Behind every face in Who I Was Supposed to Be, Susan Perabo's incandescent, devilishly hilarious debut short story collection, there is something simmering, a singular quirk to explore, a peculiarity to celebrate. In the world of her fiction, nothing can be taken for granted, and there is no such thing as the run of the mill: here, a retired grocer takes up jewel theft in his twilight years; a data processor squanders her inheritance on a gown from Princess Diana's collection; a mugging victim, newly separated from his wife, feigns amnesia to win back her love; a teenage pyromaniac finds release in the company of her mother's jilted second husband. In the tradition of Lorrie Moore, the stories in this collection celebrate the absence of normalcy, the quirkiness of the human condition, the everyday deviance of "ordinary" people. In story after story, Perabo peels back the layers of the banal and the bizarre, revealing a world that is at once stunning and familiar, shocking yet comforting. Through her slightly off-center lens, she provides a fresh and penetrating look at human nature, giving us a glimpse of the extraordinary in the ordinary, the magic in the smallest of gestures. Her resilient characters are a testament to the undying potential for optimism that gives people a fighting chance despite the twisted, sad world around them. Written in sharp, incisive prose -- overlaid with a subtle, mischievous wit -- Who I Was Supposed to Be is an exquisite and unforgettable homage to the human capacity for laughter, love, and wonder.
Reading Group Guide
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There are many ways to explore the complex relationships between fathers and sons, and Susan Perabo tackles them in both "Thick as Thieves" and "Who I Was Supposed to Be." Discuss the parallel stories of the aging actor son and his grocer father in "Thick as Thieves," particularly their experiences as successes and failures in their own lives. How have the roles of father and son been reversed? How does the humorous premise deepen the story? What is the significance of the son slipping a pair of the stolen earrings into his father's jacket?
In "Who I Was Supposed to Be," trace the son's evolution of his opinion of his father, from the story's first line to the last. How does the author depict the son's coming-of-age, considering, for example, that it is the father who gets beat up as a right of passage, and not the son? Look at some of the vivid descriptions of action, scene, and state of mind. Do they enhance the storytelling? Are you satisfied with the story's conclusion? Why?
Discuss how the grieving process is handled in both "The Greater Grace of Carlisle" and "Explaining Death to the Dog." By focusing on the mother's gambling in "The Greater Grace of Carlisle," how does the daughter/narrator reveal her own losses? How important is the developing relationship between the narrator and the horse bettor? Do you agree that "gambling is the optimist's addiction"? Explore how the author uses this description as a framework for mourning.
In "Explaining Death to the Dog," how does the narrator -- who is also the mother of the dead child -- come to terms with the death? Consider the scene where the narrator shows the dead squirrel to the dog and the dog acts as if it's being punished. Is Perabo's premise, in this scene and throughout the story -- explaining death to a dog -- an effective way for us to understand death? Did it help you to better understand it?
Martin, the purported amnesiac in "Reconstruction," figures he can win his wife back by forgetting everything about his life and their life together. Is this a successful contrivance for reflecting the path of a marriage that hasn't been working well? Is Martin's amnesia convincing? Why? Why does Martin panic when he is identifying the muggers? Could it be that he feels he is really being asked to identify his role in his failed marriage?
Discuss Perabo's examination of friendship in "Gravity." Why is Alex, the narrator, sick over the cover-up of Dennis's death, and why is Jessica angry? Is it an accident when Jessica pushes the bully Dennis over the hill? Why? Does the long historical narrative in the middle of the story that begins "Jessica had lived..." help or hinder the story flow? How could the story work without it?
In "The Rocks Over Kyburz," look at the conversations Ray has with his wife, sons, and neighbor. How do Ray's active and opinionated thoughts about each of these people reflect more about Ray than the others? What happens to Ray when he discovers his sons and the neighbor's daughter up on the hill? What do the rocks represent in the story? What do they represent to you?
In "Some Say the World," how does the daughter's "illness" help the mother rationalize her own life? Why is the narrator's name never given? Why do you think the author made her a pyromaniac? Mr. Arnette, the stepfather, plays a pivotal role in the story; discuss his introduction and the evolution of his relationship with the narrator. Explain whether you think this is an uplifting story, and what it means to you.
In "Counting the Ways," what does the dress mean to Katy, who had "a pretty shitty life," according to her husband, Joel? Joel's name appears very late in the story. Why? What do you think the dress represents to Joel? Why does Katy prop the Princess Diana-dressed mannequin on the couch to watch the news of Diana's death? Were you surprised that Katy ditched Joel and the prospective dress buyer at the hotel? Explore the implications of her having done so.
Susan Perabo is the author of the collections of short stories, Who I Was Supposed to Be and Why They Run the Way They Do, and the novels The Broken Places and The Fall of Lisa Bellow. Her fiction has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, and New Stories from the South, and has appeared in numerous magazines, including One Story, Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, and The Sun. She is Writer in Residence and professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and on the faculty of the low-residency MFA Program at Queens University. She holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
"Both sardonic and moving...[Perabo] clearly recalls how to hit home runs." -- Dana Kennedy, The New York Times Book Review
"In this deft collection, Perabo explores the weight of disappointment in our lives and how we try to avoid it by assuming new faces." -- The New Yorker
"There's only one way to read Susan Perabo, and that's breathlessly. Each story in Who I Was Supposed to Be crackles with narrative electricity, and every one made me want to stand and cheer." -- Richard Russo, author of Nobody's Fool and Straight Man
"Cleverly mixes the ordinary and the odd...a stunning collection of short gems, revealing a world both foreign and familiar." -- Cassandra West, Chicago Tribune