|The Liar's Diary|
NOTE: We recognize that reading is a personal experience, and we hope that the author interview and questions below will provide a springboard to provoke a lively discussion.
Jeanne Cross and her family live in a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business—or, at least, they think they do. Jeanne’s neighbors and friends know that she lives in a lovely suburban home with a “perfect” physician for a husband and a less-than-perfect yet lovable son. What they don’t know, and what Jeanne herself tries desperately to ignore, is the undercurrent of tension, fear, and sadness that permeates life in the Cross household, and ultimately threatens to disrupt the delicate facade they’ve built.
Perhaps it’s for this reason, then, that Jeanne finds herself drawn to the local town pariah, Ali Mather, a music teacher and free spirit who openly cuckolds her husband and subverts the rules of propriety (at least, the rules of the coffee klatches and gossip circles in Jeanne’s town and high school). Ali lives her life without apology and without regret, and her burgeoning friendship with Jeanne, unexpected and at times unreasonable, nonetheless reveals to Jeanne the importance of standing one’s ground and confronting the truth, no matter how difficult that truth may be to comprehend and accept.
Author Patry Francis’s debut novel deals with complex and often taboo subjects, but does so with a graceful and subtle touch. A story of twists and turns, The Liar’s Diary keeps readers engaged and constantly reevaluating what they think they know about life, love, and the ill-fated friendship of Jeanne Cross and Ali Mather.
I grew up in of Brockton, Massachusetts, a city known for its legendary boxers and its once proud heritage as "the shoe city of the world." Many of my ancestors spent time laboring in the now ghostly leather factories, including my father and both grandfathers. They worked long hours, enjoyed vibrant lives with their families, and dreamed of sending their children to college. They succeeded.
A photograph of my grandfather, John Joseph Heney, in the factory hangs over my desk. I keep it there because in all my life, I've never known a finer, more intelligent man, and because it reminds me daily how fortunate I am to do the work I do.
It also recalls his personal two word motto: "No kick." To us, that phrase might suggest a watery drink; but in John's era it meant "no complaints," and it reflected his personal brand of tough optimism. "No kick" meant that if you want to do something in this world, whether it's painting a house, making a relationship work, or just staying alive (he lived to be ninety-nine), you didn't whine about the cost. You just got on with it. It's still the best advice I've ever gotten as a writer.
As a child, I dreamed of being a dancer, the first woman President of the United States, a girl singer with a rock band, a teacher, a contemplative nun, a police detective and in my Albert Schweitzer phase, a great humanitarian doctor. By the time I was ten, I had chosen names for the twelve children I planned to raise in my spare time.
But the truth is I never had a choice. I was a writer from the time I first held a pen—if not earlier. When my cousin Lorraine and I sat on the steps on a boring summer day, wondering what to do, I'd always suggest, "Let's write a story!"
I quickly learned that not everyone found sitting at the kitchen table hunched over a sheet of blank paper the best way to spend a perfect summer day.
Don't ask me why, but I did—and I still do.
Of course, my life hasn't been all about writing. It's also been happily filled by a husband, four children, and more pets than a family has a right to love. Since the poetry and fiction I wrote for literary magazines paid mostly in contributor's copies, I also worked as a waitress. I didn't know how much I actually enjoyed the work until I left it behind to write full time.
Making my lifelong obsession with writing a reality has taken commitment, sacrifice, and above all, patience. Though I will never have an opportunity to live out my other childhood career fantasies, through writing, I have inhabited countless lives, most far more interesting than my own. As my grandfather would say, "No kick."
- In the first few chapters of the novel, it’s evident that the dynamic between husband and wife and father and son in the Cross household is, at best, strained and illusory. In hindsight, what clues were we given to the truth about Gavin and Jamie, and Gavin and Jeanne, in the beginning of the novel? What did you think when you first read that Jamie flinched when looking at his father? Or that Jeanne gave her son snacks on the sly and lied about his progress in school to her husband?
- When Jeanne and Ali—outwardly, two very different women—begin riding to school together, how did you imagine their friendship would develop? Was their friendship genuine?
- Discuss Jeanne and Ali as archetypes of suburban women. How do they fulfill their roles, and in what ways do they subvert them? Likewise, how do characters like Jack Butterfield and Gavin embody certain stereotypes, and also remain round, dynamic characters?
- Ali and George Mather have an open yet loving marriage throughout the novel, although their separate residences and open sexual relationship is determined entirely by Ali’s desire, and not her husband’s. Discuss the nature of their relationship, and its quality as compared to Jeanne and Gavin’s, or Beth and Brian Shagaury’s. Is their relationship a relationship worth having, even if it includes Ali’s infidelity?
- Discuss the ways in which the author deals with the subject of obsession in this novel: Brian Shagaury and Jamie are obsessed with Ali; Gavin is obsessively neat and orderly, and, as we discover later in the book, obsessed with young men; Jeanne is obsessed with maintaining a pristine reputation. What is Patry Francis telling us about the nature of obsession?
- Consider the role that music and sound plays in the lives of these characters. For instance: Ali plays classical violin. Jeanne grew up listening to classical music but now listens to love songs on the radio. Jamie listens to angry, violent rock music. Gavin is almost always accompanied by silence. How does each character’s relationship to music or sound convey something significant about his or her personality and/or state of mind? (How does it act as a symbol?)
- Jeanne’s parents never recovered from her brother’s death, and the tragedy had a significant impact on the person Jeanne would become: fearful, quiet, hesitant. Likewise, the abuse in Ali’s early childhood and her father’s suicide shaped the person she became—in her own words, one of the people who need “the unpredictable, the untrustworthy, the dangerous in their lives,” Are there any signs that Jamie will avoid the same patterns of behavior as his mother or Ali? Are there any indications in the novel—particularly the end—that Jamie might be able to rise above the tragedy that took place in his adolescence?
- Many of the characters in this book self-medicate, whether that medication comes in the form of alcohol, pills, food, or sex. What kind of message do you believe Francis is sending us regarding our capacity to feel and process tragedy in our lives? What is she saying about our ability to heal in a world filled with deceit, death, and indecency?
- Early in the book it’s made clear that Jamie has a problem with Ali Mather, when he desecrates her music for the concert at the Cape. And later, when Jeanne finds his box of souvenirs—items he stole from Ali’s house—it becomes clear that he’d lied to his mother about his behavior. Also, it suggests that he might do something to Ali Mather later in the novel. When Ali dies, did you believe that Jamie was her murderer? Did it seem to you, as it did to Gavin, that there was too much evidence against him?
- How surprised were you by the book’s conclusion? Did the resolution of the book satisfy you? Did it feel feasible, and true?
- Similarly, how difficult was it to reconcile what you thought you knew about Jeanne with the information you learned in the last chapter and the epilogue? Did the new knowledge about Ali’s death—her concern about Jamie and Marcus, her insistence on telling the police—make her a more sympathetic character?
- Jeanne is the master of self-deception, refusing to see the truth about the people who surround her (Jamie, Gavin, Ali) until the very end. Does this make her an unreliable narrator? How does she redeem herself to her readers? (Or does she?)