This reading group guide for State of the Union includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Douglas Kennedy. 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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While many American college students in the 1960s are marching in protests, using hallucinogenic drugs, and practicing free love, Hannah Latham, the daughter of a famous radical father and a painter mother, wants nothing more than to marry her doctor boyfriend and raise a family in a small town. Hannah gets her wish and settles in rural Maine with her husband, Dan, and their baby son, but she soon finds herself bored and isolated. One night an old acquaintance shows up at Hannah’s door . . . and she makes a decision that will force her into breaking the law and will change her life forever.
Over the next three decades, Hannah’s transgression remains a deeply buried secret, until a frightening incident involving her daughter, Lizzie, suddenly brings the past to light. As Hannah’s life spins out of control, she is faced with the possibility of losing everything—and everyone—she has ever loved.TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. How does Kennedy build suspense during the first part of the novel? Were you drawn into the story quickly?
2. How did Hannah’s forced apology to her mother after their argument at Thanksgiving foreshadow future events in the novel?
3. When Hannah is campaigning for McGovern, she runs into a postman who tells her that “everyone’s a crook.” When she shares the story with Margy, Hannah says, “What else do we have except our integrity?” (p. 64). Discuss the theme of integrity in the novel. Is Hannah right? What is the relationship between integrity and truth?
4. When Hannah and Dan fight shortly before they conceive Jeff, Hannah tells Dan to give himself “an A+ for having the most monumental ego” (p. 57). Years later, Hannah tells Margy, “[Dan’s] a surgeon—of course he has an ego. The thing is, he always kept it under wraps. Until now—when I finally gave him the excuse to use it against me” (p. 444). Did Hannah’s perception of Dan change, or did she just not allow herself to see him as he was? Do you think she was ever truly happy with Dan or did she make herself believe that she was?
5. When Hannah is with Toby, she has a fleeting thought: “Why isn’t this man my husband?
With that thought came a split-second reverie of a life with Toby . . . the fantastic conversations, the fantastic sex, the mutual respect, the sense of shared destiny . . . ” (p. 149). Do you think Toby was completely tricking Hannah from the beginning or was he at all sincere? Why do you think she falls for him so easily?
6. When Toby’s book is published, why do people seem to be more accepting of his crime than they are of Hannah’s alleged crime? What does this say about the way men and women are perceived by society?
7. Discuss the relationship between Hannah and her father. While he is the catalyst for the event that nearly ruins Hannah’s life, he is also her biggest supporter and loves her unconditionally. Did you agree with her decision to mend her relationship with him? What did you think about him as a character?
8. Throughout the novel, people remind Hannah to stop beating herself up so much. Why is she so hard on herself? Why are people often harder on themselves than they are on others?
9. What does Hannah’s experience after her secret is revealed to the public say about group-think mentality? Is it a comment on small town life? What does the incident say about the nature of the media?
10. After Toby’s appearance on The Jose Julia Show,
a New York Times
columnist writes: “The fact . . . that so many conservative pundits and religious fellow travelers took Tobias Judson’s story as the gospel truth . . . shows a fundamental lack of critical discernment, and a belief that, so long as someone professes their Christian faith, they must be telling the truth” (p. 464). What do you think about this passage? Does it relate to any particular current events in the news?
11. What is ironic about the progression of Hannah’s mother’s health?
12. Did you sympathize at all with Dan? Could you see where he was coming from at all, even if you didn’t sympathize with him?
13. Were you surprised by the outcome of Lizzie’s disappearance? If the necklace found by the police was hers, how might it have ended up where it did?
14. What did you think about Hannah’s decision at the end of the book? How do you think she evolved over the course of the novel? Did you like her as a narrator? Was there more that you wanted to learn about her?
15. If you’ve read other books by Douglas Kennedy, how did you think this one compared to his others? Are there other writers he is similar to? What do you think about his writing style?
16. Discuss any interesting quotes or passages you highlighted while reading the novel. What are some of the themes that resonated most strongly with you?ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. In honor of Hannah and her father’s reverence for Paris, host a potluck supper with French dishes. Take a look at http://allrecipes.com/Recipes/World-Cuisine/Europe/France/Main.aspx or www.ffcook.com, or browse your local bookstore for French cookbooks.
2. Listen to some classic sixties protest music by artists such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and John Lennon. Make a mix CD of your favorites to listen to during your book club meeting.
3. Read a 2007 interview with Douglas Kennedy in which he discusses his background and his close ties with France: www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/interview-american-writer-douglas-kennedy-on-the-kennedy-theory-of-human-behaviour-454073.html. A CONVERSATION WITH DOUGLAS KENNEDY What are some of the most important elements you hope that people take away from State of the Union? How has its relevance increased over the years since it was first published?
This might be the most American of my novels, as the subject is the United States during the radical ferment of the 1960s and the same country in the post-9/11 world. It’s about left-wing extremism back then and the evangelical conservatism of the past decade and how the entire political debate has shifted in our country. But it is also a novel that examines the life of a woman who marries the wrong man as an act of rebellion against her parents—and finds herself trapped in a life she never wanted. The fact that this act of rebellion is an act of conservatism is one of the novel’s many ironies. But then, frustrated by her marriage, she makes an error of judgment that comes back to haunt her decades later. In many ways this is a novel that looks at the frontier between the private and the public in life, the huge gulf that can exist between parents and children (even if the parent has tried to do everything right), and the way you can never really shake yourself free of the past. But it is also a morality tale for our times, and one that looks at the way, in the relentless world of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, political dialogue in this country has become so shrill, so Manichean, and so vindictive.What did you most enjoy about writing this novel? Which parts were the most difficult?
It was fascinating for me to revisit the 1960s and to remember (I was thirteen in 1968) the immense edgy complexity of that time and the way it was both a period of personal liberation and communal upheaval, in which all societal strictures and values were challenged. And I was able to examine the way that conservative thought in the postsixties world has largely been a profound backlash against that period of radical turmoil. At heart, it’s also a novel about family—and postulates a difficult idea: you can do everything right for your children and they can still end up being strangers to you. State of the Union was originally published in the UK and France in 2005. Along with several of your other novels it is now being published in the United States You make your home in all three of these countries. Why do you think your work resonates so strongly in these different cultures?
The French, bless them, seem to adore the fact that I write big novels that have a nineteenth-century sweep to them but also aren’t afraid to grapple with large existential concerns. The British appear to like the fact that I am one of those novelists who is both literary and popular—and, as such, writes the sort of novels that keep you reading well into the night but also talk up to the reader. I hope my emerging American readership will also see that I am a most serious writer who happens to like making you turn the page, and whose novels all engage with the question: What does it mean to be an American? You’re particularly popular in France and have been called “the most French and the most popular of American authors.” What do you think makes you the “most French”? What do you love about France?
Well, I do speak French fluently! I think the French adopted me because my novels are so rooted in day-to-day life and ask all the big questions about how we entrap ourselves in lives we so often don’t want. The modern French novel has always been a theater of ideas—short on plot, big on philosophic musings, and always screaming to the world, “This is art!” My view of the novel goes back to Balzac and the Flaubert of Madame Bovary
—the social novel that speaks volumes about the way we live now and isn’t afraid to engage with that huge concern: Why is happiness such a great, difficult pursuit? What are you currently writing? Do you know what your next book will be about before you’ve finished the one you’re working on?
I’ve just finished my new novel, The Moment
, which is a love story set in Berlin during the mid-1980s, when the city was a divided one. The first draft was a two-year venture, and I must say I am very pleased with it. And, yes, I always begin to think about the next novel as I finish work on the previous one. How—and why—ideas arrive at this juncture of the creative process baffles me. But it’s how it happens, and after ten novels I’m not going to question it. Your books seem to cross many genres. How do you describe your work? Is it impossible to categorize?
I’ve never written the same novel. I’ve never tried to replicate any success from the past. I’ve always set a new challenge for me with every book. If there is a unifying idea behind all ten of my novels, it’s the belief in the primacy of narrative and creating stories that are a reflection of the modern anxieties with which we all grapple. Who are some of your all-time favorite writers? Do you admire the work of any of your contemporaries?
Besides Balzac and Flaubert, I bend the knee in the direction of Dickens, Trollope, Graham Greene, Richard Yates—writers who were so engaged with their moments in time. As for my contemporaries, I greatly admire Ian McEwan and Richard Russo and Richard Ford and Lorrie Moore and Colum McCann—writers who also engage so brilliantly with the way we live now. What are you currently reading?
Intriguingly—given the subject of this novel—I’m reading Nixonland,
by Rick Perlstein, which is a brilliant analysis of the creation of the culture wars that so dominate our national life now. It is the best sort of historical text—brilliantly written, brilliantly argued, and so eyeopening. How do you enjoy spending your time when you’re not working?
I live between London, Paris, Berlin, and Maine, so I travel a great deal. I am also a culture vulture and am constantly at the theater, the concert hall, the cinema. Curiosity is an underrated virtue—and an essential component of an interesting life.Your novels The Big Picture and The Woman in the Fifth have recently been made into films. How involved were you with these projects?
I wrote the screenplay for The Woman in the Fifth
—and then stayed out of the entire filmmaking process. I read the screenplay to the French film version of The Big Picture—
and then stayed out of the entire filmmaking process. I have yet to see the film of The Woman in the Fifth,
but the film version of The Big Picture
is just superb. The cinema is like the casino—the house odds are against you, but occasionally you get lucky and a talented director does something wonderful with one of your novels. But if the film is a dog, there are two compensations: (1) you cashed the check; and (2) you will always have your novel.Do you have a favorite of your own novels? Do you ever go back and reread your own work?
I don’t have a favorite child, so I also don’t have a favorite novel. And the only time I reread my books is if I am adapting one of them for the cinema. Otherwise I am always preoccupied with the next novel—which is the only way to live as a writer.