This reading group guide forThe Possibilitiesincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kaui Hart Hemmings. 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.
Three months after her son Cully was killed by an avalanche, the pain is still raw for single mom Sarah St. John. She’s taking small steps to bring herself back to life—going back to work, starting to clean out Cully’s room. But then a young girl shows up on the eve of Cully’s memorial with news that changes everything. In a whirlwind couple of days, Sarah learns there was a lot about her son that she didn’t know, and trying to move forward takes on a whole new meaning. In an authentic voice that is immediately relatable, bestselling author Kaui Hart Hemmings delivers a story about grief, relationships, and dealing with life’s curveballs that will ultimately leave you rejoicing in the possibilities.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. After her son’s death, Sarah is surprised to find out that there was a lot she didn’t know about Cully—from the fact that he was selling marijuana, to a girlfriend he never mentioned, to the close relationship he had with his father, Billy. How much do you think most parents really know about their children’s lives? How well do/did your parents know you? If you have kids, do you even want to know everything about their lives?
2. Suzanne is also going through a period of loss and struggle during her divorce and sometimes makes comments that compare her grief to Sarah’s. Even if the stages of grief are the same and it’s clear Suzanne is just trying to help, do you think it’s fair to try to compare divorce to the death of a child? Does Suzanne deserve some indulgence for the loss she’s going through, or should her divorce take a backseat to Sarah’s grief for now?
3. “Guilt, guilt, guilt. Can’t go a day without it. After Cully died I felt guilty for singing in the car. . . . Guilt came for feeling hungry, for having that sensation. It came from yawning, from putting on makeup, dressing nicely. It came when I felt sexual desire.” (p.50) What do you make of Sarah’s guilt? Does experiencing other emotions and sensations take away from the sadness or grief she must also be feeling?
4. Sarah has seen single parenthood from both sides—she was raised by a single father and then she raised her son as single mother. How do you think her relationship with her father compared to her relationship with Cully? Discuss all the different images of single parenthood depicted throughout the story.
5. What do you think of Lyle’s strategy to take an argument or conflict to a restaurant, to “neutral ground”? (p.150) Is this a good way to keep everyone level-headed? What are your tactics for hashing out family issues?
6. Why do you think the author broke the story into two parts? How does the first part differ from the second? Why do you think she chose that point in the story to end part one and begin a second?
7. Discuss this statement: “You can know people so well and still make discoveries about them as a family, but you’ll never know everything, the mundane day-to-day, the behaviors when the doors are closed. Families are all such elite clubs.” (p.185)
8. Later in the book we learn that Kit had actually canceled her appointment just before they embarked on their trip to CC. Why do you think she made that decision then?
9. On p. 188, Sarah says “‘Sorry. . . . The mother in me,’ and then I’m reminded that I’m not one anymore.” What do you think being a mother means? Do you cease to be a mother once your child is no longer living?
10. On page 264, Sarah realizes that “this life has so many lifetimes, and I’m ready for the next one.” Do you agree with the idea of multiple lifetimes in one life? What are some of the different lifetimes you’ve gone through?
11. Do you agree with Sarah’s advice for Kit? What would you do if you were in Sarah’s shoes?
12. The book ends with “I let her go.” (p.274) Is letting Kit go symbolic of a greater act of letting go? What else does Sarah let go of in the end?
13. The future of these characters is left very open-ended. There are so many possibilities! What do you imagine happens to them? What would you like their ending to be?
A Conversation with Kaui Hart Hemmings
Q. How did the experience of writing The Possibilities compare to that of writing your first novel? How does writing a novel differ from writing short stories?
A. It was such a different experience. My story collection, House of Thieves, prepared me to write The Descendants. I had been ruminating and immersed in characters whose lives, feats, and defeats take place in Hawaii. I was reading Hawaiian history and trying to let research translate into prose. I was seeing how culture, race, economics, and the past inform the present. So there was a lot of pre-production, and then when I sat down and wrote that first sentence in The Descendants, in general it was pretty smooth sailing. The Possibilities—let’s say the pre-production time was much longer. It took me a lot of drafts to find the story and the character who was going to deliver the story. I wrote this novel so many times—one all in the father’s POV (it had a completely different plot), one in Kit’s, one from all of them. In my documents folder I have SARAH ST. JOHN, SARAH ST. JOHN 1, SARAH 2, on and on, and finally SARAH HOLY F(*#@INS!*T!
Q. Both this book and your previous book, The Descendants, are set in the wake of tragedy. What is it about grief and coping that inspires your writing?
A. It brings out the worst in people, it brings out the best in people, and it terrifies me. Imagining these things, this pain. I guess I write about it because it’s small and private, and it’s huge. It’s life. We will all have this—grief, loss, pain—in common. It’s both unimaginable and inevitable.
Q. Did you do any research for this book? If so, what was your process like?
A. I lived in Breckenridge after I graduated from Colorado College, so that planted the seed. I met my husband at that time, too, at a bar called Fajitas, which is no longer there. I worked in a ski shop; he worked in at Steak and Rib as a dishwasher. When I was ready to write the book, I read books about avalanches and rescue, books about the ski resort industry, as well as a book on the founders of ski resorts like Aspen, Breckenridge, and Vail. Then I visited, of course. I found the houses the characters would live in, the places they’d go, trying to envision moving through this town. The Breckenridge Heritage Alliance and the Welcome Center were great resources. I wrote a lot of the novel in Breckenridge. I’d go to Cool River Coffee House to write and during happy hour at Modis. Tourists probably had no idea why someone was working at a happy hour, but during the drafting process I wanted to see how people played in this town, what they dressed like, what they drank, the merriment—and how all this would be so jarring for the St. John family.
Q. Is there one character in the book whom you relate to or sympathize with the most?
A. Perhaps Kit—her thirst for adventure, to shed her upbringing and forage for her own life; her eventual fear and shame, and then her eventual confidence. I share Sarah’s sense of humor, and I sympathize fully with all of them. There isn’t a correct way to grieve or to celebrate the life you have, and I understand the ways they try.
Q. Both this book and The Descendants take place in what many would consider to be vacation destinations. How did you decide to set The Possibilities in Breckenridge? Is there something appealing about showing the more “normal” side of life in an exotic locale?
A. I’m interested in locales. And I happen to live (and have lived) in places that are vacation destinations. It’s a challenge I give myself—to show the crew of a place; the culture and economy. I have no interest in breaking the illusion of paradise. I just like exposing the inner workings and the people with historical ties to a place who live, work, and both adapt to it and change it.
Q. Are any of the hot spots mentioned in The Possibilities real or based on real places (restaurants, bars, hotels)?
A. Yes! The Whale’s Tale, Rasta Pasta, the Gold Pan, Fatty’s, Modis Restaurant (which is fabulous), Steak and Rib (where my husband was once a dishwasher); The Village Hotel and the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs are also real places that are significant in the novel.
Q. What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the writing and publishing processes?
A. My absolute favorite part is the revision process and working with an editor. It’s often the first time I have any feedback on something I’ve written. It’s also when I get to play with the work. I’ve worked, I’ve gotten it on the page, and now I get to sculpt.
Q. Have you ever ordered something from QVC or the Home Shopping Network?
A. I haven’t. I’m not a shopper—I love to throw things out vs. accumulate. That being said, I’d love to see Lyle’s stash.
Q. What’s up next for you? Are you working on a new book?
A. Yes, a young adult book, Juniors, out in Fall 2015.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Have you read Kaui Hart Hemmings’s first novel, The Descendants? Pick up a copy (or rent the movie!) and discuss any similar themes between these two stories.
2. On the way to Cully’s memorial, they pass through what Lyle says is “a bumper sticker town.” (p. 209) Are you a fan of bumper stickers? What kind of slogan would you be most likely to display? Have you seen any funny ones lately, or can you recall any classic bumper stickers from your childhood?
3. Sarah is very particular about words. She hates the word moist. She hates when people call Bloody Marys “bloodies.” On page 102 she says about guy she used to date, “I’d try so hard not to cringe at his overuse of the word grieve. It was like nipple, or vagina. Grieve. I’m grieving. Gave me the creeps.” Are there any words that give you the creeps? Share them with your book club and talk about why they’re so cringe-worthy—is it simply the way they sound? What they mean? Is there a particular connotation that they carry?
Kaui Hart Hemmings has degrees from Colorado College and Sarah Lawrence, and she was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Her first novel, a New York Times bestseller, The Descendants, has been published in twenty-two other countries and is now an Oscar-winning film directed by Alexander Payne and starring George Clooney. She is also the author of a story collection House of Thieves, the novels How to Party with an Infant and The Possibilities, and the YA novel Juniors. She lives in Hawaii.