This reading group guide for The Glass Forest includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Cynthia Swanson. 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
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In the autumn of 1960, newlyweds Angie and Paul Glass are enjoying the serenity of their home in Door County, Wisconsin, on Lake Michigan when a phone call changes their lives forever. On the line is their seventeen-year-old niece, Ruby, calling to tell them that her father, Paul’s brother, Henry, is dead and her mother, Silja, has disappeared. Angie and Paul fly to the small town of Stonekill, New York, to be by Ruby’s side. Through Silja’s flashbacks, Angie’s discovery of astonishing truths, and Ruby’s strategic dissection of her parents’ affairs, a story of love, secrets, and ultimate betrayal is revealed.Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. What is the significance of the opening scene of The Glass Forest
, where baby PJ nearly falls out of the canoe?
2. The Glass Forest
takes place in the decades following World War II, a time of major transition for women in the United States. How do the political and cultural shifts influence the female characters in the book? Would you consider them feminists? Why or why not?
3. Why do you think Henry refused to give Silja a divorce? How do you think Henry and Silja’s story would differ if it were set in the modern day?
4. In 1950, Silja considers taking Ruby and running off in secret, hoping Henry won’t try to find them. How might the characters’ lives have unfolded differently if Silja had made that choice at that time?
5. The book contains many descriptions of the Glasses’ home décor, cleanliness, and style. Why do you think the author chose to include these details? What do the descriptions reveal about the characters?
6. Henry becomes obsessed with the need for a family bomb shelter. What drives this obsession? If the story were set in modern times, are there other ways Henry might have attempted to protect his family instead?
7. Discuss the characters’ religions. How do religious traditions influence the actions of Angie, Ruby, and Shepherd? How does religious heritage impact Silja’s, Paul’s, and Henry’s choices?
8. Jean Kellerman tells Angie, “The police won’t investigate based on a reporter’s speculation” (p. 283). Why do you think the police suspect Silja of murdering Henry?
9. What role does Miss Wells play? What does Ruby learn from her teacher? In what ways does Angie learn from Miss Wells?
10. Compare Angie at the beginning of the book to Angie at the end of the book. How does she change, and what inspires the change?
11. Describe Angie and Ruby’s relationship. How does it evolve, and what causes the shift?
12. Describe Ruby and Shepherd’s relationship. How does it differ from Ruby’s relationship with her father?
13. Do you think Ruby made the right decisions regarding her father and uncle? Why or why not?
14. What significance does open water hold for Silja, Angie, and Ruby?Enhance Your Book Club
1. The author paints a descriptive picture of Silja’s life in the Alku. What else can you learn about the Finnish socialists in Brooklyn? What role did they play in shaping New York City? Have your book club members research Finntown and early twentieth-century socialism and share their findings with the group.
2. Many well-known midcentury modern architects designed residences similar to the Glasses’ house. Have your group research MCM architects and find photos of homes similar to the Glasses’. Discuss the pros and cons of living in a “glass house.”
3. The author mentions Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca
as inspiration for The Glass Forest.
Have your book club members read Rebecca
. What parallels to The Glass Forest
can you find in Rebecca
4. Silja meets David at an event where Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform. What can you learn about Robeson and his music? What other artists were Robeson’s contemporaries?A Conversation with Cynthia SwansonYour first book, The Bookseller, is also set in post–World War II America. What draws you to this period in American history? Is it challenging to write in a time period different from your own?
It was a period of enormous societal change, and I find those social issues fascinating. Everyday circumstances in midcentury America are unfathomable in the present day. For example, it’s hard to imagine a world in which a woman whose husband wouldn’t grant her a divorce could only become legally free of him if she proved he’d cheated on her. Our current times are also filled with much change, and I think we can look to history to see mistakes we don’t want to repeat.
Beyond that, I absolutely love researching and writing about this time period because of the details: music, clothes, architecture, automobiles. Research has always been one of my favorite parts of writing—I’m constantly learning as I work, which makes the process all the more rewarding. The book centers on three locations—Door County, Wisconsin; the Alku in Brooklyn; and Westchester County, New York. Why did you choose these locations as the settings for your story? What research did you do to bring these areas to life in The Glass Forest?
Each location has its own purpose. Family friends own a cottage in Door County (which is often described as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest”) and I’ve spent a lot of time there. I needed Angie to be from a small town, and Baileys Harbor fit the bill. I spent my childhood and adolescence in northern Westchester, and my senses and memories of that area are vivid. It was pure luck to stumble across the Alku in my research. I wanted Silja to be Caucasian and a second-generation American growing up in Brooklyn, but not Catholic or Jewish. In trying to determine an ethnicity for her, I came across the socialists in Finntown (now known as Sunset Park) who built the Alku—the first co-op in the United States. Because I didn’t know the area, I contacted a real estate agent who had a listing in the Alku. He was kind enough to give me a tour of the apartment for sale, as well as the entire building. It turned out he’d done extensive research himself on the neighborhood, and he gave me a booklet he’d put together that explained the history of Finntown and each of the co-ops built there in the early twentieth century.In addition to your writing, you are also an avid designer. How did your passion for design factor into The Glass Forest?
I had a lot of fun designing Silja’s house right along with her. I could picture exactly the type of “dream home” she’d want. I love looking at for-sale postings of midcentury modern homes; I’d take note whenever I ran across one that was something like I imagined Silja’s house to be. In my memory, there were homes like that in Westchester, although I didn’t know anyone who’d lived in one; I personally grew up in a 1920s Tudor, and most of my friends grew up in ranches, split-levels, or old-town Victorians like the Glasses’ house on fictional Lawrence Avenue. Because I didn’t know anyone with a house like Silja’s in that area, I spent a day driving around Westchester, scouting out homes. I found several that looked something like I pictured Silja’s. And the winding roads through the woods were just as I remembered them.How do you relate to the women in The Glass Forest? Do you see yourself in these characters?
There are elements in each of the women that I relate to. I’m fairly driven but also a romantic at heart, as is Silja. Like Angie, I’m generally optimistic and I’m fiercely loyal to those I love. Ruby has trouble fitting in until she finds the right place for her—an experience I also had as a teen and young adult.What do you think the future has in store for Angie and Ruby? Do you believe they will remain in touch?
I tend to write stories with closure, and I think this one is no exception. Ruby was compelled to write a letter to Angie—she needed to have her say—and as readers, we need to know that Ruby is going to be okay. Ruby’s and Angie’s lives took very different paths at the end of The Glass Forest
—but if not for each other, neither might have survived. I think they appreciate that about each other, but each moves on in her own sphere.You went to college with the intention of becoming an architect. What made you switch gears and focus on writing?
I was a writer before I discovered my love for architecture. I started writing as a kid and never really stopped. When I was an architecture major, I kept sneaking off to the English department to take creative writing electives. At a certain point, it became clear that I needed to follow my heart. I still love design but I’m happy to call it a side passion.In interviews you’ve said that you wrote The Bookseller in fifteen-minute increments. Was the writing process for The Glass Forest similar or did your process change for this novel?
When I wrote The Bookseller
, I had young kids at home, a freelance writing career, and very little free time. My life is altered now because my children are older and I’m mostly writing fiction. So I have more time to write novels, but now I also need to nurture the other aspects of a novelist’s career—promoting my books, staying active and engaged with readers, meeting with book clubs, and doing other events. My process for The Glass Forest
was just as fragmented as it had been with The Bookseller
, but the fragments were different. And certainly they were longer than fifteen minutes this time around.Which authors inspire your own writing? Were there specific books that helped you imagine The Glass Forest?
In the acknowledgements for The Glass Forest
, I mention Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca,
as well as Revolutionary Road
by Richard Yates. Rebecca
, in my view, is the quintessential literary thriller—du Maurier includes all the elements of a page-turning mystery, but with a depth of story and character that not all mysteries achieve. Revolutionary Road
is one of those novels that simply stays with me every time I reread it. All the optimism the characters feel is shattered by the reality that they can’t actually have it all. It’s not, by any means, a book with a happy ending. But there’s a quiet strength in sad stories, a strength that we, as readers, don’t always feel when everything gets tied up in a neat, happy bow at the end.How have writers groups and the literary community helped your writing career?
I’m lucky to live in a city with a thriving literary scene. We have wonderful independent bookstores, a dynamic nonprofit (Lighthouse Writers) that fosters the careers of writers in all genres and at all levels, and many people who are committed to bringing more and bigger book events to Denver. I also belong to a number of online writing groups that are lively and informative—Women’s Fiction Writers Association, Binders, and several local groups. If only they weren’t so distracting! I could chat about writing all day long, but I log off when it’s time to dig in and work.What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
If you want to be a writer, be a reader first. Read in the genre you write in, but others as well. Learn to read with a critical eye: what did you like, what didn’t you like, and—most important—why? I have a writer friend who reads the ending of a book first, because as she reads the story, she wants to see if the author can plausibly get her from point A to point B. I don’t take it quite that far—I like to let the story unfold as the author intended it—but I do believe it’s crucial for writers to give readers a satisfying experience. Readers are investing their precious free time in words that I wrote. As an author, I never let myself forget that.