Sarah Willis, author of the New York Times Notable Book Some Things That Stay and The Rehearsal, builds a multi-layered and moving study of a family stagnated by betrayal, loss, and memories, but working towards forgiveness.
Suffering from Alzheimer's, Rose should be in a nursing home. But her daughter Jennifer, looking for a chance at redemption and to get to know Rose after their rocky and estranged past, moves Rose into her home to care for her. Jennifer must work through her increasingly strained relationships with her husband, daughter, and siblings, and wade through the past's painful memories, lies, and truth. Jennifer will discover much about herself while unlocking her mother's memories, trying to find out what went wrong between themand whether it can still be made right.
ABOUT SARAH WILLIS
Sarah Willis, a Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize for Literature, is the author of Some Things That Stay, which won the Book-of-the-Month Club's Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction. She lives in Ohio with her two children.
Praise for Sarah Willis
"A writer of great skill."Carolyn See, Washington Post Book World
"Nearly every page contains one of those perfect gems, some beautifully crafted, deeply intuitive sentence or phrase . . . wonderful."Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"An astute protagonist who . . . remains consistently compelling . . . quirky and believable."Los Angeles Times
"Recalls the work of bestselling novelist Anne Tyler."Cleveland Plain Dealer
"A Northern Kaye Gibbons."Library Journal
"Intelligent and moving . . . impressive."Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- Discuss, in relation to the story's events, the book's epigraph: "Reality is not so much something against which memories can be checked as something established by those memories themselves." How does truth become twisted by retelling, by memory, and by others filling in the blanks in A Good Distance? Jennifer notes that "what we see and what we remember is as malleable as clay; it carries our fingerprints" (9), but at Rose's funeral, Jen decides she would rather remember Rose "wrong" than not remember her mother at all (305). Do you agree with this conclusion?
- Do you like Jennifer? Do you feel she takes the "rebellious teen" act too far? Do you feel her hurt and anger at her family are justified? What do you think of Jennifer's motivation behind caring for Rose: "I need her to get better so she can forgive me" (6)?
- Once you found out that Jennifer fabricated the story about Rose trying to kill them both, and read her explanation about why she lied, did you re-examine the rest of Jennifer's first-person narrative for potential other untruths or re-evaluate what she said in light of what motivations might lie behind her narrative? Do you consider her to be an unreliable narrator?
- In what ways do Todd and Jennifer communicate well and try to work through problems and decisions? What makes connection between them difficult? What do you make of Todd's activities such as his meticulous lawn care and motorcycle rides? How do Todd and Jennifer's separate romantic pasts inform their relationship? Why does Jennifer marry Todd even though she doesn't love him, and why do you think it takes her such a long time to come to love him? Why do you think author Sarah Willis chooses to insert the short flashback of how Todd and Jennifer meeta happy memorytowards the very end of the book?
- How is marriage as an institution alternately portrayed in the book: Rose and Michael's, that of Rose's parents (the O'Neills), even the glimpses we get of Betsy and Jasper's and Peter and Emily'sin terms of absence and presence, the melding of socio-economic backgrounds, contribution to child rearing, sex life, agreements and disagreements, give and take?
- Discuss the motif of 'place' in A Good Distance: whose houses characters live in and leaveand how long they stay, who feels at home where, who establishes a sense of belonging for themselves separate from their families of origin. How does this motif reinforce the book's other themes, its characters, their identities, and their power structures?
- Discuss the complex relationships Jennifer has with her siblingshow Jennifer looks for their approval and acceptance, and how they each distance themselves from one another. Do you think the hostility Betsy displays towards Jennifer, even after Jennifer takes in Rose, is completely deserved? Jennifer says of Peter and Betsy: "They're both so successful it radiates off them like bright sunshine" (286). How does their success feed into Jennifer's feelings about and reactions to her siblings? How do the Morgan siblings' relationships mirror Rose's relationships with her siblings?
- Consider Rose's ambivalence to motherhood from the outset; she notes dryly: "a baby is nothing like a cat" (82). How much of her unhappiness when her children are small is related to them, and how much might be blamed on problems within her marriage, their financial woes, and nomad lifestyle?
- Do you find Rose hard to take? Rose is indeed manipulative, vindictive, even nasty, telling a teenage Jennifer, "'I hope you use birth control. I wish I had'" (165). Where do you think this nastiness comes from? What do you make of Rose lyingand the types of lies she tellsto Jennifer (for instance, Rose lies about remaining a virgin until her honeymoon and about her father being dead)? On the flip side, do you admire her steely resolve and independence? What other redeeming qualities does Rose possess? What did you think of Rose when you read that she tries to kill both herself and Jennifer? Did your feelings about Rose change when you later learned the truth of what happened that night?
- Rose is resentful of Jennifer's rudeness towards Rose's suitors; when Jen declares, "'I didn't want another father,'" Rose responds, "'Well, you didn't get one. Happy?'" (124). As an adult, Jennifer asserts, "If it wasn't for me, she wouldn't be alone now" (7); do you think Jennifer is right? Why do you think Rose never remarried while Jen was in California? How do you feel about Rose spurning Jen and Jazz when Jen won't name Jazz's father?
- Jennifer wonders aloud if Rose might have loved her in a "'step-in-front-of-a-truck way'" (225) if only Jennifer had let her. Do you agree? Do you think that Rose, ultimately, forgives Jennifer? Does Jennifer forgive Rose?
- What other mother-daughter relationships are examined in A Good Distance, and what are their merits and shortcomings? Contrast these interactions with the book's father-daughter relationships, from Rose and Mr. O'Neill, to Michael and Jennifer, to Todd and Jazz. Jennifer wonders, "Should I tell [Jazz] that my mother is only what we will become?" (52). How does each character succeed or fail in striving not to be like their parents?
- Do you agree with Jennifer's initial decision not to tell Jazz who her father is even when Jazz asks repeatedly? Why does Jennifer finally tell Jazz?
- Many characters in A Good Distance attempt and fail to play certain "roles" that they and others create. For instance, Rose never becomes comfortable with all that a being "good mother" entails; she even realizes that she's happy later in life because she finally gets to be "just herself" (267), not a widow or a mother or a secretary. Jennifer tries valiantly to be the dutiful, suffering, penitent daughter and finds that job too difficult; note how relieved she is when Rose is in the hospital after her second stroke, because finally Jennifer doesn't "have to do it all" (254). Todd cracks under the pressure of being "'Mister Fucking Nice Guy'" (220). Why do you think these three characters in particular feel the need to play roles, and play to the expectations of others? Are they able to find a balance between what they want and what they think others want from them?
- Consider how your reactions to the book's characters and events are shaped by its non-linear structure, gradual revelation of facts, and narrative voice. Note that Jennifer's portions of the book are written in the first person, whereas the Rose flashbacks are written in third person. Why do you think the author provides a short half-chapter from Jazz's viewpoint (though still in third person) at Rose's funeral, very near the book's end? Would you have liked to see certain other characters' perspectivesTodd, or Betsy, or Michael?
- How effective are the passages set in the present day and told from Rose's point of view? Do they seem realistic? Do they make Rose a more sympathetic character? Have you known someone with Alzheimer's? How has the syndrome affected your relationship with that person? How has it changed that person?
- When Jen sits down to talk with Todd after their big fight, she notices that they "are a good distance apart" (239). What exactly does this mean? Why do you think the book's title is invoked in association with Jennifer and Todd's relationship? Is achievingor erasing"a good distance" between herself and those around her Jennifer's goal? Do you feel she succeeds?