Synopses & Reviews
Anywhere But Here
is a moving, often comic portrait of wise child Ann August and her mother, Adele, a larger-than-life American dreamer. As they travel through the landscape of their often conflicting ambitions, Ann and Adele bring to life a novel that is a brilliant exploration of the perennial urge to keep moving, even at the risk of profound disorientation. Simpson's first novel is ultimately a heart-rendering tale of a mother and daughter's invaluable relationship.
"The two women in this book are American originals. Ann is a new Huck Finn, a tough, funny, resourceful love of a girl. Adele is like no one I've encountered, at once deplorable and admirable--and altogether believable."
"Anywhere But Here is a wonder: big, complex, masterfully written, it's an achievement that lands [Simpson] in the front ranks of our best novelists."
Reading Group Guide
1. The opening of Anywhere But Here
shows Ann and her mother in a wrenching scene of abandonment and reconciliation. How does this episode reverberate throughout the novel? What happens when Ann decides she doesn't want her mother to come back for her?
2. The novel centers upon a mother-daughter relationship that is often painful, sometimes even violent, yet often loving as well. What is at stake in Ann's fights with her mother? How are love and hatred bound together here? What is distorted about the roles of mother and daughter? Later in the novel Adele begins to threaten suicide; what part does this behavior play in the ongoing struggle between Ann and Adele?
3. Anywhere But Here explores the role of family roots, rootedness, and uprooting in contemporary American life. Is there a qualitative difference between the lives of Ann and Adele, who left home, and the lives of those they left behind? Are those who leave necessarily the more ambitious and adventurous ones? Do you see the passivity that seems to be characteristic of both Lillian and Carol as a reflection of or as a reason for their rootedness?
4. Who is the ideal parent in the novel and why? Is Adele the sort of person who should not have become a parent? Is there anything positive about Adele as a mother? What role do fathers play in the novel?
5. Why does Simpson avoid giving Adele a speaking part until the end of the book? What is the effect of the first-person narratives of Lillian and Carol? Do you think these provide a useful perspective on Ann's story, or that the narrative might have been better spoken entirely by Ann?
6. Mona Simpson has said that in the beginning of her work on this novel she disliked Adele, but developed a kind of affection for her as the work went forward. How do you feel about Adele? What might be at the root of her spectacularly poor judgment? What are we able to learn about her own emotional history, her own childhood?
7. How does the novel portray sex for women and girls? What role does sexuality play in the lives of each of the four main female characters--Lillian, Adele, Carol and Ann? Why do you think Ann wants to take nude photographs of other children? Does Ann's upbringing affect her ability to love?
8. Adele spends large amounts of money on expensive clothes that she can't afford in the belief that her physical attractiveness is necessary for getting Ann "a new daddy." What is the place of material objects like clothes and cars in Adele's sense of who she is? Is this a trait she passes on to Ann?
9. Apart from her grandmother, Ann's closest and most secure relationship is with her cousin Benny. How does Ben's death impact upon Ann's life? What do you find strange about the description of the family's gathering for the funeral visit?
10. How does food--especially ice cream--figure in the relationship between mother and daughter? Consider the place of food in Ann's visit to her mother near the end of the book: why does Adele have so much food in the house? Why does Simpson include the detail of the ants on the carrot cake?
11. As noted earlier, Simpson has decided to save Adele's narrative for the end of the novel. We have previously seen her through the eyes of her daughter, her sister, and her mother. Does this final section change your perspective on her in any way? Adele tells us that she has learned to feel better about herself through "The Course of Miracles," a popular self-help program (533). What does this section suggest about Simpson's view of the current state of spirituality and moral self-examination in our culture?
12. Is there such a thing as "home" in Anywhere But Here? What would you say is the difference, symbolically, between Wisconsin and California in the novel? Is life shaped by place and social context as much as by one's parents and upbringing? What is most unmistakably American about the novel?
For discussion of ANYWHERE BUT HERE, THE LOST FATHER, and A REGULAR GUY:
1. What are some of the ways in which these novels identify the problems of family life in contemporary American culture? What is Mona Simpson's ideal of the family, and how do the families in these three novels fail or succeed in providing love, protection, identity, self-respect? Why is the importance of the child's point of view central to all three novels?
2. In The Lost Father, Mayan says, "So much of what determined what was life and what dream was still only money" [p. 116]. In each of these works, one's economic condition has a strong shaping influence on one's life. Is money--or its lack--the most fateful element in life? Which characters in these works are most dependent on money, or on the idea of wealth, in imagining and creating the kind of life they desire?
3. There is a range of narrative techniques in these three novels. There are several first-person narrators in Anywhere But Here, a single first-person narrator in The Lost Father, and a third person omniscient narrator in A Regular Guy. How do these technical choices on Simpson's part affect your experience of each of the novels?
4. About her approach to structure, Simpson has said, "I work paragraph to paragraph or even line to line.... I have an emotional sense of where things are going to, but I don't do a whole chart or anything like that." (From interview with Susannah Hunnewell, The New York Times Book Review, 9 February 1992, p. 10.) How would you describe and differentiate the structure of these novels? Henry James fondly called the novel form "a loose baggy monster." Do you think that Simpson's novels particularly fit this description?
5. How does Simpson control and convey the sense of time and of past and present? How important a role does memory play in these works?
6. Simpson started out as a poet, and her writing is often powerfully lyrical and imagistic. For example, in The Lost Father Mayan says of her mother, "in her private soul she is a child holding an empty glass jar waiting for the sky to fill it..." [p. 3]. What are some of the more striking images and descriptive passages you've noticed? How do such images affect or deepen your experience of the work?
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Mona Simpson's novel Anywhere But Here. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at a novel produced by an American realist hailed by critics as one of her generation's finest writers. With this work, Mona Simpson shows herself to be a sensitive and incisive analyst of the broken family, with an uncommon insight into the child who is at the mercy of parents who are absent, restless, narcissistic, dishonest or emotionally unstable. While it engages serious contemporary social issues, this work also makes for compulsive and deeply enjoyable reading, with characters who absorb our attention and involve us completely in their world.