This reading group guide for The Gap Year includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sara Bird. 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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IntroductionThe Gap Year
is a novel about a single mom and her seventeen-year-old daughter learning how to let go in that precarious moment before college empties the nest. Told from both points of view, we meet Cam Lightsey, lactation consultant and divorcée, still quietly carrying a torch for the ex who dumped her years ago, a suburban misfit who’s given up her rebel dreams so her only child can get a good education.
We also learn the secrets of Aubrey Lightsey, tired of being the dutiful, straight-A band geek, ready to explode from wanting her “real” life to begin and trying to figure out love with boys. When Aubrey meets Tyler Moldenhauer, football idol with a dangerous past, the fuse is lit. Aubrey turns into Cam’s sullen-teen nightmare, a girl with no interest in talking about college. Worse, Aubrey has recently been in touch with her father, who left and broke contact with her and her mother when Aubrey was just two. As the novel unfolds, the dreams of mother, daughter, and father chart an inevitable collision, but one with unpredictable consequences.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What is the novel saying about love in the twenty-first century?
2. How does the structure of the book, with two points of view, one in the present and the other moving forward through the previous year, help underscore the author’s message?
3. Does having both the mother and daughter points of view help explain the friction between the two during the course of the novel? Do you think this friction is a universal condition leading up to the “empty nest”?
4. With whom do you sympathize more, Aubrey or Cam? Why? At what points do you feel frustrated with each?
5. In what ways is the romance between Aubrey and Tyler typical or atypical? What about between Cam and Martin?
6. How are Aubrey and Twyla different from their mothers? How are they similar?
7. What roles do Dori and Twyla play in the novel?
8. How did you feel about Cam getting back together with Martin? Is it too quick after his sixteen-year-long abandonment, or are they meant to be a family again?
9. Why do you think Cam is so focused on her daughter going to college? How does her daughter’s success reflect upon her as a mother? Are there incidents in your own life that are similar to these feelings?A Conversation with Sarah Bird
Could you tell us about what inspired you to write The Gap Year?The Gap Year
was conceived in the frozen-food aisle of a grocery store. It was a month before our son left for college and I was procuring the staple of the young American male’s diet, Hot Pockets. Chilly mist from the open freezer was swirling around me at the exact moment when it hit me that this package of pepperoni pizza Hot Pockets would be the last I’d ever buy. I promptly burst into heaving sobs.
This seemed to be more than simple impending empty-nest syndrome. As a mother, I thought I had accepted the hard, inevitable, and absolutely fitting reality that my child’s world, which I’d once known so completely, would never again be open to me in the intimate way it once had been. So why was I weeping over some ridiculous snack food? It wasn’t as if I’d baked my entire identity into my homeroom mother cupcakes. Clearly I needed intensive therapy. Instead, as I do with all the big puzzles in my life, I wrote a novel about the mystifying emotional disconnections and gaps in this year.
In The Gap Year,
my heroine, Cam Lightsey, a single mom and lactation consultant extraordinaire who has exiled herself to the suburbs so that her only child, Aubrey, can get a good education, has to grapple with complications I never faced. Cam believes her worst problem is that her once adoring daughter, now madly smitten with a redneck high school football hero, has shut her out. And then she discovers that Aubrey and the trust fund set up for her education have disappeared. And the only person who can help her track down both daughter and dough is Martin, the ex-husband that Cam never stopped loving even though he left her years ago for a nutball cult.
Like me, Cam was blindsided in unforeseen ways by the inevitable separation from her only child and by a furious curiosity to know what her daughter was really thinking and doing. As a novelist I had what felt like a superpower: I could breach this chasm, plunge into the world Aubrey had hidden from her mother, and tell her side of the story as well.
To learn both how much and how little senior high girls have changed, I had to do a lot of lurking around high schools, eavesdropping at Old Navy stores, reading angsty journals online, and sharing vanilla lattes with friends’ daughters at Starbucks. It’s been a relief that so many of my early mom readers have reported that they passed the book on to their daughters and ended up having a rare discussion about unspoken fears, pressures, and the myriad ways in which moms, particularly the once most beloved of moms, irritate their daughters.
As satisfying as it was to enter and understand Aubrey’s world, it was also quite poignant. Telling their stories on parallel tracks that never intersect helped me to accept that, like Cam, no mother will ever truly know her own child’s story any more than the child will ever truly know her mother’s. And therein lies the gap in The Gap Year.Are your novels usually based on personal experiences?
As with my other seven novels, I took a profoundly personal experience and gave it to a cast of fictional characters. Unlike my other novels, I had to remove my characters a couple extra steps from myself because this experience of a child leaving home wasn’t just “my” story, it was also my son’s. I have zero compunction about sharing details of my own life, but I tread very lightly with lives that are not mine. So, I took this jumble of unexpected emotions and gave them to Cam Lightsey, a single mom and a lactation consultant who has forsaken her rebel past and exiled herself to an alien exurb so that her daughter, Aubrey, could get a good education, go to a good college, and escape from the ’burbs.What are some of your favorite aspects of this novel?
The biggest surprise this book held for me was it ended up being told from both Cam’s and
Aubrey’s perspectives. I thought I only knew the mother’s story, but it turned out her daughter had a lot
to say. Being able to know and understand the story of that necessary separation from the child’s point of view was deeply satisfying to me. And also very poignant since I realized that, like Cam, no mother will ever truly her own child’s story any more than the child will ever truly know hers.
Tyler’s past also delighted me. I’d originally sort of just sketched him in as the boyfriend genetically engineered to be whatever would appall Mom the most. In this case it was a standard- issue football hero. But then, surprise! Tyler came to life and demanded to be shown some respect and given his say. As most novelists will tell you, it’s an utter joy when this happens. When you feel as if you’re just along for the ride, scrawling notes while your character dictates his real
story to you.
As for the cult element, that was an indulgence as well. I once had someone in my life who was very dear to me join a group that many would classify as a cult. I’ve spent the intervening decades puzzling over how such a smart, funny, successful man could have ditched me, moi!,
for such a group. So, in the novel, I got to listen to the explanation that Cam’s ex-husband, Martin, the love of her life, gives for leaving her and their two-year-old daughter for my invented cult, Next! (The exclamation point does not indicate excitement; my group, Next!, will sic their lawyers on you if you don’t use it.)Do you hope that teenagers on their way to college will relate to Aubrey, or begin to understand Cam? What about mothers picking up the book?
I never had either hope, so I’ve been very surprised a majority of my early readers have been mothers preparing to send daughters off to college. Even more surprising, and delighting, is that every mother has told me she’d passed the book on to her daughter and they’d ended up having a great discussion about unspoken fears, pressures, and the myriad ways in which moms, particularly the once most-beloved of moms, irritate their daughters.One of the themes that runs through the novel is the struggle between holding on and letting go. Do you think is it harder to hold on or to let go?
Oh gosh, yes, that struggle. If only I’d known how prophetic the question that came to me in a dream I had when I was eight months pregnant—“The arrow or the anchor?”—would turn out to be! I included it in my dedication since it is such an essential issue. Tiger Moms, for instance, are most definitely in the arrow camp that girds its children to do battle and achieve on a very high level in the world. Most American moms lean more toward the anchor, toward grounding their children with unconditional love.
For myself, it was not a question of whether one was harder or easier; at a certain point, I had to accept there was nothing to hold on to. That the only control I had lay in whatever residual love my child felt for me. So, honestly, I am the last parent on earth who has a message. All I know is I never found our experience of letting go, of the emptying nest, represented anywhere in any way that I found truly useful.What message do you hope readers will take away from The Gap Year?
Maybe, my only message is the one my mom used to give her six children if one of us ever mentioned a flaw in her childrearing tactics, like smoking through her pregnancies, or give us phenobarbital on long car trips: “Eh, you lived to tell the tale, didn’t you?”The novel is dedicated “To the entirely beautiful mothers / of our entirely beautiful children,” from the W. H. Auden poem Lullaby that precedes it. Why did you choose this dedication?
That wasn’t really an intellectual decision. It was the convergence of three “awarenesses.” That Auden is the most human of poets, so steeped in forgiveness. That this piece is entitled Lullaby
. And that it causes me to weep every time I read it. Like right now.