Mara Foster is a brilliant painter, but for the past few years she's been producing work that is anything but brilliant. Her personal life is lacking, too. She lives by herself, doesn't date, and avoids her parents, and her social life consists mainly of eating takeout with her best friend, Bernadette. But Mara likes her life this way. It's predictable, and it's safe.
Until one night she meets Hugo, a friendly, handsome man who makes Mara begin to reconsider the direction of her life. Scarred by her parents' divorce, her father's alcoholism and depression, her mother's insatiable ambition and negligible nurturing, and two cursed and turbulent romances in her early youth, everything in Mara wants to run away from Hugo and his open, disarming nature. For years, Mara has striven to be the opposite of open and disarmed. She is an expert in defensiveness and self-protection. And yet, she is drawn to Hugo and cannot dispute that he makes her want to see and live in the world differently.
Mara's painful past, guarded present and uncertain future begin to overlap in the weeks that follow her first meeting with Hugo, affecting every corner of her life: her painting, her relationship with her mysterious patron, Sal, her friendship with Bernadette, and even her volatile regard for her relationship with her mother and father. Ultimately, Mara knows that with or without Hugo, she must finally face the truth surrounding the darkest parts of her youth, and see what, if anything, she can salvage and repair as she faces a drastically different future.
Danielle Younge-Ullman is a novelist, playwright, and actor from Toronto, Canada. Her one-act play, 7 Acts of Intercourse, debuted at Toronto's SummerWorks festival in 2005. Falling Under is her first novel.
Q. Why are book clubs going to love Falling Under?
Falling Under is a wild read and an emotional roller coaster of a book. It's perfect for book clubs because it's edgy, provocative and resonates differently from one reader to another. The story and the writing itself provide numerous subjects for discussion—everything from the powerful draw of inappropriate men and the use of sex to punish oneself, to the pros and cons of the very rare second-person point of view. Falling Under is gritty and sexy, complicated and raw, dark and funny. And while my voice tends toward the literary, the pacing and plot make it a compulsive read. The appeal is broad and there's no end of issues for a book club to discuss.
Q. What inspired you to write Falling Under?
In terms of the tone, I'd just written a light and funny book (a chick lit) and decided that I wanted to go deeper and darker with the next project. I was interested in keeping some of the common chick-lit elements (single woman battling issues with work, love, and family) and turning the rest of it on its head, making the issues serious and the writing more instinctive and raw.
In terms of story, I'm someone who made it to my mid-twenties without realizing I was a mess inside. I seemed fine but under the surface I was anxious, plagued with strange fears and making poor choices in my personal life. Around this time, I picked up The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce—a book that posits that the deepest effects of divorce are not seen until the child grows up and is faced with adult relationships. I was astounded to recognize so much of myself on the pages and could finally trace many of my seemingly ridiculous fears back to the time of my parents' divorce. I did a lot of work on myself after that and slowly got myself together. Then, when I was brainstorming for Falling Under, I began to imagine a character who struggled with the same issues, only magnified by a thousand—someone whose life had been much harder than mine, who also thought she was coping but who was, in fact, paralyzed.
In Falling Under I told a completely different story than the one I lived—more intense, more extreme, much uglier compared to my own family's divorce, which had a happy ending. The impetus for the character, and the idea I wanted to explore, was how hard it is to have faith—in yourself, other people, or the universe—when you have proof from such a young age that everything and everyone you count on can fall apart. A child who grows up with that knowledge makes every decision in her life based on that worldview and the consequences are dramatic, especially when that child grows into an adult.
Q. What is the significance of the title?
In so many books (and in life), love is seen as the solution, but in my protagonist Mara's case, love is a bit of a catastrophe, albeit a catalyst for change in the long run. Mara doesn't so much fall in love as under it.
Q. A substantial portion of Falling Under is written in the second person, which is quite rare. How did this come about?
The second person POV was totally unplanned. I was looking for the voice of the five-year-old Mara and I had a sense of wanting to reach out and yank the reader into this kid's skin. It started out with a couple of sentences in second person and then expanded. The character came through so clearly to me that way, I just kept going. Early in the process, I asked a few writers I know online about second person and I got these very strongly worded responses and links to articles, all in the vein of "DO NOT DO THIS! NO ONE DOES THIS!!" Some of them clearly thought I was a lunatic and a hack. But I'd given myself permission to be brave while writing this book, so I took a deep breath, mentally and physically shrugged my shoulders, and kept going.
Q. You started out as an actor. What made you transition into writing?
I was miserable as an actor and, you know, writing is SO much easier!
Okay seriously, I spent my time dreaming about and studying classical theater, but what I kept getting cast in was romantic comedy. It was fun but I wasn't fulfilled. And if you're going to be living in insecurity and near poverty for the sake of art, you damned well better be fulfilled by it! I was thinking about writing as a way to create my own work but at the same time, I was entertaining the idea of quitting acting altogether. There was the disillusionment on one hand and then the realization that I'd always had this other dream. And the very first day I sat down to write, everything became clear: acting had been like repeatedly throwing myself against a wall but writing . . . writing was like breathing.
Q. Do you think your theater background has affected your writing?
Hugely. And I'm very grateful for that. Acting in and studying so many plays gave me a good ear for dialogue, a sense of how to shape a scene, to create conflict, motivate characters . . . all that good stuff. Grappling with classical texts in particular gave me an appreciation for language and the need for the right words. When I began to write I also discovered that I have a sense of rhythm—a heartbeat that runs through much of my work. Everything I write is something I hear as if it were going to be spoken. It can be very gritty and naturalistic but often there is a cadence, a rhythm that I use to capture and convey an emotion, situation or state of mind.
Q. Why did you choose to make Mara a painter?
It takes a particular kind of courage to make a life in the arts and the people who do it fascinate me. Also, there are so many books (and movies, etc.) about people discovering their talents and going on to become great artists, and there are stories about failed artists and tortured artists . . . but many people are somewhere in between, living in a kind of artistic purgatory where they are almost, sort of, doing their art. They are making a living, but the work itself falls horribly short of their aspirations. They're novelists who pay the rent writing corporate training manuals, actors working as extras or stuck in a ten-year run of Cats and jazz musicians composing jingles. It's a trap because you can tell yourself you're making a go of it, but the truth is, you're miserable, stuck and underachieving in the extreme. That situation seemed like a good one for my very neurotic, nearly paralyzed protagonist. I wanted to see her work her way out of it.
Q. There are some edgy sex scenes between the covers of this book . . . what kind of reactions are you getting about this from readers?
Wildly diverging! While most people seem to find the sex scenes steamy (in a good way), there are those who are disturbed at the darkness and intensity. Either way, people are much more struck by Mara's sex life than I expected. It's funny, there's very little graphic detail—I like to leave a lot to the imagination—but this is a place where I use suggestion, repetition, and rhythm in the language to convey what's happening and the effect is that people think they've read something much more graphic than it actually is.
Of course, I've worked myself up into quite the anxious state about parents and in-laws reading the sex scenes. And there are some seriously religious and/or conservative people in my extended family who will be floored, bewildered, and possibly offended. But nothing in the book is gratuitous. The sex issue is such a complicated and integral part of what Mara's struggling with and in the end I believe people will get that.
Q. Tell us about your writing process.
Usually I'm mulling things I'd like to explore and brainstorming about a new project and then the first scene comes to me. That scene comes before any concrete plotting. Often I write it and then keep going until I'm stuck and don't know what happens next. Then I do an outline, then I go back to the writing, stick to the outline for awhile, then ditch it and go off on some kind of tangent, then get stuck because I'm off my outline, then make a new outline, write, ditch it, get stuck, etc. I go through that process until it's done. And then, of course, I edit like a fiend. It's not the smoothest process, I admit, and I envy those who can do a detailed outline and just stick to it, but it doesn't work that way for me.
- The novel jumps between a second-person narration that forces readers to experience Mara's troubled childhood in an intimate manner, and a first-person narration that engages us with Mara's honest, drily funny voice. Discuss the ways in which these two "voices" in the book work with one another and against one another. How do the two kinds of narration serve the novel well, and what are their drawbacks?
- Consider Mara's friendship with Bernadette throughout the many stages of their lives. What do you think their loyalty to one another says about each of them? Does Mara ever use her friendship with Bernadette as a crutch, or vice versa? What are the most positive aspects of the relationship, and the most dangerous?
- What was your impression when you first encountered Sal in the novel? What assumptions did you have about his relationship with Mara? How does your opinion of him change when their affair was revealed? Did you question his motives?
- Is Mara's mother the genuine "bad guy" in the novel? What did you think of the things she says to Mara, and to Mara's father? What sort of a person is she? Is she ever a sympathetic character?
- Similarly, is Mara's father always a sympathetic character, or could he be simply pathetic, and undeserving of our compassion? When were those moments when he seemed less sympathetic? At the end of the book, when he seems to be doing fairly well, or better than in the past, do you believe the change will be permanent? Why or why not?
- Hugo passes a lot of tests in the course of his relationship with Mara. Does he ever seem too good to be true? What makes him real, and likeable? Do you think he would have understood Mara's reluctance to date if he had known all of the circumstances surrounding Lucas's death? Would he have continued dating her if he'd known about Erik or Caleb?
- Did Mara's relationship with Caleb shock you? Are there any redemptive qualities in the relationship, or do you think it was utterly damaging to her teenage psyche? Is Caleb a likeable or a sympathetic character? What do you think Mara found most compelling about him?
- How much is Mara a victim of her own making, and how much of her unhappiness is the fault of circumstance and chance?
- Which aspect of Mara's relationship with Lucas is the most damaging? What about their relationship made her worship of Lucas and her fear of losing him understandable? Is he, despite his tragic death, a sympathetic character in any way?
- How shocking did you find the circumstances of Lucas's death? Had you guessed his connection to Erik before it was revealed? Discuss the ways in which his death made Mara's defensiveness and self-loathing (especially when it came to romantic love) easier to understand.
- Were you surprised when the gallery owner who wishes to show Mara's new paintings is revealed as Caleb? Does this seem realistic, possible, or too "neat" of an ending to Mara's relationship with him? Do you think she receives closure by speaking with him and having him affirm her talent?
- Who do you think is at the door of the gallery on the opening night of Mara's show? Erik or Hugo? Who would you prefer to be standing there, and why?
- What was your reaction to the novel's open ending? Why do you think that the author chose to end the novel in this way?