Skip to Main Content

Waiting to Surface

A Novel

About The Book

Based on the author’s own experiences a “heartrending” (People) and haunting story about a magazine editor and mother whose life is changed by a phone call revealing that her husband has vanished without a trace.

On a steamy August morning, Sarah Larkin drops her six-year-old daughter, Eliza, off at camp and heads to her office, where she works as an editor of a women’s magazine. She is sitting at her desk testing a $450 face cream when the phone rings.

Detective Ronald Brook tells Sarah that her husband has vanished. A keening sound escapes from Sarah’s throat as the detective lays out the few facts he knows.

A noted sculptor, Todd Larkin went swimming at midnight off the coast of Florida and hasn’t returned. He was staying with a woman. He was drinking. He left behind his keys, wallet, cell phone, and his return airline ticket. They also found two drawings and pieces of a sculpture. But there is no trace of him or his body. The coast guard has been scouring the shoreline, but no one has seen a thing.

Has Todd run off to start a new life or is he dead? Could it have been an accident, suicide, or homicide? As Sarah grapples with the mystery of his disappearance, she is forced to confront the hopes and disappointments of her marriage. And through it all, she must also help her young daughter deal with the crisis while meeting the demands of the high-powered magazine world.

“A gripping story” (Parade) about coming to terms with loss, learning to live in a world without answers, and discovering the ability to treasure love once again, Waiting to Surface is a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

Reading Group Guide


A senior editor at a top women's magazine, Sarah Larkin's life is turned upside down when one August morning the police call to tell her that her husband of ten years has vanished. A noted sculptor, Todd Larkin went swimming at midnight off the coast of Florida and was not seen again. Sarah is sent spinning into a world of uncertainty, hope, and fear. At first, it seems inconceivable that the police will not find him, dead or alive. She wonders what to tell her six-year-old daughter, Eliza. Theories abound: Was it accidental? Did he leave to start a new life someplace else? Was it suicide? Foul play? Sarah, with the help of the police, coast guard, and a private eye, tries to discover what happened.

Set in the high-powered world of magazines, the novel is filled with details that only a true insider with access at a senior level could know. Sarah moves through that competitive, often outlandish landscape, trying to balance its demands with motherhood as she struggles with the mystery of her husband's disappearance.

In the end, Waiting to Surface is the story of coming to terms with loss, learning to live in a world without answers, and trying to treasure love once more.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Although the story is based on real-life events, the author writes the book in the third person. Why do you think she chose to do this? What does this voice allow her to do as a storyteller?

2. Discuss how the author uses pacing throughout the story. When does she speed up her narrative and when does she slow down? What effect does this have on the plot and character development?

3. Shock, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, acceptance, and hope make up what many psychiatrists call the stages of grief. Discuss if and how Sarah goes through these stages. Which lasts the longest? How do the circumstances of her loss affect her expression of grief?

4. The author writes, "People offer up fragments of themselves to friends, spouses, lovers, leaving each person to create the remaining whole according to what they have in hand" (p. 37). Do you think this is true? Discuss the different pieces of Todd that Sarah discovers throughout the book. What can we piece together about Sarah?

5. At one point Sarah remembers an argument she once had with Todd (p. 48). "'This is who I am,' he lashed out. 'You knew that when you married me.' 'Things change,' Sarah said. 'We have a child.'" Is one of them right and one of them wrong? Talk about Sarah's and Todd's individual propensity toward change and how it affects them, as both people and parents, and their relationship.

6. Harry DeVeres, a friend of Todd, calls Sarah and talks about how he tried to help Todd with his alcoholism (p. 107). How does Todd's death connect, reconnect, or disconnect the many people who are in his life? What is the most important connection that Sarah makes through Todd's death?

7. The author scatters many of Sarah's memories of Todd throughout the story, some good and some bad. Is there any pattern to the memories?

8. On page 124 a body washes to shore at Lake Kissemmee, forty miles north of Loudon Beach. What is Sarah's reaction? How might the book have been different if the body had indeed been Todd's?

9. Discuss Eliza's character. Does she go through the same stages of grief as her mother? How do her moods change as the story progresses? Is Dr. Gerard effective in helping her deal with the stress of losing her father?

10. Sarah is a senior editor for a prominent woman's magazine. How does the shock of Todd's disappearance affect her professionally? Is work a solace for her or something that causes her more anguish and grief?

11. Discuss the politics at Sarah's office. How do they affect her developing career and how she copes with Todd's disappearance?

12. The police and coast guard both play integral roles in the investigation. Which policeman is more trustworthy, Karl Medford or Detective Brook? As a reader, does how you view each of them change as the story progresses?

13. "He drowned," Sarah says to a group of other mothers at school (p. 171). Is this the moment when Sarah first publicly acknowledges that Todd has truly died? When is the moment when she privately realizes that Todd is, for certain, not coming back?

14. "Sarah was allowed to kiss Eliza again, and slowly she began to respond, not always, not fully, but often enough to offer hope" (p. 224). Discuss the concept of love and the concept of anger as they appear in the book. Do they ever intersect? Did Eliza's young concept of love or of anger change?

15. What are the defining characteristics of Todd and of Tim? How are they alike? How are they different? Who is a better fit for Sarah? Why?

16. Waiting To Surface provides readers with a character who suffers extreme emotional turmoil over the course of the book. How does Sarah change from the beginning of the story to the end? Or doesn't she?

Enhance Your Reading Group
1. Visit the Museum of Modern Art ( or a Chelsea art gallery ( to see sculpture like that Todd might have made, or go to to find a listing of websites for museums nationwide.

2. To visit or learn more about the Florida coastline, visit

3. The National Center for Missing Adults (NCMA) is a division of Nation's Missing Children Organization, Inc. (NMCO), a nonprofit organization working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs. Information about the agency can be found online at

About The Author

Photo Credit: Ted Chin

Emily Listfield is the former editor in chief of Fitness magazine and author of seven novels, including the New York Times Notable It Was Gonna Be Like Paris and Waiting to Surface. Her writing has appeared everywhere from the New York Times Styles section to Harper’s Bazaar. She is currently Chief Content Officer of Kaplow PR, where she helps brands like Skype, Shiseido, and Laura Mercier refine their voice, storytelling, and strategy. She lives in New York City with her daughter. Visit her website at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (August 5, 2008)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416537854

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

"Based on events from her own life, Waiting to Surface is a gripping story that begins when a husband vanishes mysteriously."
-- Parade

-- People

"In this compulsively readable novel, Listfield creates a compelling portrait of grief and resilience. This is a story that will stay with you." -- Lisa Tucker, author of Once Upon a Day and The Song Reader

"Emily Listfield has written a suspenseful and poignant novel that beautifully captures the complexity of a marriage and the troubling uncertainties of life. Waiting to Surface haunted me long after I read its last page." -- Leslie Schnur, author of Late Night Talking and The Dog Walker

"Heartbreaking...In muted prose, Listfield movingly takes us through Sarah's day-to-day grief, coupled with her hard-headed determination to figure out what happened to Todd. She juggles her sense of loss, her job and raising a daughter who blames her for her missing dad with the antics of her younger colleagues and her own investigation into her husband's fate."

-- USA Today

"Listfield spins a tale of supreme loss into one of gutsy, grace-filled redemption."

-- Elle

"A well thought out story about wife-husband relationships, mother-daughter relationships...and perhaps most of all -- living with uncertainty."

-- St. Petersburg Times

"Listfield deftly balances multiple plots."

-- Booklist

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Emily Listfield