This reading group guide for The Adults includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Alison Espach. 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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Emily Marie Vidal stands at the epicenter of a bizarre suburban universe where neighbors commit suicide, high school teachers have affairs with their students, and someone needs to be lit on fire to stop an even more heinous act from occurring. These situations send her on a physical and emotional journey that will take her from suburban Connecticut to Prague to New York City and back to Connecticut in an effort to find happiness, solace, and even love.The Adults
chronicles Emily’s coming-of-age in a modern world where an adult and a child can so dangerously be mistaken for the same thing.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- The opening scene of The Adults is a garden party celebrating Victor Vidal’s fiftieth birthday party. Discuss your first impressions of Emily’s parents and friends. How does Emily struggle to identify with the people around her?
- How do Emily’s parents break the news of their divorce to her? How does she react? Why does Emily comment, “I was positive I had no family at all, certain it was not my mother but the solar wind which carried me into the universe.” (p.19) How does Emily’s relationship with her parents change over the course of the book?
- Emily is frustrated with her parents’ and friends’ lack of communication. Do you agree with fourteen-year-old Emily that, “Nobody ever knew how to talk about anything”? (p. 25) Do you think her perception changes by the end of the book?
- Emily’s mother would “often use her youth as leverage to win arguments, something I didn’t realize was even possible since it was youth that was always my handicap.” (p. 27) Do you believe that Emily’s youth is a handicap? Discuss this in context of her ongoing relationship with Mr. Basketball. How did her youth affect the eventual outcome of the relationship?
- Mark Resnick and Emily Vidal are both neighbors and good friends. They are together when they see Mrs. Resnick and Mr. Vidal kissing in the woods. What are their reactions? How does this discovery impact their relationship? Why do you think the author chose to bring Mark back at the very end of the book?
- Discuss Emily’s belief that, “fathers were men who were just trying to understand, while mothers were women who were trying to change us…” (p. 61)
- Emily’s father, Mr. Vidal, admits to his wife that Mrs. Resnick is pregnant with his child. What incident sets off the confession? How does her mother react? When does the “truth” about Laura finally come out?
- Mr. Basketball suggests that Emily will one day appreciate being self-awareness, as it is a gift. Is this true? Does Emily ever recognize the value of her “gift”?
- Consider the relationship between Esther and Laura. Why does Emily believe Esther was threatened by Laura? What does Laura represent?
- Emily remarks that Prague changed dramatically after the flood. She remarks: “life had been a certain way ‘before the flood’. Nothing’s been the same ‘since the flood’…” (p. 227) Was there a “flood” in Emily’s own life that changed her? Explain your answer.
- Do you think Emily will ever truly be happy? Or is she stuck in the self-fulfilling prophecy of it being “impossible to be happy anywhere.” (p. 236) What do you think would make her happy?
- What prevents Emily from telling Laura the truth about her parents? Should she ever tell her? Why did Emily’s father decide to live a lie all of these years?
- How does the passing of Emily’s father affect her and her mother? Do you think Emily’s mother ever stopped loving her father? Does the experience of her father’s death make Emily an “adult” or is she still the same child she always was?
A CONVERSATION WITH ALISON ESPACHThe Adults is your debut into the literary world. What is it like being a first-time author?
- Have some interesting high school experiences to share? Pick a night to swap favorite stories with your book club.
- When Emily travels to Prague, she provides some background and history about the city. Pick a favorite city you have visited and research some interesting facts to share with your book club!
- Emily begins working as an interior designer for wealthy socialites and celebrities, including Woody Allen. Which celebrity or socialite’s house would you like to remodel? Discuss your decorating ideas at your next book club meeting.
Publishing a novel has been a dream of mine basically since I learned to read. My mother actually gave me a manual when I was in elementary school that she took out from the library called “How to Make Your Own Novel” (if anyone is curious, two pieces of cardboard, a hole puncher, and a ball of yarn). I took the craft very seriously. I would steal my brother’s history reports and write fictional accounts of whatever historical event he happened to be writing on, turning the male heroes into female heroes, fabricating love that never existed between historical figures, and then binding the two pages together with yarn. So, in this way, I’ve felt like an author my whole life, but never really considered myself an author in such a public way. It’s wonderful and scary to think of my writing as something that potentially exists beyond me and my computer screen. Not to mention, Scribner binds the books much better. What was the inspiration behind The Adults?
I am the kind of writer who is often inspired by one single line, meaning, I could write an entire novel based off something I heard on the subway. So, in that way, it’s hard to pin down an exact inspiration for The Adults
, but I suppose the most obvious inspiration is the point of view I developed growing up as the youngest in a family. Not just in my immediate family of five, but my extended family as well. When I was ten I had cousins who were turning thirty. So the children who were supposed to be my peers were in fact “The Adults
” with jobs and salaries and lawnmowers and mortgages. I always had this eerie feeling of being born into an already-formed family. Like I was the last to show up at the party, and I arrived completely sober. I was exposed to things I normally wouldn’t have been exposed to as a first-born. For instance, when my brother was ten, he had a bed-time that corresponded with an actual number, and when I was ten, my bed-time was loosely founded on the concept of “whenever I fell asleep.” We stayed up late watching television that I probably shouldn’t have been watching, shows such as 90210 or Baywatch (it didn’t occur to me until I was older that we were watching the shows for very different reasons – I just thought they were really good shows). At family gatherings, I often sat at the “adult” table because sometimes there were not enough children to make up an entire table. I spent a lot of time listening to the conversations of more mature people whose immediate and long-term concerns were very different from mine (perhaps one of the larger differences being that as a child I didn’t have any long-term concerns other than remaining alive). So the perspective of “the witness” has always been of interest to me, particularly the witness who listens and sees but doesn’t quite understand. Emily has, to the say the least, an interesting high school experience. What was your experience like? Which group did you fall into? Were you someone who was “always saying the wrong thing, and then laughing too hard afterward”? (p. 89)
Half-way through high school, I fell into a small tightly-knit group of girls who were more or less considered Not Cool, and who are still my friends today. We lived our lives very much outside of the social scene of high school. We went to one party. We were ridiculous. We were oppressively theatrical, and spent most of our time talking in the hypothetical.
Maybe this will explain how not cool we were: we seriously wanted to be secret agents, as in, FBI agents, so we made identification cards, and created secret code names, and then continued to hold stakeouts on the various streets of our town, addressing each other only by our new names, looking for I'm not sure what, anything, two people making out would have been more than enough.
In terms of the novel, I don’t think Janice would have hung out with us.
But before I found those friends, high school was mostly unbearable. Every day, I always said the wrong thing, which was why freshman year of high school, I thought it was best not to say much at all. I wasn’t big on raising my hand. My brother, who was supposed to have been a senior, had died the year before I went to high school in a car accident that involved boys who were seniors to my freshman. So there were a lot of eyes on me as I entered, and a lot of eyes darting away as well. I felt like I was going through something extreme and sudden that particular year, and it was mostly The Adults
, the teachers and guidance counselors, who understood this. They were constantly checking in on me to address the changes in my life, whereas most of the students casually knew me as the sister of the boy-who-died-last year. I was very distant from the people of my age group, and that was the year I spent more time looking at myself rather than being myself.
Unlike Emily, and most of my friends, I was actually a big athlete in high school. My friends joke that being an athlete allowed me to be Fringe Cool, where as they were still Not Cool. Because a high school sports team is often a mixed bag of people, I sometimes by accident got invited to places where cool people got invited too. I noticed some of the cool girls were not as horrible as I had predicted they would be. Sometimes they were really hilarious, and smart and nice, and it made sense why they were universally adored by the student body. But, of course, some of them were not so hilarious and not so nice, and it was obvious they had established dominance through the use of fear. And because I had found a tightly-knit group of girls who took pretty good care of each other, coupled with the fact that I was tragically sensitive in high school, it seemed that attempting popularity was too unpredictable, and in the aftermath of my brother’s death, I valued comfort and intimacy over adoration from the masses. Saying the wrong thing in front of a bunch of girls who have been decreed cooler than you by the rest of the student body can sometimes bring about a silence that haunts, forever. But when you say the wrong thing in front of people who genuinely seem to enjoy and care about your existence, they’ll laugh, and if they don’t, they’ll forgive you, and eventually, for me, that horrible high school feeling of always saying the wrong thing faded away.Do you share Emily’s viewpoint that adults are “constantly auditioning”? If so, what do you think we are auditioning for? Do you agree that being an adult is “horrible,” while being a child is “awful”? Where is the happy medium?
If you consider an audition the time and space in which a person tries out for the role they want in a performance they want to be in, I think that yes, adults are constantly auditioning. In the way that “auditioning” equates to the act of proving yourself qualified for something you want. We go on interviews for the positions we want to secure in our professional lives, we go on dates until we have convincingly or unconvincingly presented ourselves as desirable life partners. We participate in class so we can get good grades to show colleges that we are good enough to deserve a degree that will get us an interview for a job that will prove how qualified we are for a potential spouse, etc.
And I don’t necessarily think this kind of auditioning is a “horrible” thing, though there are surely moments when it can feel horrible. If I was completely comfortable all the time and not held accountable for my behavior I would be in trouble, I think. I might teach my classes in sweatpants. It’s healthy to feel the pressure of having to prove yourself. The auditioning becomes “horrible” when you are not qualified for the role, when you are not suited to be a certain person’s girlfriend, or to have a particular job. If you are deserving of the role you want, then it is easier and more natural to play the part. When the role is fun, and it’s a role you believe in, I think that’s when we are happy. Of course, it’s also important to make time for the moments when you are not responsible for conversation, or making anyone laugh, to step off the stage so to speak, and experience the peace and joys of being alone and unobserved.Between her relationship with Mr. Basketball and caring for her mother, Emily did not have the life of a typical teenager. Do you think she grew up too fast? What are the dangers of doing so? How would you respond to critics who question your main character having an “illegal” relationship? The Adults
is first and foremost a fictional story. It’s not a manual on how to live or what choices a young girl should or should not make. The novel contains the choices Emily made, and the story is the realization of the consequences and motivations of those specific choices. I don’t see why it should be questioned any more than all of the other illegal things that have been explored in fiction over the centuries.
As far as Emily growing up too fast, or too slow, I’m not sure how to answer that. I think the idea that there is a way to “grow up too fast” or “too slow” is somewhat absurd. Different things happen to people at different points in their lives, and to say that there is a proper speed in which one should move through the world seems confusing and hard to measure.
But, of course where there are fourteen year olds who want to do the things twenty-six year olds do, and vice versa, there are dangers. It is dangerous for a young woman to be in over her head, thinking she has complete control over a situation where it is likely she doesn’t. And there is definitely a danger in thinking salvation comes with age, such as wishing your childhood away, or ultimately, disappointment. But I believe there are equal dangers in keeping a child sheltered for too long. There is a danger in children not experiencing things, not learning lessons. Children who feel invincible. Children who don’t act with the amount of maturity that is expected of them. Children who are told one thing at home and then go to school and are forced to memorize all of the symptoms and ways they can contract syphilis. Children who think bus drivers and lunch ladies are cartoons, and then pick up the paper to find that their bus driver was arrested for writing love letters in her blood to a student. The world is confusing. And I think it’s okay to address it as such. And I don’t think that in a novel, illegal or legal needs to correspond to right or wrong. A novel is a place to explore something fully, in all of its rightness and wrongness. Your fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s and other journals. Did The Adults start as a shorter story or was it always meant to be a novel?
Most of my longer work starts off as a short story, because I get overwhelmed if I think of the big picture, the novel, all at once. There is precision in short stories that I’m attracted to. So one of my goals in writing The Adults
was to try and write the chapters and sections in the spirit of short stories. Emily handles some serious issues throughout the course of The Adults—infidelity, divorce, and death, to name a few. Yet she manages to keep a sense of humor throughout it all. How important is it to keep a sense of humor during those dark times? Why did you decide to infuse so many characters with humorous responses to bad situations?
I will read anything if it makes me laugh, and so it’s strange that I don’t buy more comic fiction. I get tired just buying a book that promises to make me hurt with laughter, because I hate the pressure that comes along with hilarity. So while I’m interested in books with humor, I am more interested in humor that surprises me, or comes from an unexpected place.
I don’t understand how people get through the dark times without laughing. Honestly. The day my brother died, I remember thinking, “Oh no, I’m never going to laugh again.” I remember grieving the death of my brother and the death of humor itself. Because what could be funny after that? I remember sitting down and trying to imagine a situation in which I might laugh, but I couldn’t think of one.
Later that day, my best-friend came over and told me that a girl we knew told everybody I was a “bitch” for not inviting her over too. At first I was hurt, because no fourteen year old enjoys being called a bitch. Then, I was shocked someone would even say that about me on the very same day my brother died. I prepared myself to cry, but my friend and I caught eyes and started laughing hysterically, perhaps because it broke the tension or because we both needed that moment of catharsis. I am drawn to fiction because of unexpected moments like this. I am interested in depicting the bursts of hilarity and happiness that come through during times of complete despair. Life can be both funny and sad, and I like characters who understand that. Nobody wants their life to be ruined, especially not by a parent’s divorce, or a teacher taking an interest in you sexually, and I like characters, and narrators, who can see the little ways that a life isn’t ruined.You currently teach fiction, creative non-fiction, screenwriting, and composition at New York University. How has your work as a teacher helped to inform your writing? What is one piece of advice you would give to a budding writer?
Teaching helped me gain a lot of control over my writing, and I understand more now about what I’m doing or trying to create, though of course depending on the day, and what I’m trying to write, that kind of control can be inspiring or paralyzing.
My one piece of advice to a budding writer is to write what you want to write. That piece of advice was given to me awhile back, and was what actually freed me to write The Adults
. Before The Adults
I was writing what I thought was “serious fiction,” and when I took a step back from the manuscript I realized that I thought “serious fiction” had to be mostly about men, abandoned landscapes and copper theft. While there is plenty interesting about all three things, and another writer could have written that novel wonderfully, I couldn’t get past 90 pages. Also, it turned out I knew very little about copper theft. You paint very vivid images of the landscape and people of Prague. What type of research, if any, did you do for this book?
I was in Prague for a month on a writing scholarship, and I was very affected by the place. When I came home from Prague I started wondering who I would have become if I never went on that trip. I feel very changed after I travel. And that’s weird because I am not a very good tourist. As a writer or a graduate student I never had the money to be a good tourist. It took the extra money I had just to get to Prague. And whenever I tried to sight-see or do anything I was “supposed to do,” I always failed somehow. I’m not willing to wait in lines, or pay too many admission fees, or sight-see in the rain, and I also hate the pressure of having to feel impressed and awed by everything. In Prague, I got stuck in the mindset of walking around and thinking, oh, okay, just another ancient church that took hundreds of years to build. I spent a lot of time just writing and sitting in cafes and observing some of the less celebrated parts of Prague, exploring the feeling the place gave me.
The one thing I wish I put more effort into seeing was the bone church (it was pouring the day I was supposed to go). Though in a weird way if I actually saw it, I might not have written the novel I wrote. The idea of a church made from bones was the strangest thing to me, and for some reason not seeing it made it even more of a mystery, and seemed to represent all of the remarkable things I will never see. Why did you choose Connecticut as the backdrop for The Adults? Do you think the story would have lost its message if it took place in another suburban locale?
The Unfuckables and Fuckables was a fictional exaggeration of that fact that in Connecticut, people find a way to form a group premised on the idea of anything, though I would not be surprised to find out the two groups existed. There were so many different kinds of people, to the point where there would be traffic jams in the corners of our hallways, actual bumper to bumper traffic that made us awkward and late to classes, and then on the walk home from the bus, not a person in sight. Everybody inside their house. When nobody was outside playing sometimes the suburbs of Connecticut felt like the loneliest place, and I remember thinking how weird it was to feel alone because if all the houses fell down, I’d see people nearly twenty feet away. An important part of the novel is Emily discovering that even though it doesn’t look like things are happening on her street, all kinds of things are happening everywhere, and a lot of them to her. This kind of thing could take place in any setting I suppose, but for some reason, the suburbs of Connecticut seemed particularly spastic with how flooded the schools were with kids, and how empty the streets seemed at night. What’s next for you? Will we be hearing from Emily again?
I’m working on my second novel. To say what it will be about is premature, but will you be hearing from Emily again? Probably not. Hopefully, she won’t be calling or texting anybody.