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This “delicious take on the one percent in our nation’s capital” (Town & Country) and clever combination of The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Nest explores what Washington, DC’s high society members do behind the closed doors of their stately homes.

They are the families considered worthy of a listing in the exclusive Green Book—a discriminative diary created by the niece of Edith Roosevelt’s social secretary. Their aristocratic bloodlines are woven into the very fabric of Washington—generation after generation. Their old money and manner lurk through the cobblestone streets of Georgetown, Kalorama, and Capitol Hill. They only socialize within their inner circle, turning a blind eye to those who come and go on the political merry-go-round. These parents and their children live in gilded existences of power and privilege.

But what they have failed to understand is that the world is changing. And when the family of one of their own is held hostage and brutally murdered, everything about their legacy is called into question in this unputdownable novel that “combines social satire with moral outrage to offer a masterfully crafted, absorbing read that can simply entertain on one level and provoke reasoned discourse on another” (Booklist, starred review).

This reading group guide for THE CAVE DWELLERS 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

cave dweller: a term, indigenous to Washington, DC, that defines a member of those families who have resided there for generations and whose bloodlines are woven into the warp and weft of the nation’s capital

A compulsively readable novel in the vein of The Bonfire of the Vanities—by way of The Nest—about what Washington, DC’s high society members do away from the Capitol building and behind the closed doors of their suburban mansions.

They are the families considered worthy of a listing in the exclusive Green Book—a discriminative diary created by the niece of Edith Roosevelt’s social secretary. Their aristocratic bloodlines are woven into the very fabric of Washington—generation after generation. Their old money and manner lurk through the cobblestone streets of Georgetown, Kalorama, and Capitol Hill. They only socialize within their inner circle, turning a blind eye to those who come and go on the political merry-go-round. These parents and their children live lives free of consequences in gilded existences of power and privilege.

But what they have failed to understand is that the world is changing. And when the family of one of their own is held hostage and brutally murdered, everything about their legacy is called into question.

They’re called The Cave Dwellers.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss Besty’s continued obsession with affluent families and life of luxury. Do you think she’s satisfied when she’s admitted to “The Washington Country Club” or will she always be a social climber? Why or why not?

2. Billy is the son of a general. They live in a home trimmed with Doric columns, and Billy speaks to his father with the respect one gives a general. He lives a life of affluence with a guaranteed admittance to West Point. Why does Billy get upset when Marty teases him about his last name being the reason for the opportunities he has? Is there an underlying feeling of guilt—why or why not?

3. Bunny takes Mackenzie Wallace under her wing despite Bunny’s mother, Meredith, insisting the Wallace family are “commoners.” What do you think Bunny’s intentions were in cultivating a friendship with Mackenzie?

4. Chapter 15 is a pivotal point for Bunny, Mackenzie, Billy, Marty, and Stan. How does their inherent privilege play into their grave mistake?

5. How does Cate assert her dominance over Senator Wallace in the crypt at the Banks family’s funeral? How is this a pivotal moment for Cate’s career?

6. Discuss Bunny’s initial motives for visiting Anthony Tell in jail? How does Anthony’s situation mirror the modern American justice system?

7. On the way to meet her mother for a Georgetown Christmas homes tour, Bunny finds out that her birthday check has bounced. As she tours the historic houses, Bunny’s patience with high society dwindles. Discuss the causes that lead to Bunny’s breakdown during the tour?

8. Are Senator Wallace’s intentions pure when he reaches out to Lisa to apologize about his sexual misconduct? Why is his conscience constantly guilty when it comes to women and sex?

9. By the end of the book how have the teenagers changed? In your opinion, who has changed the most? Was it for better or worse?

10. Was it a shock when Senator Wallace’s name didn’t show up in the news story about sexual misconduct in politics? Why or why not?

11. What motives does Cate have to send the voice recording of Senator Wallace to the Washington Post reporter in the end? Why do you think she ultimately decided to hurt Senator Wallace?

12. We’re never told who actually killed the Banks family. Who do you think committed the crime and why? Do you think the true killer will ever be uncovered?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. This book contains niche historical references between chapters, which explain pieces of history you may not have known. Have each member of your group pick their favorite historical reference and share why they feel it enhances the chapter.

2. Discuss different portrayals of Washington insiders and their children throughout other works of fiction or media. For example, West Wing or House of Cards. How does The Cave Dwellers (and its characters) fit in?

3. “Cave Dweller” is a term, indigenous to Washington, DC, that defines a member of those families who have resided there for generations and whose bloodlines are woven into the warp and weft of the nation’s capital. Had you heard the term “cave dweller” before reading the book? Do you think this term accurately captures this group of people? And do you think there are families similar to the “cave dwellers” in Washington in other cities across America?
Tony Powell

Christina McDowell is the author of the critically acclaimed book, After Perfect: A Daughter’s Memoir, as well as the author of Cave Dwellers. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post; The New York Times; Los Angeles Times; HuffPost; The Guardian; OThe Oprah Magazine; People; LA Weekly; Marie Claire; USA TODAY; and The Village Voice, among others. Born and raised in Washington, DC, Christina is an advocate for restorative justice and criminal justice reform. She lives in Washington, DC.

“After reading this ruthless satire of their behavior, [the Capital's oldest and wealthiest families] probably can’t sue for slander, but they might want to beg for mercy. . . . For its merciless humor and brazen exposure of salon secrets, The Cave Dwellers should join that small collection of essential Washington books. . . . After all, this is an author who knows her victims’ antique attitudes and traditions as well as Marjorie Merriweather Post knew her china settings.” The Washington Post

"Through blunt caricatures and sharp characterizations, McDowell...combines social satire with moral outrage to offer a masterfully crafted, absorbing read that can simply entertain on one level and provoke reasoned discourse on another."
Booklist (starred review)
 
“McDowell’s mordant debut novel sends up the Washington, D.C., establishment. . . the drama is thick . . . the satire cuts deep.”
Publishers Weekly

“Sharp, observant… The book is part comedy of manners, part cautionary tale, and part insiders-guide to the secret codes of power, but however you look at it, it's a delicious take on the one percent in our nation's capital.”
Town & Country, “The 42 Must-Read Books of Spring 2021”

“Christina McDowell has written a delicious, cunningly plotted page-turner about my former home, Washington, D.C. She nails all kinds of insider nostrums, lies, handbags, tacky earrings, sexual predation, private clubs, teenage nihilism and most revealingly, racism, as only the elite can practice it at its most virulent. She’s a huge talent with a huge heart.”
—Lorraine Adams, author of Harbor and The Room and the Chair

The Cave Dwellers is a provocative and extraordinary tale of family legacy, racism, classism and greed. In scathing prose, McDowell’s writing is as addictive as it is powerful. Love this book, and it’s still lingering in my mind weeks after reading it.”
—James Frey, New York Times bestselling author of A Million Little Pieces

“Can't get enough of the weirdness that is Washington! In this bold novel, McDowell uses a wild group of teenagers in Georgetown/Kalorama/Capitol Hill, (Yes, the places where the Obamas, the Kushners, and Jeff Bezos reside), to probe the privileged inner circle of their families, exposing the stupidity and failures of character of these dynastic swamp dwellers, nouveau-riche social climbers, womanizing, lying politicos—and nobody comes off well. The mystery surrounding the shocking murder of one family (based on a real event) deepens the darkness.”
—Lisa Howorth, author of Summerlings

“Racism, misogyny, and class hierarchy are all fair game, and the irony is inescapable and delicious. . . . A fascinating, gossipy glimpse into the lives of the one percent (with footnotes) that should appeal to readers who enjoyed The Assistants, by Camille Perri, or Capital Girls, by Ella Monroe.” Library Journal

“Could be the most delicious Washington novel in recent memory . . . keenly observed, compelling . . . the novel uses a scalpel where others might deploy a hatchet . . . The Cave Dwellers would be a page turner no matter when it was released, but in today’s climate . . . it practically qualifies as required reading.” Town & Country Magazine

"Author Christina McDowell...is back with her unputdownable debut novel, where the aristocratic bloodlines of Washington, D.C.'s high society—the Cave Dwellers—are forced to reconcile with the changing world around them when one of their own is brutally murdered." —Veranda
 

More books from this author: Christina McDowell