This reading group guide for When She Was Gone includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.
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When seventeen-year-old Linsey Hart goes missing just days before her scheduled departure for college, a typically quiet New Jersey neighborhood is left peeking out windows and into backyards for clues. There’s Linsey’s mother, Abigail, whose door-to-door searching makes her social outcast status painfully obvious; stay-at-home mom Reeva, whose primary concern is covering up the affair she’s been having with the Starbucks barista; Mr. Leonard, a reclusive retired piano teacher—and the last person to see Linsey alive; George, an eleven-year-old gifted loner who is determined to find out what happened to Linsey; and Timmy, Linsey’s ex-boyfriend, who is left grieving as he embarks on his own college career.
With a sly humor and ultimate optimism, the stories of this small town converge in unexpected ways, painting a complex and illuminating portrait of a community moved by grief, devoured by suspicion, and consumed by secrecy. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The neighborhood in the novel is one built on secrets; every character seems to have a secret to hide. How do the secrets the characters hold influence their relationships with others?
2. Through her memories, we learn that the loss of their two-week-old son is what drives Abigail into depression and her and Joe apart. Though her interactions with Joe are limited, what information do you gather about him?
3. Prior to her disappearance, how is Linsey viewed by those around her: Her mom? Her brothers? Reeva? Timmy? Which of these people do you think Linsey would feel viewed her in the way she wanted to be viewed?
4. Reeva and Jordan’s affair is a source of excitement and guilt for Reeva. What first attracts her to Jordan, despite his disheveled appearance and home? How does her revelation about Jordan’s age cause her to see their tryst in a new light?
5. On pages 77–78, we get a glimpse of the Group, Reeva’s gaggle of housewives who come together to discuss playdates and car pool logistics—or, really, to trade gossip and make passive-aggressive comments about one another. How would you describe the women in the group? Why do you think Reeva invites them into her home; why do you think she cares so much what they think?
6. What did you learn about Charlie and Reeva on the day Charlie stays home from work (pg. 205–207)? What do Reeva’s internal thoughts about Charlie reveal about their relationship and about herself?
7. Compare and contrast Toby’s and Cody’s reactions to Linsey’s disappearance. Do you think one of them deals with his feelings better than the other?
8. “In this town, people were very small about difference, about seeking otherness” (pg. 67). In this passage, Timmy reflects on how Geo is treated by the neighborhood as compared to how he might be treated in a larger-minded, more accepting place. Are there characters in the novel other than Geo who you feel are mistreated by the community because of their “otherness”?
9. On page 50, Geo references “Mending Wall,” a poem by Robert Frost, as he considers the two fences between his property and the Steins’. Read the poem, found at http://www.bartleby.com/104/64.html, and consider its meaning. Do you see any connection between Frost’s poem and the neighborhood in the novel? Is there a particular line that resonates with you, or that you feel reflects a particular character?
10. Abigail and Timmy avoid each other for days after Linsey’s disappearance. Why do you think that is; what do you think they were feeling that kept them from confronting each other? Guilt? Fear? A different emotion? Ultimately, what leads Timmy to finally walk up to Abigail’s doorstep and talk with her?
11. When Abigail is finally reunited with her lost daughter, Linsey is described as “waiting for her mother the way she’d waited after kindergarten, holding herself together, waiting to be collected” (pg. 266). As Abigail rushes to “collect” her, what emotions do you think she is feeling? How do you suspect Linsey has changed from the beginning of her journey? How has Abigail changed?
12. Jordan and Mr. Leonard’s unlikely friendship is based on their mutual love of music. Mr. Leonard offers Jordan his musical mentorship; what does Jordan offer him in return? How do the themes of music—listening and making—weigh in the novel?
13. The novel both opens and closes with Mr. Leonard— opening on a chapter from his perspective, and closing at his memorial service. Why do you think the author chose Mr. Leonard as the character holding the novel together in this way?
14. Throughout the novel, a narrator offers readers a detailed glimpse into each of the characters’ houses. What do you think their homes say about them? Was there a particular home that you felt reflected the character who lived within it the most? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Geo’s photographs of those around him gives him a view of the neighborhood others do not have; through photography and collage-making, he can decipher the “sameness and difference” others miss (pg. 45). Try to see things from Geo’s point of view: Before your book club discussion, ask each member to carry a camera with them for a day, taking pictures of the everyday places and people they might usually overlook. Then, at your discussion, consider the photographs: What do you see? Does anything in the pictures surprise you?
2. As Reeva prepares her home for the Group to arrive, she recalls Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper
, the tale of a woman who slowly goes mad while she’s locked in an upstairs bedroom by her husband. Find a copy of this short story, either online or in your local bookstore or library, and give it a read. Do you see any common themes in The Yellow Wallpaper
and When She Was Gone
? Does the narrator in the short story share any characteristics with the women narrators in the novel?
3. Two coffee shops are mentioned in the novel: the notorious Starbucks where Jordan works, and the Daily Grind. Do you have a favorite coffee shop in your town? Consider holding your book club discussion there for a change of scenery.
4. Gwendolen Gross is the author of multiple critically acclaimed novels. To learn more about Gwendolen and her books, visit her websites at www.gwendolengross.com and www.whenshewasgone.com or follow her on Twitter @GwendolenGross