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What the Dead Knowby Laura Lippman
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. Laura Lippman withholds a lot of information in the early going of the book. Is that a cheat, or true to the way the characters would have approached the information?
2. Lippman actually used historically accurate details in the book — Escape to Witch Mountain and Chinatown, for example, were the films at that movie theater at that time, and the story about the freak blizzard in '66, the rise of the home answering machine in the 1980s. But do those details add something above and beyond historical accuracy?
3. Who in this book could be described as evil, if anyone? On the morning in March that all these people's destinies collide and interlock — who's really at fault, if anyone?
4. Is Miriam a "bad" woman? Does she see herself as bad and believe that she is being punished for her misdeeds? How does Lippman want us to regard Stan Dunham — as Miriam does, or as Sunny does, or somewhere in-between?
5. What is Kay's role in the book? Is there any significance to the fact that she's reading Jane Eyre?
6. Why are Dave and Miriam so restless in the days before their daughters disappear? What are they wistful for? What do they regret?
7. Dave and Miriam choose very different ways of mourning their daughters. Dave enshrines the memory, choosing to vary almost nothing about his life, while Miriam flees, ultimately choosing to live in a place where no one can possibly know about the tragedy. Is Lippman suggesting that one way of mourning is more valid than the other? Is Dave's misery proof that he's made a mistake, or simply evidence of his own conflicted nature?
8. The five-fold path, which Dave practices, includes self-knowledge as its ultimate goal. Who in What the Dead Know attains self-knowledge? Who never quite gets there? Does self-knowledge necessarily involve change, or can one find peace even in a flawed self?
9. At one point, Nancy Porter notes that "Heather Bethany's" story is least convincing when it's at its most lurid. The ultimate fate of the Bethany girls turns out to be almost banal, a series of mistakes and accidents that led to a tragedy no one planned. Is the fate of the Bethany girls more or less disturbing as a result? Does it seem like something that really could happen?
10. The last line of the first chapter dwells on how freeing it is to say one's name (p. 10). The last line of the book says one's name is the most important word that anyone can ever hear (p. 373). The missing Bethany girl has had a number of names throughout her life and even her mother, Miriam, has availed herself of a slight name change, reverting to her maiden name, which feels like a new name because it's pronounced differently in Spanish. Do names matter so much? Why? How do our names shape our destinies?
11. At the end of the book, Kevin Infante reflects that the missing Bethany girl has always been out in the open, the kind of woman that other people observe, but don't truly see — a student, a store clerk, a support person in the office. What is Lippman trying to say about certain women in our culture? Who is it that we don't see, who fails to register in our day-to-day lives?
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