Synopses & Reviews
Above the Thunder
tells the mesmerizing story of three generations of women confronting the emotional turmoil of abandonment, and the men with whom their lives converge. Young and ambitious Anna puts her career on hold to support her husband through medical school; only to find out she's pregnant when it's her turn. Troubled and difficult from the start, Anna's daughter, Poppy, hasn't been home since she drove away with the man who came to buy the family's VW bus. After a twelve-year absence, Poppy begs to reunite with her now widowed mother, only to disappear again, leaving her mysterious and wildly imaginative young daughter, Flynn, in Anna's care.
This is also the story of Jack and Stuart, a couple struggling with commitment despite their love for one another. When Jack and Stuart meet Anna in a support group, they feel a connection that eventually leads them to form a loving, if unlikely, family. Gorgeously written and imbued with both wisdom and humor, Above the Thunder reminds us that created families can be every bit as vital as the families into which we are born.
"[S]tunning....To describe the novel as a brilliant, issue-oriented drama shortchanges Manfredi's accomplishments...smooth storytelling, compassionate and probing narration and imaginative plotting [make] for a heady blend..." Publishers Weekly
"Longer and rather more drawnout than it needs to be, but a good account of friendship and loss, freshly narrated with a minimum of stereotypes and some sharply drawn characters." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] moving, engrossing family drama....Manfredi handles each character confidently and credibly." Whitney Scott, Booklist
Gorgeously written and imbued with wisdom and humor, Above the Thunder is a celebration of unexpected connections and the search for home with four characters converge in an unlikely but devoted family with the preternaturally smart and compelling Flynn at its center.
A wary, middle-aged widow numbed by loss and disappointment. A preternaturally intelligent little girl who eavesdrops on the dead. A charming, sybaritic gay man torn between his love for his partner and the anarchy of his desires.These are the charged poles of Ren?e Manfredis gorgeously written first novel, a book that explores the currents of tenderness, responsibility and chance that turn strangers into a family.
Anna Brinkman meets her ten-year-old granddaughter Flynn when the girl appears on her doorstep, desperate for a love more steadfast than any she has received from her parents. She meets Jack when he shows up in an AIDS support group she is running and does his best to get kicked out. What ensues in a house on the coast of Maine will be the great journey of all their lives. Filled with humor, sadness, and wisdom, Above the Thunder is a magical achievement.
About the Author
Renée Manfredi received her MFA from Indiana University, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a regional winner of Granta's Best American Novelists Under 40. Her short story collection, Where Love Leaves Us, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Her short stories have been published in The Mississippi Review, The Iowa Review, The Georgia Review, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and featured in NPR's "Selected Shorts" series. Manfredi is currently an associate professor at the University of Alaska. Above the Thunder is her first novel.
Reading Group Guide
1. As the novel opens, Anna doubts her own capacity for compassion: “Deep down she suspected that this trait, along with the maternal one, had never been activated in her. She doubted if it was possible to understand someone elses suffering. Even her beloved husband whose pain had become a private geography on which she couldnt trespass” [p. 21]. Is this cynicism or honesty at work in Anna? Do her relationships with Flynn and Jack change her aptitude for compassion and/or her ability to recognize it?
2. Above the Thunder is rich in symbolism, particularly surrounding Annas voyage to self-knowledge. What is the symbolic significance of her collection of antique hair pins? Her cell pathology slides? What does it mean when she randomly buys a collection of books about female hunters? Why does she have a penchant for dropping things? What other symbols does the author weave into Annas story?
3. What complex facets of motherhoodor the desire for itdoes the author explore through the characters of Anna, Greta, Poppy, Leila, and Jane? What distinction does Anna draw between “maternal instinct” and “motherhood” [p. 116]? What different aspects of the concept of fatherhood are represented by Marvin, Mike, Jack, and Stuart?
4. Flynns point of view is introduced abruptly at the end of the fifth chapter. What does the reader glean about Flynn from this short, powerful passage? What foreshadowing does it contain?
5. The AIDS support group brings Anna into contact with Stuart and Jack. Is there more significance to the group than serving the plot? How does Annas involvement with the group affect her?
6. As Jack grapples with the mystery of who has given him the AIDS virus, he muses: “Mysteries and miracles, miracles and destinations, werent that far apart, in his view. The stricken and the blessed both followed the same path, faith the common point of origin. In the end, there was no difference between Bethlehem and the bathhouses” [p. 79]. What does he mean by “destinations” here? What sort of faith has led him to his dilemma?
7. How does the author weave subtle hints about reincarnation into the text to make Flynns prophecies more sinister and suggestive? What is Flynns vision of herself, Marvin, Poppy, and Anna in the next life? What behavior does Anna exhibit that seems to corroborate Flynns prediction about her?
8. Jack does not fear death but rather fears the possibility of continuing in the beyond: “Spirit without body was repugnant, desire no longer limited by the boundary of skin, expanding to fill the universe, love like sound waves going on forever, not stopped by the density of flesh. How could he ever keep track of himself when his margins were infinite?” [p. 198] In what way does this same fear plague Anna, as well as Flynn? Can it be argued that this is, in fact, the theme of the novel? How does each of these three characters handle this fear?
9. During a particularly alarming episode of Flynns irrational behavior, Anna begs the girl to always tell the truth: “You should never hide. Never hide the things that make you who you are” [p. 158]. Yet asking this promise of the child fills Anna with an inexplicable sense of dread. “The truthwhatever Anna meant by it, and she didnt quite know nowwas likely to deliver her granddaughter into the hands of the enemy” [p. 159]. What are the possible meanings of the word “enemy” in this context?
10. What is the significance of the Mahatma Gandhi epigraph, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world”? Which of the novels characters yearn for change, and which ones achieve it?
11. Why does Greta insist that “Poppy had nothing to do with what Flynn did. Shes not responsible”? Is it possible to separate Flynns propensity for depression from her abandonment by her mother? Does Anna find Poppy culpable?
12. What role does the late Hugh play in the way Anna approaches her new life in Maine? How does the memory of him act as a conduit between her and Flynn? What finally allows Anna to let go of Hugh to the extent that she is open to the possibility of romance?
13. Are the adults in the novel too self-absorbed to realistically see how troubled and endangered Flynn is, or are they earnestly trying to allow her the freedom of eccentricity? Why does Anna muse only half-heartedly about Flynns possible need for professional help? Is the consequence of Flynns action an avoidable tragedy or an instance of fate?
14. During a game of “would you rather” with Flynn, Anna chooses to be a fig tree rather than a whale, stating, “I would always prefer to bear fruit” [p. 139]. How can this conviction be reconciled with her apparent distaste for motherhood? Does this moment mark a turning point for Anna, or is she simply accessing her real feelings on the matter?
15. What is the significance of the birch log fire Anna smells the morning of the tragedy?
16. Jack imagines infection with the AIDS virus as a kind of pregnancy, giving him a sense of being rooted, or caught up in a continuum. He envisions “the lineage of all those hed ever loved and his lovers loved ones, through this virus, a kind of terrible, merciless child who gestated over and over” [p. 40]. What does this odd reflection reveal about Jack? Is he a likeable character despite his patent untrustworthiness? How does Jacks character evolve over the course of the novel?
17. What does Anna mean to convey when she tells Marvin, “Mourning is easier than worry. Or any of those emotions you feel for the living” [p. 116]? Has she closed herself off to the possibility of love and relationships? Or is she entering another phase of dealing with them?
Reading Groups love discovering a great book, and Renée Manfredi’s captivating novel offers all the elements for exciting discussion. Here, she talks about the rich characters and provocative themes in Above the Thunder
All your characters struggle with loss, yet they all in their own way refuse to surrender to it. Did that come as a surprise to you?
RM: Every fictional character I can think of is defined by loss; there’s no novel in which all the characters have plenty of everything. Yet some of the writers I most admire—Jane Austen, Michael Cunningham, Anne-Marie MacDonald—provide hope in equal measure with loss. This is what I wanted for my characters.
Your eleven-year-old heroine is such an independent and captivating girl. Where did Flynn come from?
RM: In the early drafts of the novel, Flynn was a fairly typical child. Because she was so hyperattuned to her environment, though, she began to draw in the other characters’ strong emotions, and she became the one who always spoke the truth, even if the truth was more emotional than factual. Her eccentricity emerged in part from her tendency to say what the others were unable or unwilling to express.
Your novel isn’t a comic one, yet a few of your scenes are extremely funny. How do humor and tragedy co-exist so comfortably in your writing?
RM: I think humor is a survival strategy. Some of my characters get through tragedy in moments of high comedy: Jack has his moments of giddiness; and Anna turns to an eccentric neighbor when grief becomes too much.
The four main characters constitute one of the most unconventional families in fiction. Is this a subject that has especially interested you?
RM: The theme of family and belonging evolved naturally from the characters. I didn’t know when I started the novel that the characters would become so vital to one another.
Do you feel your work explores any subject that doesn’t get much attention in fiction?
RM: What may be a departure is having characters that deal with grief, loss and love in unconventional ways. My work may be more sympathetic to spirituality than most contemporary American fiction. In other literary traditions, spirituality, the mystery of what can’t be measured or seen, is more of a given–Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits is a case in point. One of the characters in Above the Thunder explores grief, loss, and love by talking to the dead, reviewing other lives, and having visions.