me. So much so that I was willing to write and rewrite this book over and over again for an entire decade. 2. Dylan Reid’s and Jess Langbroek’s feelings for Meg Painter create the perfect romantic triangle. To what extent did you intend for your readers to support either suitor, as in a “Team Dylan” or “Team Jess” scenario?
I didn’t intend for my readers to pick a suitor for Meg, though I love the idea of “Team Dylan” and “Team Jess” T-shirts! I’d wear them both, depending on my mood.
Honestly, in writing Meg’s love triangle, I was trying to explore the nature of women and why we seem to be perpetually drawn to the “bad boy” when someone strong and stable and perfect is often right there in front of us. I’ve experienced this phenomenon personally, and I know many other women have, too. It’s a common story, but one that bears repeating because it can’t be explained no matter how hard we try. The human heart is simply too complicated to be reduced to something we can dissect and predict. To that end, Meg’s story isn’t so much prescriptive as it is descriptive. I didn’t want my readers to feel a certain way, and I hope that people end up supporting both Dylan and Jess. I’d love for readers to personally explore why they were drawn to one character over the other. Ask yourself the questions: What past experiences shaped my response? What do my reactions indicate about me and how I view relationships? I love taking the opportunity to dig deep and know myself better, and I feel like I learned a lot through my own personal reactions to the characters of Dylan and Jess. I love them both for very different reasons.
One last thought on this issue: Did you notice that Lucas embodies both the male stereotypes? He’s a safe, responsible, levelheaded guy, but he ends up doing something totally questionable and rebellious. I think sometimes we’d like to pigeonhole people, but the truth is, we are incredibly complex—and capable of truly astonishing things. 3. There are a number of “lost” girls in this novel—Angela Sparks, Audrey Hudson, Meg Painter. How did you anticipate this pattern echoing across the overarching narrative of the book?
I actually think Jenna Hudson could be added to the list of lost girls in this novel. She’s lost in a different way, but aren’t we all? I guess that was kind of the point as I continued to develop these characters— to explore the idea that we are all, in a myriad of diverse ways, lost. At least, we often feel that way.
Someone once said that fear and desire keep the world in motion, and though I don’t necessarily agree with that, I do think that most people make decisions based on those emotions. We seem to always be running to something or away from it, and many of us get lost along the way. All of the women in Sleeping in Eden
were tangled up in the contradiction of their own fears and desires, and it led them to some very solitary places, both literally and metaphorically speaking. As for Audrey, I think her loss is central to the book. She symbolizes every- thing that Jenna wants and can’t have, and echoes back Meg’s story and the precious young life that is longed for and lost in her narrative. 4. Lucas Hudson’s ethics in Sleeping in Eden are questionable. Given the ready temptations of Angela Sparks, why doesn’t he surrender to more base instincts?
He loves his wife. Period. It bothers me that men are often portrayed as cheating scumbags when most of the men I know are hopelessly devoted to their wives. In fact, in my experience, the stereotype is often flipped on its head: most of the marriages that I’ve seen break up are because the wife no longer cares to make it work. Of course, that’s a gross overgeneralization and I’m sure there are lots of statistics to disprove my sentiments, but just once I wanted to read a story about a man who fought for his woman. Not a fairy-tale, knight-in- shining-armor-saves-the-fairy-princess story, but a gritty, real, heartbreaking story of a bad marriage and a rather bitter, unlovable woman who nevertheless is deeply, truly loved by her faithful husband. Even when he is sorely tempted. As for Lucas’s ethics, he takes the ring because he believes that it will soothe Jenna’s broken heart and offer her some closure and peace. Everything he does, he does for her, and the ethics of it seem minimized to me somehow in the light of how far he is willing to go to do good by her. What would you do to save your marriage? How far would you go for love? Lucas is tested against those questions time and again in Sleeping in Eden
, and though he fumbles and struggles at times, I admire him for going so far beyond himself for the woman he loves. 5. The fostering of a girl in need of a family seems like the perfect solution for the Hudson family. Your book doesn’t explain what enabled Lucas and Jenna to overcome their marital problems. Why did you choose to leave this open to interpretation?
I left their struggle open to interpretation because I didn’t think that sort of journey could be summed up in a book—or even in a series of books. Marriage is such a mystery. It’s so personal and intimate and sacred . . . And I felt like a bit of a voyeur poking and prodding Lucas and Jenna in their most vulnerable, emotionally naked moments. We see so much of their journey in the book: their grief over Audrey and the divergent roads they take, the way Lucas continues to seek Jenna and she pushes him away. But they have history on their side, and so many shared experiences that knit them together. By the end of the book, I hope it’s obvious that they both still love each other and that they have the tenacity to fight through the things that threatened to tear them apart. If love is a choice, I believe Lucas and Jenna choose to love—and Mia is a by-product of that love, not the essence of it. 6. You’re a parent of three children. In Sleeping in Eden, you write eloquently of Jenna Hudson’s longing for a child. What led you to incorporate this theme in the novel?
People always ask me how much of myself I put into my novels, and the answer is usually rather vague. But I wrote parts of Sleeping in Eden
from a very raw and wounded place, and I believe that’s evident in Jenna’s longing for a baby. Although we never struggled with infertility, my husband and I experienced four miscarriages—two of which took place in the second trimester. Each loss was absolutely crushing, and it destroyed me when people tried to minimize what had happened by saying things like, “Well, at least it was early.” To me, the loss was no less. Each time, I grieved for a child. So it was easy for me to pour my heartache into Jenna’s character—and to understand how that sort of sorrow could tear a marriage apart. By the grace of God, my husband and I only became closer through our shared suffering. But not every story ends as happily as ours, and it wasn’t hard for me to imagine a different scenario. Especially after the birth of our youngest son. My pregnancy with him was high risk, and because I was always steeling myself for bad news, I spent nine months in a state of perpetual stress and numbness. When I finally delivered a beautiful, healthy boy, I wept for days. My mother’s heart breaks for Jenna and for women like her. For myself. 7. You’ve spoken of “the contrived ideal of what it means to be an author.” What do you mean by that? What would most surprise your readers to know about you?
There’s a certain author stereotype. You know the one: We’re all quirky and bookish, erudite and narcissistic. We wear jackets with elbow patches, drink coffee by the potful, love cats and tortoiseshell glasses, and live for solitude. And maybe some of those things are a little true (at least, for some of us). But my life is so far from that writer’s fantasy! Sure, I write, and I love it and I believe that it’s my calling and a profound expression of my soul, but I also do a whole lot of laundry. I change dirty diapers and wipe snotty noses with my sleeve and say astoundingly stupid things. Whenever I get together with other authors, I half expect them to sniff the air and realize that I’m not one of them
. That I’m not bright enough or witty enough or deep enough to be an Author with a capital A
. Especially since I some- times mix up words when I speak and say some insanely dumb stuff. Before I was published, I once told a group of people that I wanted to copulate Margaret Atwood. Uh, yeah. I meant emulate
. I can’t believe I just told you that. 8. Which of the characters in Sleeping in Eden most reminds you of yourself? Were any of your characters modeled on friends or family?
None of the characters really remind me of myself, but Meg is the girl that I wished
I was. The truth is, I was a shy little wallflower throughout high school, and I didn’t have an athletic bone in my body! I wanted to be tough and brave and strong, but I was skinny and nerdy and quiet. My nose was usually buried in a book, and if someone (a guy!) ever deigned to talk to me, I usually found myself tongue-tied, or worse: mute. But I love Meg’s character, her breezy personality and verve for life. I feel much more like her now, and I embrace every challenge and opportunity that comes my way. From backpacking to world travel to participating in a triathlon, I’m up for any adventure. I often say that I’ll try anything once. Back then? Not so much.
The only other character that is even remotely based on someone I know is Lucas. This sounds incredibly sappy, but my husband loves me fiercely—and I’m convinced that he’d move heaven and earth for me. When some early readers responded to Lucas’s character, they didn’t understand why he’d continue to fight for such a moody, grieving woman. But Aaron has stuck with me through some pretty tough times, and even at my lowest (after I lost a baby and didn’t get out of bed for a week) he loved me. He called me beautiful and met me in the pit of my deepest need. I am utterly confident in his love.