This reading group guide for The New Neighbor includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Leah Stewart. 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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Ninety-year-old Margaret Riley is mostly content hiding from the world. Antisocial and fiercely independent, she rarely leaves her Tennessee mountaintop home, preferring weekly trips to the local library to replenish her collection of mystery novels to visits from extended family. But all this changes when she spots a young woman who has rented the long-empty house across the pond.
Jennifer Young is also looking to hide. On the run from her old life, she and her four-year-old son, Milo, have moved to a quiet town where no one from their past can find them. In spite of her fears of discovery, Jennifer can’t ignore Milo’s eagerness to attend school and make new friends, and she finds herself drawn into a larger circle of acquaintances.
In her new neighbor, Margaret sees both a potential companion and a mystery to be solved. But Jennifer refuses to talk about herself, her son, his absent father, or her past. Frustrated, Margaret crosses more and more boundaries in pursuit of the truth, threatening to unravel the new life Jennifer has so painstakingly created—and reveals some deeply guarded secrets of her own. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “I am always alone. Sometimes days go by in which the only other people I see are on TV.” (7) How does Margaret Riley feel about living on her own in her remote house in the Tennessee woods? In what ways does being alone equate with loneliness for Margaret? How do the effects of solitude reveal themselves in her character?
2. Why does Margaret feel compelled to snoop on her new neighbor across the pond? What draws her attention to Jennifer? What role does Margaret’s love of mystery fiction play in her treating her new neighbor like a puzzle to be solved?
3. How would you characterize Tommy Carrasco, Jennifer’s former husband, from the details of her recollections? What role does the intensity of their early romantic relationship seem to play in their marriage’s dramatic unraveling and Jennifer’s life choices? Do you think Jennifer is a reliable narrator of Tommy’s life and motivations? How does her version of Tommy compare to Zoe’s?
4. “In what room of my house was I willing to take off my clothes and have a stranger touch me? In no room at all.” (43) Why does Margaret elect, under the pretense of wanting a massage, to make contact with Jennifer? What is the significance for Margaret of meeting Jennifer? Compare both women’s experiences during their initial therapeutic session.
5. How does Jennifer’s relationship with Megan Summerfield, the mother of one of Milo’s preschool classmates, develop over the course of the novel? What roles do Megan’s husband, Sebastian, and her young son, Ben, play in that evolution? To what extent does Jennifer’s relationship with Margaret undergo a similar arc? Compare what Jennifer chooses to conceal and reveal in these relationships.
6. “Still, I think it is Kay she reminds me of.” (62) Given their lack of physical resemblance, why does Margaret repeatedly conflate Jennifer with Marilyn Kay, her beloved wartime friend? How does Margaret’s attachment to Kay factor into her conflicted feelings about exploring her memories with Jennifer? Why does Margaret choose Jennifer to be the chronicler of her memories?
7. In the aftermath of Tommy’s death, Jennifer finds herself incapable of escaping people’s curiosity about the nature of her involvement. To what extent is Jennifer is justified in keeping the facts of Tommy’s death and the true story of what happened from Milo?
8. “It wasn’t just Jennifer’s opinion that Zoe had loved Tommy more. Zoe herself had frequently said that. Even before Tommy died Zoe had treated her like an evil stepmother whose only purpose in the story was to cause misery.” (85) What does Jennifer’s characterization of Zoe reveal about her own feelings toward her older child? How does Zoe’s discovery of Jennifer’s involvement with another man affect their mother-daughter relationship? Discuss Zoe’s agency in the disintegration of her family.
9. How does Milo’s fleeting memory of his real last name—Carrasco—alter the course of Jennifer’s existence on the Mountain? How does Milo’s revelation play in to Margaret’s obsession with digging into the details of her new neighbor’s life? To what extent is Jennifer wise to feel anxious about her true identity coming to light?
10. “When I looked up Jennifer Carrasco
on the Internet and found those articles, I felt a hard-boiled unsurprise. It turns out I am a detective after all.” (221) Why does Margaret succumb to the impulse to search Jennifer’s home? To call Zoe? Where do those impulses come from? How does Margaret feel about having succumbed?
11. Why does Zoe’s unexpected arrival at her house lead Jennifer to make her confession to Margaret? To what extent is Jennifer’s confession true or false? To what extent is Margaret’s claim: “I did not mean to do them harm,” completely credible? Margaret says, “I am not sorry.” What do you think she means? Do you believe her?
12. Kay and Tommy are ghosts that flit in and out of Margaret’s and Jennifer’s anguished memories and hearts. What else do these ghosts have in common, and why might this coincidence play a part in Margaret’s attachment to Jennifer? Enhance Your Book Club
1. In The New Neighbor,
Jennifer asks herself of her former husband, Tommy, “Who would she have been without him? She has wondered this, now, for ten years or more, and she thought when she came up here she’d finally find out.” (68) Have the members of your book group think about the people who have made them who they are. They may want to write down the names of those who have influenced them most. Members of your group may want to share and examine the identities and roles of these formational figures in one another’s lives.
2. Over the course of their relationship,
Jennifer gives her neighbor, Margaret, weekly therapeutic massages and helps her by transcribing her experiences as a field-hospital nurse in World War II. Have members of your group talk about the importance of neighbors in their lives. They may want to consider the types of neighborly (and not-so-neighborly) behavior that Margaret and Jennifer exhibit toward one another by way of comparison. Which of their own neighbors are they curious about?
3. Both Jennifer and Margaret seek out the Mountain as a refuge from the outside world. In Jennifer’s case, the seclusion enables her to escape from her tragic past. Why has Margaret chosen isolation? How do they each feel about that choice? Ask members of your group to reflect on the places where they feel most truly themselves. How do they experience their lives in places of isolation compared to their time in the company of others? If members of your group had to imagine going “off the grid” like Jennifer, and assuming a false identity, where would they go, and how would they transform themselves? A Conversation with Leah Stewart What drew you to rural Tennessee for the setting of The New Neighbor? Please discuss your experience and association with this region.
I have family associations with the area: my father’s mother was from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, about an hour from Sewanee, and she and my grandfather lived after retirement in Clifftops, a community between Monteagle and Sewanee. Also, after I graduated from Vanderbilt, I started working for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which I did for two weeks every summer for ten years. Some of those summers I worked for the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference as well, and one school year I lived there as a visiting writer. Now I go back to see friends and to work at Rivendell, the writers’ colony there. All this to say I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the place.
But more significantly, it’s the kind of place to which it’s easy to become profoundly attached. It’s beautiful—rushing water, huge boulders covered with deep green moss—and it has a very particular appeal that’s related to its isolation. It feels like a secret place, a feeling that’s augmented by the solitude of walking alone in the woods. When you leave the towns at the bottom of the Mountain, even when you leave Monteagle for Sewanee, many of the markers of contemporary civilization recede and you feel like you’ve crossed into an enchanted land. And because it looks so much the same, year to year, it has an out-of-time feeling. If I were a different kind of writer, I would have set a fantasy novel there. It’s easy to imagine fairies hiding in the trees. The mystery genre crops up throughout The New Neighbor, and the novel itself unfolds like a double mystery. What attractions does this genre hold for you as both an author and a reader?
In Aspects of the Novel
, E. M. Forster says that mystery demands intelligence and memory on the part of the reader—“part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on.” I’ve thought about this a great deal in teaching, and then applied some of those thoughts to my writing, and part of what I take from Forster is that a story always engages the mind more thoroughly when it contains mystery, no matter what its genre. When I taught a class on writing with mystery, I included Raymond Chandler, but also, for instance, a short story by Danielle Evans called “Robert E. Lee Is Dead.” No one would call that a mystery, but what I wanted the students to see was how it was driven by the mystery of character—what makes people who they are, what makes them do what they do.
When you’re compelled by a work of fiction, it’s activated your curiosity, and mystery does that: it makes you wonder, it makes you want to know, it makes you try to solve the problem yourself. I enjoy a well-plotted whodunit, but I’m much more likely to be moved by it, to continue to turn it over in my mind long after I’ve read (or watched) it, if the mystery at the heart of it can’t actually be solved by identification of the murderer. The pleasure I take in Sherlock Holmes stories is real, but not as intense as the pleasure I take in the British TV show, which highlights the mystery of personality as much as—really, more than—the puzzle to be solved.
I like immersive fiction that engages both emotionally and intellectually and that asks profound, unanswerable questions about human nature and causality. So, in the mystery genre, I love Tana French. And I love Margaret Atwood, who isn’t classified as a mystery writer but uses mystery brilliantly. Her Alias, Grace
is a big influence on this book. My favorite literary writers often make great use of mystery—Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, who makes you wonder about his characters’ worlds and histories as a way of investigating questions of memory and self-delusion and human connection or the lack thereof. Mystery is a way of making the reader interested in whatever it is you want to explore, so that Dennis Lehane talks about the mystery as a social novel, and you can see that in his work, and Chandler’s famous essay “The Simple Art of Murder” describes his kind of mystery as demonstrating that a noble man (read Marlowe) can resist temptation and uncover “hidden truth” in a corrupt world. Margaret’s character defies many stereotypes of elderly southern women. How much of a challenge was it for you to narrate parts of this novel from the perspective of an unconventional nonagenarian?
There were many challenges to this novel, but that wasn’t one of them. In my adult life I’ve spent a great deal of time in the company of elderly female relatives—my husband’s grandmothers, my grandmothers, and my great-aunt. Several of them were and are tough-minded and blunt. My maternal grandmother, who was a WWII nurse who went back to school and earned her PhD at Vanderbilt, and my great-aunt, who is a retired professor of medieval literature at UCLA, are models of accomplishment over the obstacle of gender expectations. Also it’s been my experience (which I think research backs up) that people speak their minds even more as they age. In other words I think that stereotype of the sweet old southern lady is almost entirely a fiction. The “steel magnolia” stereotype perhaps comes closer to the truth, at least among the people I know.
So Margaret came very easily. Margaret was actually a great deal of fun, because she says what she thinks, which is a luxury in which most of us don’t indulge. I had far more trouble with Jennifer, who has more in common with me superficially—age, time spent living in Clovis, New Mexico, a young son. But Jennifer is a guarded and careful person, and I’m not, so sometimes I struggled to know what she would and wouldn’t say. When my husband line-edited the book for me, part of what he did was cut places where I’d had Jennifer say too much. Jennifer’s close bond with Milo and her deeply fractured relationship with her daughter, Zoe, are compelling on many levels. What major and minor themes of motherhood do you feel this book interrogates or explores?
I didn’t really think about this book being about motherhood, though of course you’re right that it’s very much a part of the Jennifer sections. I wrote a previous novel, Husband and Wife
, in which I was very aware of exploring the joys and frustrations of motherhood. In writing this one I was more focused on the question of how we cope with our own histories—in particular those moments we can hardly stand to remember, when the worst happened or we were at our worst—and also on the ways in which love shapes us, for good and ill.
When I started the Jennifer sections, I was thinking in part about those heartbreaking, irresistible, messed-up boys of TV and film (say, Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights
) and what it might be like to be married to one of them twenty years after high school. So Jennifer’s relationships with her children developed from my exploration of her relationship with Tommy. The questions about motherhood that emerged have to do with how the child becomes a player in the marital relationship, and at what point, in a problematic relationship, the need to protect your children overcomes your love for your husband or perhaps your belief that it’s better for the children to stay with him. Here I was thinking about how, over and over again in narratives, the mother stays with a husband or boyfriend who is terrible for the kids. The book explores, through Zoe and Jennifer, how the actual personalities of child and parent might affect their relationship, beyond any idealized notions of what that relationship should be. And through Milo and Jennifer, I’m looking at the profound, joyful simplicity of the love that can exist between a parent and a small child, and the melancholy of knowing that it will grow complicated, and also, of course, the desire to forestall that.
Via Margaret, I’m looking at how norms and expectations of the parent-child bond have changed through the years. Margaret, like many older people I know, is baffled by contemporary parenting. At any point in your depiction of the connection between Margaret and Jennifer were you tempted to turn the tables, so to speak, and have Jennifer trespass into Margaret’s life?
I don’t remember considering that. In fact, in an earlier draft, Margaret kept trying and failing to attract Jennifer’s interest, and the WWII stories were narrated by Margaret in her journal, as she imagined she’d tell them to Jennifer, rather than out loud to Jennifer. My editor, Sally Kim, made the excellent suggestion that I have Margaret actually tell Jennifer the stories. Once I rewrote toward that, I found it natural to make Jennifer more curious about Margaret, and more affected by the stories she tells, than she had been in an earlier draft, which I think is a significant improvement to the book (and an example of what good editing can do for your work). And here’s a place where you can see the influence of Alias, Grace
, in which someone listening to someone else’s oral history is changed and marked by the stories he hears. Sometimes I want to make a certain move in my fiction, but I lack confidence about it, and seeing another writer successfully execute that move convinces me that I might be able to as well. Examples of substance abuse in this book crop up in the life stories of Tommy Carrasco, Megan Summerfield, and Marilyn Kay. In all three instances, you blur the lines between individual dependency and external motivation. Are these sorts of ambiguities and morally ambiguous situations the ones you find yourself drawn to as a writer?
Absolutely. I’m endlessly interested in complication, specifically the complications of psychology, and this interest leads inevitably to the ambiguous. I’d probably never write about a character who was purely good or bad or made purely good or bad choices. So, for sustaining my own investment in my work, I don’t worry about whether a character is likable but about whether they’re interesting—often what makes them interesting to me is the way they’re in conflict with themselves. My work asserts over and over that multiple, contradictory things about a person can be simultaneously true. Jennifer has a tormented love for Tommy and feels uniquely responsible for his death, but Tommy committed suicide. When Jennifer confesses to Margaret that she killed Tommy, do you think she means it?
Yes. This is, to her, the unbearable truth, the thing she works hardest not to acknowledge—her own deep conviction that what happened to Tommy was her fault. She certainly knows that she didn’t actually
kill him. One reason she tries to harden herself against memories of Tommy and against Zoe, who is a walking accusation, is because that helps her focus on the literal fact: Tommy was an alcoholic who cheated on her and couldn’t be trusted with their small child; Zoe was wrong and Zoe betrayed her; and Tommy committed suicide. She needs to focus on that knowledge in order to function and so make a good life for Milo. But what it’s concealing is overwhelming guilt and grief and loneliness. Both Margaret and Jennifer are haunted by their pasts, by what could have been, and by the people who impacted them most profoundly. Which of these characters did you find yourself most drawn to, and why?
I’m fascinated by the mix of charisma and danger in Tommy, and by the joyful life force and determined toughness of Kay, and the sorrow of their diminishment. I suppose the character besides Margaret and Jennifer who came to interest me most was Zoe. Originally, though she herself still showed up in Tennessee, her point of view didn’t enter the book. Adding her point of view was another excellent idea my editor had. Because I’d already written multiple drafts looking at Zoe from only Jennifer’s perspective, I really enjoyed complicating her character, as well as Tommy’s and Jennifer’s, by entering her mind. Once I wrote Zoe’s point of view, I understood that Tommy actually was a wonderful father as well as a terrible one. (Contradictory things can be simultaneously true!) Writing the scene when Zoe finds Tommy dead, I understood the emotions that led her to accuse Jennifer of his murder in a visceral rather than intellectual way, and that was enormously satisfying, getting to know my own creation better.