This readers group guide for The Night Olivia Fell includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Christina McDonald. 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 small hours of the morning, Abi Knight is startled awake by the phone call no mother ever wants to get: her teenage daughter, Olivia, has fallen off a bridge. Not only is Olivia brain-dead, she’s pregnant and must remain on life support to keep her baby alive. And then Abi sees the angry bruises circling Olivia’s wrists.
When the police unexpectedly rule Olivia’s fall an accident, Abi decides to find out what really happened that night. Heartbroken and grieving, she unravels the threads of her daughter’s life. Was Olivia’s fall an accident? Or something far more sinister?
Christina McDonald weaves a suspenseful and heartwrenching tale of hidden relationships, devastating lies, and the power of a mother’s love. With flashbacks of Olivia’s own resolve to uncover family secrets, this taut and emotional novel asks: How well do you know your children? And how well do they know you? Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Consider the novel’s structure of Abi’s and Olivia’s alternating viewpoints and time periods. How do you think the reading experience might have been different if the story had been told chronologically? What about if it had been told by either one narrator or from a third-person point of view?
2. Compare and contrast Abi’s and Olivia’s perceptions of each other from what we learn about each woman through their own words in their designated chapters. Discuss the discrepancies between who they are and who the other person thinks they are.
3. It’s clear that Abi and Olivia love each other deeply, but as with any mother-daughter relationship, they sometimes misunderstand each other. Are there any moments in the novel in which you feel they could have communicated better? Do any of these scenes remind you of moments in your own life with your mother or daughter? If you feel comfortable doing so, consider sharing them with your book club.
4. “Mom told me I should stand up to her. Tyler said I always saw the best in people. The truth was, neither of them was right. I was just scared of not being liked” (p. 12). Discuss this statement of Olivia’s and compare it to Abi’s statement of “I was really more of an observer than a participator. I was better at standing on the sidelines” (p. 43). While Olivia may seem more social on the outside, how do both women isolate themselves from others?
5. When Anthony tells Abi that he’s “just grateful I have [my mother] at all,” Abi thinks, “It was a funny answer, so different from how I would look at it. But he was right” (p. 113). What else does Abi learn from Anthony about coping with grief?
6. Sarah tells Olivia about an experiment from her college psychology class where the teacher asked the class if they would prefer happiness or truth. Sarah’s class chose happiness, but Olivia says she would choose truth, and claims that it brings happiness in itself. Consider these two statements. Do you think truth and happiness are mutually exclusive? Which would you choose?
7. “I was scared. Of rejection. Of loss. Of hurt. Of being anything other than Olivia’s mom” (p. 143). Why do you think Abi uses being a mother—the most vulnerable occupation of all—as a crutch to protect herself from the world?
8. When Kendall pretends she doesn’t know Olivia, Olivia is deeply hurt, and says that “the rejection was like acid in my stomach. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong” (p. 153). Compare Olivia’s feelings of rejection from Kendall, her half-sister, to Abi’s feelings of rejection from Gavin, Olivia’s father, years ago.
9. “Being a mother wasn’t something you just ‘handled’ . . . her death didn’t have anything to do with me at all” (p. 189). How do you think reading her mother’s suicide note and learning more about her mother’s death helped Abi cope with losing Olivia?
10. Mother-daughter relationships form the core of The Night Olivia Fell.
Compare and contrast the relationships between Abi and Olivia, Abi and her mother, Olivia and her baby, as well as the relationship between Abi and Sarah, who plays a maternal role in Abi’s life, the relationship between Madison and Jen, and any others you can think of!
11. When Kendall and Olivia spend time together, Olivia eventually realizes she’s fond of her. “It was cool that she might be my sister. I’d always wanted siblings” (p. 171). Compare Kendall and Olivia’s relationship as half-sisters to Abi’s relationship with Sarah.
12. “If my mom had gotten an abortion, I wouldn’t even be alive, so I couldn’t do that to this baby”(p. 276). Compare Olivia’s reaction to her pregnancy to Abi’s reaction to her pregnancy with Olivia years before.
13. Olivia says, “My mom taught me that: Look to the future and you won’t stumble on the present . . . I knew now why she was like that, and maybe it wasn’t something you could unlearn, but I didn’t want to be like that” (p. 291). Discuss the merits of living in the present versus planning with the future with your book club. Is there a way to balance both in our lives?
14. Author Christina McDonald keeps us guessing throughout the novel on who was ultimately to blame for Olivia’s tragic death. When the guilty party is revealed, was it the person you suspected? Why or why not? If not, who else did you suspect, and why?
15. Throughout the novel in the present day, Olivia is kept on life support so she can carry her unborn child to term. Is it morally or ethically right to keep a woman, let alone a teenager, on life support to keep a baby alive? Respectfully discuss your views with your book club.
16. “I let myself stand on that cliff and peer over the edge into the future, at the happiness that I could have one day if I would only allow it” (p. 129). Do you think Abi finally allows happiness to come to her at the end of the novel? How else does she grow as a character at the end of the novel?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Consider reading other novels centering around domestic suspense and mothers and daughters with your book club, such as Reconstructing Amelia
by Kimberly McCreight or What Was Mine
by Helen Klein Ross. Compare their similarities and differences with The Night Olivia Fell.
2. The lush landscape of the Pacific Northwest is featured prominently in The Night Olivia Fell
. To better understand the novel’s setting, do some Internet research on some of the locales the novel mentions, such as Puget Sound, the University of Washington, and Mercer Island—or, if you live in the area, consider a field trip!
3. At one point in the novel, Derek claims that he didn’t tell the police he was the baby’s father because “I’ve seen CSI
. . . they’d think I was the one who hurt Olivia or something” (p. 241). Consider watching an episode of a crime TV show like CSI
with your book club, and discussing how television influences our views of criminal investigations. Compare them to the novel’s treatment of crime—what similarities or differences do you notice? Is one more believable than the other? Why do you think so?
4. Visit the author’s website at www.christina-mcdonald.com
to learn more about her. Research some of her journalism for outlets such as The Sunday Times
(Dublin), the Galway Independent
, or the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. A Conversation with Christina McDonald What inspired you to write The Night Olivia Fell? How did you visualize the cast of rich and varied characters and their emotions?
Back in 2013 I was rocking my new baby to sleep while reading the news on my phone. I came across a story about a teenager in California, Jahi McMath, who had been declared brain-dead after a routine tonsillectomy went wrong. My first thought was for the girl’s mother and how utterly heartbreaking it would be to lose your child. I think this is every mother’s biggest fear – it’s certainly mine!
After reading that story, I looked down at my new baby and imagined myself in Jahi’s mom’s position, and I started asking myself, “What if?” What if her daughter was pregnant? Would that be a comfort or a curse? What if she’d suffered her own tragedies in her past? What if she were a single parent? What if she thought her daughter had been murdered, but nobody believed her? And thus was born The Night Olivia Fell
.How does your experience as a journalist and copywriter inform your fiction writing? Do you find any connections between writing news and writing thrillers?
I started as a journalist, so obviously I’ve seen some crazy stories. I think a lot of these stories cemented in my head and they’ve given me a great launching point. But to write a novel you have to connect with your characters and the journey they go through. I learned that in copywriting. As a digital copywriter I had to guide a reader through different steps to get to the resolution I wanted them to reach, much the way an author has to when writing a book.
Being a copywriter and journalist gave me a huge appreciation for emotion, mostly because you have to take it all out when writing a piece. I like feeling things; I like the emotion I feel when I read, so this is the aspect where I feel most free when writing a book. Using sensory words that are vivid and evoke a taste or a smell—those things get lost a little in news (less so for copywriting), but I love words and how rich and varied they are.You were born in the Seattle area, where the novel takes place, and you render the area’s atmosphere so vividly throughout the novel. Can you talk about why you chose Seattle as the book’s setting?
I chose Seattle and the Puget Sound area literally because I was born there and have such a great history of experiences there. It was an easy place to use as a setting because it is so beautiful and varied. And I figure if you know it, write it. So I did!Besides Seattle, you’ve also lived in Ireland and London. Can you talk a bit about how each place informed your worldview, and subsequently, your writing?
I think each place I’ve lived has given me a rich perspective in seeing how people live, gathering more details about location, and meeting a variety of wonderful people. I’ve seen so many different people living different lives and having different experiences than what I would’ve done just by living in one place.
It’s (I hope!) also made me far more open-minded, so I can now see that the way one person does things, or the way one country does things, may be different from another, but they’re simply doing what’s right for them in their particular set of circumstances. This ability to see both sides of the same coin has helped me create better characters, I think, who are more like real people: a mix of good and bad, right and wrong.On your website, you say that choosing to go to graduate school in Ireland “wasn’t part of the master plan,” but the result of a spontaneous trip. Can you tell that story a bit more in detail? Did you have another plan in mind?
I graduated from the University of Washington in 2001, and there were just no jobs in media or journalism. So I decided to work as a waitress for a year and save up to go traveling. I bought a ticket to London and headed off on my grand adventure, vaguely aware I wanted to go to Europe, but with no hard plans, accommodations, or bookings. Now I wonder what I was thinking, but then I guess I just wanted to be open to do whatever came up.
So I landed at London’s Heathrow very early in the morning and was completely disoriented and jet lagged. I gathered my backpack and stumbled out of baggage claim and the first desk I came across was Aer Lingus. Completely on a whim, I bought a seat on the next flight to Ireland. I spent an absolutely amazing month traveling around Ireland, meeting some of the most incredible people and having the best time of my life.
At some point I ended up in Galway, and one night I was at the King’s Head on Shop Street. Over a pint (Bulmers Cider for me!) a guy told me about a great master’s in journalism program they had at the university in Galway. After I returned to Seattle I promptly applied, got accepted, sold all my stuff, and moved to Ireland, where I met my future husband.
It’s one of those pivotal moments that completely changed the course of my life. I often wonder what would’ve happened to me if I hadn’t seen that Aer Lingus desk!How do you deal with writer’s block? What drives you to keep going when you figuratively “hit a wall” while writing?
I sleep on it! Our minds subconsciously untangle problems when we’re sleeping, so a lot of the time I’ll have figured out the problem in my sleep and it will pop into my conscious thoughts at some point in the day. If this doesn’t work, I talk it out. I tell my husband or my friends what I’m thinking, and usually I’ve sorted it out by the end of my monologue. Hearing things out loud or getting another’s perspective really helps.What are some of your favorite novels or authors? If you had to pick one that you think has inspired you the most, who or what would it be?
One of my favorite authors of all time is Jodi Picoult. Her book My Sister’s Keeper
impacted me so much, in terms of emotion and structure, characters’ POV, and the evocative use of words. Ditto John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars
. I’m not a crier, so if an author can make me cry, I know they’ve done something right. I also really love thrillers by authors like Heather Gudenkauf, Mary Kubica, and Clare Mackintosh.What do you like to do in your spare time other than writing?
I have two young boys, so I don’t have a lot of free time. But when I do I’m a huge bookworm, so I like to read. I also love going to the gym and walking my dog in the park.Are you working on anything now that you’d like to share with us?
I’m working on a new domestic suspense novel set in Whidbey Island and London, in which a woman wakes in the hospital after being struck by lightning and can’t remember if she killed her mother.What do you most want readers to take away from The Night Olivia Fell? What emotion do you hope lingers in their minds when they close the book?
Well, The Night Olivia Fell
is a suspense novel, so I hope I keep readers flipping pages as they’re trying to guess whodunit. But I also hope readers fall in love with Abi and Olivia and the world they inhabit. I want readers to have tears in their eyes and hope in their hearts, and I hope they really feel and understand the whole theme of the novel, which is that a mother’s loyalty to her child is undying, even in the face of death.