This reading group guide for The Passenger includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q & A with author Lisa Lutz. 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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After discovering her husband, Frank, dead at the base of the stairs, Tanya DuBois abruptly flees the town she’s lived in for the past eight years. Worried that the police will catch up with her and discover the dark secrets of her past, Tanya travels from Waterloo, Wisconsin, to Austin, Texas, where she takes on the name Amelia Keen and befriends a barkeep with secrets of her own named Blue. But after a violent brush with death, Amelia realizes that her new name and new city aren’t safe for her either, and Blue helps her assume yet another identity. But as Amelia—now Debra Maze—heads west and embarks upon a new life in Wyoming, she realizes that this adopted persona comes with more baggage than any name she’s taken on up to this point. With one eye looking behind her, Debra settles into life as a small town schoolteacher, but the shadowy events of her past are drawing her home, and she discovers that there’s more than one person out there who knows her secrets and will stop at nothing to uncover the truth.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Did you initially believe Tanya when she states that she had nothing to do with Frank’s death, and that he died simply after a fall down the stairs? How does your perception of Tanya’s innocence or guilt change throughout the course of the novel?
2. Did you find Tanya to be a reliable narrator? At which points in the novel did you trust her account of events, and at which points did you feel she was hiding all or some of the truth?
3. What techniques does the author use to ratchet up the tension and suspense throughout the novel? Discuss specific moments that were unnerving for you as a reader, and how the author kept you on edge. How did the author use humor to lighten the mood periodically?
4. Why does Amelia decide to trust Blue? Do you think that Blue ever trusts Amelia? Would you have trusted Blue if you were in the same position?
5. How much of Blue giving Debra Maze’s identity to Amelia is altruistic, and how much is malicious? Do you believe that Blue’s gift is intended to be a way out or a trap?
6. How do the emails between Ryan and Jo inserted throughout the novel help you to understand their relationship and what happened ten years ago? Why does Jo continue to communicate with Ryan, and why does she seem to trust him?
7. What does each new identity or potential identity represent to Tanya? What does Tanya’s ability to shift identities so easily say about her personality and her motivations, and in what ways does taking on a new identity change her? Discuss in particular the changes Tanya makes to her hair and makeup to make herself alternately more attractive or less attractive, and how these changes make her feel.
8. In Recluse, Wyoming, Debra comes close to making a life for herself as a small-town schoolteacher. What do you think would have happened if Jack Reed hadn’t appeared on her doorstep? Could Debra have ever lived a relatively normal life in Recluse? How do her actions there alter the course of her journey and her self-perception?
9. Violence toward women is a major theme of the novel. What sort of statement is the author making by presenting so many relationships where women have been abused or wronged, and what does it mean for these women to get revenge?
10. Discuss Tanya’s relationships with the men in her life: Frank, Domenic, and Ryan. Is she truly in love with any of them? Who does she reveal herself to, and why? How does Tanya use men and her sexuality to get what she wants?
11. Why does Tanya decide it’s so crucial for her to tell the police about Reginald Lee? Does her attempt to stop Reggie from committing a crime absolve her of any of her own transgressions?
12. Did you feel empathy for Tanya or any of her many alter egos? How did your feelings toward her fluctuate over the course of the novel? Did you ever feel that she went past redemption in your eyes, or did you root for her to succeed?
13. Why does Nora ultimately decide to go home? Were you surprised by what happens when she gets there?
14. What do you think happens to the characters after the novel is over? Do you think Nora will finally find peace?Enhance Your Book Club
1. If you could change your identity (without any criminal implications!), who would you be, and why? What would your name be, and how would you disguise yourself? What would your drink order be?
2. Read The Passenger
alongside another novel with an unreliable narrator—Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn, Luckiest Girl Alive
by Jessica Knoll, or The Girl on the Train
by Paula Hawkins. Compare and contrast the protagonists in those novels with Tanya and share your thoughts on the unreliable narrator as a literary technique.A Conversation with Lisa LutzYou are famous for the Spellman Files novels, your Edgar Award–nominated series of comedic mysteries featuring a family of sleuths. Why did you want to write such a different book at this point in your career? Are the characters in The Passenger ones that you’ve wanted to write about for a long time?
I loved writing the Spellman novels, but I never had any plan to only write in one genre. People read based on their current moods, whims, obsessions. There’s no reason why a writer shouldn’t explore and use different genres. The basic idea of The Passenger
had been on the back burner for probably twenty years. So, yes, definitely a long time. But maybe it needed to simmer that long.What was your writing process like for The Passenger? Did you have the entire book plotted from the start or did it change and take shape as you went along? Was your process any different for this book than it would be for one of your Spellman Files novels?
I tend to start books with a very broad outline, but I always leave room for happy accidents. With The Passenger
there were perhaps too many of those. There were several plot twists that came to me late in the game that required serious revision. But those are the moments when I find writing the most satisfying—those ideas that arise suddenly but seem to fit so perfectly.Did you base Tanya’s story on any real-life accounts of women on the run from the law?
I didn’t. To a certain extent I let “Tanya” have my own limitations—in terms of not knowing where to get new identification and not being particularly savvy or heroic. She’s a smart woman, with relatively ordinary skills, figuring things out on the fly. She does what I think I might have done in a similar situation. However, if I had to run now, I’d have to do things very differently since there’s a whole book out there giving away my survival blueprint.What research did need to you do about fugitives and people trying to disappear while you were working on the novel?
I did a fair amount of research on the subject. The main thing I learned is how hard it is to legitimately change your name and live out in the open as another person. I didn’t want my character to be well-connected to the kind of underground resources that could enable someone do that, so she had to go off the grid, which is mostly about paying cash and staying inconspicuous.Was The Passenger influenced by any books or films?
I was very conscious of the excellent Thomas Perry series featuring Jane Alexander, who guides people who need a new identity. I suppose my book is kind of the flip side of that. But I don’t know that influence
is the right word. I don’t feel like I’m a writer who works under any influence. At least not that kind.Which character in the novel are you most empathetic with, and why?
The main character, of course. The woman with many names or no names, depending on how you look at it. I spent the most time thinking about her and her motivations. I suppose I’m always partial to the main character, no matter what I write.Despite their flaws, lies, and crimes, Tanya and Blue’s relationship and ultimate loyalty to each other was one of my favorite parts of the novel. Where did you come up with the idea for their fascinating friendship? Do you have a friend who would commit a crime for you and help clear your name?
Thank you. I don’t know exactly where Blue came from. I remember hearing her voice in my head and constructing the character around that. Recently a friend suggested that Blue was like Tyler Durden from Fight Club
, only real. I thought that was an interesting comparison.
As for the second question: Hmm . . . I don’t know if I have friends who would commit a crime for me (although I’d like to think a few would at least jaywalk). But I’m fairly certain I have a number of friends who might help cover up one of my
crimes.If you had the opportunity to become someone else, who would you become, and why? Where would you go and what type of story would you imagine for yourself?
Do you really expect me to answer that question? I have to leave something in the tank, just in case. Throughout the novel, there is a strong theme of violence against women, and women avenging the men who have wronged them. Did you initially intend to write a book with such powerful and violent female characters, or is that something that emerged in the writing process?
I would agree that Blue is perhaps unnecessarily violent, although I could also argue that her behavior is justified. I do believe my main character behaves in a manner that is fair under the circumstances. I don’t think I could ever create a primary character without a strong moral center. The worst thing she does is motivated by good intentions.What are you working on next? Do you have plans to write any more standalone novels of psychological suspense?
I actually think I’ll be sticking to standalones for a while. The novel I’m currently working on, Last Moon,
is about two close friends, a man and a woman. It follows them through their college years and then later. There’s a suspicious death in their past and a murder in their present. It’s about loyalty and the limits of trust.