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"[A] skillful rendering of a family's reckoning with its painful past... Kiernan proves she's a writer to be reckoned with." Sara Gruen, USA Today bestselling author of Water for Elephants
"The real thing: a rich, compelling, and deeply nuanced story." Jon Clinch, author of FINN
In this touching debut novel by Kristy Kiernan, two estranged sisters are forced to make attempts at repairing their relationship when their mother puts their family home on a small island off the coast of Florida up for sale.
As children, Connie and Estella bonded together amid the luxurious backdrop of their parents' parties, keeping secret their powerful father's possible adultery. But when Estella is discovered to be a math genius and leaves for college at age twelve, the sisters grow far apart. Decades later, while Connie is facing a failing marriage and Estella is hiding the truth about her health, the sisters reunite at their family home on Big Dune Islanda place neither has wanted to return to. It is here where long-buried secrets are revealed, with unsettling consequences.
Kristy Kiernan was born in Tennessee and raised on the beaches of southwest Florida, where she learned to read by watching her mother draw letters in the sand. She lives with her husband and dog on the west coast of Florida. Catching Genius is her first novel.
- Catching Genius opens when Estella and Connie are still girls, just before Estella's "genius" disrupts their lives. How does Estella's mistaken assumption that her "eyecue" could be catching, like an illness, affect her relationship with her sister? Can Estella's estrangement from Connie be seen as a way of protecting Connie? How is genius viewed as a gift in the story? How is genius viewed as a curse?
- When Carson's composing talent is discovered by his music teacher, do you understand Connie's initial reaction? Given her family history and the tension with her genius sister, how else do you think she could have reacted? How does Connie view herself as a musician in relation to her son? What makes Connie come to terms with Carson's talent? How do you believe she will handle his future?
- Mr. Hailey, Carson's music teacher, finds Carson's musical talent a given once he learns that Carson's aunt is a math genius. "Music is math, math is music," he tells Connie (ms 105). And at Estella's dinner party, the recurring debate over math enabling and supporting creativity comes up again. "Math is connected to creativity in all kinds of ways we don't completely understand," Estella tells Connie (ms 136). How do you see the twomusic and mathconnecting? How do they connect through the characters and plot of this story? Are Estella and Connie opposites, or more alike than they would realize?
- Discuss why Connie and Estella's mother decided to keep her family's history a secret from her husband and children. She said she did it for her daughters. Do you believe this was necessary, in the face of the Sykes' family legacy and fortune? Are there ever times when large secrets are necessary? And does it ever become imperative that secrets be told?
- Connie had the Sykes eyes, "the eyes that said [she] belonged to [her father] and that divided [her] family down the middle." (ms 6) If Connie "belonged" to her father, why was her musical talent not encouraged in the way Estella's talent with numbers was? Do you believe that Connie would have been considered a genius under different circumstances? Did the so-called "Sykes eyes" mean anything to Connie's father, Sebastian? Did they mean anything to Connie? Why does Connie see Gib as Luke's son, and Carson as her son? Does this still hold true at the end of the novel?
- At the start of the novel, Big Dune Island is a place both sisters don't want to return to. What are they expecting to find there? What has kept Tate on the island, and why is he more connected to it than Estella and Connie? Estella hasn't been to Big Dune in twenty-six years. Why has she physically distanced herself from the island? Do you think physical distance can keep away the memory of what occurred in a specific place? For Connie, the return may have been easier, but it takes her a long time to realize she wants to stay on Big Dune. What was holding Connie to her life in Verona? What makes her realize that Big Dune is really her home, and a home for her children?
- When Estella is about to face Connie after many years apart, she says: "I am clutching the banister, stuck between the upstairs and downstairs, between childhood and real life." (ms 129) What has kept Estella from her sister? And what has kept Connie from Estella? When Estella decides she wants to repair her relationship with Connie, she says: "Scars can be prevented when sewn up with care, but I've not been taught that particular skill. My stitches will be ragged, clumsily done. How many will it take?" (ms 193) If Estella had not saved Carson's life, do you think she would have been able to repair her relationship with Connie? Do you foresee irreparable differences between Gib and Carson? Do you think the divorce will change that? Do you think Big Dune will change that?
- Why do you think Connie repressed the memory of how she was saved from drowning? How did learning the truth change her relationship with Tate? With Estella? How would things have been different had she never learned the truth? Do you think Estella should have told Connie when she did?
- Discuss the motif of drowning in the novel. Connie almost drowns as a teenager; her mother survived a storm as child but lost her two sisters; and Estella saves Carson from drowning during the storm. How does this recurring theme work throughout the story? Did you expect Carson's near-drowning to happen? Did you expect Estella to save him? When Connie decides to move ahead with pursuing the divorce, she says: "I felt like an island, with my family eddying and flowing around me, unaware that I had become immoveable." (ms 57) How do islands, both actual and imagined, show up in this story?
- Why do you think Connie ignored Luke's infidelity for so many years? What made Deannathe Escalade and the personthe last straw? Connie said: "I was the wife. . . . The only reason I put up with this over the years was because my position afforded me certain protections and guarantees." (ms 255) Do you think that Connie truly had "protections" and "guarantees" in her marriage to Luke? Do you think having such things is worth putting up with infidelity? How do you think Connie and Estella's parents' marriage influenced their daughters? Why does Estella wait so long to marry Paul, the love of her life?
- Connie removes her wedding rings when she plays violin. About this, she says: "I'd never gotten the knack of playing with the rings on. It was too distracting for me, too invasive, and I rather liked the ritual of it, the trade of one life for another." (ms 43) What were Connie's two lives? In which life was she the happiest? Did other characters have multiple lives in a similar way? The final time Connie removes her wedding rings, before the performance with her trio, how has she changed? Do you think she would consider herself as living only one life at the end of the story?
- "We are family," Estella says about Connie after she learns that Connie is leaving Luke. (ms 229) Why does Estella seem surprised when she says it? If she truly believes it, why, when she thinks she's facing another relapse, does she tell Connie that she's leaving Big Dune and needs "to get back to [her] support system, [her] family"? (ms 367) Discuss what makes someone "family" to you. Is blood enough? Can a person who doesn't share your blood ever become your family? What do you believe author Kristy Kiernan is saying about family in this novel?
- Do you agree with Connie's reaction when she discovers how her mother came to marry her father? Connie tells her mother: "It's like you were a horse trade or something! A poker chip to be won." (ms 79) Instead, Connie's mother argues, her father was trying to give her "the gift of life." (ms 79) How does Connie's mother give her own children the "gift of life"? How, in turn, does Connie do the same for her children? What sacrifices need to be made to ensure a child's future?
- Estella got pregnant when she was seventeen, but she didn't tell Connie until many years later. Do you understand why she kept this a secret for so long? At the time, when she watched Connie about to drown in the Gulf, Estella thinks: "When she goes under next time, I will go under too. . . . It is me who needs saving this time." (ms 14) Does Estella ever get saved? Does Paul save Estella? Does her math? Do her students? At the end of the novel, Estella says: "My math is back, but I've let it come, because the seeds have done their job, and I am clear for now, and for now is good enough." (ms 372Ð373) Why do you think she lost her math, and why do you think it returned?
- Did you find the alternating first-person voices between Connie and Estella to be a successful way of telling this story? Why do you think the author chose to show both perspectives? How would the story have been different had we seen it only through Connie's eyes? Or only through Estella's?
- Consider the epigraph at the start of the book: "If children grew up according to early indications, we should have nothing but geniuses." (ms 1) Does every child have the potential to be a genius? What can make genius possible, or impossible? How should a child prodigy be handled? How should any child's natural talents be handled?