Lucky—that’s how Jennifer would describe herself. She had a successful law career, met the love of her life in Doug, married him, had an apartment in New York City, a house in the Hamptons, two beautiful children, and was still madly in love after nearly seven years of marriage. Jennifer was living the kind of idyllic life that clichés are made of.
Until Doug was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, and she became a widow at age thirty-five—a “9/11 widow,” no less, a member of a select group bound by sorrow, of which she wanted no part. Though completely devastated, Jennifer still considered herself blessed. Doug had loved her enough to last her a lifetime, and after his sudden death, she was done with the idea of romantic love—fully resigned to being a widowed single mother . . . until a chance encounter with a gregarious stranger changed everything. Without a clue how to handle this unexpected turn of events, Jennifer faced the question asked by anyone who has ever lost a loved one: Is it really possible to feel joy again, let alone love?
With unvarnished emotion and clear-eyed sardonic humor, Jennifer tells an ordinary woman’s extraordinary tale of unimaginable loss, resilience, friendship, love, and healing—which is also New York City’s narrative in the wake of September 11. Where You Left Me is an unlikely love story, a quintessentially New York story—at once Jennifer’s tribute to the city that gave her everything and proof that second chances are possible.
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This reading group guide forWhere You Left Me 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.
“I feel very lucky,” Jennifer Gardner Trulson told the thousands of mourners at her husband’s funeral. “Most people never get what I had. Doug loved me enough to last a lifetime.” An executive at the international brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald, Doug was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, leaving behind a grieving wife and two young children. But Jennifer’s story of sudden and devastating loss is also one of hope, healing, and the ability to love again after suffering the unthinkable. Where You Left Me is an intensely personal account of the events and aftermath of that tragic day, as well as a poignant testament to the possibility of second chances and the enduring power of love.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Where You Left Me opens with Jennifer stranded at her midtown Manhattan office late at night during a severe snowstorm and Doug coming to her aid. Why do you think she chose to begin her memoir with this anecdote? What does it convey about Doug and his relationship with Jennifer?
Unlike her friend LaChanze, who thought her husband, Calvin, might still be alive after the North Tower collapsed on September 11, Jennifer knew almost instantly that Doug was gone. Why was she so certain of his death? Why did any reference to his being “missing” upset her?
How did Jennifer redefine herself in the wake of Doug’s death—as a friend, a mother, and a romantic partner? How would her loss have been different if Doug had died under ordinary circumstances?
How did Jennifer juggle tending to her children’s emotional needs while dealing with her own grief? Discuss the challenges of trying to be both mother and father to a child who has lost a parent. How did the circumstances in which Doug died affect five-year-old Michael in particular?
Cantor Fitzgerald lost 658 employees on September 11, the greatest toll suffered by a single company that day. How did being a part of the “Cantor family” intensify Jennifer’s loss and also bring comfort? How did the events of September 11 affect Jennifer’s relationship with Allison?
Many people chose to move away from New York City after the terrorist attacks. Why did Jennifer decide to remain in Manhattan and raise her children there? What would you have done if you were in her position? Why did she come to appreciate the anonymity of living in a city after September 11?
On page 67 Jennifer writes, “The smallest gesture could make the biggest difference. For me, it was the red Valentino dinner bag.” What did the handbag represent to her the moment she saw it? Why did she hold onto it for so many years despite hardly ever using it?
Discuss Jennifer’s account of her interview with Connie Chung on page 70. Why did Jennifer agree to the interview despite her desire to stay out of the media spotlight? Why did she regret her decision?
Share your thoughts on how the media reported the events and aftermath of September 11, based on what you remember from that time as well as what Jennifer shares in Where You Left Me. How does her portrayal of Howard Lutnick differ from the way he was depicted by the media?
Discuss the differing reactions and behavior of Jennifer’s family, friends, acquaintances, and the strangers she encountered after September 11—which ranged from strongly supportive to shockingly insensitive. Why did she come to feel like she was wearing a scarlet “W”?
How did Howard and Allison Lutnick, as well as Jennifer’s other friends, react to her dating Derek? Jennifer revealed that while at a child’s birthday party, some of her acquaintances confided in her that they had problems with Michael and Julia being so openly affectionate toward Derek. (pp. 185-186) Were their negative reactions understandable? Why or why not?
Consider Derek’s experience as an outsider coming into an extremely complicated family situation. Discuss how he balances being respectful and asserting his presence in Jennifer’s life as he integrates himself into Jennifer’s family and immediate circle of friends. How would you have handled such a difficult and emotionally-charged situation had you been in his shoes?
“[Derek] was going to be the ‘sorbet’ between courses—a sweet bridge to carry me to my newly unattached life,” writes Jennifer. (p. 179) When does she start to see her relationship with Derek as something more than temporary?
On the surface it appears that Jennifer and Derek have more differences than they do similarities. What draws them to one another? How do they handle things like religious and cultural differences?
How does Jennifer ultimately reconcile her feelings for Derek with her love for Doug and her need to keep his memory alive? What makes her relationship with Derek work, including his connection with her children?
In what ways did Where You Left Me provide new insights into the events of September 11? What aspects of Jennifer’s story did you find to be particularly memorable, surprising, or inspiring?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
Explore the website www.national911memorial.com, which includes a timeline of the events of September 11; recollections from survivors, rescue workers, and family members of those who died, shared as part of the StoryCorps project; and items to be displayed in the Memorial Museum.
Visit the Cantor Fitzgerald online memorial to its employees at www.cantorfamilies.com. To learn more about the Douglas B. Gardner Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping at-risk children in New York City, go to www.dbgfoundation.org.
Derek hid Jennifer’s engagement ring in Julia’s bag of Halloween goodies. Add a sweet touch to your gathering by having each member bring her favorite candy to share with the group.
Jennifer Gardner Trulson is the founder of the Douglas B. Gardner Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping at-risk children in New York. She graduated from TuftsUniversity and received a J.D. from Harvard. She lives with her husband and two children in Manhattan.
“With grim humor and sharp observations, Where You Left Me provides trenchant insights into one woman’s resilience.” —Kirkus Reviews
"In this hard-hitting memoir, a wife and mother stricken by tragedy after losing her husband at the World Trade Center gradually regains her ability to love. A former lawyer married to Douglas Gardner, a financial broker, and living with their two small children on Central Park West in Manhattan, Trulson was shuttling her five-year-old son to his first day of school on the morning of September 11. Her husband was already in his office at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the North Tower, where he died in the attacks. (His voice was identified on a 911 tape later sent to Trulson by the mayor’s office, but she never listened to it.) The brokerage firm lost 658 employees that day, the hardest hit of any single company. The closest friends who supported Trulson in her grief were her husband’s professional colleagues, who dedicated a sports center at Douglas’s alma mater, Haverford College. Trulson’s period of “bottomless fury and despair” was exacerbated by the ensuing media circus as she made the rounds of memorial speeches. Ten months later, Trulson became involved with another man, which jars the reader, but, in the end, her narrative achieves a balance between grief and life-affirming determination." —Publishers Weekly
"Decades from now, when people want to know how life went on after the September 11th attacks, I hope they'll turn to this deeply moving, bluntly honest, elegantly written memoir. In Jennifer Gardner Trulson's grief, and in her account of the love that followed, all of us can see the possibilities in our own lives." —Jeffrey Zaslow, coauthor, The Last Lecture