Beneath the surface of any problem, if you scrabble a bit, you’ll find a secret.
It may take a while—decades perhaps—not for your excavation, mind you, but for your desire to appear; for that childlike curiosity to float up again. Indeed, you may need an actual child to summon it, as I did.
But this is what drives us—the historians, the trash pickers, the gossips, the shrinks. And yes, the readers of books. We’re all rooting around, teasing out other people’s hidden reasons.
Haven’t we all profited from another’s heartache? Anything antique or inherited comes to you out of pain. And it comes to you, doesn’t it? Why, even the comforting of a sniveling acquaintance carries a sweet center: after they sob on your shoulder, they will tell you why.
Please don’t say I’m drawn to others’ secrets because I have several in my own deep past. That’s a bit tidy, don’t you think? In fact, I’ll come clean with a confession right now. Perhaps that will make you feel better about my motives.
Forty years ago, my young daughter died because of something I did. Notice I stop short of saying I killed her, even though I clearly did. No one knows this. Do you think my daughter-in-law would ever let me near my granddaughter if she knew?
I didn’t bury this pivotal event, or suffocate it in a cloud of good works, as so many venerable Main Line ladies would, yet much of it, the details especially, have sloughed away. By necessity, by neglect, by a need for the widow to soldier on. And yes, by the failure of my own memory. Call it what you will: “senior moments,” old age, dementia. It’s inevitable, that’s what it is. You go right ahead and complete all the crosswords your children press on you; but know they can keep you only so sharp.
Sometimes my memory of that awful day wanders away completely, and when it returns, it jolts me, like falling in dreams. I can’t summon my actions in crystal detail anymore; I see the house, that room, through a haze, in pieces. I can see the maple tree outside the window, and beyond it, the old field on one side and the park with the verdigris Revolutionary War statue on the other. But I’ve forgotten, for instance, what time it was; whether the light sparkled when it hit the water, or cast shadows across it, making it look more gray and deeper than it actually was. I draw a blank on whether the baby cried in the distance, or where Peter was hiding—in the cellar; in the field; or in the small, dark shed. Parts of it are gone, perhaps forever. I miss the details, the small intricacies of many things now, even this. All the more reason to continue to write things down in my diary. All the more reason for me to take my pictures, to hang on to scrapbooks and photo albums in steamer trunks. All the more reason to collect evidence.
This morning, for instance, I completely forgot that I’d been to the lawyer. My newest secret, and I only remembered when I opened my freezer and saw what I’d hidden there. Imagine!
It will all come out in time, the tidbits I’ve learned and swung round to my advantage. But I did not set out to do any of it, and neither did Ellie. It’s important you believe me. The natural order of things merely took over. The drive to dig pulled us like the tides.
All we did, after all, was pay attention. You should try it sometime. Watch a woman’s face as she fingers her antique locket. Hear the jangle of charm bracelets covering up an ancestor’s cries. Feel the ring handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter, how the gold is worn down at the back by everything they’d done while wearing it—all the games they’d played, all the people they’d touched, all the things they’d held and broken.
It’s all there, in every jewelry box and trunk, every photo album and yellowed postcard, every attic and basement. Just look, and you’ll see what I mean. You don’t have to travel to a lost city to find the artifacts of a mysterious society. Just go ask your grandmother.
This reading group guide forThe Bird House includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kelly Simmons. 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.
Every family has its secrets. But when you are the last survivor tending to the dark fires of memory, and your own mind is fading, who do you share them with? Your diary or your eight-year-old granddaughter? Or do you simply let them fade away, along with your memory?
The Bird House is a moving story of secrets, lies, and relationships. It is a close look at the hardship and heartbreak that one woman can withstand during a lifetime. As an elderly woman, Ann Biddle is struggling to both remember and come to terms with the life she has led. It is through her young, but wise granddaughter, Ellie, that Ann finds a way to deal with her past and finally reveal the secrets that have come to taint the present.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Ann reveals within the first chapter that her memory is failing. How did this confession affect your reading? Was Ann an unreliable narrator? Explain your answer.
2. Bird houses are a recurring theme throughout the novel—besides the title itself, Ellie chooses bird houses for her “Aspect” school project. Do you think the bird houses hold some sort of symbolism? Why or why not?
3. Throughout the novel, we get bits and pieces of what Ann’s husband, Theo, was like. Do you think Ann is fair with his depiction? If the novel had been narrated by Theo, how do you think he would have described himself? How would his perspective differ from Ann’s?
4. In the beginning, Ann describes her daughter-in-law, Tinsley, as almost perfect. She even attributes her granddaughter’s wonderful demeanor to Tinsley. When do you see Ann’s opinion begin to change? Why do you think it changes so drastically? Do you think they will ever completely resolve their differences?
5. Ann thinks the world of Tom and Ellie. In her mind, they can do no wrong. Do you feel the same? Or do you think she is fiercely loyal to them because they are her flesh and blood?
6. Adultery recurs throughout the novel and is also a shared commonality between Ann, her mother, and Tinsley. How do you think this bonds the women together? Does this shared connection help them relate to one another? Or could it also have an opposite effect on their relationships?
7. Ann, her mother, and Tinsley all have completely different personalities and lead completely different lives. What do you think lead each woman to cheat on her partner?
8. There were multiple instances throughout the novel where Ann’s daughter, Emma, acts in an odd, and even malicious, manner. Do you think this is a result or an effect of the anger and resentment she feels for losing her daughter at such a young age?
9. Do you blame Ann for her daughter’s death? Do you think Ann blames herself? Why do you think she kept this a secret for such a long time?
10. When Ann confronts Tinsley about her affair, she claims to have the best intentions. Do you agree with how Ann handled this discussion? If you were in Ann’s position, what would you have done?
11. Ann never gave her father the chance to give his side of the story, and after his death she discovers he was not her biological father. Do you think she should have given him the chance to explain himself? And do you think this was what he was trying to tell her?
12. Ann reveals a great deal about her past, and even present, to Ellie. Do you think this relationship was inappropriate? Why or why not?
13. On page 272, Ann says to Ellie: “‘If you ever have to choose between a man who’s serious and a man who’s fun, choose the fun one. Promise me.’” Do you agree with Ann? Who do you think was the “fun one” and who was the serious one? Theo or Peter?
14. Did you like that the novel was told from only Ann’s perspective? Or would you have a more objective, third person narrator?’
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Ellie decides to do her school project with the “Aspect” of bird houses. Make your own bird house and share it with the group.
2. Ann and Ellie work very hard to create their family tree for Ellie’s school project. Visit www.ancestry.com or pick up a copy of Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist by Buzzy Jackson, to learn more about how to make a family tree of your own.
3. Not all elderly people have the family and friends that Ann has. Volunteer at a nursing or retirement home with members from your book club. Sit down with someone and ask her to tell you stories of her past.
4. Learn more about Kelly Simmons on her website at www.ByKellySimmons.com and her blog at www.kellyasimmons.blogspot.com.
A CONVERSATION WITH KELLY SIMMONS
What was your inspiration for The Bird House?
My daughter brought home an assignment from school that asked her to do a series of projects based on the family history that required interviewing a grandparent. I thought to myself, hmmmm, this assignment could really backfire, couldn’t it? With a troubled grandparent, an innocent little girl, and a few family secrets, all hell could break loose! The idea rattled around in the back of my mind for a year or so while I started two other novels. Then I decided it was too powerful a story to ignore and focused my attention on it.
As your second novel, was the writing process easier or more difficult? What were the differences and similarities in writing The Bird House compared to Standing Still?
It was a bit easier in the editorial stages because I’d been through the process already. And as with Standing Still, I found the voice of the main character quickly. However, the actual writing was more difficult. The structure of The Bird House, with its twin diaries forty years apart, entwining and untangling, proved challenging. That being said, the most difficult part for me is always choosing material. I guess because of my advertising background, I’m a brainstormer—I generate lots of ideas for novels.
The main character, Ann, is suffering from early onset of Alzheimer’s. Do you personally know anyone suffering from the disease?
Yes, our family has struggled with having a loved one diagnosed, as have several of my friends’ families. It’s a reality for many people, and in the beginning stages, it’s so hard to pinpoint and accept.
How did you research Alzheimer’s to make sure Ann’s symptoms were realistic?
I interviewed siblings, spouses, and children of Alzheimer’s patients, rather than doctors, to hear their stories and to try to get the details right. I wanted the family’s perceptions of the symptoms, not the textbook symptoms, if that makes sense.
Why did you decide to write the novel in the first person? Why did you want readers to get only Ann’s perspective?
Ann’s perspective works best because her faulty memory makes her an unreliable narrator. I wanted readers to feel the tension and the worry of not knowing what she was going to do or say, or if they could trust her version of events. I love ambiguity and subtlety in a story, and so many novels with multiple narrators or an omniscient narrator go overboard and reveal more than is necessary. It’s kind of a TMI situation for me. And I guess I am somewhat obsessed with first-person unreliable narrators, as Standing Still had one too!
You are a former creative director with a specialization in marketing to women. The Bird House is primarily about women, told from a woman’s perspective. Do you think you will ever write a novel from a man’s perspective? Or would you rather stick to what you know best?
Well, I admit I have a righteous feminist streak, almost as if I was born in another era. I just really feel the indignation and the struggle deeply. Writing male characters can be a joy, but overall, there are so many more women’s stories I want to explore.
Your first novel, Standing Still, deals with anxiety disorders and abduction, while characters in The Bird House cope with Alzheimer’s and the death of a child. Why did you choose to pair these dark subject matters in both your novels?
My agent once told me that I was “obsessed with what’s hidden.” I’m also obsessed with the things I’m afraid of—which are fairly numerous! If you combed through the magazine articles and newspapers I read, the movies I see, the TV I watch—you’d see immediately I have a fascination with gritty stuff—crime and police, mysteries. By melding them into my work, I’m shedding some feminine, suburban, maternal light on them.
Ann and Ellie are very close throughout the novel. Were you close to either of your grandmothers?
I was close to both of them—the book is dedicated to them—and have amazing, warm, hilarious memories of them both. Because my mother was ill when I was young, these relationships were especially important to me.
What are you currently reading? Who are your favorite authors?
I just finished Little Bee, which was my choice for my mother-and-daughter book group. A few of my favorite authors are Ann Beattie, John Irving, and Lionel Shriver. But I love so many!
Are you working on a third novel? What is next for Kelly Simmons?
Yes, I’m polishing up a new novel called The Book Addict. Words to live by!
Kelly Simmons is a former journalist and advertising creative director specializing in marketing to women. She lives with her family outside Philadelphia. Please visit her website at ByKellySimmons.com.
“There’s nothing I like better than a dark family secret, and Kelly Simmons really delivers in The Bird House. Ann Harris, an impeccable Main Line grande dame, is blasé about her past until her beloved granddaughter begins digging around and raising the stakes dangerously. This is a beautifully paced novel that will keep you guessing right to the end.” —Pam Lewis, author of Perfect Family
“Kelly Simmons' The Bird House deconstructs the American family with lyrical prose, sharp insights, and heartbreaking honesty. Deeply moving and very powerful.” —Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of Rot & Ruin
“Kelly Simmons is able to clearly capture the voice of an elderly woman and tell her story in such crisp, tight prose I was hooked from the very first page. The Bird House is more than a suspenseful story, though—it’s about secrets: family secrets. And those are always the best kept ones.” —Chevy Stevens, New York Times bestselling author of Still Missing
“Simmons smoothly shifts between past and present in her complex and poignant second novel, told from the point of view of a courageous woman suffering from dementia.” —Publishers Weekly
“The writing is so evocative and detailed in its depiction of the inevitable reckonings that come with age.” —Kirkus Reviews
"A great title for book groups that enjoy strong female characters." --Library Journal
“Mothers and daughters and family secrets permeate this surprisingly dark novel of modern family life.” —Booklist
“With the turn of each crisp page or the slide of a finger on your e-book, there’s no doubt that Kelly Simmons’ two novels are anything less than masterpieces.... The Bird House has solidified Kelly Simmons’ spot as a captivating, talented writer who intimately connects her countless readers to a secret past.” —Mainline Magazine
“Some novels are meant to be read slowly, savoring each word, while others push you to keep turning pages, teased on by the promise of secrets revealed. And then there are novels that are both, like The Bird House by Kelly Simmons. This book is so beautifully written that I felt guilty racing through it to discover what happens, and so I read it a second time, happy to spend another day under the spell of the story's brilliantly realized narrator.” —Lisa Tucker, author of The Winters in Bloom